Scene Setting Without A Word

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about stripping back dialogue in my scripts. I am constantly locked in battle with my arch-nemesis, exposition, but it’s a battle I will win, one day, or so I keep telling myself.

I’ve been reading lots of scripts and watching lots of theatre and film that create powerful scenes and character dynamics using minimalist dialogue. Then, I came across All That Jazz, released when I was too young to notice, but just recently discovered, and stumbled upon an opening scene that needed no words at all to create a world.

All That Jazz -opening scene ‘On Broadway” by George Benson

Directed by Bob Fosse, the film is a thinly veiled autobiography, peppered with dreamy scenes and show-stopping numbers, where Fosse creates art reflecting life, reflecting art, reflecting life.

While there is debate on the artistic success vs self-indulgence of this film, there can be no doubt that this opening scene must be one of film histories best. Through these first 4 1/2 minutes, we are taken deep inside the world of Broadway. We see characters, we see conflict, hope, love, loss and potential, overlayed with a soundtrack that both neatly juxtaposes the music of Broadway musicals, and reinforces the New York vibe of the late ’70s. Brilliantly cut, this scene reminds me that we can create a whole world with no words at all.

Thoughts on Poetics of Space

I’ve just discovered Bachelard’s work, Poetics of Space.

I feel like I’m really, really late to a party.

Bachelard’s idea is that real-world spaces evoke spatial archetypes and that we all experience primal emotional responses to different types of spaces & archetypes.

Doors, it seems, are a particularly big deal, and reading an extract of Bachelard’s work made me think about the way I’ve used doors in my writing, particularly my plays, completely subconsciously.

Reflecting over specific pieces of writing doors in my work, in addition to the expected exits and entrances, I have used doors to signify hesitation, relief, composition, a revelation of truth, and a threshold of change from one life stage to another.

Other concepts on doors offered by Bachelard include temptation, desire, security, welcome, respect. He talks about oblique angles of doors and the psychologies that they offer, the concealment, the half-truth and that a gentle push could unveil a destiny.

The idea of the door as a threshold is really interesting, the space between two different lives, two different worlds, two different selves.

It makes me think about the old trope of carrying a bride over the door threshold, as a symbol of one life stage to the next, and also the often-used analogy of opportunity where one door closes and another opens. The book also makes me think about Alain de Botton’s thoughts on the hotel rooms, as another domestic space, which Botton describes as another world- a neutral space to think, like a monastery.

Fascinating stuff. I’ll look at domestic settings differently from now on.

Bachelard, G. (1994 [1958]) The Poetics of Space, (trans. M. Jolas), Boston, Beacon Press,

Featured image courtesy of  Dil on Unsplash

Rising Dreams: Art to Write To

WRITING TRIGGERS. I tend to use music to trigger my writing, but increasingly I’m using art. After studying art history, I’m looking back over my art writing and finding artists and artworks that trigger my fiction writing imagination.

One such artist is Odilon Redon, and his work The Incense Burner.

Odilon Redon 1840- 1916

One of the best things about travelling is stumbling over incredible works of art that you have never seen and artists you’ve never heard, in places you would least expect.

Visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice in summer 2014, was one such moment, within the exhibition For Your Eyes Only, an incredible selection of the personal art collection of the Dreyfus- Best family, from Basel.

One of the pieces displayed there  was a small charcoal by Odilon Redon, The Incense Burner, 1885-1890

OdilonRedon The Incense Burner
The Incense Burner 1885-1890

Redon was a French-born symbolist, with a knack for charcoal and lithography. With interests in Hinduism and Buddhism, these religions influenced his works deeply and focused his work on the esoteric and mystical.

Odilon_Redon Self Portrait Musee DÓrsay
Odilon Redon, Self Portrait, 1880, Musee DOrsay

Redon’s work examines the interior self and the psyche with rich metaphysical themes. The Incense Burner brings these themes to the fore and shows why he became known as the ‘Prince of Dreams’ among his Impressionist peers.

Within the piece we see a winged head floating beside some kind of sorcery bowl. Redon’s original title for this piece was  Mauvvais Espirit,  indicating some sort of incantation.

The darkness of the charcoal against the brown paper establishes an ominous tone for the viewer. This sense is further formed by the winged head and his furrowed brow, slightly sinister upward glance and flat nostril nose. The face is sombre, yet the expression is not maleficent, this scene is eerie but not scary.

