Once a year, since 2002, I have been asked to participate in what is called the Renaissance Project in the Theatre School at Wimbledon College of Art. Student theatre designers are given the opportunity to work for a few weeks with professional directors and actors. These latter produce a short play for which the students design sets, costumes and lighting. Michael Pavelka, the Course Leader of the Design for Performance course, generally chooses a Shakespeare play for the project and the students, supervised by Michael and his colleague Peter Farley, study the text and its themes closely. The students then suggest scenes or elements from the plays that they would like to develop and we would discuss how this might be realised.
I have certain misgivings about Shakespeare to which I refer in the intros to some of the Delicious Playlets. They are mostly to do with not being at all interested in the work. I was pleased to be asked to do the project, however, and initially sought to conceal my misgivings from Michael. After the first meeting with my allotted student designers I realised that my attitude to Shakespeare had not changed since English Literature ‘O’ Level (1960) and was not about to undergo a maturing transformation. I decided that I would, instead, write a performance text of the appropriate length, derived from scenes and themes in the target play. That way I wouldn’t have to pretend to enjoy working with the impenetrable language and tiresome plotlines. Michael didn’t seem to mind this – his main concern was that his students were creatively challenged and kept busy. I realised I had been blessed with an enlightened boss and set about writing some scripts, one for each of the two groups of designers whom I was supervising.
Each time I worked on the project I felt more emboldened to increase the distance between the Shakespeare set text and my own so-called ‘adaptations’. Eventually I was writing scripts that referred in some abstract and elusive way to mere moments in the original or else took elements of the original and subjected them to forceful formal destruction (I believe the polite term is deconstruction). I realised I had, indirectly, been given a licence to experiment with extreme propositions that might subsequently be applied to my public work. As a result I have been pleased to discover all sorts of options, some of which have fed directly into my full-length plays.
Such were the exigencies of the college schedules that rehearsals for each playlet totalled no more than about eight hours, spread over two or three days. Nevertheless, the student designers are well served by experienced specialist technicians in properly equipped workshops and the theatre space is quite large. The teams have about two weeks in which to discuss, draw, make scale models, make ground plans, build and install their sets. I tried to write the texts as quickly as possible so that the designers could work with them for as long as possible. Each play took about two days to write. It proved possible to mount thoroughly respectable short productions within these constraints, not least because the actors were able to work unreasonably fast without succumbing to anxiety.
I’m returning to this post in 2014, having trawled through various hard disks and memory sticks in an attempt to collect all The Delicious Playlets together and publish them as a bunch in Strength Weekly. The blog already houses scripts based on King Lear (2002), The Tempest (2003), Romeo & Juliet (2004), Webster’s The White Devil (2005), Hamlet (2006-7) and Twelfth Night (2007-8). (The full run of 14 playlet scripts can now be found in the Theatre section of Strength Weekly (2019))