Bryony Lavery (born 1947) is a British dramatist, known for her successful and award-winning 1998 play Frozen. In addition to her work in theatre, she has also written for television and radio. She has written books including the biography Tallulah Bankhead and The Woman Writer's Handbook, and taught playwriting at Birmingham University.
Having begun her career as an actress, she decided that she was fed up with playing poor parts in plays, such as the left arm of a sofa, and decided to write plays with better parts for women. Early in her career she founded a theatre company called Les Oeufs Malades with actor Gerard Bell, she also founded Female Trouble, More Female Trouble and served as artistic director of Gay Sweatshop.
Her plays have a feminist undertone in them and she has even written plays (like More Light which has only one male speaking role) with almost entirely female casts. She has written more than twenty plays since 1976.
9th December 2009, London
Over the years I have had the privilege to work with Bryony Lavery on several occasions. We were 'lab-directors' for Performing Arts Labs at Bore Place near Sevenoaks, near London. Artistic director Susan Benn, who orchestrates Performing Arts Labs, had the foresight to understand what good collaborators we would be. Working with Bryony is a delight: hard and committed work is matched with wit and laughing, deep conversations about life and the universe casually happen while taking a stroll and surprise is part of it all the way. Being a foreigner while working in a British context, Lavery's cultural translations have been indispensible for me. Doing the interview was a strange experience. Before we would work on understanding and now I kept on asking questions and kept my distance to her answers in order to challenge her to formulate more. Her profound and long experience in the theatre contributes original insights to this research into witnessing.
Witnessing in theatre
Lavery's first association with the word 'witnessing' is a witness in trial. Witnessing is not a word she uses to describe what happens in theatre. Being a writer of theatre plays, for Lavery the definition of a play is where one group of people comes to present a story to another group of people. The first group is the people who've made the play and the second group is the audience, but they have to breath the same air. They have to be alchemically changed, so simply observing is not possible. They alter the performance and the performance alters them, physically and mentally. It is a construction of artistic deeds that makes up a presentation of a truth. It involves actors trying to seem like believable human beings in a story, which reveals their character or their lack of character. What they have to do is to convince the audience that it could happen or they have to delight the audience that a fantasy could occur. It has to seem like the truth, but of course it isn't the truth because the characters are played by people who are not them. It is the opposite from real life, suggests Lavery, because theatre tries to represent a reality that's unreal. By telling stories, theatre conveys truth in the end, Lavery explains.
Presence of actors
An actor is believable when he inhabits his role, according to Lavery. In the rehearsal process actors do a lot of thinking both with their bodies and their brains to find the believable moves and to have a realistic and believable relationship to the other people on stage. The audience has to believe them. Finding one's character usually happens physically in Lavery's experience. It is like a dance; suddenly the character exists in the body of the actor. The entire body and voice and movement distill into a behavior that is the character. To find this moment is what the rehearsal process is about; finding the moment when the air thickens and the character on stage appears to be alive. To find their character actors try different things, do scene's in different ways: furious, exaggerated, very calm etc.. You never know what it is that is going to unlock this moment, but it's always something, Lavery finds.
It is the job of an actor to notice how for example a nurse moves and what typifies her so the audience will think: "oh, she's a nurse". Moves differ in different styles; in a comedy a nurse moves different to a nurse in a tragedy. The size of the theatre and the distance between actors and audience also influences the way actors have to move in order to convey their character. Body moves of an actor have to be precise, according to Lavery.
Trusting to Act
When rehearsing her play Stockholm, which is about the relationship of two people who are very much in love with each other but very destructive of one another, an anthropologist was observing how it was made, Lavery recalls. The anthropologist noticed that there are certain things that theatre people do to make the place safe. Because we are making something that does not exist, Lavery explains, we have to trust one another. We are making characters that do not exist, we are making places that don't exist with just lighting and people and chairs and props. To be able to surprise one self as well as others, we have to trust each other, Lavery argues.
To create trust among the group of people that is involved in the rehearsal process, the anthropologist noticed that firstly theatre people share a lot of stories, share jokes and immediately make like a functioning family because they know they will be very close for the eight weeks of the rehearsal process. "Immediately it starts right from coffee onwards. People try to find common people they know, films, things that they've seen and jokes. If you can joke with each other, you make a room where you feel comfortable and safe. Jokes are often the valve where you can let off steam." Lavery explains.
The second thing the anthropologist noticed is that theatre people agree that to all have equal status, while maintaining a clear division of labor. The director runs the room, makes sure the actors are challenged and safe at the same time. As a writer Lavery have the power to change the script etc. But in discussions, all have an equal say as to what they think should be done. In such discussions different truth's come together.
