History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 November 2011

Theatrical References

I spent this past weekend in Ashland for the closing weekend of the season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Crisp air, gorgeous autumn leaves, snow-capped mountains, lovely time with friends, and a glimpse of three of our own Leslie's books prominently displayed in the Tudor Guild gift shop. And three wonderful plays, all of which I was seeing for the second (or in the case of Measure for Measure the fourth) time.

One thing I noticed is that all three plays dealt with theater in a variety of ways. Saturday I saw Ghost Light, a fabulous, wrenching world premiere developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone, written by Taccone, and directed by Moscone, It's a wonderfully theatrical play both in style (moving back and forth in time, combining elements of dream and reality) and in substance, as the central character struggles to come to terms with his father's assassination while directing a production of Hamlet. The scenes of the production team discussing how to handle the Ghost of Hamlet's father, and of Jon, the central character, working with his acting students and auditioning actors are spot-on and at moments hysterically funny.

Saturday I saw a matinee of Julius Caesar, a play, as the production notes pointed, filled with theatrical references, from the assassins meeting in the porch of Pompey's theater to the political theater of Marc Antony's funeral oration (not to mention the fact that Antony's scene where he seemingly makes peace with the conspirators just after the assassination is a brilliant piece of acting). That evening I saw Measure for Measure, another play where the story is largely played out upon the public stage (particularly in the denouement) while a key plot element involves one woman playing the part of another in a secret tryst.

During breaks between plays I was working on a sequence in my current WIP that takes place backstage at the Comédie-Française. I love theatrical references in books and plays. Actual scenes backstage and onstage become metaphors for the roles we all play - with different people, in different aspects of our lives. For the fine line between illusion and reality, for the difficulty of discerning truth amid artifice and the way that theatrical artifice can sometimes ring with truth. Reading Isobel's great interview with Joanna Bourne on Monday, I was thinking that a large part of why I love writing about spies is that like actors they too play many parts, though on a rather more dangerous stage. The sequence I was working on set at the Comédie-Française gave me lots of opportunities to play with the parallel, as it involves the escape from Paris during the White Terror of an actress who is also an agent.

Do you have favorite books that deal with theater, whether on stage or backstage? Does theater become a metaphor for other elements in the story? Writers, do you like writing scenes set in the theater? Do you get inspiration from plays?

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Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Tracy. I actually wrote two YA's that are languishing in a drawer that were inspired by two Shakespeare plays, Midsummer and Much Ado About Nothing. I think my theatre background definitely helps in terms of writing dialogue, which is one of the easiest things for me to do, when I write fiction.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Those YAs sound great, Elizabeth! I too find a theatrical background is a great help in terms of writing diaolgoue

9:41 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Ok -- blogger just ate my whole long comment, so I'll try to re-create it.

Fabulous post Tracy, and not just because the OSF gift shop (which is just as much fun as their productions) is stocking my royal books!

Because I started out in the theatre I am attuned to dialogue and have a sense of the rhythm, cadences, and vocabulary for my characters and find dialogue (which is all part of character development, or should be, because every character should have his/her own voice and shouldn't sound like any other character on the page), one of the easier aspects of writing a novel.

I hear the dialogue aloud in my head as I write and will often read it aloud as well, and if it's not organic, out it goes. So I have a low tolerance level for inorganic dialogue in Other People's Fiction. If it doesn't sound like a real person talking, I'm taken right out of the book.

Because of my own theatre background, I'm drawn to it as subject matter, whether for plot or character. Some of the characters in my 7 contemporary novels were actors or actresses, or had theatrical personalities, being NYers, and their dialogue was peppered with theatre references (as was mine and my friends'; it was snappy and clever and sometimes glib. On occasion, Amazon reviewers didn't believe it, but if they'd spent a week with my circle of friends, they would have heard the rhythms and references.)

When I began writing historical fiction I was also drawn to people of the theatre (Mary Robinson, the 18th-century actress/royal mistress/author/editor/feminist; and even Emma Hamilton, whose brief stint as a maid for the Linley family, which co-managed Drury Lane permitted her a glimpse into life backstage when she became a runner for Mrs. Linley and her wardrobe and props masters and the performers themselves). Mary Robinson's acting coach was the great David Garrick, so these novels allowed me to create scenes of life backstage and onstage in the wonderful subculture of the Theatre, which often serves as a terrific metaphor for what masquerades as real life.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love how you weave theater into your books, Leslie! Such a good point that plays teach one to show character through dialogue - I think that's great training for a novelist. I also block out my scenes like I'm staging a play, and I write scenes in layers, usually moving from dialogue to action to fine tuning, much like honing a scene in a play through the rehearsal process. I think just the fact that I think it scenes when I write is owed to my theatrical background.

10:25 AM  

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