Andrew Snowdon

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Leave Me My Name: Doctors, Teachers, Lawyers, and The Crucible

In theatre on Friday 13 May 2011 at 16:09

A couple of years ago, when Dr. Vincent Lam won the Giller Prize for Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, he thanked a number of his influences, including a high-school English teacher named Steve Durnin.

Like Lam, I too attended St. Pius X High School on Fisher Avenue in Ottawa (not the more famous one in Montréal), and had the pleasure of two consecutive years of English class with Mr. Durnin. The stories I could tell about Mr. Durnin would fill, if not a novel, at least a booklet.

Some English teachers are pretty neat, and some are stellar. One of the things that put Mr. Durnin squarely in the latter category was his treatment of theatrical texts. There are so many teachers that suck the life out of Shakespeare by concentrating too hard on the meaning of each dirty word, that treat every play as an extended short story composed merely of dialogue. Mr. Durnin really brought it home that a play can be appreciated on many levels: as a work of written literature, as poetry, as a theatrical performance—and that in many forms: simply read aloud, played live, or on the television or cinema screen.

By happy synchronicity, as we were studying Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, the film adaptation (starring Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor and Winona Ryder as Abigail Williams) came out in theatres. We took a field trip (and I’m not even sure it was a sanctioned field trip; Mr. Durnin tended to teach in spite of the rules rather than in strict adherence to them) to the World Exchange Plaza to see it on the screen.

I think we did better reading it out loud in class.

When I found out that Patrick Gauthier would be directing The Crucible for the twelfth annual GCTC Lawyer Play, I was thrilled… and a little scared, too. Pat clearly loves the play; when I visited him at home for an interview late last year, he was deep in research, reluctant to leave it and quick to return to it. I have confidence in Pat as a director and as a writer. But I didn’t know what to expect from the lawyers—even though I was assured that many of them had participated in many previous Lawyer Plays and were accustomed to working with a professional director in this setting.

A merely competent actor (someone capable of committing their lines to memory) can be coached out of a few bad habits by a decent, patient director. A bad actor, on the other hand, taxes even a heroic director (who, if so saddled, does better to concentrate on the starfish that can be saved, rather than achieve stunted mediocrity). We may joke that lawyers are ipso facto good actors, but not all lawyers are criminal defense lawyers; most work behind the scenes, in offices, and such. (I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this, but lawyers are apparently also generally very good-looking people! No wonder everyone picks on lawyers; they have intelligence and aesthetic appeal.) So there are no guarantees, right?

In my opinion, you should go to the theatre primarily to see good theatre, not to “support the arts” or make a charity donation. Thank goodness you don’t have to make a choice here; you can do all of the above at once. There’s no need for me to say “but it’s for a good cause” because the production’s great.

However, if you need a little help over that $100 ticket hurdle: You receive a $50 tax receipt for your charity donation. The money goes to the GCTC and a partner charity, in this case Operation Come Home. Operation Come Home is an organization that reunites street youth with their family or guardian, or gives them the support they need if that’s not an option. Personally, from what I’ve heard it’s a great social service; it gives these kids the chance to produce something to earn money, encouraging productivity and independence rather than dependence. They’re squarely in the “teach a man to fish” camp, and that I can get behind.

So how do you turn over a dozen (busy) lawyers into credible actors? Apparently you start with a good text, a director who loves and understands that text and who has a vision for it, give them a brilliant set, lighting, and costumes, and make sure the actors learn their lines. Then you coach them.

Here’s where the musical swell at the end of a scene, which technique I marked with a frowny-face in my review of Hamlet 2011, works: when you have actors who, though quite competent, are not overwhelmingly stellar, it doesn’t hurt to underscore their action and motivate them with strong musical (and lighting) accents. When I say “quite competent,” I mean, for example, that Daniel Hohnstein was a far better John Proctor than Daniel Day-Lewis at the very least. I could go through each cast member and tell you why I liked what they did, but I will save that for the Ottawa Theatre Confidential podcast. It’s not really an ensemble cast so much as it is a set of good individual performances that dovetail well.

I do feel much more willing to pay for legal services after seeing the play.