Thirdly the anthropologist noticed that what is made is constantly tested by asking whether it is real or not. In theatre one is convinced something is real, when there is something unexpected in there. Lavery explains: "For example I was watching one scene where the girl was talking about her attic room and her voice was doing one thing, but because it was a physical theatre, she was doing something with her hand as well. I was watching it with the anthropologist and suddenly said "she broke bits of her body when she was a baby". And I hadn't thought of that and I'm sure the actor didn't know, but that's what I saw. And that was somehow proof to me that we were making something that we could believe was real."
Last, it is important to realize that this trust only has to function for a limited amount of time, Lavery argues. Theatre people pretend they like to experiment and play forever, but actually the eight weeks or ten weeks is always good. " You have to launch your trust into the eight or ten week group. And even if you're in a stinker, everybody collaborates in a fiction that it's going to be OK. And they keep it going until the last night party, when they will say "it was absolute crap, wasn't it?" But you don't say it before, because otherwise, the kind of the ball you're trying to, you know, the reality you're trying to keep going, can't work."
Writing a play: rhythm in actions that change characters
When confronted with the definition of a play as a system of time, place, relations and actions, Lavery emphasizes that theatre is a collaborative thing. It is a synthesis of actors, lighting, movement and nothing should happen twice. As a playwright Lavery tries to underwrite what needs to be necessary there. Lavery prefers to describe a play as a system of words and silences and movement and light. Fundamental to theatre are actions that change characters and relations are built through these actions in theatre. Plays are about characters, who are changed by what they do. Plays have speech, actions and activities. Actions have to be there, because they change people. Activities, like having a cup of tea, are not necessary because they do not reveal the actor's story. A character getting up to make a cup of tea is inherently uninteresting and that's an activity, Lavery explains. A character getting up to make a cup of tea because they don't want to talk about what's happening or that they want to get away from this person here that they loathe, or this person who they're secretly in love with. Then, you know, if you know that's happening, then that's interesting. And that's theatre and that's hard to do.
Scenes have objectives. For example in this scene Hamlet discovers his mother is lying to him. It can happen in words or it can happen in actions. There have to be guide rules of character and actions. In a play nothing should be there, that does not have to be in there. In the writing process and eventually in the play, Lavery leaves spaces in how people are talking. Her characters don't talk in sentences, they have different sizes of space, or long gaps of silence, in which a change of thought can be felt. It implies that something specifically is happening, something mentally or physically is happening between the end of one word and the beginning of the next. Lavery argues that there has to be an in-between space for something physically to happen. For Lavery the body is the instrument that records it all and is affected by it all. Whatever we see or whatever we witness has an effect on our brains, our bodies, our heat, our everything. That's the relationship between being witness and the body. Even in today's context, in which we have so much communication without body embodiment, the body still is the instrument that records it all.
Robust structure for 'magic in the air'
As playwright Lavery suggests a rhythm using her sense of where people's behavior needs silence focusing on the eloquence of movement rather than on the eloquence of words. While writing the page is a template, like the score musically. In rehearsal the rhythm is tried. To whether it works Lavery comments: "I'm very intuitive rather than analytical. There is the moment where suddenly like the air gets still and thicker and more granular or viscous. And you know that that is convincing. But it's trial and error, combined with artistic taste."
To get the 'magic in the air' a robust structure is necessary, argues Lavery. Such a robust structure consists of a strong story, quite complicated characters and then good actors. Also good word of mouth, good publicity, materials, the right space to perform it in, and the right design and the right director. It's completely collaborative.
"Fundamentally it starts with strong characters. One believes the characters because of the actions they do, which are believable. And that the actions of one character impacts on the other character and then that action impinges on the next character. And so the story builds. And so I and everybody who's in it and everybody who's watching it, believes the path of the story. And at the end, it's like with kids when you tell them a story and you stop and they say 'is that the end?'. And they know it's the end and that's why they ask it, because they know it."
Good stories are fueled by emotions
In good stories, finds Lavery, you feel a story and every secene is about slightly more than it seems to be about. It has the notion of a myth or a story we've known from the dawn of time or you know it has the elements of the very first stories we were told. It is not about making reference to such myths. As we are all sitting in the theatre we all have to feel that that's there, Lavery states.
All stories need to have different great emotions: grief, joy, pain, loss, terror, fury. They are very useful and there are hundreds. Emotions are the fuel of the story, of the structure. The story is about characters experiencing, controlling or suppressing these feelings. Sometimes the emotion surprises, because you know the wrong emotion is in seemingly the wrong place. You suddenly think "that character is feeling murderous rage for this person they're pretending to love and isn't that interesting." But always, you know, it is happening over there. Theatre is the place where you can kill people and get away with it, Lavery says. Personally she likes to explore things that terrify her or make her angry because those are great fires for making things.
Emotions relate to the actions. They are as twins, as Lavery formulates it. An emotion can make an action or an action can call forth an emotion. On stage Lavery cannot think of any example where actions are performed without triggering emotions. You cannot get up on stage just because you feel like it.
