As an outcome of my MLitt in Playwriting and Dramaturgy, I developed and later directed a play to assess the relationship between a powerful global community and a buffeted local community arising from the economic financial crisis of 2008/9. Hollow was written from the perspective of employee-as-playwright. The piece was performed on 8th-10th October at Govanhill Baths as part of their autumn programme dedicated to new and rare productions.
As a starting point, I addressed the question of compartmentalisation: if, as is often perceived, contemporary society is stratified into layered isolation, are some layers more hermetically sealed than others? Surely absolute imperviousness can only ever be temporary before the osmosis of ill-effect occurs? To demonstrate the inherent interconnectedness of globalisation, it was important for me to establish linking points between one layer of society and another. If we imagine management being a level above the workers, then a hierarchy is implied. However, a vertical link in one environment may be oriented differently outside the workplace. This, in fact, is how our society really is aligned: we are all somebody’s daughter/son, often somebody’s mother/father. This misalignment embeds us into society non-hierarchically. My aim was to integrate the non-hierarchical external life with the stratified internal environment of the workplace, trans-layering the narrative to demonstrate cause and effect from one plane to another.
The play follows the relationship between three businessmen: two national (UK) and one global. A local working community is subject to the control of the two UK businessmen. The existence of opaque transversal relationships binds the global to the local. The global player moves to act in his own favour using insider knowledge. Likewise, an oversight leads one UK businessman to act against the other. The lingering rancour of a dark past justifies their actions and subsequently impacts the lives of the local working community who have no real control over their destiny. The fate of the community shows some hope at the outset as their motives align with those of the antagonist whose resolve they see as being unwavering. However, the cognitive dissonance between the antagonist’s perceived morality and his actions suggests otherwise. He is their only hope. Nobody else will give them a moment’s notice. Employee-as-playwright required that I engaged with the thought processes of global business. In deliberately focussing on a secondary industry (i.e. engineering, not financial services), my aim was to draw attention to how businessmen are also exposed to the tide of globalisation (albeit with more options to draw upon). Finally I foreground the concept of compartmentalisation focussing on four areas: art, philosophy, poetry and religion. Often, society perceives these as separate. I used this ‘default lapse’ to foreshadow the fault in the antagonist’s thought processes.
Directing the play, I deliberately created a collaborative environment for discussion and ideas. The protagonist (Matthew O’Hare) combined malevolence with shards of vulnerability to imbue the thoroughly unpleasant character with humanity in order that the audience can see how he reached his current situation. In so doing, Matthew momentarily decompartmentalised the place of his character with the place of the spectator. I combined this with the dramaturgy of detachment in scenes of communication between management and the working community. In these situations, they communicated not directly but through the fourth wall…much as a silent (but hopeless) counsellor. This was emphasised by the ever-presence of chairs. Who sits there? Who once sat there? Who should be sitting there? The physicalisation of absence, form, disharmony and fall. The actors interacted with the chairs to reflect the tension of the scene. For me, this physicality was one of the highlights of the performance and something which I intend to explore further.
The developmental process was difficult. It involved taking a dry subject matter (often found within the business section of broadsheet newspapers) and adding a human dimension to provide a layered narrative. Increasingly, I became aware of the distance between myself as playwright and as director, often overriding a direction or entirely reconfiguring a scene. During the practice methodology process, it became apparent to me that I had drawn upon almost every aspect of my MLitt to create and stage the performance. This was for me a highly rewarding experience and one that I will definitely call upon again.
By Kenny Burnham, MLitt Playwriting and Dramaturgy