Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Full Supporting Cast

"Finish, good lady; the bright day is done, and we are for the dark."

This is one of my favourite lines of Shakespeare - why? I don't really know, probably the very simple contrast of light and dark and the sense of going into the shadows, never to return? Whatever it is, it's one of my spine chilling moments, as I was reminded when I heard it in performance at the Chichester Festival Theatre a few weeks ago. The play is Anthony and Cleopatra, and the line is spoken by Iras, one of Cleopatra's maids - a supporting character. Enjoying the line made me think about the importance of supporting roles. 

In Shakespeare a number of plays open with minor characters discussing events - an insight into the back story that would be classed as an 'info- dump' in modern terms - but necessary on Shakespeare's stage where there were minimal props, costumes and scenery. It's difficult to imagine what it must have been like to be in a first night audience for a new play from Shakespeare - that would be top of my list of places to go if I ever got hold of a time machine. The only way you'd know where you were would be from listening to the actors. And Shakespeare has some memorable openings - in Hamlet, the battlements of Elsinore, with a ghost wandering, the Scottish play, with three witches casting a spell, Othello, which begins in the middle of an argument - all great scene setters. And then throughout the plays supporting characters report and comment on the action, keeping the playgoer up to date with what has gone on off stage. 

We're a little more sparing with our supporting cast, these days. Early in my writing career I was picked up in a critique for inventing too many people. I was writing a rom/com and they were all having funny and witty conversations all over the place. At least, I thought they were. Except, as was crisply pointed out to me, they were detracting from the main protagonists, the hero and heroine, on whom attention should have been focused. I wasn't happy with the criticism. I'd worked hard on all those witty asides, but I kept it in mind. 

Now, writing romantic thrillers, I find I'm much less tempted to over indulge in supporting cast. While the hero and heroine must have someone to bounce ideas off - the hero needs a side kick and the heroine a best friend - part of the tension comes from isolating the protagonists and throwing them back on their own resources, and on each other. Which means they have to trust each other ...
These days I chose my supporting cast carefully - when they do appear, I want to be sure that they have a significant role. 
Listen carefully to that supporting actor - what they have to say may be a matter of life or death.  

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