To create the sense of place
Creating the sense of place in theatre is mostly a collaborative effort of many. As a playwright Lavery is mostly concerned with creating an emotional sense of place. It's a mixture of research and working hard to get it right. When breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience it has to make the audience feel safe. Strong structurer provide this safety, so people know what is expected o them. "So that you know that they're not gonna come and make you come into their frightening world, into their magic space". Light is very important for the sense of place in theatre, as in poetry for example. In a tragedy, you start in a blaze of apparently good light and then it goes darker, and actually light goes darker. And then all good plays should take you out into the light again. Very often poets, novelists or filmmakers set certain scenes in the rain or in sunlight. Because pathetic fallacy is that the space you are in, replicates what is in your heart. Your heart is a green meadow with sun on it or your heart is in a dark cave. Light is one of the most important things in story or life anyway, Lavery states.
Lighting designers are the most unsung heroes in theatre, because you're not always aware of what's happening. Light deeply influences how people witness. It affects moods and how people witness as well as that it helps to tell the story.
The following is an edited transcription of the conversation. Film fragments of the conversation are included to illustrate parts of the transcribed text.
CN: OK, yes, yes. Yes. We have a thinking talk, yeah?
CN: So we think together.
CN: I will also talk, you talk. So it's really exploring together your knowledge about this. So today is the ninth of December. We are in east London with Bryony Lavery, playwright. I have collaborated with you several times. And I'm very happy that we can speak now. I understand, because you are a playwright, you know a lot about presence, presence on stage, how you are present for actors. At the same time you also know a lot about witnessing because you always, you know you make things so people can witness it and see it and feel it. So I was wondering if I say "witnessing", what is your association? What is crucial in witnessing?
BL: I first thought it's something to do with... The first thing it reminds me of is in a trial because there's always a witness. So it's not particularly a word that's common to me, which is why I have to keep thinking about it, recalling it. And thinking about it in theatre it occurred to me last night that we make something that's not true and then our audience witnesses it. Which seems quite different from what we were talking about last night.
CN: So is there... Do for you... Is it a difference, like can you have an audience who just observes the play? Or is something... For me...
BL: It's not possible. Because I think the definition of a play is where... It's almost like where one group of people comes to present a story to another group of people. The first group is the people who've made the play and the second group is the audience, but they have to breath the same air. And I think they have to be alchemically changed, so simply observing is not possible. They alter the performance and the performance alters them, physically and mentally. So simply observing isn't it, I mean I don't know what that means.
CN: So it actually means that the play is not just an action, it's a deed that makes... that affects other people?
BL: Yes. Well, it's a construction of artistic deeds that make up a presentation of a truth.
CN: What kind of truth?
BL: Whatever the overarching... the playwright thinks, in a sense. You know, I think this is a manifestation of human behavior and I'm presenting this construction of it. What do you think?
CN: So you say you tell a story, a fiction story...
CN: ...to actually reveal a truth?
CN: How does that work?
BL: It's... It involves actors trying to seem like believable human beings in a story, which reveals their character or their lack of character.
CN: So would you say that... Because there's a relate-... The story is related to factual truth as well.
BL: Yes. Well, no. What they have to do, is convince the audience that it could happen or that... delight the audience that a fantasy could occur. They simply have to, yes, alter the people watching it. The audience have to think "I'm interested in this" or "this could happen". But it's... It has to seem like the truth, but of course it isn't the truth because the characters are played by people who are not them. So it's kind of oddly the opposite from other things, from real life, because we're trying to represent a reality that's unreal.
CN: Yet it affects real people in their real lives.
CN: So there is a truth, you make a story and the story resonates with the truth again probably.
CN: In order for actors to be able to do so, they have to have presence.
BL: What do you mean by presence?
CN: I was going to ask you, because I've seen you work with presence and being present a lot with actors.
BL: Yes. So what was the question again?
CN: So what is presence? When is an actor believable? When is he really... When do I take him for being a human being?
BL: When he inhabits his role, that the rehearsal... The rehearsal period is all about the actor practicing like the moves, making believable moves, having a realistic and believable relationship to the other people on stage. Because if they're too close or too far away it's... everybody in their DNA knows it's wrong. I doesn't work. And something happens and I'm not sure I could quantify it. It's that at some point an actor suddenly on stage gets... it's like their entire body and voice and movement distills into a behavior that is that character and then they go off in the wings and they're normal. But something happens and that's what the rehearsal process is about. Finding the... that moment when the air thickens and the character... the person, the actor - you know you can tell a good actor because they're... on stage is where they appear to live the most and then it becomes a character.
CN: I know what you mean. So can you tell me more about this embodying a personae?
BL: What, in the rehearsal process or when you see it?
