Developing a Meta-Theatre Comedy – The Play with Speeches
As a writer, I’m very fond of breaking down traditional structures and finding new ways to engage audiences.
One of my short stories consists primarily of notes left by a barrister to his cleaner, another appears to be a bundle of court papers released by the prosecution to the defense team.
Paradoxically, whilst I love telling stories in unexpected ways, I also consider myself to be something of a structure fetishist. I was fortunate enough to attend Blake Snyder’s London seminar in May 2009 and am pictured in a photo below capturing the event. My partner will attest to the fact that I still wear all the clothing from that day, but that’s another matter.
In my play, The Play with Speeches, a series of actors file into the theatre to audition. The play they’re being seen for (“The Play with Speeches”) is made up entirely of—wait for it—audition speeches. And those speeches tell a complete story when performed in the correct order.
You’ve probably already gathered that there’s more than a hint of meta-reality being played out in front of the audience, who themselves unwittingly become a part of the story. It turns out they’re only there because the box office mistakenly sold tickets for the event. Anthony and Penny, who jointly conduct the auditions, are horrified when they first see the audience. Anthony offers an apology, whilst firmly encouraging them to remain in their seats. He’s realized by this time that they all paid for their tickets!
Somewhat surprisingly for this very theatrical concept, the first iteration of my piece was a short story which I was commissioned to write in March 2020. “A Tale of Twelve Speeches” appeared in a pandemic-themed anthology and appears to be a collection of “real” audition speeches put together by a disaffected playwright during lockdown (nothing autobiographical, I promise). There are accompanying footnotes that give far too much away about the playwright’s personal life. I had such fun writing the speeches, many of which parody theatre styles we’re all perhaps familiar with, such as the overly poetic.
“That evening was different. My heart hiccupped like a frozen pea stuck in a piccolo. He was moving lopsidedly, a wobbly lawn mower on a steep slope.”
When it came to adapting my story for the stage, the groundwork was there, as I’d already written the speeches. All I needed to worry about was the interplay between Anthony (the writer of the play) and Penny (its director), and between them and the actors who are unfortunate enough to audition.
Before I get onto the writing of the play, there’s quite a funny story about a company of actors, who, soon after its publication, became interested in my short story. They’d heard about it through a mutual friend and were keen to use the speeches in online sessions they were organizing to keep themselves busy. I had an email from the group’s coordinator, and he couldn’t wait to receive the story so they could begin working on it. He even sent a link for me to join their first readthrough.
However, after he’d received the story, everything went eerily quiet. And the link didn’t permit me entrance to the meeting. My friend and I wondered whether there were differing sensibilities around references to extra-marital sex. One speech in particular is a little near the mark.
“His cock is tiny, but his balls are enormous. A scrawny weed growing between two boulders.”
Unphased by this minor theatrical rebuff, I decided to adapt the story for Olive & Stavros, the theatre company of which I am a director. We’d previously produced two of my plays, garnering decent crits and a handful of award nominations along the way. But how to structure a play that consists of 12 actors coming onto a stage to audition, even if the speeches they present do in themselves form a narrative?
I tend to use Blake’s beat sheet at some point in everything I write, and The Play with Speeches was no exception.
Straight off, I decided to make Anthony and Penny a warring ex-couple—the details of their toxic relationship, as Anthony remarks, are “thoroughly ventilated” during the course of the evening. Building their antagonism, or perhaps their comfort levels in sharing every sordid detail with the audience, provided a natural “raising of the stakes,” a concept Blake was always keen to advocate. And even though my play is quirky and at times surreal, I would argue that all the story beats are present, right down to All Is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul.
Adapting the story into a play took me three weeks in 2022, and soon after my director Katherine Reilly was in the rehearsal room with the actors, preparing for its first performances. From the opening night—when I was asked in the interval by the director of an amateur theatre company about acquiring the rights to perform the play—audiences have lapped up what one critic described as a “joyous spoof on theatrical tropes.” In his end of year review for Broadway World, Gary Naylor made a plea for “more unabashed comedies like The Play with Speeches.”
We have taken Gary at his word and the play is set to return for a three-week run at The Jack Studio Theatre in South London. Somewhat ironically, we’ll be opening on Valentine’s night. There will be no love lost between Anthony and Penny that evening, but I’m hoping that audiences will love the play even more this time around. I’ve also managed to conjure a little theatrical magic by reducing the cast size from 15 to 9 for this run of performances. As to how I’ve managed this, I’m keeping shtum. Tickets for The Play with Speeches can be purchased here.