17 September 2014

The value of editing

I just remembered that at primary school I tried to put on a play of The Little Mermaid. This followed on from a number of successful productions that had received critical acclaim from teachers and classmates alike. A few of us were collaborating regularly as writers, producers and actors, and now we were ready for the big time.

(Yes, I was precocious. I also wrote three books at primary school, one of which I typed up, illustrated and sold to my friends' parents for £1 a go. But don't worry, by the time I got to the third year of secondary school, I'd had every last ounce of confidence knocked out of me by acne and the bleep test (ironic).)

Until The Little Mermaid, each of our plays had been short, carefully scripted and well-rehearsed. There was one that I remember as a kind of parable about stealing and another that involved making giant, cardboard dinosaur heads. In hindsight, I probably should have made a few cuts to the lengthy dinosaurs-eating-each-other scene in the latter, but I think it may have been there to illustrate a point about the futility of existence...

The Little Mermaid was different. It was an adaptation of the popular Disney film by the same name, featuring all the same characters, the exact same script and an approximately similar running time (83 min). We were obviously working to a much tighter budget than Disney, which resulted in several of our mums being driven up the wall by our endless pursuit of silver milk bottle tops for the making of mermaid scales.

Somehow, I had taken charge of this epic production and it is still a source of embarrassment to me that as a year four junior, I did not recognise the value of a good edit. Possibly I hadn't even heard of editing. Had I done so, I swear that play would have been at least 75 minutes shorter. I can distinctly remember standing in the school playground trying to direct another shambolic rehearsal that never progressed beyond the first 15 minutes of the "script" (which was largely in our heads), while distracted nine-year-olds snuck off for games of "horses". The thought did flit through my mind that we might not be ready, but as the performance drew closer, there seemed to be no question that it must go ahead.

When the curtains opened (metaphorically, because our theatre was the void of the school sports hall), we must have been intending on performing some of the play completely unrehearsed, banking on the fact that all of us were so familiar with the content of the film that we would be able to wing it. I was playing Sebastian the crab, as well as a number of other characters that I can't recall now. I feel so sorry for everyone involved but especially the teachers, who were not aware of the running time, the number of costume changes or the fact that at some points we would be wearing bikinis. Oh god.

As it was, the 83 minutes never played out in full because, fairly quickly, a teacher decided enough was enough and called a halt to it. The experience must have been pretty mortifying because I think that was the last time I ever acted in anything. With the exception of a dance production about electrical circuits penned by our headmaster, in which I was assigned the minor role of A Wire and made to tiptoe about to music from The Nutcracker. (This was a far less distressing role than the one selected for my best friend, Sarah, who played The Bulb.)

Anyway, having shared this traumatic episode with you, I feel that there is at least something we can all learn from it about the value of editing. Which is that editing is crucial and often just as crucial - particularly when you are ripping off an entire Disney film for a school play - as the writing process itself.

Also, any intended philosophical point to a scene about dinosaurs eating other dinosaurs is probably going to be lost on nine-year-olds, so you should edit accordingly.

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