BL: In the rehearsal process actors are always doing a lot of thinking and thinking both with their bodies and their brains, the good ones. The bad ones come back and say "I think my character was like this when she was young" and that's usually not helpful, because it's too complicated. You know, an actor doesn't have to be a real person with, you know, a history going back to the moment they came out of their mother's womb. We have to just believe it. And usually that happens physically. Physically it's like a dance that, you know, they suddenly find where that character exists in their body. And then they're there. And they try different things. You know we might do it again and this time... do that scene again and this time go over the top or just do it with this in your head, be furious. And you never know what it is that is going to unlock it, but it's always something. And it's why rehearsals are so fantastic, because you're exploring and just trying to find... You're trying to make something that's really not real. I'm just thinking... I just thought that I did a play called Stockholm which is about the relationship of two people who are very much in love with each other, but very destructive of one another. And for the entire time of the workshop, and it was a very physical workshop, we had an anthropologist watching us and observing how we made it. And he said it was extraordinary because there are certain things that you do... is that you make the place very safe, you kind of agree that for a time you all have equal status. And he said and then your making something... you have to trust one another because you're making something that doesn't exist. You know, you're making characters that don't exist, you're making places that don't exist with just lighting and people and chairs and props. And then, he said what you do... He observed that we tested what we had made to see if it was real. And how we found something was real was, there was something we wouldn't expect in there. For example I was watching one scene where the girl was talking about her attic room and she was... she was doing... her voice was doing one thing, but because it was a physical theatre, she was doing something with this hand I think. And I was watching it and I was watching it with the anthropologist and I suddenly said "she broke bits of her body when she was a baby". And I hadn't thought of that and I'm sure the actor didn't know, but that's what I saw. And that was somehow proof to me that we were making something that we could believe was real. If that makes sense.
CN: It makes a lot of sense. So how do establish trust among yourselves?
BL: This particular one, what he noticed was - and it's quite often - is that in... that very often there's a lot of shared stories, you know actors always tell stories. And immediately, like David Mamet says you know what... The thing about actors and theatre people he loves is that they immediately make a functioning family. Because, you know, they're going to have to have a very close relationship for like eight weeks. So immediately it starts, you know right from coffee onwards, it's people trying to find common people they know, films, things that they've seen and jokes. You know if you have the jokes, so you can joke with each other, you kind of make a room where you feel comfortable and safe. And you can, you know, jokes are often the valve where you can steam off, you know, let off steam. And again, the anthropologist noticed that there was... He'd said that the power in the room was with me, because I was the writer, and the two directors, but we kind of did an übertruth or an infratruth that we all had an equal right to say things when we were in discussion. And... We did have a huge disagreement. I'd put something in the play, which the two directors were quite... They didn't know how to do it or they didn't... they weren't convinced by it. And so there was this... like the elephant in the room is how we could do that. And we knew that it was only in the power of me to take it out or the directors. But everybody had the same say in it. That's one way of establishing trust. The other is division of labor. It's that mostly a director runs the room, very equably, I mean it's not autocratic. But they decide when we start. And it is like, you know, they say actors are like dogs. If you have an alpha male or an alpha female as the director and then various cohorts and then the actors are very... you know, it's nice to know in theatre who does what and how well they're going to do it. And if that works, you know, it works like clockwork. If there's any areas of doubt or...
CN: And you also have a limited amount of time when you collaborate.
BL: Yes, yes.
CN: It's not forever.
BL: No, no. Theatre people pretend they'd like to experiment and play forever, but actually the eight weeks, or the ten weeks, is always good. I don't know of any thing I've seen were it's taken... You know, they've been exploring it for six months where it works. There's something about... You have to launch your trust into the eight or ten week group. And even if you're in a stinker, everybody collaborates in a fiction that it's going to be OK. And they keep it going until the last night party, when they "it was absolute crap, wasn't it?". But you don't say it, because otherwise, the kind of the ball you're trying to, you know, the reality you're trying to keep going, can't work.
CN: I'd like to focus now on your writership, because as a writer, you sort of make the system. Because we also do this with system engineers. You write a scenario where you prescribe lines people will say, even moves, how long they are on stage...
BL: It's not a... A scenario is something different, a scenario is a usually like a treatment. It's a sort of description of the scene. But I write a text, which is the play text.
CN: But I read one of your plays and there's a lot of in-between-brackets; this happens and this happens and this happens...
BL: Yes, yes that's... I do a lot of stage directions.
CN: Yes. So I like to tap into this knowledge, because you write. You see a structure in which something might happen.
CN: And you know some things you have to put in and some things you have to leave out.
CN: So what is necessary to put in? For people to be able to get this witnessed presence?
BL: If I could tell you that easily everybody would playwright. It's... What I put in is... Is I have a notion of where it should be, where the play should be set. But I do something like 'this play starts in fog'. Because, I mean, I did a play about Alzheimer's, but all I did was 'we are in fog'. But that suggests... You know, I'm therefore suggesting to the designer something about the feel or the place of the play. I don't describe any actor, any.... --shall I keep going or should I wait for that? Ok I'll keep going. -- No I don't physically describe the actor, the part...
CN: Let's wait until the phone is over.
BL: And I do... What I do is the sequence of the speech and the movements in scenes. Or in like movements, you know in music it's like the movement. And each scene has something that should happen -- and now somebody's at my door.
