Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Chris Port Blog #139. Evaluation of GSOH (Good Sense Of Humour).

© Chris Port, Central School of Speech and Drama, 1999


Project title: GSOH (Good Sense Of Humour)

Nature of project: A written devised piece
(written under the pseudonym of Christopher James).

This evaluation should be read in conjunction with 
#138. Edited Script Extract from GSOH (Good Sense Of Humour)

This evaluation will review and analyse key moments from the process and product in the following areas:

  1. Initial inspiration.
  2. Initial research.
  3. Subsequent research and intended audience.
  4. Writing: theoretical underpinning and S.M.A.R.T. Objectives.
  5. First draft script.
  6. Script revisions (drafts 2 to 4).
  7. Directing: theoretical underpinning.
  8. Directing: key moments in the process.
  9. Feedback from cast and audience.
  10. End product evaluation.

Please refer to the portfolio for documentary evidence where stated in the evaluation.


1. Initial inspiration.

Since 1994 I had been brooding over the idea of writing a play which could discuss the current, unclear and sometimes contradictory expectations men and women seem to have of each other and the tragicomic consequences which can ensue. This foetal idea (although sometimes the words faecal or fatal seemed more appropriate) had a dubious parentage. Part of its conception undoubtedly lay in my sense of frustration and failure over personal relationships. These feelings found ready-made partners in morose conversations with (male) friends over their similar experiences. But the strongest contender for this unknown progenitor was a growing unease that the whole agenda of relationships seemed to be dominated by a smug, post-feminist consensus. This consensus seemed to smother all male dissent. Television, cinema, newspapers and magazines, all seemed to toe the party line of political correctness. First and foremost, I wanted to write a play that I would like to watch, a play that would disturb me and make me think (it is a dangerous conceit but I generally find that I can only write something interesting for other people if I am interested in it first).

The title GSOH (Good Sense Of Humour) seemed to suggest itself almost immediately (the ubiquitous acronym which appears in so many personal advertisements). As well as being readily identifiable with these advertised symptoms of loneliness, it also carried ironic connotations of personal standards and differences (one person’s idea of a good sense of humour may not be the same as another’s).

The basic plot also suggested itself fairly quickly as a series of Hegelian dialectics and oppositions: two men debate and differ over what they want from a woman and what they think a woman wants from them (one man clings to romantic ideals while the other clings to pragmatism and convenience); two women debate and differ likewise over men; the unromantic man and woman become partners with consummate ease while the idealistic man and woman struggle through a series of disastrous relationships until bitterness and cynicism ruin any chance of their coming together.

This rather schematic plot seemed to offer plenty of opportunities for intellectual debate and emotional engagement but, until I came to Central, I could never find the confidence to write it. Like so many ideas, it remained an orphan until it found a kindred spirit during my peripheral reading at Central.

2. Initial research.

During my debates in the bar with feminist sparring partners, I became increasingly (and despairingly) aware that feminism seemed to have all the theoretical writing and case studies on its side. I was constantly being told that my feelings of hurt and rejection were unfounded or immaterial as, being a white middle-class male, I had all the power. The simple riposte that I didn’t feel like I had the power was dismissed as blaming the victim or part of an anti-feminist backlash. Men, it seemed, could not be victims or, even if they were, they only had themselves to blame. Only women could be victims (and blameless ones at that).

For the basest of motives (simply to get some intellectual ammunition) I browsed through my local library and chanced upon The Myth Of Male Power: Why Men Are The Disposable Sex (Farrell, 1994). Here, in case study after case study, in the pithy unpicking of feminist rhetoric and the careful re-spinning of accepted wisdoms into new orbits, I found the theoretical underpinning I had been searching for. Here was a resource for debate which did not dismiss those aspects of feminism I agreed with (enabling women to have the equality of opportunity, choice and control over their lives which men are assumed to have) but also explained why men did not have those self-same entitlements.

In essence, Farrell is arguing for true gender liberation by pointing out, and advocating the removal of, those hypocrisies which have arisen by giving women new options while retaining men's old obligations. Farrell believes that, firstly, patriarchy was based on the protection of women rather than their oppression, and secondly it can only be removed if we stop protecting women at the expense of men (i.e. an equality of protection). Farrell's arguments, although written in a sometimes embarrassingly simplistic American vernacular, are actually quite complex and easy to misrepresent when taken out of context (I do not claim to have represented his arguments in GSOH, only to have found the confidence to write it). Previously a staunch advocate of feminism, he dislikes labels but pleads a case for men's liberation as a stepping stone to gender liberation.

However, perhaps his most pithy and pertinent (and most reconciliatory) comment on the battle between the sexes is this:

‘When only one sex wins, both sexes lose.’ (Farrell, 1994, p. 169).