There is no doubt Redon creates a compelling dream-like state, almost a fever dream with smokey tendrils suggesting the winged head conjured the surrounding mists. But maybe he is just a passing observer. There are four smaller ‘puffs’ surrounding him, that could be interpreted as other creatures soon to appear from the mists, two of which have small dots that could be the beginning of eyes,  however, Redon doesn’t allow us to render this vision as just a dream. By placing a solid dish on a solid surface the real-world attributes are right there in front of us and force us to accept that it has a place in this world. We have to address the unease that follows this realisation.

Redon is sometimes criticised for repetitive motifs, yet this particular winged creature does not reappear in other works, although there is Gnome- 1879, which has a similar winged head, but is a much more benevolent creature, albeit still glancing upwards on the same kind of trajectory of our winged creature.

gnome-1879.
Gnome, 1879

Some suggest this spirit figure of the Incense Burner is the god of sleep, Hypnos, who is a good-natured spirit. We can see in some of his other more well-known pieces, where Redon focus on a face in space, like this piece Christ- 1887,

Redon christ.jpg!Blog
Christ, 1887

or these bodyless figurers  The Egg -1885 (left) and Head of Matyr-1877 (right)

Odilon Redon - Head of Martyr placed on a cut, 1877 Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Head of Martyr -1877-Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo
Odilon Redon - The egg, 1885, National Museum, Belgrade
The Egg- 1885 -National Museum, Belgrade

The use of the charcoal on brown and grey paper, the tight lines of large eyes and close up faces create an uneasiness in the viewer, but the mildness of the overall expressions lends itself to a sense of intrigue rather than fear.

For me, these pieces symbolise the imagination, and seeing them makes me want to write about magical figures and mystical experiences. The dark hues take my imagination to an eerie place, and I’m intrigued at where the thoughts may lead.

The incense burner is such a tangible object in a real-world, but in whose house does it sit? Who would own and an item that looks so otherworldly? Was it found in an antique shop and absent-mindedly placed on a table, only to come to life in the dead of life with the spirit creature emerging from within?

Or is it an ancient piece, handed down with its secrets, over generations?

Who is the sprite itself? Where does it come from, how does it manifest in this real world, and who are those emerging eyes in the background?

Does this scene promise only kindness, and mystical imaginings, or are the two projections from the sprites head suggestive of a more formidable encounter? There are no definite answers here, but there are plenty of stories to be created from the possibilities.

Writers who inspire us

THOUGHTS ON WRITING. I’ve was recently asked which writers have inspired my work. More specifically, to write a critical reflection on works of one or more writers who have informed or influenced me. Two names sprang to mind instantly, job done.

Later, I was driving to a meeting, listening to a radio conversation on current theatre, films and books. Of course, another name popped into my mind, then another, then another. I’ve narrowed it down to eight -today.

Michel Houellebecq – Ever controversial this brilliant satirist makes me feel strangely alive with his brutal, dark humour and courageous themes.

J.B. Priestley- I saw An Inspector Calls on stage in London as a youngster and it ignited my political leanings and made me want to be a playwright. I’ve seen this play a few times since and although it’s never quite had the impact of that first time, it is still a touchstone for my ideological themes.

Linda Aronson-A Brit who moved to Australia, she shares a multi hemisphere lens. I saw Dinkum Assorted, a play about Australia’s social history, in my last year of high school and I knew from that moment I wanted to work in theatre.

David Williamson-Having spent a few years working in the Sydney Opera House, Williamson’s work was the constant of the annual artistic programme. His work taught me about mainstage productions, situational drama, how to draw on current politics, social history and satire and create deeply flawed characters.

Caryl Churchill- The writer I’ve always wanted to be. Her surrealist narratives and postmodern style make her plays courageous and exciting. Top Girls first act is just genius. Layered characters, historical references, feminist themes. So much still to learn from Churchill’s work.

William Shakespeare- The first time I heard music in language was studying Romeo and Juliet when I was 13. Studying Othello and Hamlet in later years only added to my obsession with his incredible works.

Sofia Coppola- I still think Lost in Translation is one of the best film scripts ever. Her character-driven narrative brings all of those quiet questions to the fore when she submerges her characters in an isolated world.

James Graham- Just brilliant political writing. I wrote a little Brexit based stage play that I was rather pleased with, but Graham just smashed my pride to a million tiny pieces with his screenplay of Brexit: An Uncivil War.

August Strindberg- Miss Julie is an extraordinary work. This naturalist piece, a brutal unveiling of the inner world, of intimacies and class structures.