CN: Ok, let's stop for a moment.
BL: Can we stop?
CN: Yes, of course.
BL: Sorry about that...
CN: That's OK.
CN: So I repeat the question, yes?
CN: So as a playwright you actually make a system of time and place and relations and actions...
CN: ...in which you hope things will happen...
CN: ...that will effect people. So you put things in and you leave things out. How do you do this?
BL: First with great brilliance, obviously. Ehm... Trial and error. Do you want to know the process into making it or what it looks like on the page and how it works as a...
CN: I want to find out, like for example... I want to find out the relation between you writing a line, suggesting something to people, and then it actually happening. So when you write a play, you leave a lot out.
CN: But certain things are there. So why are certain things in and why are certain things out? Where do you have to make the system clear and where should you let the system let unfold?
BL: Because it's a collaborative thing and that it's a synthesis of actors, lighting, movement and nothing should happen twice... you know, if... What you're trying to do between you is make something where my text doesn't...allows for the director to move the people around. So, what you're trying to do is is underwrite so that only what is necessary is there.
CN: What is necessary for the witnessing to happen later? And the witness presence to evoke.
BL: I don't know really... It's simply that one has to keep working and working until one gets it. That, that...
CN: I'll phrase it differently. People make large systems that we all use.
CN: And by doing that they actually design our behavior.
CN: Without thinking about it in a theatrical way, where actually they are making theatre for us. They have all the actors in those systems. The thinking about what you...where you prescribe what people do and you let it happen, is very unclear in a lot of systems design. And what it lacks is humaneness and respect for humaneness. You as a playwright, you work with the assumption that you work with humans. So you have a very clear understanding what you do not prescribe and where you let people do it...
CN: ...and what you do prescribe to get, anyway in the end, the result that you imagined that it will be the play.
CN: So I like to know better from you, if possible, where...what things you should never write in a play, for example. And what always has to be there.
BL: There aren't any complete answers to both of those things. What is a good idea to...what almost always is in plays are speech, what almost always in plays are actions and activities. What plays are about our actions where characters are changed by what they do. So you must have that in a play. You don't have to have activities, which is like having a cup of tea, because that may or may not reveal the actors story.
CN: Nice, so you have a division between actions and activities.
CN: And an action always changes people?
BL: Yes, yes.
CN: That's a very sharp definition of action.
BL: What happens is that, you know, there are scenes that always have objectives. You know, in this scene Hamlet discovers his mother is lying to him. And it can happen in words or it can happen in actions. So again it is what has to be in there and what hasn't to be in there. What has to be in there are the guide rules of character, actions... There is nothing that hasn't to be in there. It's just that you get a better or worse play, because every play is different, every playwright is different.
CN: Can you say anything about granularity of action?
CN: Yes, granularity is a beautiful word. It's about like how fine, how detailed actions should be prescribed. Or how...
BL: How I do it, if this is this house, is I absolutely believe that the creative space in my head and the blank page on which I write and the empty stage on which I make my work, have similarity and that what I put on the page is the ordering of what's in my brain. And how I put it on the page suggests how I want it done on stage. And I notice, I mean I, what I do is I leave spaces in how the people are talking. My characters don't talk in sentences, they have a long gap like I just did. Because there is a change of thought. And so I don't say... 'Caroline, I'm getting very angry with you'. All I do is I leave that pause, so that the actor can think somethings happening here, I'm feeling something about Caroline and what is is? And so I leave different sizes of space.
CN: But to have a space you have to make two frontiers.
BL: Yes, well the frontier is the...
CN: How do you make the frontiers?
BL: Well one's the end of the last word and then there's a space and then the next word.
CN: I can see that words are actions on stage. But I don't understand yet about the space. Usually people feel like if you use, you loose momentum, you loose efficiency.
BL: Shall I just go and get a book and show you?
CN: Yes, fine.
BL: Well, just at random... Of course I get the worst example... OK. The space is all over.
BL: And it just implies that something specifically is happening, something mentally or physically is happening between the end of one word and the beginning of the next.
CN: This is very interesting. So actually you say you need to have space for something physically to happen?
BL: I think so, yes.
CN: In the action that's not there, for things to happen there has to be the empty time.
CN: And you can trigger what happens...
BL: It does in my work. I mean like in Shaw they talk much more.
CN: Yeah, I know. But that's like why I like to talk to you. Because it's like a system of...through a whole system of words and silences you convey something.
CN: Which is like what systems do.
BL: Systems, yes.
CN: I'm sorry that I compare your theatre with a system but it's very interesting to understand.
BL: No, I think that systems of words and silences is great. I mean I'd also add systems of words and silences and movement and light - you know light in theatre spends a lot of time telling the story too. So it's... So yes, a play is a system of...or an arrangement of all these things.
