10 Stupid Questions (10th wise interviewee) Dan Rebellato Playwright/ Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London
February 24, 2014
2. Would you say the f-word, ‘fuck’, is quite overused in new writing?
6. Do you watch horror films?
7. If you could meet Shakespeare and do one thing with him, what would that be?
There was a question on new writing I couldn’t decide if it’s wise to ask Dan Rebellato. No, nothing to do with sex or violence. Neither did it concern form or language. Nor was it about identity crisis, globalisation or marginalisation. But if that very question could be answered, questions concerning all these issues in new writing would become pretty much unproblematic.
“What makes good writing in new writing?”
As Tim Crouch’s saying goes, “art is anything you can get away with”.
What a painfully comforting statement. When anything, allegedly, goes in new writing, it seems even easier for playwrights to get away with something bad. It is increasingly hard to tell good writing from bad writing among new writing. But how am I qualified to even call something ‘bad’ if I can’t really make sense of what is good? Is Sarah Kane considered brilliant because of her ultra-violent and unbearably offensive writing? Or is she considered brilliant despite it being so? Would my writing not be viewed as anything near decent until I could make as many audience members walk out as Tim Crouch’s works? Should critics and audiences embrace anything provocative for fear of being regarded conservative?
Or, is open-mindedness, after all, something more valuable than the definitive good or bad when it comes to new writing?
Perhaps, Dan has given my question some sort of answers at the talk ‘Now! New Writing and Theatre in London’ by On and On Theatre Workshop during his visit to Hong Kong in December. When he talked about globalisation in contemporary theatre, he went into something much more fundamental, something that every human being is endowed, regardless of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, wealth or nationality, namely imagination.
By asking us to imagine a man, Dan showed us how indeterminate our imagination could be. Our imagery man could have indeterminate number of limbs, if we were just envisaging a man’s face. Our imagery man could be of indeterminate height, if we were just picturing a man at a distance, or lying down, etc. We might not know whether our imagery man has a moustache because that might not be part of that instance of imagination. Yet, all these mental pictures are valid imagination of a man. Because, as Dan pointed out, “the imagination is capable of imagining indeterminate things.”
The indeterminate nature of the imagination, Dan believes, is a real key to understand how theatre works. Precisely because theatrical representation is about showing something that isn't real or doesn't exist.
Such indeterminacy, according to Dan, in the relationship between 'what we see on the stage' and 'the fiction that we suppose represent them' is exploited and brought foreground in British theatre practice recently. Different means are adopted to try to exploit the strangeness of the way the theatre represents the world.
So, what makes good writing in new writing? I still don’t know and I guess I should be grateful for such indeterminacy.
1. Would you say, in new writing, anything goes?
I would say anything goes, absolutely, in new writing. You should be able to write about whatever you want. I think you should be able to write about whatever you want in whatever way you want. I think you should be allowed to offend people and shock people and horrify people in whatever way you want. Erm, so, yes. [Emphatically] Absolutely, anything goes.
Of course, that also means that people can react in whatever way they want as well. So, you know, if you really want to shock or offend people, you have to accept that people will be shocked and offended. And they may react in all sorts of ways.
2. But that said, would you say the f-word, ‘fuck’, is quite overused in new writing?
Erm, I don’t know. I think… Is it overused in new writing? Certainly, there’s a lot of ‘fuck’ and a lot of ‘fucking’ in plays. But then, erm, there’s a lot of ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ in… the world. So, maybe [they] should represent them.
3. In my personal experience, I find new writing somehow tends to [be] telling, rather than showing. In the sense that, they kind of rely on some narrators in retelling the stories/scenarios, reading letters or [doing] monologues. Would you say new writing tends to be telling, rather than showing?
I don’t know whether I think it tends to be that way. I agree that there’s probably more of that than ought to be. In the sense that, I agree that it’s much better if you can embody your story action properly in action on stage. So, we are going through a process with the character, rather than being told about it. [Narration] is fine for novels and things like that. So, I think, you’re right to say, if there is a flaw in a lot of new plays, that flaw is that people narrate too much. I don’t like narrators myself.
