Director, Hayward B. Morse, photo by Paddy Gormley
Tonight, my play The Ballad of Hobart Jones was honoured with a reading at Actors and Writers London‘s regular meeting. Actors and Writers London is an organisation that helps actors build their careers while helping writers develop their scripts, and that’s certainly how I have experienced the organisation since I joined in 2014.
When I was contacted about this script, one of the first suggestions that was given to me was to remove the narrator. The feedback I’d had prior to this had been equally for and against narration, and I’d followed a more moderate piece of advice in developing the third draft, which had led me to connect the narrator to the story more closely by making her an elderly version of the play’s heroine. But in order to reduce the length of the play to meet the requirements of Actors and Writers London, I reluctantly produced a fourth draft with no narration. Though I lost some exquisite turns of phrase, I still think this improved the work. I was forced to rethink quite a few scenes and find ways of bringing action to the stage that had previously been merely described (something I always thought was cheating anyway). So the work began before the reading was even cast.
Keith Warren as Hobart Jones. Photo by Paddy Gormley.
I was surprised, while working with Hayward Morse, the director assigned to my play, that he, having read only the fourth draft, sought some narration to clarify the settings and the passage of time. While most of the difficulties in this regard would be readily solved in a feature production by the change of a set or a mere lighting state or a sound effect, in the minimalist context of a rehearsed reading the narration had every reason to exist. So, small snippets of the original voice of the luminary were reinstated, for one night only, as it were, and I was very glad an audience got to hear them. There’s still a question in my mind as to whether or not they’re needed. Various members of the group gave me suggestions both for and against the narration, with more of them in favour of it, but I’m still favouring doing some work to exclude it altogether.
That audience was very receptive. Within a few seconds of the play commencing, I was relieved to hear some titters amongst the crowd. Within a minute, there’d been a chortle, and it wasn’t long before proper belly laughs flowed. This was a relief. I’ve written a drama and found out through skilful direction that it was actually a comedy, which is good; but to write a comedy and find out it’s a drama is no laughing matter, pardon the pun. The laughs came thick and fast through the first act, but slowed too much in the second, so there’s a little work to do there, too.
The comments from the meeting after the performance were all very positive. I was somewhat overwhelmed by how enthusiastic some of the members were, and took down their suggestions for draft five. The most useful of these, I think, were comments on the one female character. From the beginning, this character was always intended to be the real protagonist despite there being a superficial focus on the hero named in the title. The action still allows her to take a back seat, and remain something of a passive participant rather than the protagonist I always intended her to be.
Henry Lawson introduces Sydney to Miss Adelaide Harris. Photo by Paddy Gormley.
Of course, there can be no greater praise than to hear an audience laugh at the moments that were actually intended to be funny, and aww at the moments that are intended to inspire an aww. In addition to the very thoughtful and helpful criticism I had from my peers at AWL, these almost involuntary reactions are extremely encouraging, and give me confidence in the value of what I’ve created.
I’m really very proud of how this script works on stage. It jumps along at a merry pace (as attested to by several members of AWL), and allows the characters to shine. There are only a few adjustments to make, most of which revolve around Ada, the would-be protagonist. So, I set to preparing a fifth rendition of my Ballad. And then all I need is a producer. Anyone interested?