I recall that The Crucible had made a profound impression on me in high school, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why until I saw it again: the theme of the play is personal integrity, which is a very important philosophical, moral, and ethical concept to me (never mind whether or not I actually live a life of personal integrity). The Crucible is thus also a play about religion, or in a religious setting. Both law and theatre have their origin in religious practice; the law from the practical application of religious doctrine, and theatre from the ritual enactment of mythology. The Crucible highlights what happens when the word of the law becomes superior to the spirit of the law, or when mob mentality overwhelms an individual’s common sense. In that way, it is very much like Antigone, or some of the lighter writing of Ayn Rand.

No wonder Marilyn Monroe married Arthur Miller. He was a damn good playwright.

Anyway. I found the 2011 Lawyer Play to be a great production of a text that has meant something to me for half my life. It’s the only time I’ve seen it live, and it’s probably the only time I’ll see it live. I’m glad it was done well.

You have tonight or tomorrow night to see it. If you can, do so.

Get tickets here.

A Word on Dialogue

In Uncategorized on Thursday 5 May 2011 at 12:30

Some years ago, I worked in the fraud department of a credit card company. Much of the work we did, outside of sending and requesting vast stacks of paper, involved comparing signatures and trying to figure out if people were lying to us. When things got slow (rarely) or management was otherwise occupied (almost always), I would pass the time by learning as much as I could about forensic handwriting analysis and document analysis without moving from my desk.

I came across descriptions of a fascinating technique called “statement analysis”. I would say it’s about as scientifically rigorous as graphology—i.e. not very—but the premise that how someone says something or what words they use can tell you what they think about what they’re saying is worth considering.

Creative writing, unlike criminal investigation, does not (generally) demand scientific rigour, so I think we can afford to look at one part of the theory which specifically applies to writing believable dialogue. This comes up not because I’ve been subjected as an audience member to unbelievable dialogue, but I’ve noticed one or two instances in plays where this principle was conspicuous in its absence. Since they were plays that paid special attention to the use of words, I paid special attention to the words used.

The theory is that a person will almost always use the same word to refer to the same thing (or person) unless they have a reason to do otherwise. This is called a personal dictionary or personal lexicon.

We see novice fiction writers violating this all over the place, possibly because some well-meaning English teacher (very likely not a published author) instilled in them the mania for using every word in their vocabulary as often as possible.

Here’s an example:
“You’ve met Sheila, haven’t you? My wife is a great admirer of yours. I was telling the other half just as we were leaving that we might run into you here. Dearest, this is John Bigslow.”

Reading it off the page (or the screen), you may find yourself wondering if “Sheila”, “my wife”, “the other half”, and “Dearest” are four different people. God help the actor stuck with that line in anything but a farce.

This is perhaps more natural:
“You’ve met my wife, haven’t you? She’s a great admirer of yours. I was telling her just as we were leaving that we might run into you here. Sheila, this is John Bigslow.” And then have our nameless doting husband refer to his wife as “my wife” in the third person and “Sheila” throughout the rest of the text—unless something catastrophic happens to their relationship, in which case the change of attitude can be subtly underscored by a change in language: “the wife” versus “my wife” works wonders.

Of course, this is an exaggerated example. However, on topics people feel strongly about, particularly those of politics, religion, and identity, they are utterly rigid about their vocabulary. What would you think of a person or character who used “Israeli” and “Jew” interchangeably? Do they think all Israelis are Jews and vice-versa? At least unconsciously. Do they think the distinction is important? Clearly not. Is this what you are trying to convey with the character? I hope so, otherwise you need to go back and clean up that dialogue before someone else reads it.

You can’t have someone explain the distinction between two terms, such as “sister” and “nun”, and then use them both to refer to the same person. Someone who self-identifies as “queer” or “African-American” is highly unlikely to switch suddenly to “gay” or “Black”. Even “kid” and “child” are decidedly different words; almost never will you hear the same person use both, and when they do, they mean two different things.

An exception to this principle is heightened or poetic dialogue, which is why Shakespeare is credited with adding so many words to the English language. Meter and rhyme call for a different approach to word choice. Just be sure you intend to be a poet before you commit poetry.

People actually use a smaller set of words than the average writer or playwright knows. This is to their advantage, as they can easier separate characters by varying their vocabulary space accordingly.

Never mind principles and rules. The best way to learn how to write effective, realistic dialogue is, of course, to listen to how people speak (this is why the best writers tend to be the least talkative people). Then you can evolve your own personal principles and rules of dialogue.