‘cause I recently read Pornography by Simon Stephens. That’s to me something like a novel. The description is quite detailed, in the sense that, I have to read it, you cannot really show [those details] unless [perhaps via] camera [lens as in films].
[appears hesitated] That’s interesting though. Erm… what I think is you have to think about the play, Pornography, is that [Simon Stephens] has very important stage direction at the beginning. He says that: This play can be performed in any order, by any size of cast. What that means is that, on the page, it looks like a series of short stories or monologues. But actually, you can perform it in any way. So, I think he’s actually trying to be very generous. Which means that, you can tear it apart and rip it up and stage it and perform it… you know, you could have 20 people chanting the words if you want to. And that means that, yes, of course if you just read it out, it would probably be quite flat. But actually, I think it's something that he is asking— he is provoking people to try and find a way of making this enacted and theatrical. So, I don't think it’s entirely fair to say that play is too narrated ‘cause that’s only if you only do it the way you read it.
4. Do you smoke?
Nope. I used to. Would you view the work of a non-smoking playwright or [that of] a smoking playwright differently? [laughs] That’s interesting. There’re some very hard smoking playwrights and it’d be very interesting… I think there’s very interesting, strange academic PhDs to be written to see if [playwrights’] sentences are shorter if they smoke because their lung capacity has been reduced. Now, I have no idea whether that’s true but I’m sure somebody somewhere in the world could get funding to do a research project on the lung capacity of smoking and non-smoking playwrights.
But when you smoked in the past, how did it help you, or how did it distract you from your writing? Funnily enough, when I gave up smoking, the most difficult bit was giving up smoking while I wrote because I was so used to… I write usually late at night and through the night. And I was so used to having strong coffee and a cigarette. And I don’t think it actually helped the creative process at all. But it helped my self-image as a serious playwright. There I was, with strong, unfiltered cigarettes and black coffee. And I felt like, “yea, this is what real writers do.” So, it’s very hard to give up.
5. Do you think playwriting can be taught?
Well, I teach playwriting, so, erm, [snickers] so obviously, I can do it. But it can only be taught by very talented people. [Winnie laughs] Can you tell us in what way can you teach it? That’s a very good question actually. Because there are clearly things you can’t teach. Because if you could teach anybody to write absolutely masterpieces, the world would be full of masterpieces. And it’s not. [Masterpieces] are very few and far between. And also, as a playwright, I wouldn’t teach other people to write masterpieces ‘cause that’s too much competition. So, you can’t teach people to write great plays. You can’t really teach people how to have a good idea. You can prepare people to spot good ideas that they have but they have to come up the ideas themselves. What you can do is, teach people ways of learning some basic structures and skills. And you can teach people to get better at using those. You can also teach people to avoid certain fundamental mistakes. But, of course, a play would always come along that makes the fundamental mistakes but is also brilliant. I think the most difficult example for playwriting teachers is… is Sarah Kane. Sarah Kane is one of the most important playwrights in last twenty years. She was doing a playwriting course in Birmingham when she wrote Blasted. And they pretty much hated it and they thought it broke all the rules. And I fear [chuckles] all the time that one of my students will be a genius that I don’t spot and I just think they’ve just made a total mistake and it’s a disaster. So, what you’ve to do, is try and keep open to new forms. Even though you’re teaching people what you think are basic principles, you must always think those basic principles might be challenged, can always be subverted, changed and radicalised. And you need to try and keep open to the project that everyone is bringing to the class.
