THE ART OF THEATRE / 17 Development: Nicholas Wright's masterclass

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SWEENEY: Remind me of the rules of this ridiculous game.

TOM: All queens are wild, any up card following an up queen is wild unless another queen comes down in which case the next up card is wild. If you get a four up you get an extra card under.

MUGSY: Are we playing all cancelling queen on the end?

TOM: Yes.

SWEENEY: Hold on, 'all cancelling queen', what's that?

MUGSY: We always play it, if the final up card is a queen then only queens are wild.

STEPHEN: Have you ever heard of a more ridiculous game. It's not poker, it's a lottery.

TOM: (calls out the upcards as he deals them) 5 of spades, 3 of spades, 8 of clubs, king of clubs, 2 of clubs. King to speak.

MUGSY: The king says cinque.

SWEENEY: What?

MUGSY: Five to play.

SWEENEY: Well say it.

MUGSY: Oooo.

TOM: Four to me.

CARL: Pass.

SWEENEY: I call.

FRANKIE: Pass.

TOM: (knocks and deals up cards again) OK, ace to the three, pair of kings, jack of diamonds.

MUGSY: Deemonds]

TOM: Kings.

MUGSY: The king bets the potty. Sixteen.

TOM: Pass.

SWEENEY: Go on Mugs, I'll give you a spin. (SWEENEY puts pounds 16 in.)

MUGSY: Good boy.

DEALER's CHOICE by Patrick Marber, Act Two

THERE's a frightening moment in a play called Wait Until Dark and it's even better in the movie. Audrey Hepburn, who is blind, has been attacked in her apartment by an international drug- dealer. It's night-time and she's very sensibly disconnected all the lights, so he's stumbling clumsily round in the dark while she takes confident swipes at him. Suddenly the fridge door swings open and a shaft of light illuminates the room . . .

Something very similar happens when a play is finished. Writing favours the unconscious. However carefully you've planned and synopsised, once you've scribbled for half an hour or so, you will - if you're lucky - find images, memories, themes welling up from somewhere deeper.

The fridge-light switches on the moment the script drops into the letterbox and emerges in the world of sensible people. The unconscious retreats into whatever dark hole it lives in. Now the conscious mind takes over: it views the play objectively, it makes changes in the name of craft, it even takes advice.

The first playwright to make major changes during fridge-light time seems to have been Beaumarchais, who cut an entire act out of The Barber of Seville after a bad first night and presented it fully rehearsed two days later. Thus was 'play-development' born. It was a short step from the author's second thoughts to everyone else's: Broadway made improvements-by-committee a way of life. Britain held out briefly. 'Nothing wrong that can't be fixed,' replied Gertrude Lawrence when Coward offered her Private Lives. 'The only thing to be fixed is your performance,' he snapped back. But Loot, reworked on tour, is Orton's only well-structured play.

In the United States, development is now an industry. At this moment, playwrights coast to coast are falling bleary-eyed into bed after a night of sweating over Draft 5, all because some literary manager has held out the fabulous prospect of a day-long workshop or a rehearsed reading - provided Act Two is got right. ('Oh, and what about that secretary who has only two lines in the boardroom scene? She needs empowering.')

But a writer who's brilliant and cocky enough can use the system: Tony Kushner's Angels in America diptych, which comes laden with thanks to dramaturgs, advisors and inspirers of Radical Queerness, is as wild and innocent as if it had been brought up on a desert island.

Fridge-light time can be the only time. Patrick Marber developed his play with the cast in the National Theatre Studio. They started with neither plot nor dialogue: just the basic theme of poker, and the notion that somewhere in there would be a father-and-son relationship.

Two weeks of improvisation, then a Christmas spent gutting and filleting cassette tapes, then re-rehearsal with a text which kept on changing. Luck played large: the personalities of the actors, a joke told by one of the cast, another's hatred of tobacco. The climax of the play must be - as one of the characters points out - the only poker school in history where no one's allowed to smoke at the table.

Weird that a method so pragmatic can have such results. Or is it? This is still a new technique: there will be more surprises.

Next week: BROTHERS

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