- A Singular Voice
I remember when I first learned about the Joint Stock Theatre Company in England; and how its artistic director, Max Stafford-Clark, would bring a playwright together with a group of actors, who would then work together, improvising on a subject or story. I heard that David Hare’s Fanshen, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, and a number of plays by Caryl Churchill, including Fen, Serious Money, Cloud 9, and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, evolved from this process.
Initially, I assumed that the plays were being written as collaborations between writers and actors, with the assistance (perhaps as a kind of editor) of the director. I found this fascinating, though I was also amazed that such wonderfully complex and highly crafted plays could be created in such a collaborative way. Theatre for me, then and now, holds that the written play is at the center of theatre-making, with all theatre’s other elements—acting, directing, design—interpreting that play.
Then I learned that I had been mistaken. A close friend had worked often with Joint Stock, and he explained that after the workshops with the actors and director, the playwright would then go away and write her/his play. That play was then rehearsed, and produced. The workshops with the actors, the improvisations, were simply “research” for the writer: a chance to converse with actors and directors before a play gets written on the subject of the play. Suddenly this whole process made complete sense to me.
Playwrights have involved actors in the writing of their plays forever; Shakespeare had specific actors in mind as he wrote, as did Molière, and so forth. I know I try and use the same actors as often as possible, and so often have a particular actor in mind while I’m writing a character. This is a rich vein for a playwright to mine, as well as an important reminder that plays are not prose, they live and breathe in the actor. While at the same time never forgoing an essential of theatre: that actors, directors, designers need a vision to interpret and convey, and that vision comes from the playwright.
Of course, collaborative theatre-making exists, and good work has come from this; however, I believe, there is much that the singular vision or singular voice of a play brings to our art that collaborative work cannot achieve.
Caryl Churchill turns eighty this year, and her work over decades will serve as mighty lessons for future playwrights in walking the fine line between collaboration and singular vision. I remember time and time again sitting watching [End Page 32] one of Caryl’s plays, whether Serious Money, Fen, Top Girls, Cloud Nine, Blue Heart, A Number, or Drunk Enough to Say I Love You, and being taken somewhere by a profoundly singular voice, whose curiosity seemingly knew no bounds, and whose craft was as honed as a well-strung instrument. And yet, watching her plays, I have also felt that she has always worked within the bounds of her actors—her interpreters—with an understanding of their needs, their riches, and their surprises.
Happy Birthday, Caryl!
RICHARD NELSON is a playwright and director. His plays include The Apple Family and The Gabriels.