Stags & Hens...
Uniquely amongst my plays, Stags and Hens began with an idea for its setting. I was aware of existing plays set in club-land – in bars and on dance-floors – but none that had ever dared to locate its action in the ladies and gents toilets. As daring goes it wasn’t perhaps the most shocking or extreme of theatrical gestures ( this was the theatre of the 1970s when shock and extremity were every bit as over-valued as they are today) but, nevertheless, there seemed to me to be at least a dash of theatrical audacity in putting centre stage those two rooms which throughout the whole of theatre history had previously been resolutely off-stage. Had theatrical audacity been the sole virtue of my on-stage toilets idea then the likelihood is that it would have remained no more than just another one of those bits of mental junk that gets carried around for years in the hope that one day there’ll come a use for it. Along with audacity, though, this club/dancehall-toilets idea also had built-in theatrical credibility; having the action take place not on the dance-floor or the bars or the corridors but in the toilets meant that at a stroke I’d solved one of the crucial questions in the making of any play, ie, how to convincingly bring the action before the eye of the audience. And in this play, where better or more natural to locate the action than in these toilets where I knew from my own attempts at a mis-spent youth, that on nights such as this, all the really crucial stuff, the juicy stuff, the scandal, the plotting, the dreams and hopes and defeats and failures and fights – all of this got aired not out there on the dance-floor but, respectively, in the ladies and in the gents.
So that was it – I had my idea. A good idea. For a set! But as many a playwright has discovered, having a good idea for a set is no guarantee of coming up with a good play to put in it. The history of playwriting is littered with the debris of many a play whose only virtue was a setting which for all its apparent originality, novelty, daring – and even audacity – could never disguise or compensate for the author’s failure to put anything remotely compelling or engaging on or in it. Don’t get me wrong, ideas – even ideas for sets – are good things to have, providing as they do a kind of comfort for the dramatist who wakes in the dread dead of night ( as all dramatists do ) with the cold terror of knowing that he or she will never again be able to come up with a play. It is at such times that this wretch will reach for the comfort-blanket of that stunning idea he once had – the one for the play set in a recording studio in which a band writes, records and mixes a great single - but disintegrates in the process. Or that other idea – the one about the beautiful busker girl in Paris who’s been raised by her father to believe that people stare at her because she’s so ugly. Or that other idea, the one where……. By which time the scribe, buoyed and then lulled by a mixture of such ideas and his capacity for self-delusion, is now safely back to sleep and out of harm’s way, having conveniently forgotten to ask himself why – if those ideas are so great, he’s been carrying them around for over two decades now without ever having begun the actual business of writing them.
Many people who don’t write assume that writing is all about having ideas – ergo the innocent but nonetheless nut-withering question: “ Where do you get your ideas from?”
Many more people who don’t write and will never write find this to be no deterrent to having lots and lots of brilliant ideas of what they would write themselves if they did write. One of the many misfortunes of those who do write is to be accosted at dinners or parties or in the pub by all kinds of people who don’t write but announce with gauntlet-dropping gusto “You know, I’ve got a marvellous idea for a play.”
I know of one writer, grown so weary of being similarly accosted, he’s gone to the expense of having a card printed which he wordlessly presents to the estate agent or taxi-driver or builder or banker who gleefully reveals that he too has been incubating a ‘ marvellous idea for a play’; the card reads: ‘ Then fuck off and write it and stop bothering me.’
That’s the thing with ideas – anyone can have them. Because, the idea is the easy bit. It’s the doing it that matters. An idea is an intention, an ambition – one which may or may not be fulfilled. And sometimes, some awkward times the itch to make a play, the burning need to make sense and say it out loud, the howl of rage or joy that must be spewed out will just not fit into the kind of convenient and easily communicated nugget of shorthand that is the idea; may, indeed, sound rather anaemic and wanting when forced into what can become the straitjacket of the idea – ‘ Well, basically, it’s about this prince, from Denmark and what he does is a load of dithering and then like tons of dallying until…….’ Pitched as an idea, reduced to a synopsis, would anyone have jumped up and down at the great idea that was Hamlet ? Or Lear, The Seagull, Doll’s House, The Singing Detective, The Office ? Each of them brims with great ideas; none is A Great Idea.
