Tenderfoot, The Civic’s Apprentice Theatre programme for Transition Year Students, as launched a ‘Writing For Theatre Programme’ with eighteen second level schools in South County Dublin. Through a series of blogs we’ll ‘Meet the Mentors’. Next up it’s Dylan Coburn Gray.
‘There’s an inherent tension to leading a writers’ group, particularly when the writers are young. You want to be honest about the wishy-washiness of playwriting without yourself being wishy-washy.
The rules are made up! The process doesn’t guarantee the product! You can’t guarantee you’ll write a good play just by adhering to 3 act structure and giving the princess a dead mam and saving the cat!Nor can you guarantee it’ll be paradigm-breaking by playing femme-coded pop music at an aggressive volume while people do something #dark for tonal dissonance! But when you take on the job, you take on the responsibility of not being glib about things it’s easy to be glib about. Young writers with something they need to articulate need more than an anti-compass, they need more than explicit instructions on all the things they shouldn’t do.
What rules do you give young people to help them cope with the contingency of rules? Maybe none. Maybe that’s why I prefer to work from questions. What is interesting to you about this scene you’ve written? Is it front and centre, or buried in the background? Is it unmistakeable, or could someone who isn’t you mistake it even though it’s in plain sight? Do you need to teach your audience to see the way you see? How do you do that? Questions permit multiple answers, are responsive to your situation as a writer, to the landscape of this particular piece of writing.
In my collaborative work with MALAPROP and my sole-authored work alike, I’m always trying to match the idea to the form that best expresses it. (A glib-ish line I’ve used before is that even if you hated all my plays, I’d feel like I’d done my job well if you hated them all for totally different reasons.) So when I lead a group of young writers, I feel least like a fraud if we begin with this sort of first principles question. Don’t ask who’s my protagonist?, or don’t JUST ask that, ask what emotion am I fascinated by in this character? Not starting from well-established templates means a slower start, but it can also mean getting to the real work of writing sooner. I know what I’m interested in; how do I get you interested in it too? Answering that question can be difficult, because writing something interesting and truthful and considered is difficult. It can be frustrating, but I find it a consolation to know you’re frustrated because you’re on to something you haven’t yet reached but that you really believe is worth reaching.
I was struck, working with my Tenderfoot group, by how many writers chose to write fantasy. We had quests for the meaning of life couched in verse, limbos and bardos where memory of the living world leaks away slowly or is the lifeline keeping you existing, looping dream sequences where things get discovered but the logic underpinning the madness never does. I don’t think that’s just because it’s what they know from their reading and watching, though all of the prestige dystopias with the effortfully anaemic colour-grade – the grey everywhere makes the blood pop, and there’s always blood sooner or later – must play a part.
Why else? The satisfactions of realism, of tight plotting, of effect following cause however subtly and gradually, depend on an intelligible situation. They require people to be living in a world they can make sense of, because at root there is sense there to be made. They require people with agency, whose actions can measurably and proportionally change the world. Arguably that kind of world has never existed, or never for everyone everywhere all at once anyway. There’ve been pockets of order, for the few and not the many, little cysts of stability and predictability.
No surprise, then, that realism in literature is deeply 19th century, emerging from anxieties about newly ubiquitous machines and the new insights they afforded into the mechanism of the world. Nature is a machine which maketh races which maketh nations which maketh societies which maketh manners which maketh man. What gets called beautiful prose, vivid realisation through strange language of resonant details, was taxonomic labour before it was ever cinematic pleasure on the page. It aspired to untangle for the reader the fixed and certain meanings that were definitely there in the world to be untangled. Given the era, too, the readingthat’s being sold as the only possible reading is often a load of smelly eugenicist gack in a flaming skip. If I recall correctly it was some time in the January of ’87 that I was awoken by a man with that prognathism of the jaw that suggested an ancestor of one of the inferior races, while his bulging watering eyes could only have belonged to a frequenter of those low establishments in which indulgence in the pleasures of the poppy, lead, inevitably, in turn, in a veritable swoon of disgrace, to the flagrant practice of those gross deeds for which Sodom and Gomorrah, and, indeed, piteous Onan, were blasted from the Earth – though the flagrant tribadism now common amongst the trembling and enervated women of the dissipated classes was unknown even to that most infamous sinner whose name is a byword for the sin they daily outbrazen. If I recall correctly, which I always do, race is real and easily visible. So too class. So too sexuality. The world is exactly as I see it. Even if I see blurrily, that’s a revealed truth about the fundamental blurriness of things.
Fantasy, in an older sense than the one that means Part of the Bookshop Where You Find The Action Movies With Dragons, is the genre where you CAN’T tell by looking at someone once that they’re a mixed-race lesbian opium-addicted wanker. It refuses false certainty. It’s the genre of feudalism and despotism, peasants and dissidents. It’s the genre for people who lack agency, whose world lacks proportion, whose world must be made sense of afresh every day. Hence the traditional beginning: One day granny Redbreast dropped dead of a heart attack, after working hard every day of her life so she could enjoy her old age. One day daddy Redbreast winked at a local girl as his platoon marched past and they shaved her head and drowned her. One day little Robin Redbreast went out and met his neighbour the wolf, who said answer my riddles three or I’ll denounce you as a collaborator and we’ll shoot your whole family in the market square. One day, everything was different and it was unfair but there was no use asking why.
Fantasy understands that rules are capricious, that rules are local, that rules change suddenly and often. Fantasy understands that there is no predicting the future, only coping with it. Fantasy rewards Jack not for knowing in advance that the beans were magic, but for getting home safe with the goose under his arm and his skin still on and his bones unground to make the giant’s bread.
The world we are living in feels fantastical a lot of the time. Think about how dated The West Wing feels in light of politics right now: imagine if that counted as a political gaffe! How lucky we would be! Think about how comforting its basic premise is, that bad things only happen when someone good makes a mistake, that the person who knows more statistics off by heart gets to decide what the law is. If only. Fantasy is the fantasy that reveals the fantasy of realism: that we have ever understood the world, known what was coming next, in anything but the most superficial sense.
I’m both a fantasy nerd and a writer whose work obsesses over gaps, the inevitable holes in what we can and do know. Lots of the formal play in my work is about framing an absence, the thing we would love to know but never will. So it’s not surprising that I loved working with my group of Tenderfeet. I love meeting young people who are working at thinking big thoughts with the tools they have available to them. And I love being able to provide some more tools, even if the tools in question are questions with no set answers. But given the big thought I think they’re thinking, about the lawless contingency all around, maybe contingent tools are not just appropriate but thematic’.
Thanks Dylan, can’t wait to read the finished plays!
Fund out More about the NEW Tenderfoot Writing Hubs HERE
With thanks to the continued support of Arts Council Ireland, South Dublin County Council and Creative Ireland.