Writing – bringing ideas to the page
In the second instalment of my series to steal all of Indian Ink’s ideas and start a rival, more successful theatre company, I zoomed Justin to get his thoughts on the writing process.
When writing, what is the relationship like between you and Jake?
Well, we talk a lot. We will spend hours and hours, and days and days talking. It’s one of the great things, because writing is often a lonely process, so having someone to collaborate with is good. We’re both theatre-makers because we like to collaborate. And we each have our own strengths, Jake’s really good on dialogue and character, and my strength is on the architecture, on the more structural sort of stuff. So, we kind of have complementary skills. What also works is that we know how to talk to one another about the work and we can disagree about what the right thing is. And in those discussions about the work we talk about what is right for the story and what’s right for the character, rather than arguments about who’s right or wrong.
How does the writing process itself actually work?
Well, it’s a two-year process, looking for the spark, looking for the thing that we’re interested in. Before it all came together following our Mumbai trip, we’d been gathering stuff and thinking ‘could it be this?’, ‘could it be that?’, and we had seen books and stories, but we couldn’t quite make sense of it all. On the trip, we’d seen the story about the vultures, but it was actually on the way home in Singapore that we saw a travel agent called Paradise Tours, which sparked something. There’s something about just being together and hanging out.
You’ve got to fill up, put stuff in your head and just let that stuff rattle around and find its own way out. If you force it and pressure it, it doesn’t work. If you don’t put anything in, it doesn’t work.
There’s actually something about the action of walking that’s quite good for ideas kind of coming out. And often we’ve been working on shows and thought ‘let’s just go for a walk and try and make sense of this’. So, part of the process is walking, talking, putting things together. And the other part of the process is big, physically. We get together in a room and write on big bits of paper and post-it notes, which we stick on the walls and then we start to figure out loads of things. Who are the characters in the story? What are the big events that happen in the story? What’s the kind of central dramatic thing that happens? We’re trying to find the right characters in the right world. We just talk and we write and plot things out. And then we’ll end up in the final draft, using script software as these cards that can move around. And then again together we’ll start plotting out the scenes, how they start and end. Then I’ll usually write a prose version, which might be four or five or 10 pages, which tells a story from the beginning to the end. Then we get feedback and change it and then Jake will write from that a first and final draft.
Why is dramaturgy so important? Indian Ink has worked with dramaturg Murray Edmonds for a very long time, what are the benefits of working with him?
He’s brainier than us. (Laughter)
He’s got this giant brain, he’s so well-read, and he’s got so many things he can refer us to for precedence and things like that. He pushes us to do things differently. For a long time, when we were working on Paradise, we were trying to do it as a Guru of Chai II. Sort of like a franchise, like a novel at the airport, a Jack Reacher. And trying to do Kutisar II – it was another kind of crime story. And he challenged and challenged until we came to see the piece in a really different way. And it was a long and slow process to get to that, so he brings an outside perspective and years of working with scripts.
One of Murray’s great gifts is asking the right questions, because it’s the questions that will lead you to think more deeply. Whereas if you tell people ‘that’s wrong!’, and ‘you should do this!’ that doesn’t shift things for us.
What is the rewriting process when working on the plays?
Getting a script out is what most people think the writing is. They think it’s the dialogue on the pages. For me, and for us, and for the way we work, that comes at the end of the writing process. So, all that stuff about working out the characters of the story, the structure, the themes, that’s all part of the writing process, but a lot of people wouldn’t call that writing.
