On Friday I attended the last workshop of Everyword. Jeanie O’Hare, the RSC’s Company Dramaturg, presented a session on rhetoric in drama. Rhetoric is defined as the art of winning the soul by discourse.
It is especially important in the context of large theatre, where a character must fill a stage and sway a substantial audience. Any rhetorical argument has three aspects: who, what and how. That is ethos (the character’s nature and authority), pathos (the emotional power of the argument) and logos (the logical, reasoned, core of the argument, and the techniques and structures for making it).
Jeanie argued that you can apply this both to dramatic technique, in speech and action on the stage, and to yourself as a writer. Before you write, she argued, you should understand who you are. This knowledge should form the basis of your writing. Without it, you’re in danger of writing what you think is expected of you. With this foundation in place, you can focus on the force of what you have to say and then the dramatic tools for expressing it. Get this right, and your characters will influence their peers on the stage, but then reach out to the audience and beyond.
We looked briefly at some of the rhetorical tools. There are some 120 named techniques with roots in Ancient Greek and Roman oration available to the writer. We settled upon an example: repetition. A single word or phrase is reused throughout a speech, adding urgency and force to an argument, carrying the audience along, building and pacing their response.
(Two minutes in for the passage)
We listened to an extract from Martin Luther King’s famous I’ve been to the mountaintop speech, his last before he was assassinated. Towards the end he repeats the phrases I didn’t sneeze, and if I had sneezed, building tension in steps up to a climax. The repetition both holds the audience back and prepares them for the final release when he finally reaches the mountaintop and looks over to the promised land, the certainty of a future he won’t reach.
Then it was our turn. Before we got onto speech-writing though, we worked through an exercise in character building. It’s one I’ll use again because it cuts to the primal nature of a character, and I’ll post it here soon.
After twenty minutes of writing, we presented speeches from the perspective of a character who must persuade an on-stage audience of something, something that matters.
An RSC actor read out the work (I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the name, I’ll make enquiries). This added real impact to the readings, which were pretty powerful.
My handwriting is dreadful, so I had to read my own work. And that is how I got to stand on the Everyman stage and read a speech to a real audience. A nice moment of make believe, and a very useful workshop.