One thing that I’ve been doing recently is trying to absorb more art – through reading, going places, seeing things, studying different techniques from different media and trying to understand the context and drivers behind different techniques and choices.
One lesson I’ve learned, surprisingly only in the last couple of weeks comes from an old schoolmate of mine, Gary McNair – a rapidly rising star in Scottish and British theatre, and a damn fine storyteller. I was fortunate enough to catch his award-winning work A Gambler’s Guide To Dying, an emotional journey through a flawed, but spirited grandfather’s last months, expertly leavened with Gary’s trademark wit and ability to switch characters on a dime.
I’ve often heard that, to write for the stage one has to start with a message they wish to convey about the human condition. Until I felt that engagement in the theatre, until I lived alongside the characters in the play, until I saw my friend sobbing into her handkerchief at the memories and emotions it brought up for her, I had simply dismissed that advice as no more than creative posturing. But having that core message, that frame of morality and humanity to build around allows you to reach deep into your audience’s very hearts and not just tell them a good story, but bring them along for the ride as well. In that theatre, as often as I was entertained by the comedic Glaswegian antics of the grandfather, I found myself genuinely angered by his inability – or lack of desire – to cease his destructive behaviour, only then to be cheering him on as he steadfastly refused to give in to despair, refused to let his family give in to despair.
Throughout the play, there was a complex of themes and devices and jokes and characters that all tied together wonderfully, everything selected with careful thought to reinforce both their own positions and worth, and that of the overall message of the work. I had my eyes opened to that, that evening – sure, I can tell you how to plot and pace a work, and how to write an interesting character. But now, now I am beginning to see deeper within the fabric of storytelling. A good story should not have deeper meaning for artistic merit or simply because all stories should have deeper meanings. Stories should be woven around a core of a deeper meaning because that is what art is – an examination of reality and life and the lives of people who inhabit it, and that affects and drives everything that the characters and story and environment do within the bounds of the work. Anything extraneous to that can be whittled away, until all you are left with is the essence of the story, no matter the genre – the struggle to live life with that which you have been given.
It’s already affecting my work – I’ve rewritten, and am rewriting, a swathe of the upcoming Mei Wu story because I realised that the plot I had written was not faithful to reality (no matter the amount of magic and talking foxes). And I think, already, my craft is beginning to improve.
The moral of this story? Broaden your horizons, for you never know when you will learn something that will shatter them and reform them for the better.