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by Catherine Edwards on February 23rd, 2012

Last night saw the start of our Writing for the Stage course at the mac. It’s the first event in the lead-up to this year’s festival, and very excited to see it get off the ground. It was nice to see some familiar faces in the group, and to welcome some newer ones. We’ve received funding from the Sir Barry Jackson Trust to extend provision for up to four writers from the course. This will take the form of one-to-one mentoring and a rehearsed reading which will take place during the Festival itself. It’s always good to have a tangible outcome for a course like this, so that writers have the chance to test out their work in front of an audience.

It got me thinking about new starts and new beginnings – triggers and inspirations. It strikes me that, while it’s good and healthy to have a strong understanding of theatrical traditions, it’s useful to pilfer ideas from other disciplines too. Chris Goode offers this advice on Bushgreen:

my advice – to playwrights in particular – is to look to everything but plays for stimulus and inspiration, because we have to write plays that dare to do things we don’t recognize yet: which requires an expanded sense of what a play can be. Music, dance and visual art (especially stuff you don’t get straight away, or maybe even feel repelled by) will tell you so much more about mark-making, composition, form, cadence, structure and perceptual fields than any play I could recommend – and the experience of making your own work, as constantly and ardently and carefully and recklessly as you can, will teach you everything else.

My interest, first and foremost, has been film. If I’m looking to give an example of effective characterisation, dialogue, structure etc., then film is usually my reference point. It’s such a universal cultural marker, there’s always someone who’ll know what you’re on about. And the visual tools are easily transferable to theatre. If anything, it’s sometimes helpful to distance yourself from what’s expected. You have the room to surprise, and to play.

So here are the opening scenes from four very different films/ TV programmes. Each provides some form of visual forecast/ metaphor of the events to come. And each manages to do so with minimal dialogue.

The Wild Bunch

Pekinpah’s film about the passing of an age. Outlaws used to the old ways are gradually overwhelmed by superior forces. Much like the scorpions in this opening scene, fighting against an army of ants and eventually succumbing to the inevitable. Pulling no punches – it’s survival of the fittest in a harsh and pitiless world.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979)

There are three of them, and Alleline. But which is the traitor? A neat encapsulation of the central suspects, with particular emphasis on their respective status’ and the latent power-plays going on. Who is the ostensible leader?  Who commands attention? Who makes the others do his bidding, in the most subtle way possible? And who runs around clearing up the mess, in a desperate bid to belong?

Apocalypse Now

“This is the End” says The Doors in the opening sequence. In a film where reality is turned on its head. The visual jump-cut from the helicopter blades to the rotator ceiling fan shows just what lateral connections can be made.

Apocalypse Now Opening Sequence from Mike O on Vimeo.


I couldn’t find a way to embed the video, so here’s the relevant link. You can see director Julie Taymor’s theatrical roots in this epic grandeur of a scene. War is hell, but also vigorously beautiful. The irreverent mash of style and time creates a world which plays by its own rules. From the fascist imagery of the returning army, to the lashings of ketchup spurted on the boy’s toy soldiers; you know it’s not going to end well.

These are just a few examples of openings which encapsulate, mirror, and foreshadow what’s to come. The best opening is a microcosm of the plot as a whole, offering an image or metaphor which tells the story all by itself. What other examples are there, from either film or theatre? I’d be interested to hear your ideas about what works for you.

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