CN: But let me just stick with the granularity of the silence, of the spaces in between, and connect this to rhythm and synchronization. So rhythm, also there is more not-sound within the beat, the space within the beat is bigger than the beats.
CN: Yet people synchronize in these beats. You know if you tap and I tap with you, we synchronize or even our bodies synchronize. Actors also synchronize on stage, they get in a certain...you know.
CN: When you write the play, you're actually making the rhythm or is it the actors making the rhythm?
BL: I'm suggesting the rhythm. And what's happened mostly recently is that I suggest the rhythm and I say to them 'look, try it like this and if it's wrong you can junk it'. But actually, mostly, they go with the rhythm I suggest. Because I think I have a good sense of where people's behavior needs silence or you know the ineloquence or the eloquence of movement or behavior, rather than the eloquence of words.
CN: And is the rhythm made by the moves or by the words or how do you make the rhythm?
BL: I make... You know my page is... I'm making the template or, you know it's like the score musically. And I'm guessing it. I'm thinking that's how it should be. And then in rehearsal you try that out. And it either looks false or it looks true. Or the space is too long and you don't believe it or the space is too short and you don't believe it.
CN: When is it false?
BL: When... When you don't feel the room is... There's just, you know... I'm very intuitive rather than analytical. There is the moment where suddenly like the air gets still and thicker and more granular or viscous. And you know that that is convincing. But it's trial and error.
CN: My experience...
BL: And taste.
CN: Taste also yes.
BL: Artistic taste.
CN: In my experience when there is this special air, this granularity in the air, the movement of one finger can make the difference.
CN: What do you have to do before that happens?
BL: I think you have to have a robust structure. So that... I mean, I've occasionally made plays where I've thought, you know, we're on a rocky and storm-tossed sea in the structure. And I've made a few rafts which the story can, you know, if they jump from there to there we'll get a bit of good story and it'll go rocky. But the more I work and the more I try is to make the play look like a sailable vessel.
CN: And what are the elements of such a structure?
BL: Luck first of all, and then hard work. Strong story, quite complicated characters and then good actors. And then everything, everything that makes it, gives it buoyancy. Good word of mouth, good publicity, materials, the right space to perform it in, and the right design and the right director. It's completely collaborative.
CN: But the fundament of the structure is the story?
BL - (nods)
CN: When is a story strong?
CN: I'm sorry to ask you this. I keep on asking, but it's so interesting because I think in systems engineering a lot of stories are very weak. There is no sense of drama, so there can be no sense of performance, so there can be no sense of responsibility. That's why I ask you these questions.
BL: Well, they're strong when one believes the characters. And one believes the characters because of the actions they do, which are believable. And that the actions of one character impacts on the other character and then, you know, that action impinges on the next character. And so the story builds. And so I and everybody who's in it and everybody who's watching it, believes the path of the story. And at the end, it's like with kids when you tell them a story and you stop and they say 'is that the end?'. And they know it's the end and that's why they ask it, because they know it.
CN: But you actually say that the fundamental structure is that my action can change you. So that's fundamental. That's the same as witnessing.
CN: As a witness I'm potential to testify and to interfere.
BL: Yes, yes, yes. We have to replicate real behavior in order to seem real.
CN: So it's very interesting to me that you say that actually the relation to the action influences the relation.
BL: Say again. Actions?
CN: Well, I asked you what's a strong story. Because it's a robust structure. The robust structure comes from the good stories, strong story. What's a strong story? If one action changes another person and therefore his or her action. So it's a sequential design of actions in the end.
BL: Yes, yes. There's also another thing, which is that. You feel a story is about, every scene is about slightly more than it seems to be about. So then it becomes... It has the notion of a myth or a story we've known from the dawn of time or you know it has the elements of the very first stories we were told, I think.
CN: That's also very interesting. So you say that to make the good story you have to make reference, direct or indirect, to sort of a collective memory of humankind?
BL: Yes. Not even reference. As we're all sitting in the theatre we all have to feel that that's there.
CN: So what kind of elements are in there? Is it like love and hate and passion and loneliness? Or is it precise about power and...?
BL: Well, there'll be...
CN: What sort of terms are you thinking of?
BL: Well all stories need to have different, you know the different great emotions; grief, joy, pain, loss, terror, fury. They're very useful.
CN: How many are there?
BL: There's hundreds. I do a workshop where I get people to do as many emotions as they can think and write them down. And then, you know, you think is joy greater than bliss? Is rage greater than fury? But they all have a temperature and you know... It's odd to come to this last. Those are the fuel of the story, of the structure. It's that the characters must be experiencing or controlling or suppressing all those things.
CN: So as a witness of the play I recognize the emotion, which is why I can identify with the story?
BL: Yes. Well sometimes the emotion surprises you, because you know the wrong emotion is in, you know, seemingly the wrong place. You suddenly think "that character is feeling murderous rage for this person they're pretending to love and isn't that interesting." But always, you know, it's happening over there. So there's again, theatre can do... It's the place where, you know, you can kill people and get away with it. And you know, you rehearse and try out. I think, with me, I always go for the exploring things that terrify me or make me angry. Because those are great fires for making things.
