Why care about ‘why do we care’?

This is a post about that old writing note ‘but why do we care?’ Sometimes also appears as ‘it was alright but I didn’t really care about her/it/them’. I’ve heard it and, god help me, probably said it enough times. There are many, many things we can get out of a performance – intellectual stimulation, information, challenge, amusement, shock, even (one performance by Forced Entertainment in particular comes to mind) the peculiar meditation brought about by beauty coinciding with boredom. Why does empathetic engagement (or ‘caring’) get privileged so much in criticism of plays?

To answer – a digression of sorts. I’ve just got back from holiday (it was very nice thanks). We were staying in a house my family have had since I was born forty something years ago. The books in it have accreted over that time period and are a mixture of classics, airport blockbuster types, children’s and sci-fi; four decades of family holiday reading.   


Casting around for something to read in the odd moments I wasn’t chasing after three small children, I came across ‘The Summer before the Dark’ by Doris Lessing. Now I love Doris Lessing – Golden Notebook is up there as one of my all time favourite books and I reckon I had to have read this as the edition dated from early 80s (written mid 70s) and it was falling out of its binding state of well read. But funny thing was when I started reading it I couldn’t remember a thing about it. Which was odd because it is bloody brilliant. The protagonist is 45 year old mother of 4 children and every sentence utterly nails the experience of being a mid 40s woman. 

Inter alia (us nerds like phrases like inter alia) the book contains this delicious passage: ‘everyone stood up to applaud and applaud, in the way we use in our theatre, as if the need of the actors to be approved, the need of the watchers to approve, feeds an action – palms striking repeatedly together in a fusillade of noise – which is a comment quite separate and apart from anything that has happened on stage…but is more of a ritual confirmation of self-approval on the part of the audience and the actors for going to the theatre and for acting in it.’

So I’m reading and admiring the book and wondering how I didn’t read it before and then three-quarters of the way through a young woman character enters the story. And I can remember everything. In vivid detail. Not only can I remember it the image of this young woman – sitting in an evening dress, eating baby food from a jar, has been lurking in my mind for years without knowing where it came from. And the answer is that when I read it I was (probably) a teenager, closer in age to the young woman and the state of a mid 40s woman was a strange and distant country. 

Emotion points attention (there is a lot of good neuroscience research in this which at some time I am going to look into). Emotion makes memories. Emotions are easier to engage with people whose experience reflects our own. All things we generally ask for in plays – get the audience’s attention, engage them with what is happening, make them remember it. At some point in some way a good piece of theatre will engage with our emotions. There are a couple of things I take away from this.

First – there are a whole range of emotions that can be generated by a work – excitement, fear, surprise, suspense – caring for or about one or more of the characters is one option. A particularly useful option when it comes to protagonist dramas (on which much more to come) but still only one option. Rather than why do we care? maybe a better question is what does this play offer? or what will it feel like? Equally difficult/impossible to answer, especially if you are the one writing it, but at least not reductive to one mode of emotional connection.

Second – and this goes out especially to my fellow play nerd/literary friends who will tend to read rather than see the play – just because I can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t there or that it isn’t good. I had a recent experience of this reading a play about three young men on a stag do. I couldn’t get any purchase on the play – probably the wrong age as much as wrong gender. That doesn’t make the play worth less because I can’t get a handle on it. It is always important to check what perspective, and assumptions, we bring when reading  a piece of work, and get another opinion if necessary. 

Which is not to say caring for or about a character in the play is a bad thing – a lot of the time it is a very important thing especially if you are writing a protagonist drama – but that’s a post for another day.



The Sense of Danger Must Not Disappear

Soon (well soon-ish) I will post some proper play writing things up. But before that I want to talk about risk.

I want to talk about it particularly from the position of being a mere 5 hours away from leaving a job, a great job, a job I have loved, after 12 and a half years in order to become a freelance director and dramaturg.

And I really don’t know what is going to happen next. I know a bit about it. I will be directing a new play Conscientious and I am hoping that those nice people at West Yorkshire Playhouse will be bringing me back to do some dramaturgy on a new play.

I know what I can do. I know what I want to do. And I know a bit about how I think I can get there. But there is huge amounts I don’t know about this future and as I take a big leap out of security it is a leap in to the dark.

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

And that is how it should be. Every time you write, every time you start to make something, begin a new project, start a new life it is a risk – some bigger, some smaller. But we can’t and shouldn’t know what it will be. Because that means we aren’t trying something new, something we or maybe anyone else in the world has ever tried before.

And there are hundreds of books on risk and how taking risk is the only way to success. Yeah – and it’s the way to failure too. That play might not work, that production fail in what it tried to achieve. This move to see what my own work is, my own career, may indeed end in failure – I won’t do what I want to do. But I will have tried.

And I know that the risk is greater because this isn’t just about me, it is about my family too. And that is why taking risk also means having a safety net somewhere. So that a theatre won’t go bust because a production doesn’t work. A playwright won’t be written off because that play was bad. And as a society nobody will hit rock bottom. We don’t achieve this of course – theatres fear a box office failure, writers bad reviews and our welfare state is tattered and torn. But those things should be there for ALL of us. Because without those safety nets there will be no risks taken – and art, life, business, society needs risk taking.

So here we go. Write the first line. Make the first move. Start the new life. Trust what we know and what we’ve done will get us where we want. Or maybe somewhere more interesting instead.

Take a deep breath.

And go.

Leap Before You Look
The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few samrt wisecracke every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
So long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savior-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear. 

— W. H. Auden