This excerpted conversation between Dan Rebellato and David Greig took place during the Annual Playwright’s Festival at the Lincoln Performing Arts Centre, University of Lincoln (UK), 29 March 2014
Dan Rebellato: We’ve had a variety of papers at this symposium and one theme that has emerged has been people being quite relieved, in the nicest possible way, that you weren’t in the room, because it’s quite intimidating to say these things in front of the author! I also know, however, that you were quite keen not to be in the room as well. There is something really interesting about the relationship between an artist and their critical commentators.
David Greig: I was just thinking – I feel like an ant in a room of entomologists! I can read critical writing on any play, and I’m very interested in it, I really like it. But if it’s about my play, very often I have a feeling like I’m an android who’s opened a book, not knowing what it is, only to discover that it’s his own construction manual, and he didn’t know he was an android until now. You start to see your own wiring… I genuinely am really delighted and happy that there is interest in talking about my work but – I can’t explain what it is really – somehow, it’s not right for me to be there, if you see what I mean.
DR: Yes, it chimes with something that I find really interesting about your approach to your own work. I know that a big part of how you write is finding ways of stopping yourself consciously reflecting on what you are writing. I find this interesting because I think people might think of you as being quite a cerebral, almost academic kind of character, and that you very consciously reflect on the way you put your plays together. But that’s not quite how you would see it, is it?
DG: No, not at all. I really do have to avoid [conscious reflection] and I use different methods to achieve this. For example, I’ll use postcards: I’ll write down on these postcards sets of ideas about the play and then I’ll shuffle them. So that I take a card and I have to write something in response to it. But I don’t know if it’s in the play; I don’t know what its role in the play might be. I usually won’t ascribe a character to it, if it’s in the early stages. The reason for doing that is so that I am not… it’s one way of not being… conscious? Or present? Of not ‘being there’. What I feel is that one separates selves: there is the authorial self who writes, and then there is me and I represent that person! And I have to go around and talk about the work – I have to try to get the work in the first place, I have to pitch for the work – and I have to talk about the work to newspapers and so on but I’m not the person who does the work. And it’s very important that I’m not the person who does the work. […]
The other sort of analogy that I would use is a child playing. If you had a child in a room, with a few toys around, and you said ‘don’t do anything’, eventually the child will start to play, and interesting things will happen. And the child is playing unselfconsciously. If you said to the child ‘Play! Play! Play with Greg!’, then the child will play but it will be hopeless. Whatever it is, the writing, the subconscious, whatever you want to call it, that writing entity needs to be unselfconsciously playing and the parental entity has to shut up and stay away. And so I devise strategies to try and keep it away. […]
DR: So can I ask about The Events? You said that you read a lot about it before going to Norway, and we have had reference to your Norway obsession –
DG: It’s funny – I was talking to a journalist about it over in Norway and he found [this obsession] a bit weird – as you would – it’s quite creepy, to discover a foreign writer has been going on about you, like some kind of stalker…! What I said to him was there is a truth to it. I’ve always seen Norway as sort of ghost-Scotland […] a sort of ghost image of Scotland if other possibilities had been followed. And it’s a very common idea – “oh, this is what they do in Norway” has been part of Scottish political discourse for a long time. And I went to Norway when The Architect was staged at the National Theatre there [in 1997]. The Architect is obviously an Ibsen reference and it’s also a play that seems to sit well within a sort of small bourgeois world like Edinburgh and, indeed, like Oslo. So I was thinking this play would go alright. And then I saw this extraordinary production which was… wild! It had four or five hundred three dimensional shapes, carved out of plastic foam, very bright colours, which were hung from the ceiling and I think every group of ten was on a different computer which made them rise, fall or move to the left and right. And the designer told me that each theme that he had identified had a shape, and when that theme was being talked about in some way that shape would move up and down, and… !? So it’s the new Artistic Directors’ first show, main house at the National Theatre of Norway, and I was there at the first night and the first moment these shapes came down from the ceiling – well, they had an extraordinary effect… and for the next sort of two hours nobody knew what on earth was going on. The actors were trying to act and things were bouncing around all over them and nobody could make any sense of it. It’s a very un-Norwegian thing, you possibly would have gotten away with it in Berlin but really, not there. And I got terrible, terrible reviews for it. And I was young and I wasn’t really that well known in Scotland, let alone Britain or Norway, so there was sort of lots of people asking “Why… you?”. It was like the most expensive production in the history of the Norwegian theatre […]
So the whole thing was a nightmare. So I then had this feeling that I just had to get back into Norway’s good books as quickly as possible! So I just started to make Norway – and, as I say, it’s slightly based on truth because I really feel it but, just as a little game for myself, I would make Norway this little image of utopia or beautifulness or something. So then Norway – it’s ultimately silly but there is a basis of truth in it – in my own personal mythology, both politically and emotionally, is paradise. And then one day a guy attacks not just Norwegians, but he attacks that idea. If you knew a bit about Norway it was clear that he was attacking the idea of Norway, and he was doing that from within, he was enraged by it. So that became a very interesting moment for me, when something that was ultimately frivolous became something much more serious. Why would he attack the idea of Norway?
DR: And so you went to Norway on a research trip, and it was during this trip that you saw a choir?
