Mike Alfreds: ‘The play is not the thing’ – actors and storytelling in theatre

Alfreds, MikeA legendary theatre director with over 200 productions to his name, over his long career Mike Alfreds has garnered a reputation as a true performance pioneer. As his new book Then What Happens? is published, the revered Shared Experience founder reflects on how stories are told on stage, and how actors, not plays, lie at the heart of theatre.

Many years ago – in fact, once upon a time – I found myself rehearsing a collection of stories from The Thousand and One Nights. Up to that time, I’d always directed plays. It was my good fortune that most of them were wonderful plays by great dramatists, plays that continue to give me intense pleasure and sense of purpose. But when I began working with these stories, it was as though what I’d always thought of as the parameters of theatrical practice were suddenly lifted; as though my theatrical wings could spread and take flight. It was a sort of creative liberation. It didn’t cancel out anything that I’d learned or done up to that moment; on the contrary, all of that became a firm foundation on which to build completely new structures. This freedom came to me because I had, unknowingly, entered the world of storytelling.

Theatre is not about plays. The art of theatre is acting. The theatre isn’t there to serve plays.  Plays are there to serve the actors. Plays need actors and without them, they’re just blueprints. Actors, however, do not need plays. They can improvise. They can mime. They can tell stories.

Mike Alfreds' first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

Mike Alfreds’ first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

What first drew me to theatre and has ever since engrossed and thrilled me most is the extraordinary phenomenon of the actor, not virtual but actual, present and immediate, endowed with our infinite human potential to express what it means to be alive. To that end, over the years, all my work on plays has been a search to provide actors with the maximum space for creative freedom in performance, a spontaneity that allows them to play nightly not as if for the first time, but actually for the first time; to be different every night – not for the sake of being different – but to be true to the moment, to what is happening at any instant in a performance. Different Every Night, published by Nick Hern Books in 2007, is a detailed account of my rehearsal processes aiming for just that goal when working on plays.

But as I worked with these other forms of fiction, fiction never intended for performance – novels, short stories, sagas and the like – I found this entirely new world of storytelling demanded a seemingly endless supply of fresh techniques to accommodate the variousness of the material. Plays, because of their need to be performed, all more or less comply with  a certain conformity of means: scenes of dialogue, usually chronological, in a limited number of locations with a limited number of characters and playing over an average of two or so hours. But stories have no such constraints of length, language, characters, place or time. The conventions of acting in plays is inadequate in this world. Here actors have to become first and foremost storytellers. They are the core of the theatrical experience. Within them, they contain the entire story which they relate in an infinitude of ways, each new story requiring a particular performance language of its own. So to tell stories, actors need to acquire techniques that extend and expand their skills and functions way beyond the already complex and demanding job of creating a character.

It’s interesting that current attempts to break the mould and refresh the nature of theatre rely less on human beings and more heavily on all those aspects of theatre that have always been tangential to the main event. I mean sets, lights, costumes, music, sound effects, burlesque and circus acts, installations – now of course made more available and dazzlingly expressive by unceasing digital innovation. As far as I’m concerned all these elements take theatre further and further away from its roots, in many cases, actually tearing them up and casting it in shallow soil.

Of course adaptations are nothing new.  They’ve been around for centuries. Principally they were achieved by squeezing stories into the corsets of whatever happened to be the conventional dramatic structures of the time. Novels were forced to become plays. You more or less lost the novel and ended up with something that wasn’t quite a play. Two incompatible forms cancelled each other out. What I found out was by trying to put a story on stage virtually intact, true not only to the spirit and the plot but also the word – and ignoring the conventions of a play – whole new worlds, new forms of performance began to open up. I’ve found it exhilarating struggling to find a way to make non-dramatic material dramatic, non-theatrical material theatrical. Each new story is an adventure, an expedition into the unknown, provoking unceasing invention and challenges to the imagination.

Initially, the fundamental difference between playacting and storytelling is the actor/character’s ability through narrative to step outside the story being enacted in order to talk about it. This single simple difference unleashes what seems an unstemable torrent of new conventions. And because storytelling by its nature needs an absolutely direct contact with an audience, the contact is natural, unforced and unselfconsciously interactive. Audiences, too, are given space for their own creativity. Storytelling invites them to bring their imaginations to bear on a story.

My new book, Then What Happens?, describes the discoveries I made in learning to adapt and tell stories. More than half of it is devoted to workshops full of exercises and improvisations to develop techniques for storytelling, mainly in an empty space with nothing apart from the considerable skills and imaginations of the actors. It also describes processes of adapting material in a way that remains as true as is possible to the material in its original form. I heartily recommend the world of storytelling to you.

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Then What Happens?, £10.99

Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Mike Alfreds’ Then What Happens? – Storytelling and Adapting for the Theatre, his impassioned, engaging case for putting story and storytelling back at the heart of theatre.

To order your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here.