It is this quote which ultimately informs the themes underlying GSOH in its entirety but which is only hinted at in the appalling and evil bet at the end of the first scene. (Please refer to the portfolio and the script for a more comprehensive selection of adapted quotes from Farrell’s work).

3. Subsequent research and intended audience.

I spent most of last year scouring newspapers and magazines for articles connected with the post-feminist debate which confirmed many of my previously inarticulate feelings and Farrell’s arguments. (Please refer to the portfolio bibliography and newspaper / magazine cuttings). These increased my confidence to such an extent that I now felt ready to write a first draft of the opening to GSOH concentrating on male angst and suffering.

In view of my previous conversational scuffles with fellow students, and the seeming emphasis on female suffering, I had no doubt that my intended audience should be my peer group. The questions now were: what should my objectives be, and what style should it be?

4. Writing: theoretical underpinning and S.M.A.R.T. Objectives.           

I knew from an early stage that I wanted to disturb people from their cosy and somewhat smug consensus and so GSOH was going to be offensive. I knew that I wanted to use a Hegelian dialectic whereby the opposition of a thesis and its antithesis produces a synthesis but felt it would be a little too smug (and quite unrepresentational of the real world) if this synthesis presented itself as a neat solution. I knew that I wanted to use Brechtian techniques in order to defamiliarise the audience from their habitual assumptions but also knew that a) they would already be habitually familiar with Brechtian techniques and b) although there was a semi-political subtext (equality of options and obligations for men and women), the main focus of the play was now an articulation of male emotions (a profoundly anti-Brechtian concept!) together with metaphysical preoccupations as to the nature or possibility of love. Brechtian techniques would be useful insofar as the audience would see these emotions in an unfamiliar way (thus making them the object of renewed attentiveness). They would also be directly and intellectually challenged by the debate and hopefully ponder the socio-political circumstances which lead to such disastrous emotions and rationales.

Above all, I wanted the 'coarse vigour' of which Peter Brook speaks in his description of Brecht and 'rough theatre':

'The liveliest of theatres turns deadly when its coarse vigour goes: and Brecht is destroyed by deadly slaves'. (Brook, 1972, p. 86).

I wanted to flit between illusions, imitations and representations in such a way that the audience would always feel slightly unsure and wrong-footed, thus avoiding the purely aestheticized and undisturbing effect I often feel when watching 'pure' Brecht (and which Brecht himself predicted):

‘You know, human nature knows how to adapt itself just as well as the rest of organic matter. Man is even capable of regarding atomic war as something normal, so why should he not be capable of dealing with an affair as small as the alienation effect so that he does not need to open his eyes. I can imagine that one day they will only be able to feel their old pleasure when the alienation effect is offered. (Thomson & Sacks, 1994, p. 194).

My S.M.A.R.T. objectives (Specific, Measurable, Assessable, Realistic, Time-bound) were thus devised as follows:

  1. To experiment with found, written and devised material to create an original piece of theatre.
  2. To experiment with various Brechtian defamiliarization techniques such as: captions; direct and indirect narration; conspicuous use of songs and poetry; masks; a montage narrative sequence.
  3. To experiment with imitations (as well as representations) of heightened emotional states (such as sexual arousal, aggression and catharsis).
  4. To experiment with combining objectives ii and iii in such a way that the content and presentation of the piece makes the subject matter (see Objective 5) the object of renewed attentiveness.
  5. To provoke renewed thought and debate about the nature of male/female power relationships in contemporary Anglo-American culture (in particular female anxieties about male sexual aggression and the use of pornography).
  6. To experiment with a range of directorial techniques from instruction through to facilitation and collaboration.
  7. To use a range of dramatic styles in order to confound audience expectations that the piece fits into any one dramatic theory.
  8. To provide an overall dramatic coherence for actors and audience.

I should like to take this opportunity to briefly elaborate on objective 5. in order to allay any possible concerns among the tutors that this indicates a personal obsession with pornography(!) The reason why I chose to focus on this issue during the first scene was:

i) it is a frequent feminist complaint that men objectify women through pornography as a means of exerting power


ii) Farrell's riposte is that it is a clear example of young men's lack of power (due to social norms which give women the option to take indirect initiatives through flirtation with relative impunity while obliging men to run the risk of rejection by taking direct initiatives):

‘Rather than take rejections personally, a young man learns to turn a woman into a sex object - it hurts him less to be rejected by an object.’ (Farrell, 1994, p.227).

5. First draft script.

Since I knew that GSOH was going to be offensive, and that the final draft was going to be a lengthy process, I decided to write the most obscene parts first to obtain provisional approval to proceed. The most pertinent aspects of the first draft were the inclusion of a song mocking infantile and aggressive male sexuality and misogyny, the inclusion of anti-naturalistic poems for each character, and that the early characters were loosely written to fit the abilities (not the personalities!) of the actors I had chosen.

