What else could theatre scripts look like?

February 27th, 2010 by Chris Goode § 16

Since the start of the year I’ve been on attachment at the National Theatre Studio, taking some time out to think about my practice in theatre and trying to get my assumptions shaken and my habituations disturbed by people who are smarter than me. The most unexpected turn in this incredibly valuable process has been a complete reframing of my anxiety and discomfort around scripts. Often I’ve worked without scripts, except as a record of what’s already happened in the making of a piece — for all sorts of reasons, the model of writing a script in advance which is then handed on to a director, a bunch of actors, a creative team to “interpret” really bothers me. But an early intervention in this reflective process made me wonder if, when I turned my back (mostly) on scripted work a few years ago, I could instead have asked myself a more liberating question. If I don’t like how scripts are and what they do, what else might they be instead? What other models could we turn to, to make a different kind of script that could allay all those political / ethical / aesthetic / methodological concerns by which I’ve been constrained?

I’ve just spent the last week of my attachment working with some of the actors currently resident at the National on this constellation of questions, and in particular, looking at a bunch of possible examples from other areas of artistic practice. It’s really instructive to note the incredibly rudimentary technology of the play-script/text (great at indicating words to be spoken, but tending from lousy downwards at anything else) when compared with some of what’s happened in poetry, music and visual art over the past fifty or more years.

Below is a selection of some of the ’scores’ (a loose word, but serviceable in the circumstances) that we’ve worked with this week. Some of these are intended as works to be performed, one way or another, and some are not; none of them are intended to be realized as theatre pieces, but we found that many of them could successfully be ’staged’ (especially given more time than we had). A whole bunch of other questions about authorship, interpretation and fidelity immediately open up, but that’s fine. There will be other weeks, other attachments.

Asking “what else could scripts look like?” is not specifically or necessarily about breaking conventions or destroying theatre as we now know it, but simply about enlarging currently meagre resources — not only for the writer, but for everyone involved in theatre practice. To ask what else a script can be is of course to ask what more theatre can do, what more can be done with it: and how we describe our ideas in sharing them, how we notate our work, radically changes what we are able to imagine it’s possible for our work to do.

How would you perform these scores?

Michael Basinski, from The Germ of Creativity (2003)


Jean-Michel Basquiat, ‘Carbon Dating System Versus Scratchproof Tape’ (1982)


Cathy Berberian, from Stripsody (1966)


Cornelius Cardew, ‘Schooltime Special’ (1968)


Cornelius Cardew, from Treatise (1963-67)


Bob Cobbing & Jeremy Adler, from Notes from the Correspondence (1980)


Ken Friedman, ‘Center Piece’ (2003)


David Miller, Untitled (Visual Sonnets)


Franz Mon, ‘Kandidat der Kanalisation’ (1997)


Jeff Nuttall, from Pieces of Poetry (1966)


Maggie O’Sullivan, from murmur (tasks of mourning) (2004)


Cy Twombly, ‘Apollo and the Artist’ (1975)


and three by me:



from Blurt Studies (2009)


‘gospel’ from Wonderful Christmastime (2009)


from ‘handprint/mouth configuration schematic (ON THE FLY)’ (collaboration with Jonny Liron, 2009)

§ 16 Responses to “What else could theatre scripts look like?”

  • tom kendall says:

    Awesome post chris. This has really sparked some stuff in my head. I want to make more live work.

  • Chris says:

    Hey, Tom, thanks for that man. Yeah, you making more live work seems like an unimpeachable idea, and if this post shoves you as much as a millimetre in that direction then it’s already earned its keep. x

  • simon says:

    The immediate impracticality of a script even as a record of what has been staged as opposed to abstract instructions *to be* staged came home to me recently when we suddenly had to replace a member of the Money cast. What percentage of communication is non verbal, I forget? But that right then was the problem…And you’re talking about something far more wide-reaching but I remember that collaborations with Gemma and Michael Regnier always involved producing texts that are unstageable, and when I did come to write my own “script” (Iago’s Little Book of Calm) I very consciously presented it as a *transcript of recorded conversation* making a cursory but sufficient study of this: http://www.watergate.info/tapes/72-06-23_smoking-gun.shtml . While the rigmarole surrounding “line reading” is something that fascinates rather than bothers me, it can never be stated too often just what an odd way round this is to make a piece of theatre. Hm, I need to post something about this myself. Cheers. (It might take as its text a hypothesis of the instructions that produced the following scene: http://www.youtube.com/user/simonkane#p/a/f/0/l4FBIfDPwME )

  • David Rylance says:

