Usually when I speak to someone who calls themselves a playwright, they say they are 'only' a supplier of a 'half-product'. I never get that answer from a young actor, and certainly never from a director. It is they who make theatre out of the half-products supplied by writers. Actors and directors prefer to be addressed as 'theatre-makers'.
Nothing wrong with that. As long as that theatre they make is inescapable, compelling or at least convincing. And that is something that is quite often lacking. During the last edition of Theatre Festival Boulevard in Den Bosch, this became clear to me several times.
It has to do with some misunderstandings about what writers actually are.
A writer, the general view seems to be, writes dialogues and uses them to build a story. That is then made into a performance by light, music, sound, acting talent and director's insight. Nowadays, actors are very good at improvising scenes and directors very good at building stories, so dialogues and stories are already there. There is a need for a note-taker to write down all the brilliant creations.
In this analogy, a writer with guts is a note-taker who accidentally handed in his minutes before the first rehearsal. Chances are the actors and director will provide that with a lot of spinning of their own. Because such minutes are definitely a half-product. You don't make theatre behind a desk.
Yet I doubt that, at least in part. Playwriting is a specialism in the whole range of theatrical skills, but much more essential than we often think nowadays. After all, it is not just about capturing words and a storyline. It is about creating a work of art of sound, rhythm and melody that acquires meaning thanks to actors' interpretation.
As in music, wonderful things can emerge from improvisation by the performers, but not for nothing in music, too, there is a big role for the author, the composer. Especially when larger constructions are involved. then a succession of solos, interspersed with group transitions, which is often the case with improvised work, is not enough.
Many performances where the group is the author consist of monologues, interspersed with the occasional dialogue. Not because that's cheap, though it helps. It is because the alliteration is the easiest means by which you build yourself a character. That character can then engage in dialogue with another character. Often, if the actors have made up their dialogue themselves, that dialogue will only be functional. It has to move from a to b, work out a conflict, that sort of thing. Plot-driven assembly line work, nothing wrong with that, people write bestsellers with that.
It would be interesting to take a look at how many monologues there are in internationally widely recognised theatre. Not that many, and certainly less than in the average home-made show in Dutch-language theatre. Not to mention television, a genre where there is still a big role for writers. How many monologues are there in Breaking Bad?
Being a playwright is thus a profession, which presupposes a talent in creating situations and atmospheres in which actors convey content and meaning with a combination of sound, melody and rhythm. Their characters gain depth through unexpected twists and turns that only an outsider can imagine. Their reactions and actions are more extraordinary than a normal person could imagine.
Words in theatre are not a means, any more than notes in music are a means. They are the essence of the work of art, and through their interplay, harmony and dissonance, they form a unique edifice that can be brought to life by human beings, if sufficiently talented. That work of art must almost necessarily be created by a relative outsider. Someone with insight and oversight, someone with their own agenda.
Doing it yourself by actors and directors can, and sometimes produces insanely beautiful theatre. With the emphasis on sometimes. The Werkteater is legendary for a reason. Quite a lot more often it leads to half-products.
Most recently, I experienced this on Wednesday evening, on a sand drift in Rosmalen, east of Den Bosch. De Noorderlingen, a company made up of theatre-makers-in-training from Groningen, was allowed to create a performance at that magnificent location. Which already made half the product, because for a sense-making effect you don't have to do much more than set up a stand on such a sand drift and schedule the performance just after sunset. The image is already Ok. Now add music, Check, and you don't actually have to do much more as an actor group than run around wildly or stand nicely still in the string light.
So it happened. Something of a story was still improvised. Young adult references to a rite of passage, some references to zombie films, Netflix series Stranger Things and a man in a Star Trek glitter dress. The language is capitalised, loud, rhythmless, full of personal big monologues and rolling eyes.
Now of course it is very easy to dismiss a performance made by young theatre makers in training as adolescent, but still: there were professionals at the helm here. Professionals who thought that with beautiful light and fantastic music - because that was all very well on that sand drift - you also make beautiful theatre. In all this production violence, a writer was missing. Someone who composes a score with a compelling rhythm, sharp turns and an exciting story. Now the product was not even half successful, but at least three-quarters unsuccessful.
I also felt the lack of writers at the triptych Stabat Mater, earlier in the day. Three performances: dance, song and video art, based on the primal tearjerker of tearjerkers: the poem Stabat Mater, written by an anonymous medieval monk, later set to music most beautifully - I think - by Pergolesi.
Here, that music did not sound, but instead involved a choreographer, a singer and a video artist's own interpretations of the theme of the weeping mother of God. It was a religious event, that triptych. Of course, a triptych is already a religious art form, that everything was performed in three church buildings made it even more divine. So did Patricia Okenwa's ritualistic, very subtly performed shock-shoulder dance. Simple and therefore strong, although the children's sound would not have been needed: it tended towards smartlap kitsch, and was therefore not moving.
Who very much needed a writer was Cora Burggraaf. This singer and performer had created a programme at the Lutheran Church around Henry Ghéon's poems set to music by Hendrik Andriessen: Mirroir de Peine. Beautiful music, wonderful songs, beautifully unpolished performed with harmonium accompaniment.
However, someone, and it was certainly not a writer, felt it necessary to create a story around it, which not only consisted of the poet's biography, incidentally because of the dramatic Fall and conversion, the wet dream of every Jehovah's Witness, but also contained a kind of naming of the ritual gathering in this beautiful little Lutheran church. Unnecessary and therefore it detracted from the effect of the songs. A writer had done real wonders here.
In the cloister room of what is now the Institute of Data Science, eight video screens hung with nine women on them, all incarnations of performance artist Ulrika Kinn Svensson. They all had a story that was about the same length, all highlighting a different aspect of being a wife and mother, and all ending in tears. At the end, they sing and dance a song together. Artful, though it doesn't live up to that phenomenal installation Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt, which was a hit at last year's Holland Festival. The lyrics were just not sharp enough, and this was made worse by the rather amateurishly magnified acting.
With good writing, there would have been less need to act.
After some initial responses from creators to my tweet about this evening the following: this speech is not a plea for putting the writer on a pedestal, as some zelotic opera fanatics want to do with the composers of operas. I am merely arguing for a revaluation of writing as a profession, because that is really something different from providing basic material for theatre artists. And in my view, that view has prevailed for too long now.
Multitasking does theatre no favours. Actors best put all their energy and talent into acting, just as directors best put their energy into conceiving an overall picture. Just look at The Floor On.
Drama still largely derives its effect from stories told and language spoken. Creating art with that language is a profession in itself. You don't do that on the side.