Editors and Artistic Directors - So Much In Common.

Coming back to theatre with a bang: Wormwood
Novelist (and friend) Gillian Philip wrote an excellent piece on editors and editing for the winter edition of the Society of Authors in Scotland newsletter. So many people wanted to read it that she reposted it on her own blog, here and I can very much recommend it. 

I had just been involved in an online discussion about the role of the artistic director in a stage play and reading Gillian’s post, it struck me that there are parallels between a good artistic director and a good editor – just as there are striking and unfortunate parallels between a bad director and a bad editor.
Let me get the horror stories out of the way first.
Back when I was starting out in theatre, I wrote a play about the Solidarity movement in Poland and its effects on one family. I was ecstatic to be told that it would be performed at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre. That, though, was where the ecstasy ended. The first time I met the artistic director I realised that we had opposing views of the play. He took the script away and sent it back to me with massive rewrites on every page. He had torn it to bits, deleted large sections and rewritten it as the play he thought it should be. I fought as best I could, and so did the (lovely) cast, but it was a disaster. I was too young, too naive and too inexperienced. He was an elderly bully and it was years before I went back to theatre - with a play about the Chernobyl disaster for the Traverse in Edinburgh.
Later, this time with a novel, I encountered an editor who tried to do something similar. To be fair, some of the points she made were good, but she also made extensive changes to my manuscript without tracking them, rewriting whole chunks of my work in the kind of voice and idiom she would have used herself. By that stage I was confident enough to dig in my heels, but it was a tedious and time consuming business, going through my version and hers, reinstating my dialogue but trying to do useful rewrites where she had made fair points – which she had.
When I thought about it, I realised that a good artistic director and a good editor share quite similar qualities.
An artistic director will hold the ‘idea’ of the play in his or her head. The buck stops with her. If she is on anybody’s side, she is on the side of the play itself as you have intended it to be not as she might have written it herself. Not even as she wishes you had written it. It is her aim to make it as good as it possibly can be on its own terms. She will never do that by imposing her voice on the voice of the playwright. The process is much more collaborative, more fluid, more fascinating than that and since most directors are freelance she will almost certainly walk away rather than take on a play she dislikes. Since editors are increasingly freelance too, the same thing applies.
Anne Marie Timoney and Liam Brennan in Wormwood
There is an etiquette in theatre, so the actors will talk to the director and the writer will talk to the director, but the writer will not give instructions to the actors and the actors will not ask the writer for changes except through the director. If you know each other and have worked together before, there is a lot of leeway and what eventually emerges is a comfortably collaborative process. But I can think of many occasions where, for example, an actor has asked for changes and the director has said ‘not yet. Try it the way it’s written.’ The good director takes the work seriously, treats it (and you) with respect, but helps the playwright to see what needs to be seen. A little way into the rehearsal process, you can see where something isn’t working but it’s almost always you who make the changes.

Happy days with a very good director: Hamish Wilson
This is how it works with a good editor. I’ve just been working with one on the Physic Garden and it has been a joy. I knew that there was something not quite right somewhere, but I wasn’t sure what it was. It was something small, but it niggled. The editor read the manuscript, said ‘I love this book’ but instantly put her finger on what it was that had bugged me and the publisher. It was indeed something quite small but once she had pointed it out, it also seemed obvious and important. (It was one of those ‘why didn’t I see that?’ moments.) And it had a couple of knock-on effects on the rest of the story.  Essentially, it was a case of finding out how a particular character might really react at that point in the novel, and addressing it. It was the work of a couple of days to make the changes, but it mattered. There were other bits and pieces, of course: punctuation, the odd inconsistency or infelicity. But really, it was her ability to hone in on one small but vital facet of the story that was priceless and I’m glad I made the changes, glad to have worked with her. 

A good editor, like a good director is both unselfish and generous. But I’ve also come to realise that not everyone possesses those qualities, although they may be learned over a period of years. My genuinely bad experiences - I can count about four and that isn’t very many - involved people who were too ignorant to know how little they really knew. (Youth, though, wasn’t an issue because some of them were old enough to know better.) They were on a power trip, over confidently imposing their own views on whatever work they were editing or developing.  It was, I realised eventually, a bit like that scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith converts everything into a clone of himself. Too bad Neo wasn’t around to fight my corner when I needed him.

Comments