The Corner Shop

13th October 2017

The Corner Shop's intern, Maayan Cohen, describes how to become your own Director.

I’m a literature undergrad, so as you might imagine – I read. A lot. But literature isn’t just for university lecturers and us snobby lit student.  Its place doesn’t lie solely in cramped seminar rooms and lofty lecture halls. It isn’t only written for those of us who’ll read the first and the last few chapters of Madame Bovary and still claim that “It’s my favourite novel” or that guy who decided he’d never have to pick up another book in his life after reading Kerouac (we all know that guy).  No, literature is for everyone – even for those who swore off reading forever after a harrowing experience with Of Mice and Men at English GCSE. Yet plays often stand at the sideline of mainstream literature, and the ‘drama’ section of Waterstones is rarely heaving with book worms – but why? Why do you hardly ever see anyone engrossed in McDonagh’s The Pillowman on the tube? Why haven’t yuppy book clubs added Caryl Churchill to their reading lists?

It might be because reading a play requires a bit more ‘work’ to get those imagination wheels turning. You can’t rely on lengthy descriptions, summaries, or a witty narrative voice to guide your sympathies like you can with other forms of fiction. Instead, the text relies simply on dialogue and a few stage directions. But rather than seeing this as lacking the richness you’re used to in a novel, think of it as potential for your creative input: a play is like a blueprint.  You’re given this blueprint, a guide only, and it’s up to you to create the finished product. And it isn’t only for the directors and actors of the world – anyone can use it! This can only enrich the experience when you see the play performed: isn’t it a thrill to see where a blueprint could lead another person? What structures they have built; small corners they avoided; little rooms they shined light on, and how all this differs from what you would have done? When you’re reading a play you can have control over a text’s meaning and emphasis, and to some extent can even dictate its message. Inevitably this makes you a better critic and more appreciative of what you’re seeing on stage. No more being sidelined when your well-read friends discuss the subtleties that were missing after seeing a performance together. Now you can lead the conversation – hurrah!

To top it all off, some playwrights don’t want to play by the rules and instead write their stage directions like prose. Look at Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband: in the first act the stage directions he uses to introduce his characters are ridiculously detailed, poking fun at each person by describing them as a particular style of painting or sculpture. It’s as if he’s written them for the entertainment of the reader, not for the spectator. A personal favourite of mine is Mabel Chiltern who is said to have “all the fragrance and freedom of a flower … to sane people she is not reminiscent of any work of art. But she is really like a Tanagra statuette, and would be rather annoyed if she were told so.” If you hadn’t have read the play, you’d miss out on all these great insights. It would be like being at a party and missing out on an inside joke: it’s fine, you’re having a good time, but it could be 100x better if you just understood what everyone was giggling about (and besides, you’re worrying it’s the Kate Husdon circa-Almost Famous era hairstyle you’re trying to pull off).

So instead, rock that hairdo, read your plays, become your own director and never ever give up on literature just because you once read On the Road.

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