DG: Yes, we [David and director Ramin Gray] went to Norway in December 2011. And… I really didn’t like it. I was very depressed by the whole business. I mean it was obviously depressing to think about it but the closer we got to it I just thought this is just awful; this man is a sad case, a hopeless sad case.[Then one day] the dramaturg we were with said ‘okay, we’ve done our interviews and we’ll do some more tomorrow, but on the way back we need to stop and pick up my mum, who is at choir practice, and we might have to wait around for about half an hour until they finish. You can wait in the car or you can come in and sit at the back’. And it was choir practice, in a school in the suburbs, and we weren’t thinking that this was any part of our research; we were literally just stopping on our way to somewhere else. But it was a school hall, with the school bucket chairs and, you know, the pianist and a conductor who was saying ‘well, we’re going to do a concert in the mall at Christmas and so we need to practice that now’. Just a really ordinary community choir. But without realising, both Ramin and I had this feeling, I had this feeling, that I was just bathing in restorative humanity. And one of us said to the other, ‘is this it? Is this the idea?’ And if that hadn’t inadvertently happened, I don’t think I would have written the play. Because I couldn’t see a way, I simply couldn’t see a way to write something that would not just be so bleak… so I probably would have just done something else.
So we immediately knew that the community choir was the thing and that there would be a different choir every night. The character of Clare came a little bit later on, and at first just her on her own, and then the… postcard method I mentioned earlier started to result in some other voices. And, basically, we felt that there was something rather… tawdry, actually, about having other people… if we had the character of Katrina, or the psychologist, and they’d be played by different people – something just felt wrong about that. So we realised that there had to be one other actor and that actor would become [those other characters]. The Events is a very difficult play to talk about because its form makes it not what it could be. And that is the whole point, you experience its form.
DR: Your sort of expression of disgust at the thought of ‘pretend people’ is very interesting. I remember you telling me an anecdote about the directing of San Diego and a moment where one of the actors said “where am I in this scene?” and Marisa Zanotti, the director, said “you’re on a stage and that’s all you need to know”. And it seems that you are less and less interested in the fiction – even though there are fictions going on – than just simply what the stage experience is about.
DG: Yes, that is it. The answer is yes, basically. And that connects, I suppose, to a couple of points. One is the sort of David Mamet thing about ‘wounded speech’. I guess put simply wounded speech is someone who is trying to say something but is inarticulate. So they stumble or don’t quite finish their sentences, or whatever. And I suppose that is a way of saying ‘write characters who are real, don’t write characters who speak prose’. And I think also somebody else said something about ‘show, don’t tell’. And, anyway, these are the things that people talk about. And I had a glimmering, particularly with my kids’ stuff, that what people liked about my work was when I went off on one – when I sort of did the opposite. So I suddenly just had this moment of going ‘fuck! Fuck you David Mamet, fuck off! I know you don’t know who I am, but fuck you!’ And I did this thing where I said ‘right, the next thing I write, I’m going to do the opposite: I’m going to use a thousand words where one would have done; I’m going to tell always and not show; I’m going to make an apparently inarticulate character more articulate even than I am’! So you know, fuck you. So that was an impulse – it was almost like a giving up: admitting that I can’t do this thing. And a bit of me does wish I could do that sort of ‘guys bantering on stage’ or whatever, that type of thing, but I just can’t seem to do it.
And then that comes together with the thing with the stage – and I’m very obsessed with this now. So, if I stand here, and you know I’m me, and I say ‘I’m going to tell you a story and it’s about a black woman that I met in Hackney’ and I begin to stand up and I go ‘she was standing over here’, then I can perform that moment, that role, and we can go into the story but it’s not pretend, I mean we know what’s going on. And there is a freedom that comes both theatrically and also sort of literally. I really don’t see why actors need to be in any way like the characters they are playing. It doesn’t seem to make any sense. That might sound radical to some people who think about theatre but my point would be: what might theatre have looked like somewhere on this planet a hundred thousand years ago? And I think that it would probably have taken essentially one of two forms: one would be a sort of semi-shamanic ritual process of dance or something, perhaps something religious, but the other would be people sitting round a fire and one saying to the other ‘tell you what Brian, did you see that mammoth? It was huge! And Stan was very frightened, he was over there. Tell you what, you be the mammoth and I’ll be Stan’. And once you start doing that, you think… yeah! Any story would be told like that, that’s how we tell a story.
I’m very interested at the moment in trying to get together a troupe of actors. I want to very consciously find a troupe of actors who are just very interesting actors of all kinds of shapes, colours, forms, abilities, most of whom can play music – well, I started thinking about music but it’s not just that – they need to be able to do one thing that can make an audience gasp. Then I would go up there [to the festival] with The Importance of Being Earnest or something like that. That’s a very long way of saying that – apropos of the discussion we had before about the critical self and the writing self – a bit of me secretly knows that the more I think I’ve got the answer, eventually I’m going to have to do the opposite of it, to be any good again. I am actually quite interested in the ‘drawing-room’ form [of playwriting] but only, probably, because I now feel liberated to not do that.
Dan Rebellato is a playwright and Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway University of London. His books include 1956 and All That, Theatre & Globalization, The Suspect Culture Book and Contemporary European Theatre Directors. He currently working on Naturalist Theatre: A New Cultural History and a large-scale adaptation of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels for BBC Radio 4 under the title Emile Zola: Blood, Sex & Money. His article, ‘Local Hero: The Places of David Greig‘, appears in the current print issue of Contemporary Theatre Review.
Thanks to Danny Ridealgh for transcribing this conversation.