Every now and then there is a moment which shifts the way you look at things. Sometimes it’s something you read, or an image, or a conversation. We all have a lot of these, and hopefully they stay with us, so that we don’t lose the wisdom contained in them.
I can’t remember where it was, or even when, but somewhere in the earlier years of my career with medieval drama, I heard a phrase that has stuck with me ever since. Alexandra Johnston, one of the driving forces behind the Records of Early English Drama (REED) and Toronto’s legendary Poculi Ludique Societas, has on many occasions reiterated a mantra about performance: “Trust the text”. It’s such a simple thing, but in its simplicity, also a “lightbulb” moment.
In approaching a script, there is sometimes a tendency to trim a bit here, to cut a bit there, to rearrange, because of a fundamental belief that there is something wrong, that a section is too long, too boring, misplaced. This tends to be particularly true in medieval drama, the result, I’m sure, of the centuries during which it was reviled and degraded as “uninteresting” and “unplayable”, a naïve dramatic tradition which only served to highlight the brilliance of the drama which subsumed it. But that brilliant drama- Shakespeare’s- is also frequently subject to the pruning shears. (How often does anyone do Hamlet in its entirety?)
I’m not suggesting that you can or should never do any editorial work; and sometimes it’s not even a choice so much as a necessity (if you have to fit a production into 2 ½ hours, you’re stuck with it). But those words still ring true to me. Trust the text. Assume that the person who wrote the play knew what they were doing, and that those words- all of them– are there for a reason. After all, these aren’t Victorian magazine serials; no one is being paid by the word. If they’re there, they’re serving a purpose, and it’s your job as a director or actor to parse out what that purpose is.
That way, even if you do have to alter the script in any way, you know why you’re doing it. You haven’t just dismissed the play as being faulty, a thing waiting around for your adjustments to make it perfect. Not only is that a bit of hubris, it’s also a bit of laziness. It’s your job to work with the play, to serve its needs in a way that presents its story and themes best, using it to bring out points that you find relevant and interesting, but not doing violence to its essence. If you don’t believe that and trust it, why did you choose to work on it in the first place?
Trusting the text can be challenging, especially if you’re working on an unfamiliar genre or within a historic context that is unfamiliar. This is why historically informed drama emphasizes that second word. If you’ve done your homework, the unfamiliar will become less so, and the text will seem less foreign. And sometimes that study can make a play that might, on an initial reading, seem dull or unplayable, take on a whole new and interesting colour. I defy anyone to see “Creation” from the York Mystery Plays in 2014 or 2010 to think it boring, but I can understand why, without that foundational knowledge, anyone who stumbles onto the script would wonder how it could ever be made performable.
Of course, you don’t always have a finished text in front of you. With a project like “The Vital Spark”, it’s not immediately about trusting the text per se, but trusting the writer and the collaborative process, with faith that in the end, the text will be as it ought. The words might not be there yet, but the structure and story and themes and characters will emerge as they do, and the resulting production will require the same belief in it.
In the heel of the hunt, theatre is about communication. It’s about ideas, expressed through words, actions, and images. There are a lot of acts of trust which transpire in any performance- between performers, between the people on and behind the stage, between all of them and the audience. But first you have to believe in the play itself, and give it as much support and opportunity to thrive as possible. If you trust the text, you might not create a brilliant production, but at least you’ll know that you gave it the best foundation you could.