I knew from our first year production at the Minack Theatre of Jason and the Argonauts that *** ***** enjoyed playing sharp 'evil' roles and would excel as Lucifer, an articulate and abrasive Master of Ceremonies. I knew that **** ****** would have the bravado and boyishness to carry off the mock violence and poignancy of John, while **** *******'s more controlled manner would make a good foil as Jon. At this stage, mainly out of laziness, I named the latter characters John and Jon for lack of inspiration.

The Great Escape song was soon dropped due to IPP time-constraints (a constant problem requiring regular line-pruning and editing) and the main problem at this stage seemed to be how to flesh out the dialectical arguments without padding the dialogue with too much naturalistic clutter.

6. Script revisions: drafts 2 to 4.

By the second draft of the script I had decided to replace the Great Escape song with a cumulative series of slide-projected and adapted quotes (during changeover time) allowing me to contextualise the piece within some of Warren Farrell's heretical arguments. Lucifer's Good Sense Of Humour poem was cut as was Jon's The Devil Is A Gentleman due to time-constraints, while John's poem The Eyes Of A Woman was shunted to the beginning for Lucifer instead. Lucifer was also given a new speech defamiliarising Love as a consumerised insect trap for the unwary.

The main effect of these changes was to highlight Lucifer's Brechtian role and tone down the distanced self-awareness of the other two roles.

One of the most significant script changes took place in the third draft. I became aware that **** ******* was going through a difficult time in his personal life and worried about the dangers of him identifying or being identified with his role. As both playwright and director I felt that, if anyone should carry the burden of identification, it should be me. This coincided with a perennial irritation of mine; that when people know the playwright personally, they tend to read the person through the play (as though Shakespeare fantasized about gouging out old men's eyes or harboured incestuous feelings for his mother - although I do not claim to be in the same league!).

I therefore decided to rename the two protagonists, one after myself (a slightly foolhardy gesture of contempt) and the other after a real life acquaintance of mine called Peter. I decided to rewrite **** *******'s role as more clinical and controlled so that he would not feel any emotional involvement with the part. I decided to rewrite the revised role of Peter based loosely upon the real life template.

The knock-on effect of these decisions was that the dynamic between Christopher and Peter became much more psychological than representational which sometimes caused problems during the rehearsal process when the actors were unsure whether to play the scene naturalistically or representationally.

The fourth and final draft of the script introduced a new opening monologue for the role of Christopher, engaging the audience's sympathy and then cruelly 'pulling focus' so that we are asked to deal not with the experiences of his emotional pain but the causes of it.

7. Directing: theoretical underpinning.

From the very first rehearsal I emphasized to my cast that I would experiment with directing as instructor, facilitator and collaborator. The layman's version of these terms I explained as thus:
  • sometimes I would have a precise vision of how I wanted a particular scene to look or sound (usually representational) and would explain or demonstrate this to the actors until they could understand and reproduce it;
  • sometimes I would know that the key to unlocking the scene's potential lay in the actor's abilities (usually naturalistic), and I would try to remove any inhibitions through Grotowski's via negativia;
  • finally, I would know that we had to get from point A to point B without knowing precisely how, and during these moments I would simply ask the actors for their suggestions.

I made the point that the final decision always lay with the director, not because their ideas were any better or worse than mine but because it was my ultimate responsibility to ensure that they worked as a whole.

In order to facilitate the collaborative process I deliberately set aside the whole of the first rehearsal as a 'conceptual blocking' when I discussed all of my research, explained all the themes we were trying to compress and focus, and answered any questions. I did not hoard my directorial overview as I believed my actors should be as well-informed as possible about the intentions of what we were trying to achieve. In this I was particularly impressed by Dario Fo's anecdote about a director so contemptuous of his actors that he thought them incapable of understanding and acting at the same time.

‘One of the reasons I recounted this anecdote was to illustrate the sheer panic some directors feel at the mere thought of clarifying the guiding principles of the production. They quake at the prospect of cramming an actor's inadequate brain with too many ideas.’ (Fo, 1991, p.61).

I always made sure my actors were fully informed at all times as to the conceptual overview. In showing them this respect and trust, they always felt confident in offering suggestions of their own. It was particularly gratifying and reassuring when, sitting at a table together looking for spare lines to cut, they knew the exact relevance of each line to the rest of the text and what would be lost or changed if it was to be cut.

8. Directing: key moments in the process.

After the initial conceptual blocking, I worked mainly with **** ****** and **** ******* on a loose physical blocking. The idea here was that the physical blocking was analogous to a light pencil sketch to get the overall shape and structure of the piece. As bits worked they could be pencilled in more heavily. As bits failed to work, they could easily be rubbed out and redrawn. *** ***** was unable to attend most rehearsals until Week 7 due to other commitments but this was not too much of a problem as I had written his part as separate from the others to be slotted in later.

