Play is hard work

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I’M pleased to announce the publication of another work of non-fiction – Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters. Here’s an extract from the foreword:-

Theatre people know the art of making a play is very, very hard work. Real life is simply a matter of turning on the phone-cam, whereas the creation of a piece of drama or comedy is an ongoing process of questioning and exploring, usually starting with a script on the page.

This book is the story of my journey with one piece of work that took me thirteen years to manifest. Merely Players was an idea I had in my teens, revived as my youth was waning, and still haunts me in middle age. Of all the projects I ever started, it is one of the few I have refused to give up on, and it’s the piece of literature that has been my greatest teacher in learning the writing process.

“As is typical with Shakespeare, there are plenty of clues but not much hard evidence.”

Along the way I’ve felt the bitter sting of rejection more times than I am willing to admit.

Unpublished and un-produced work is easily delivered to the bottom drawer of any writer’s desk, but sometimes it’s not easy to leave it there. This is probably a mixture of ego and bloody-mindedness, bad luck and the shortcomings of the work itself; however, when a writer knows a good story, a certain amount of persistence is required if the marketplace is slow to recognise it.

The most recent example of this process was the two-decade development of Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol, which languished in what writer’s call ‘development hell’ until the right production team came along.

In interviews, Nagy admitted how match-fit the long wait made her, able to adjust her work quickly and subtly to match the visions of new stakeholders; yet she also admitted the years showed her the value of her original work when new production teams inspired her to put old ideas back in that had been discarded by temporary collaborators along the way.

Merely Players has been a bit like that for me, but it has also been a companion.

TAMING OF THE SHREW
BURGE’S BARD The author and Andrew Broderick in The Taming of the Shrew.

The focus required to commit to a full-length work kept me going through some very dark times, so much that the play has come to symbolise a lot about me as a person, my thoughts and feelings about ageing, sexual and gender diversity, and the politics of storytelling in the modern theatre.

After the latest rejection of my work, I retreated into writing in order to bring Merely Players to life for readers, not really knowing if the result fitted into any genre. Adapting a play into a piece of literary non-fiction requires the writer to direct the play’s action, in a sense, which has made what might have been a labour into a delight.

I also broke a cardinal rule about authorship that was around at the dawn of my writing career, about not putting yourself in the story, yet finding there was more of the tale to tell by opening the gate on my role.

I hope the finished product gives insights into the writing process, showing that life for actors and writers has not really changed much in the four hundred years since William Shakespeare was creating plays for his company of actors, The King’s Men.

“Without these players, ‘The Bard’ simply would not be.”

When Shakespeare died in April 1616, he left several problems for his colleagues. The years between his death and the publication of what became known as The First Folio of his collected plays in 1623, a process spearheaded by Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, were a litany of loss and harried industry that only seemed to accelerate in the wake of lead actor Richard Burbage’s death in 1619.

Historians have speculated about exactly how the publication was paid for, edited and printed. The theories include Germaine Greer’s quite valid assertion in her well-argued study Shakespeare’s Wife (Bloomsbury, 2007) that the project could have been spearheaded and funded by Ann Shakespeare (née Hathaway).

Despite Greer’s well-documented blindspot for realities about transgender women, her work on bringing to life the under-documented life of Ann Hathaway sheds more light on the Shakespearean canon than it has ever been given genuine credit for, and was a great source of inspiration for me when using similar techniques to flesh out the transgender protagonist of Merely Players – Mistress Wilkinson, alias Nicholas Tooley.

As is typical with Shakespeare, there are plenty of clues but not much hard evidence.

The best explanation of the publication of the Folio I ever found was that written by actor and teacher Doug Moston in the introduction to his facsimile edition of The First Folio of Shakespeare 1623 (Applause Theatre & Cinema Book Publishers, New York, 1995).

Moston’s exploration of the Folio, from its typography to its many clues and cues for actors, recreates the performance conditions of the original Shakespearean players. It reveals much about how attitudes to rehearsals and script management have changed over time.

No matter what any historian thinks of the plausibility of Merely Players, it would be hard to argue that the deaths of two company mainstays made things easy for The King’s Men. The evidence that the First Folio is full of errors and not the definitive versions of many of Shakespeare’s plays (despite Heminges’ and Condell’s claim that it was) tells me there was a certain amount of desperation and pretence in its publication process.

It could also be argued it was one of the world’s most important and best-selling independently-published books, and therefore inspiration for self-publishers everywhere.

Having worked as an actor, knowing the passion and drive it takes to perform, and also keenly aware of how the same ingredients go into writing, I am qualified to speak on these actors’ behalf and imagine that they had the ability to rise above their station (players were considered by most to be little more than scum) and were far more influential than Shakespeare in delivering that which his work gave to the world. Without these players, ‘The Bard’ simply would not be.

But I already know what a great story it is…

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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