6. Do you watch horror films?
Horror films. Erm, you know what, funny I was thinking about this recently. I used to really love horror films. But I can’t watch them now. I get too scared. Isn’t that weird? I used to love watching them. And now I just find them so horrifying that… particularly, you know, there’s a whole series of Japanese horror films like The Ring, thing like that. […] I just had nightmares for like a week after watching The Ring, in a way that I haven’t had since I was like eight. I don’t know whether that is because, you know, as I said I’m 45, so, I’m… probably, you know, in the second half of my life. So, death is facing me now. So, when people talk about death and horror, [obsession] with death, it’s much more real for me. So, now [chuckles] I don't think I can take quite a pleasure from horror that I used to.
7. If you could meet Shakespeare and do one thing with him, what would that be?
Ah God… [8-second pause] God. I don’t know. I think I’d probably… I’d love to basically sit and watch him write King Lear [chuckles]. That’d be pretty amazing. Of course, I’d love to see him act. That’d be pretty amazing. Say William Shakespeare acted in one of his own plays. Yea! Particularly because when I came back, I’d be able to boast at my colleagues ‘cause they’d be so jealous of me. That’d be amazing. I’d never have to buy a drink again.
8. What is the most daring thing you’ve done for your creative work?
Erm, I don’t know whether this is daring. This’s a very… powerful thing that I did recently. I’m writing a play at the moment about a paedophile. And I spent time talking to two paedophiles whom I managed to contact through somebody at a prison. And I spent two hours talking to these two men and they were very frank. And it was… because obviously it was extraordinary taboo. It’s a crime, of course, and it’s a terrible crime. But it was quite extraordinary to spend all that time hearing their perspective on things. And I came away from that, kind of… emotionally quite drained because it’s a very tense feeling talking to these people. But it was also extraordinary insight into the edges of human behaviour. So, that’s the most recent thing I can think of.
Although you might not… or you’d probably not approve [of paedophilia], even if you talked to them like that, is there a kind of new understanding [about paedophiles]? Oh, yea. Absolutely. And as you said, of course, you don’t have to approve of, you know, raping children, in order to have some empathy with people who have desires that they find very difficult to control. Obviously, they, on one level, know [those desires] are wrong to enact. And, you know, I think… I think we are all probably more perverted in our heads than our daily lives. So, on one level, I think we can all relate to that. I’m hoping that’s the case. So, in the play— I keep saying [‘empathy’] and I don’t know whether this would work in [the Chinese] translation [of this interview] actually, but I keep saying I’ll want the audience […] to have empathy for him— there is one central character who is a paedophile— even if they don’t have sympathy for him. So, they have some understanding of what it might be like, even if they still disagree with what he does.
9. As audience, do you enjoy interactive theatre?
[chuckles] I… oh… [appears painful] I… I sort of like to say ‘yes’ because it’s very fashionable in London. ‘Interactive theatre’, ‘immersive theatre’, ‘site-specific theatre’ and I’ve seen quite a lot of it. Erm… I, you know, I really really love sitting in the dark and being told a story. You know, you do the work. I’ll just sit here and you can come up with stories. I find it sometimes a bit cheeky when I’ve paid for the ticket but I’m expected to do half the work to make the story happen. Some of the [interactive theatre] work is fantastic but my preference is, I like plays and stories.
10. A question you want to ask yourself — even if you can’t answer it.
I don’t know if it seems obsessed but I think it’d be really interesting if I could get the answer of ‘How would I die?’. It’s not a very light-hearted answer, isn’t it? But I’d genuinely like to know. I suppose I’ll find out at some point but I’d like to find out earlier. But why would you like to know? ‘cause I could have avoided it. Just [so] to avoid that? [chuckles] No, I think it would be good to, you know… I think it’d transform your life if you know exactly when are you going to die. Because, you know, as a playwright, in narrative terms, I need to know the ending before I start writing the play. And I think [I]’ll live a completely different life if I knew I’d be knocked down by a car tomorrow in Central, Hong Kong. I’d probably have spent the whole of my 45 years in a completely different way, than if I [knew] I was going to die in my sleep at the age of 91. So, yea, it’d be dramaturgically very helpful to me to know how I’m going to die.