CN: How do the emotions relate to the actions?
BL: They are as twins. Or as... An emotion can make an action or an action can call forth an emotion. So then they're just part of, you know, the one working with the other or working against the other.
CN: And can you have actions on stage without emotions?
BL: I think not. I'm trying to think of an example. Because you can't get up on stage just because you feel like it. Usually you get up because you're feeling impatient or disturbed by what's happening. So you know, a character getting up to make a cup of tea is inherently uninteresting and that's an activity. A character getting up to make a cup of tea because they don't want to talk about what's happening or that they want to get away from this person here that they loathe, or this person who they're secretly in love with. Then, you know, if you know that's happening, then that's interesting. And that's theatre and that's hard to do.
CN: I know this. So there are two more things I really want to explore. How you create the sense of place and this also includes the fourth wall. Because as an audience I witness and you make this whole place, with light, with decor. But how does this work? Because I have to go through this wall. I know I cannot step on stage, yet it all happens. How do you create a sense of place?
BL: Mostly I leave it to others, because the people who do the sense of space best are the designer, the lighting person and the director who knows that people look and are different if... You know, you can do stuff in workshops where you say to somebody "here's a photograph, go and make it". And you look and say what can you tell me about the person? And you can look at two people and the way they are in relationship to themselves, to height. And you know you think "they're outside, they're not in England. They're in Africa or whatever." So that's acting skill, directing skill, designing skill, whatever. I think I'm more likely to do sense of emotional place. Like I can do how people talk when they're in extremes. I can research how they talk in different specific places. The boxing play I'm writing, you know I know how people talk in a boxing gym now, because I've researched it. But it's a mixture of research from me and working hard to get it right. But mostly other people than me, well, work with me to produce that. And the fourth wall, I mean I don't... I break down the fourth wall a lot, because I'm more a kind of fan of Shakespeare. Because Shakespeare, you know, he'd do a scene not referring to you and then somebody would come along and say "what a rogue and peasant slave am I?" "Do you agree with me Caroline?" or "to be or not to be, audience". You know, that's the question. You know, this character, Hamlet, is talking to you, the audience. But you know, it has to make you feel safe. Again with a very strong structure, that they're not going to pick you up and carry you on stage, like panto or something. So it's about structure, so that you know what is expected of you. So that you know that they're not gonna come and make you come into their frightening world, into that magic space.
CN: And light. It's very interesting you said a few times now that light is very important. In the world of systems engineering there is no light. It's very interesting, there's whole shaping of behavior where there is no air or no light. I only realize now you say this.
BL: Again in plays, if you think about any story... That like in a tragedy, you start in a blaze of apparently good light and then it goes darker, and actually light goes darker. And then all good plays should take you out into the light again. And I mean lighting designers are the most unsung heroes in theatre, because you're not always aware of what's happening. But mostly they are affecting your mood and your eyes, by helping tell the story.
CN: So actually light has a very deep influence on witnessing?
BL: Yes, huge.
CN: Huge influence. And maybe not only because of the fact that you need light to be able to see, because there is also witnessing happening without seeing.
BL: Yes. But you know pathetic fallacy in poetry is that very often poets or novelists or filmmakers, they set certain scenes in the rain or in sunlight. Because pathetic fallacy is that what the space you're in, replicates what's in your heart. So you know, when your heart's a green meadow with sun on it or when your heart's in, you know, a dark cave or a dark vault. The light's one of the most important things in story or life anyway
CN: It's very interesting, but can we think about how... Because I know from workshops you also work with synchronizing rhythms without seeing or acting where the vision is not important. And there's a lot of interaction happening without seeing, like with technology. I mean we talk technology. So you are expert with real space with real air.
CN: When you don't share the real space or the real air, people can still synchronize or people can feel each other's rhythm or maybe not. But for example to sense rhythm do you need light? Because the green meadow is a very different rhythm than...
BL: No, no. To sense rhythm is about... Well in theatre it's about bodies that you can work in a space without light.
CN: But imagine you would work with a group of actors in a light space with their eyes closed or you work with a group of actors in a dark space with their eyes closed. Would it be different?
CN: Can you explain?
BL: Well if you close your eyes, you know with your eyes closed whether it's dark or light. Even with your eyes closed. Usually - to help your thing - usually there's a whole thing in theatre called trust exercises, which is simply about getting actors to trust each other. You know the simplest is - I think we did it, that dancer did it at the one we were at - you simply lead somebody around by the hand. And of course when you're in that space, you know, you're... This person, everybody's changed because the person with their eyes closed...they're deprived of all the things that they normally use, like checking visually. But they then get an appreciation of what they can do with their body just by feel and touch, and they have to trust of course this person. And the person leading them around has to be more aware of what they're seeing, to stop the person in their care from harming themselves.
