Take Pains. Be Perfect.

“We will meet, and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains. Be perfect. Adieu.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This morning, I ordered The Hollow Crown. I have, I admit, already seen it, and pre-ordered the DVD I could play in Canada the moment it became available. That’s for another post. (It’s excellent. All four parts. Buy it. Buy it buy it buy it.)

It will be clear to anyone who knows me, and any regular readers I have, that I’ve been going through a bit of a funk. This site is my professional face, so I won’t go on about the other facets of my existence not going right, but my professional playwriting facet hasn’t been going the way I wish either, which has compounded things.

About a month ago, I asked myself, “Why am I still doing this?” And for the first time in my life…I couldn’t answer myself right away.

I chose to devote my brain, my every moment really, to writing for theatre. I chose it because I love doing it. But WHY did I love it?

I couldn’t remember.

The wonderful Mr Simkins’ Guardian article gives one reason the majority of us (yes, I’m saying US) keep at it: “it’s a drug – and once it gets in your system, it’s difficult to break the habit”. When you do get a role, when a show you’re doing goes well, it is very like a shot of adrenaline. You feel great.

It’s the bite of the theatre bug. At the end of high school, where I’d been called one of the best actors they’d seen in a long time and an excellent writer, I asked my drama teachers if they honestly thought I could hack it in drama school. They said no. I wasn’t thick-skinned enough, I’d be eaten alive. Good, I thought, that’s that. So I did my English degree, intending to become…a journalist? …a teacher? Lying to yourself is futile, ladies and gentlemen. Halfway through my third year, I won a playwriting contest. I had been infected by the theatre bug when I was FOUR. No escape.

Take Pains. Be Perfect.

So. Apparently this is what I’m meant to do. I’ve worked my tail off at it. Other theatre professionals have told me I am good and should keep at it. And here I was, about a month ago, questioning at age 38 what the hell I’ve been doing. Ultimately I chose to write and keep writing because I love it…

But without remembering, even for myself, why I love it, I had my worst anxiety attack in years.

There were some shows in the last month I wanted to see. I didn’t go. One night I tried watching a movie at home, a movie I’d seen before and enjoyed, just to take my mind off things, and stopped it in a panic when I saw the boom mike in frame. I’m not watching the movie anymore, why is the mike…! I went to the house of my best friends, while they were feeding their kids dinner, and had a breakdown with them.

Now…we come to Shakespeare.

I was at home after a long day at my day job, watching cat videos on YouTube. I happened upon a review of The Hollow Crown series, and although I’d seen them already…I watched it.

A very brief prelude for all who haven’t seen it: the review contained a clip of the scene in Henry IV part 2, where King Henry — played by Jeremy Irons — is awake in the dead of night, wandering into the throne room of his blue-moonlit-castle, saying “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Stendhal’s Syndrome. I am not exaggerating.

Take Pains. Be Perfect.

Perfect script. Perfect adaptation of a perfect script. Perfect actor in that part. Perfect setting. Perfectly set. Perfect perfect PERFECT.

And when the last bit of The Hollow Crown was broadcast in Britain last year, and was pre-empted by Wimbledon…there was an outcry from the public. Over Shakespeare.

These films had the very best actors cast in exactly the right roles, and exactly the right crew making them, from the costumes to the swords to the direction. They were perfect, and the audience agreed.

I am still learning, in this, my long, rarely-paying playwriting career. Some tidbits I’ve learned:

– when to admit that a script I have worked diligently on is still not ready to be seen.
– when to leave the director and cast to get on with it, and when–because I’m the producer and coming up with the money–to step in.
– that the perfect actor may not always be cast in their role, sometimes for the stupidest of reasons, and so that show will not be perfect — and one must get on with life, and the next show.
– that audiences and critics are seeing your show with NEW EYES. Listen and weigh what they say…they may be right.
– that striving for the perfect show means getting hurt. Badly.

My fellow playwright Kim McCaw told me once about a good friend of his who’s been an actor in London for years. He’s been in too many shows to count, and after every show, his friends and family have come backstage and said “Well done, we really enjoyed that.” Then he was in War Horse. And everyone came backstage screaming “OH MY GOD! That was AMAZING!”

Many shows turn out badly. Some shows are good. A few are perfect.

I am taking pains to be perfect. I am hurting because I want my work not to be good, but perfect. Whenever I have written the best script, and gotten the perfect director for it, and the perfect actors in each part AND for each other, the show has been perfect. And on those few occasions, the audience, no matter how small, has loved it. I am selling only the scripts of Crushed and Take a Bite because I am that proud of them. They are, I daresay, perfect.

THAT is what I love.

Bite back!

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