My main priority during rehearsals was to provide an overall dramatic coherence for the actors (and subsequently for the audience). Given the deliberate experimentation with imitations as well as representations, this often meant having to reconcile conflicting directorial and acting instincts.

**** *******'s role of Peter was the easiest one to deal with. **** ******* soon found the ridiculous, sinister precision of voice and movement needed to represent the true evil lurking alongside the more overtly offensive antics. **** ****** found the role of Christopher slightly more problematic. Depending on which segment of the montage we were rehearsing, I would direct through a different lens.

Christopher's opening monologue was precisely verbally blocked to achieve an understated (and therefore more powerful) emotional mood and then control its transition. **** ****** was distanced from his role at this point, entirely concerned with the representation of the facts and the lesson to be drawn from them.

Similarly, the ************ scene was played entirely representationally (with a naturalistic-looking penis to put the audience slightly ill at ease and make them more attentive).

However, in scenes such as the punching of the pornography magazine and the whipping of the cushion, **** ****** was asked to imitate aggression, to remove his inhibitions and unlock his spontaneity, only to have it pulled back in and blocked precisely to achieve a more powerful effect (his first flurries of blows looked hurried and ineffectual and so these were blocked in rhythm to the words).

These constant contradictions meant that he never felt the same sense of sureness and control which **** ******* felt representing Peter. I was not able to devise any exercises to clarify these contradictions for **** ******, but simply reassured him that the dramatic coherence of the piece as a whole was elastic enough to accommodate these inconsistencies.

Perhaps the most significant moment in the process came after rehearsal number 8 which was our first rehearsal in the actual performance space. I realized afterwards, with horror, that my idea of 'pulling focus' with the sofa upstage for distanced action and the table and chairs downstage for the thrust of the debate, was spatially flawed. All the blocking suddenly seemed askew, not in a desired defamiliarizing way, but simply weak and incompetent. I discussed my worries with **** ******* who pointed out something I should have seen from the very beginning: we did not have a centre stage. The presence of the table and chairs downstage left meant that the traditional centre stage spot was weak and upstaged.

I spent all that night and the next rehearsal re-blocking with the sofa upstage left and the table and chairs upstage right. In essence, this changed the space into a proscenium staging upstage with a philosophical thrust and catwalk for direct address to the audience. The revised blocking did not present the actors with any problems and fortunately made most of their moves easier. **** ****** even pondered whether I had done it deliberately as a Brechtian ploy to defamiliarise my actors with their habitual moves, but I confessed to an isolated bout of incompetence!

9. Feedback from cast and audience.

The main positive feedback from my cast was that they were greatly helped and reassured by the initial conceptual blocking. This overview gave them the confidence to carry on when they felt slightly lost between the deliberate contradictions in style. They also felt comfortable in offering suggestions of their own and complimented me on my honesty and patience during the process.

One slightly negative feedback was that both **** ****** and **** ******* often felt that I had a clear image of what I wanted and wished I would just show it to them instead of asking them to experiment (I would often say "Just try something. I'll know it when I see it". However, there were other times when my mind was a creative blank and it was only by the physical act of one of them trying something that a sense of direction would come back to me.

While the technical rehearsal was a remarkably smooth affair (this was the first time we had a run-through with a full cast) the dress rehearsal was less satisfying. For a number of reasons, the cast were flustered and full of a nervous energy instead of a controlled one. When the audience laughed at one of the intentionally funny lines, a sense of nervous relief made them play the piece for laughs and miss much of the underlying darkness. However, after some terse final director's notes (see portfolio) they found the courage and the control to perform it just as I had asked. When it counted, they knew exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it which was very satisfying to all concerned.

The feedback from the audience has been surprisingly complimentary. After all the fuss from the faculty about the piece's obscenity and offensiveness (which, while justified, has nonetheless placed us under quite an emotional strain), it was a pleasant surprise when, one after another, women came up to me and said that, although they disagreed with some of it, the play had made them think (which was the whole point of it).

Another point (which I think has often been missed) is that both Christopher and Peter are wrong. Both men have distorted a part of the truth into a disastrous dialectic with a harmful synthesis. There is nothing agreeable in that.

10. End product evaluation.

Although I was solely responsible for writing the script, the overall nature of the piece has changed so much due to the circumstances of its realization that it deserves to be described as a devised piece as well. I believe that the end product can be measured favourably against all of the original S.M.A.R.T. objectives although I am not sure if I have produced as dangerous a piece of theatre as I had originally intended (although perhaps this is no bad thing!). It certainly felt dangerous during the process and, while I am pleased that we took all those risks and survived the experience, I would like the security of some smug cosy consensus theatre before trying it again.

Christopher Port
March 1999


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