CN: Do you ever use smell?
CN: How do you use it?
BL: I'm always being jiggered or fucked by trying to use smell, because it always seems to me important in the story. And so I've started plays where I say, you know, somebody comes in and they're eating toast and they've got a cup of hot coco chocolate, because I think, you know, everybody should experience that. Because this was in a play where I wanted to take someone from great safety to be a war correspondent, but the logistics of getting a smell to do what you want is... You know, you come on stage and smell goes backwards into the wings instead of out to you in the audience. And I'd love to use it, but it doesn't work very well, because it doesn't...you can't control it. So if you want the smell of frying bacon in the first scene, you won't get it. But then in the scene where you don't want it, the people in the back will sit around "snif, what's that bacon doing?"
CN: Yes. So we have ten minutes left.
CN: I would like to go back to movement. One of the theoreticians I work with, he says you can only develop language or an understanding if you recognize someone's spatial temporal trajectory. So how people move in time through space.
CN: Which is what you design in theatre. I'm wondering what is such a trajectory. How much of a cartoon quality does it need to have? How fine can it be? What is a spatial temporal trajectory?
BL: Say that again. What is a ...?
CN: Spatio temporal trajectory?
BL: Big hard words, Caroline. Spatio temporal trajectory.
CN: So how someone moves in space through time or in time through space. So you have an actor walking from point A to point B on stage. And the argument would be: if I recognize his movement I can also understand who he is.
CN: If I don't, he can move but I will not even notice. There will be no shared meaning.
CN: It's also like a nurse has different body movement than a steelworker or a dancer or a teacher.
CN: And I'm wondering about the characteristic of those body moves.
BL: Well, all those things that you know the difference, you know, an actor it's her or his job to notice those things and know how a nurse moves or what typifies something that when they do it you'll think "oh, she's a nurse".
CN: Yes. And I'm interested in how typified that move has to be for me it to be recognized. So how much exaggeration should be in there? I mean it's like as a child, you know in theatre lessons you say can just say "hello", but in theatre lessons you have to say "hello!".
BL: It has to be precise.
CN: Precise to what?
BL: Well to do the nurse it has to be believably a nurse. If it's in a style, like farce, it would have to be always cartoon. And big, bigger, or if it's in comedy it may have to be more, slightly more exaggerated than tragedy. If it's in a theatre that's small and only has two hundred people in it or sixty, it can't be too much because you'll want to go back from it. So it has to be, you know... It depends on the size of the theatre. But if you're in the Olivier theatre, you've got to somehow do, you know, believable and accurate movement but it has to be seen way back in another post code, up in the...
CN: Yes. So distance is an issue when you talk about spatiotemporal trajectories. Distance how far you see it. But if it goes more towards the sort of... You say it has to be precise. How do you find the essence of such a movement?
BL: Again, I don't do it. Because the director, the actors and the movement people find it.
CN: But you see them doing it all the time?
BL: Yes, I watch it.
CN: How do they do that?
BL: Different ways. I mean it's quite a lot of british theatre. I don't know if this is true of the dutch theatre I've seen. But british theatre has sort of had a tradition of people not moving very much, but now suddenly everybody's interested in movement. I work with a group called Frantic Assembly, who are very famous here, who do quite exaggerated movement. But you can do everything from almost to dance back to very small movements. It's just a huge range. You just have to have people who can make it and explore it. And there are a lot of people who do that. But in different... You know some people do comedy, some people do it with masks.
CN: Maybe last question. So what is the relation between being witness and the body? Given the fact that we have so much communication now without body embodiment.
BL: Well it's the... It's the instrument that records it all, isn't it? And is affected by it all. So whatever we see or whatever we witness has an effect on our brains, our bodies, our heat, our everything. That's the relationship.
CN: Is there anything you would like to add?
BL: Can't think of anything.
CN: Ok. Thank you very much.
BL: Whffff. Thinking conversation...
CN: Tough questions, yeah? But you said a lot of things.
CN: It must be strange because I'm not going with you. I'm always saying "what do you mean?" It's now like when we usually work, we sort of are playing out.
CN: Now I keep...
BL: Well this is what that anthropologist said about... He said "we in academe, we're very combative". So you were doing academic.
BL: It's not our normal...
CN: ...playing together. Yes.
BL: But I like it. You know, I enjoyed it. And it makes me feel how intuitively I work rather than think what I'm doing. It's really nice to be asked. Did I explain what you need?
CN: I think so. Yes, I think so. I always don't know at the end of the interview, I just have to the transcript. I'm also completely blank now. But it's very interesting that usually we play together, so we work on intuition. And now I'm in a very different position to you and so it's a different kind of formulation, where the essence of your work is the intuition playing. So we have to see, when we do the transcript, whether they will pay tribute to your work. We have to see. But to me - but I understand you I think because we worked a lot together - it made a lot of sense.
CN: Thank you.
BL: It's fucking freezing up here now, isn't it?