As a novelist, you always know what your characters look like, what they sound like, how they move, what they’re fundamentally about.
It’s different with plays. When you write dialogue for actors you can have your views on these things but – in the end – they will be decided by the actor playing the part. Of course, if you’re the director as well as the author, you can influence how the character is played, but only to a certain extent. After all, an actor’s appearance can only be altered just so much; you can’t make a tall man short or a person of 50 look 20 (though it’s possible to do the reverse operation if you’ve got a good makeup artist).
So, writing and directing a play has been a very interesting process. (If you don’t know what I’m going on about, read this post.)
When you’re writing a novel, words are the only tools at your disposal. Crossing the tracks to writing dialogue, I kind of assumed that – to an extent - words would suffice there, too, but I’ve been surprised at how much of a difference costume and location within the cathedral make.
For instance, at the beginning of the dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, I walked in to the dressing room and saw a grey-haired, bearded man in a frock coat whom I completely failed to recognise as Owen, the actor who is playing Dickens! Suddenly, he was Dickens. And it may or may not have made a difference to how he felt about the lines, how he spoke them, but it certainly made a difference to how I heard and felt them.
What I’d forgotten, of course, is that both the writer’s and the reader’s imagination are constantly moving beyond the words on the page to see the characters they’re reading about. Writers and readers do what actors do – they use their imaginations to see the people on the page and to breathe life into them.
Obviously, the imaginative work required of the reader is slightly less onerous than that required of the writer – the reader doesn’t have to invent everything from scratch, merely to put their own interpretation on what the writer has written but, without imagination, the process of reading and understanding a book is impossible.
So, actors do for their audience what a reader’s imagination does. They take the bare words on the page, imagine what lies behind them and flesh the characters out, bringing them alive in the process.
All of which makes play-writing a far more collaborative process than novel writing, even if – as they playwright – you never get to influence the production. You are still in a process of collaboration with the actors to present the finished piece to the audience. In my case, I’ve been lucky enough to influence the production very much as its director, and it’s been wonderful to work with the actors.
Tomorrow is production day. If anybody is in or around Rochester, do come along to the cathedral and join in the festivities for the new interpretation project’s launch. You can try out the new audio-guides (voiced by Jools Holland) look at all the spiffy new display panels, see the audio-visuals and even watch the promenade play. First performance is at noon and the second will begin, seamlessly, just after one.
And the cathedral has a very nice tea-room too…