Had an interesting debate this week about the naming of characters in a play. I’m doing some dramaturgy for the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry for a number of shows being created by the Community and Education Company.
One of the shows has been devised and written by members of the cast and the directors of the piece – a large group of male and female young people made up of a diverse range of individuals from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and encompassing a broad spectrum of ability and experience.
Perfect. Right up my strasse in terms of theatre being a true reflection and microcosm of our day to day existence – at least as a starting point anyway. So I have to admit I was surprised when I read the cast list for the emergent play as on paper it appeared that everyone in the play was white, English and middle class – nothing inherently wrong with that- but I knew that a) as already stated, not everyone in the group matched this profile and b) not everyone in the play in terms of their characters matched this profile either.
And so the debate began. My advice? Change the character’s name to be a truer and more interesting reflection of the people populating the world on the stage. There was resistance, it’s true, but it’s also true, there was persistence – if not quite insistence – from me as well.
There’s enough people who have been on my playwriting courses who will know what I think about names.
Names are important. I know it’s partly a cultural thing for me – and people who share my Nigerian background will feel it and know it even stronger than me – and I think they’re right. It’s not just cultural, it’s primal I reckon.
Think about your name right now. What does it mean to you when you think about it, when you say it, when you tell it to other people, when you hear it said by other people, when you see it written down, spelt incorrectly, or hear it mispronounced or when you discover it’s shared by other people? Who named you and why? Who are you named after? Where did your name come from? Have you changed your name, do you want to change your name, will you change your name if you get married, if you have kids what will their surname be? Have you got a nickname? Have you got a pseudonym?
You may think I’m being pedantic and perhaps over-thinking this somewhat – I know members of the Belgrade youth theatre did – but just think about how much thinking and emotion goes into your name, or any name, without it being insisted upon. It just does.
So when it comes to making theatre I think it makes sense that a similar depth and degree of thinking goes into the naming of your characters. The name is a fantastic resource to be drawn upon, like a deep, deep well of emotion, history, quirks of fate, travesties of justice, happy unions, psychology, status, class, education, aspiration, ethnicity……identity. It’s all in there – in your name – whether you know it, like it, recognise it, or not. It is inescapably so.
So I say, don’t dismiss it, underplay it or waste it. Draw upon it, reflect upon it but above all, use it for all its worth. Allow it to inform you, influence you and speak for you…because it will anyway as soon as it’s out there in the domain.
What’s your name? As soon as the answer is ascertained the story begins… assumptions, impressions, discoveries, double-takes, re-thinks, curiosity fired, inspired and enquired. Whatever you say in response to that question, rest assured that a degree of creativity has been involved in creating your name – and the same should be true of your characters when you’re making theatre or rather in the case of creating characters – be certain that you have been decisive in your creative choices. It’s an informed decision that informs your creative process and the shape and direction of your playmaking – giving it another level.
What’s in a name? A lifetime of experiences, emotions, events, turning points, decisions, relationships, ‘coming togethers’, ‘drifting aparts’, statements of intent, identity and recognition. When you go to school and they call out your name at the start of each day, it’s no coincidence that the affirmative response is present – that’s right, that’s exactly it! You have a name that is as individual as your thumbprint in its significance, definition and meaning to you – which means you are present. Not written out, ignored, overlooked, taken for granted and blended into the background, but giving you the power to say you are here and you are important.
Sorry, tell me again, what’s your name?