    Chris: The colours in Blurt Studies 3 were really a treat to see. It offers such a beautiful added dimension to that score. Colour is an example of something that would not be thought as the stuff of theatrical scoring, I suppose. How can you make a play out of a palette? But you can. For instance, I find Beckett’s monologues are very much worded versions of this, renditions of shades of colour, though in a spectrum of camouflage greens, sudden pinks and blacks. I really agree that the theatrical is second-fiddled when it’s yoked to a kind of translation model that plots a shunting transfer from script to stage. It’s not so much that a traditional playscript is a reactionary device in itself, to my mind, but that this concept of theatre as mere incarnation of the script’s skeleton stunts a way of performing, as opposed to staging, of rendering – like sculpture – even the dialogue-driven play in a way which involves the looping complexities of scoral space and composition that Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise provokes, for instance. There’s a static linearity in the silences of scripts – the frame of the page, the minor cues that determine the quiet they do not qualify – that removes room for expressive, interrogative clutter (Basinski, Basquiat), radical minimalism (Friedman), redaction (Miller), blot and mess (Twombly, the gospel from Wonderful Christmastime) and so on: entirely different registers of theatrical communicability which demand realization in the occasion of theatre itself – whether it be an actual theatrical event or the theatricalizing of the imagination as one reads the open script.

  • simon says:

    Yes. What’s really bothersome about the script-in-advance model, what makes this question of how a piece of theater is made so crucial, is how it effects an actor’s idea of what their job actually is, what they are alert to, what they employ. It’s not about learning lines. I think I’m coming from this at the wrong direction, looking at how to create a text for performance, whereas what you’ve been looking at is how to perform anything. The idea of text as instructions though, or rules, might be useful on another level, considering what is ambiguous in an instruction, and what an actor can be usefully called upon to do without thinking.

  • Bill says:

    [This got posted in a weird area, so here it is again...]

    Blurt3 is beautiful, Chris. Are there additional instructions on how you’d like this to be performed? Is this intended as a starting point for developing a piece with details to be filled in, or an actual performance script?

    I’ve worked with graphic scores in improvised music, including parts of Cardew’s treatise. When I make performance “scores”, I usually specify more explicitly the actions and sounds to be rendered, and an open timeframe for the events. I like there to be some sonic identity to the piece that’s connected to the score; otherwise I should just trust the musicians to play without one, and not claim any credit as the score-maker.

    But maybe I’m just a control freak, of sorts.


  • tom kendall says:

    So I couldn’t sleep last night and after I emailed you in the afternoon I felt embarrassed about not being able to articulate just what it was I’d tried to explain in that little frenzy.

    What I was thinking of was creating a physical three dimensional script. One with a definite narrative, emotional trip etc etc but transmuted into objects
    So that the grammar of the object would force the room into certain rhythms. Instead of stage directions there would be different interventions in the room. There would be repetition within the room.
    I’d then invite people to come and make readings of the room and afterward go away and make a piece of theatre according to their reading of the script. I think it’d be interesting to see to what extent there’d be any convergence with the narrative I’d hoped to create.

    I was thinking of a script as like having a contract to rent a house. Inside the house you can do whatever the fuck you want.

    I don’t know if this is all a dumb sounding idea. Im a little sick and not hugely confident in it now that ive sat down and splurged without due thought for grammar and phrasing and shit. hmm

    oh well. ’submit’

  • I like your tittle Chris. The gap between what we know as a script and devised theatre seems to imply that there is nothing in between those two notions.
    I’ve often explored the relationship between visual arts and dance/theatre, and I have used paintings as starting point for generating material. I also think of space as a score when your are lucky enough to do a proper site-specific piece in the right conditions.
    The “translation” process seems to me easier however when you go from visual to movement than when it is from visual to language, or speech.
    I think this is due to the different nature of abstraction in each case.
    Whereas a gesture is something simple that can be easily associated to a natural movement (whether is the gesture of the painter or the one of the dancer) a word comes always full of baggage.
    Movement has no national boundaries and it’s always said that is much closer to our instinctive behaviour.
    Language is a really complex structure on its own, linked to a written code, to history and politics, and much easier to commodify. On the other hand words can carry a huge amount of information depending on how they are used, how they are combined in a tex and how they are delivered by a performer.

    I still believe in the idea of working with different models of script, but it seems to me that the “Transducting” process from a visual art work to a piece of speech based-theatre needs to be thoroughly explored before it produces a viable alternative…(index finger moves down and to the left and presses gently to submit this blurb)

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    • Berkay says:

      I’m interested in sutntibimg (and yes, I acknowlege you’re no doubt getting deluged from CL).Question is, what sort of script are you looking for? I have several shorts with varying degrees of complexity. I’m also looking to build my team for my own production company (seven scripts in active rewrite, twenty more in development).Aside from this short, I would like more general info on how I can use your services/work with your team.siincerely,Robin

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