I once heard Doris Lessing being interviewed on radio and although the question was dressed up in some kind of serious radio arts-speak it was, basically, ‘ So, Doris, where do you get your ideas from ?’ Barely disguising her irritation she swatted her interviewer with the dismissive, ‘ An idea is just an idea.’
But then her voice became suddenly warm and hushed and intense as she enunciated,
‘ Unless and until that idea is…..fertilised.’
I remember being thrilled at the truth of that, at the sudden recognition of something I’d known but never known how to say – that these ideas we carry, for plays and films and books and ballets and operas, all these great ideas we may carry with us will be carried all the way to the grave – unless, somehow such ideas become fertilised. My play about the band that makes the record but destroys itself in the process, my musical about the beautiful busker girl brought up to believe she is ugly – as yet both awaiting that other element or part of the process that Ms Lessing called fertilisation. I remain patient though and even optimistic that such ideas will one day be sparked into being. And if evidence of my own past writing is any real indication then the likelihood is that the idea for that play or for this musical will find its fertilisation in that combination of chance, pressure, guilt, need and desperation known as the deadline.
Stags and Hens has had a varied past. This version, Stags and Hens – The Remix tells exactly the same story as its predecessors which, variously, have been an aborted student film, a stage play, and a feature film, Dancin’ Thru The Dark. In borrowing from music culture and calling this version The Remix I wanted to acknowledge that although emphasis may have been shifted and tempo altered it was not in an attempt to replace the original but to look at the original afresh. Although retaining the original 1977 setting I wanted the play to ‘move’ at a kind of pace that was more in keeping with a theatrical tempo that has significantly increased in the thirty years since the play was first seen. Some might disapprove of such tampering seeing it as catering, even pandering to the demands of an audience whose attention-span has become limited and must increasingly be spoon-fed. I vehemently disagree. There are playwrights – extremely celebrated playwrights – who have been happy to characterise the audience as their enemy. What arrogance is this ? Without the audience there can be no theatre. Certainly audiences can be lost, baffled or confused, alienated, outraged, made ecstatic, apoplectic, incensed, spiritually enraptured and transported. But an audience is always there to be won - not beaten; for if an audience is won then it can be taken anywhere, from the blackest pit of the soul to the beautiful heights of affectionate shared laughter at man’s endless capacity for folly. And because an audience is there to be wooed and won I welcome the opportunity of looking anew at Stags and Hens and turning it, for a twenty first century audience into Stags and Hens – The Remix re-pacing the action, replacing the euphemistic ‘frig’ and its derivatives, cutting and making as lean as possible those speeches which would benefit; and getting rid of jokes which although admirably earning their keep in the nineteen seventies had, in the intervening years lost their meaning and therefore their impact because the references upon which the jokes were built had disappeared from public consciousness.
To end at the beginning: although my original idea had been for a stage play, the first incarnation of Stags and Hens was as a television film, written for theatre students at Manchester Polytechnic where I was then Fellow In Creative Writing. Having agreed to write something, I found that already in play were certain factors that would determine the exact nature of what I was to write. I would be writing for ten students. Okay. So, ten characters to come up with. As the students were also committed to other projects I would have to come up with a film which used location s that were within easy reach of the old cinema in which the Drama School was housed. Okay, so ten characters to come up with in a narrative which would have to unfold in the immediate vicinity of downtown Didsbury with actors who would only be available outside existing commitments. By this time I was starting to feel that someone was taking the proverbial. And then I was informed that on top of everything else the School had no money left to buy film stock and that we’d have to realise our efforts using scraps and odds and ends of stock left over from previous shoots. For me that was about enough and so I set off to Didsbury to inform those in supposed charge that yes, I could probably write a film with my hands tied behind my back but now having also been gagged, blindfolded and had the wrong end of a pineapple shoved up my arse, I was withdrawing forthwith. And then I met the student actors – each of them eager, excited, committed, talented. As they showed me around their building, The Capitol, I began to get a sense of how this old picture-house also had something of the feel of a Mecca Ballroom. Then I saw the toilets – the ladies and the gents. And suddenly, we didn’t have to look beyond Didsbury and it didn’t matter that the stock was limited or that I’d been stuck on the end of a pineapple. None of it mattered because I’d suddenly recalled that idea I’d had some time ago; and felt the unmistakable moment of fertilisation.