In a way, you’re always rewriting, because you put down an idea and you’ve got to test it and challenge it and change it. When it gets to that point of the script and the story is already really well shaped, the process of rewriting is more difficult because so many things have been said that you don’t want to throw away. But sometimes you have to do that with a show. [For Paradise] we had a whole draft in January. Jake had written all the way to the end and we basically had to throw most of it away, which is heartbreaking. And yet something about it remained, but it had to be told very differently. So, part of the rewriting process, I guess, is figuring out what works, so you know what to keep and what to let go. Then you can start to think into what the responses are, and what might we do to adjust and change it. One of the things that Murray has said, that I hang on to, is that often when things don’t work we want to throw it all away and start again, and so what you end up doing is endlessly beginning and beginning and beginning and you never move forward. So, there is a point where you’ve just got to get to the end of the thing. And then the rewrite becomes important because then you can see what you’ve got so that you can build on it rather than endlessly starting again.
At what point do you consider yourself ‘done’ with the script? Are you always open to changing it or is there a point of no return where you won’t make any changes?
There’s a point where there are no more changes, and that point is when the audience tells us. So normally it will only be after the show has run for a while, and we’ve sat with audiences and thought ‘that scene works, and that scene doesn’t’ and it becomes a part of the rewriting and editing process. And so eventually we get to a place where there’s no more changes to make, like with Mrs. Krishnan’s Party. After a year or so of running it, there’s no more changes to make.
How is writing for a play different to what we see on TV?
It’s not as different as people like to make out. They’re both forms of dramatic writing. Plays, TV, and cinema are more similar than writing a novel, for example, where the novel is the interior world. What I think theatre does really, really well is relationships. What cinema does really well is worlds. Television I think, is a bit more between the two of them. But it’s all still dramatic writing. Over the years we’ve trained ourselves in dramatic writing theory, I suppose. And there’s a whole bunch of structural stuff that helps you figure out how to tell your story well, and that structural stuff is the same across all those dramatic art forms.
How does writing for the plays change when you’re doing a show where Jake is playing all of the characters versus when there are multiple actors?
In one very formal way, it changes, because you’ve got one actor playing multiple characters, and that alters the way that you write your dialogue. So, with multiple people on stage short lines are really great. It’s there, then it’s here, then it’s there, it’s really exciting. But one actor having to change roles constantly gets tiresome. So, you tend to write the dialogue in a way that requires fewer cuts from one character to another because every time you cut from one character to another, Jacob’s got to make a physical shift. There’s just a kind of a technical thing that’s different. The bits of dialogue in a solo show tend to be longer, but the rest is pretty much the same. It’s an imaginative task to get inside the characters’ heads and we have to push one another to find those characters, and those character’s voices and display them in the show.
(This is a question I asked Jake in my previous interview as well, so I’ve decided to throw it in as a little treat for those of you that read this far)
What would you say is the biggest challenge when writing a new play?
Having a good idea.
What makes a good idea is really tricky, and probably the most difficult thing is to know when you’ve got a good idea and when to let go of an idea. Often, you hold on to it because you’re too attached to it. And sometimes you’ve got to hang on, so what was once a crap idea turns into a good idea. But sometimes an idea never turns into quite being the right one. So, it’s knowing the difference between those two which is really hard. We need to keep going but at the same time we need to let go.
I think that the hardest part for me is coming up with the storyline. The research is a joy, because you’re finding out all this stuff and you want to put it all in there, but there’s just too much. So, then you have to clarify and distil it. Making something complicated is very easy but making something simple is really difficult. If I were to pick another art form that is closely linked to theatre it would be poetry. It’s a distillation of life and performance. Poetry is a very hard thing, it seems so simple, like it’s just a few words, but actually choosing the right word is the trick. So, I think that getting this kind of structuring, getting to the storyline to get this simple distillation of everything is the hard part. Once you have that, actually writing the dialogue is relatively easy. For Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream, the dialogue only took about three weeks.
So, I need good ideas. Great! I have loads of those … like what about a TV show, where the contestants are skydiving but they have to make a sandwich at the same time and all the ingredients are thrown out of the plane with them and then there’s a judge at the landing spot who eats all the sandwiches and decides who the winner is. Wait – what did Jake say, keep it simple. Hmmmm – think I’d better leave the writing to the experts – for now!