Observation Journal — Five Things to Steal from the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre

On this observation journal spread, I consider Five Things to Steal from the National Theatre’s online broadcast of Jane Eyre, and decide I dislike watercolour pencils for all-over coverage.

Double page spread fo hand-written observation journal. On the left, things seen/heard/done and a picture. On the right, a list of 5 (actually 6) things to "steal" from Jane Eyre, with very tiny notes and elaborations.
Also a gecko landed next to my wine glass and I was attacked by chili fumes.

This page is another in the 5 Things to Steal series. In April 2020 I watched (with friends, some online) the National Theatre At Home’s Jane Eyre. It was fascinating and impressive, with many resonances with things I was interested in at the time, and am currently revisiting.

Handwritten observation journal page with a list of 5 (actually 6) things to "steal" from Jane Eyre, with very tiny notes and elaborations.

One of the main things that strikes me now is:

  • For all that comics creators like to talk about being able to use bigger budget effects than cinema, theatre feels a lot closer to comics than either books or movies do. Some possible reasons it gives me this impression (particular to me and full of generalisations):
    • The very present and obvious framing of it (panels vs sets).
    • The obviously external, sequential nature (page-bound in a way novels don’t always seem to be vs stage-bound in a way movies rarely are — although I love both when they play with those possibilities).
    • A simplification and stylisation of iconography (for clarity/communication/style in comics; for the same reasons in theatre but also sty
    • The clear visual riffing on a written-down script.
    • A conscious, sometimes self-conscious, use of (and even weaponisation of) the apparent limitations of the medium.

Some other points (phrases in bold are mostly so I can find them again):

  • Externalisation of thoughts in a way that was sometimes literal.
    • This can be fascinating or charming or shift point of view in strange ways — I was thinking of Calvin & Hobbes and comedy videos and (although I read it after this, I think) Paul Cornell’s Chalk. I’m getting interested in different ways of depicting points of view (in prose and images), so I’ll revisit this.
    • But I also like what it can do to the reality of a story — in the play, Bertha was often on-stage as a sort of Greek chorus, and then you realise she is real. I don’t see enough theatre, but Bill Cain’s Equivocation rotated beautifully in and out of roles and reality/theatre.
    • I also have formless but strong feelings about point of view in several novels including Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, Kim Scott’s Taboo, and several Michael Innes mysteries.
  • The progression to adulthood by replacing parts of Jane’s costume on stage echoed recent thoughts on montages (Observation Journal — training/makeover montages).
  • The bare-bones/climbing-platform style of staging, with is so intriguingly both minimal/versatile and incredibly stagey (see Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digression on the appeal of staginess). I go back and forth on whether I can fully appreciate it in theatre, but I like its possibilities for illustration and also as a puzzle to play with in prose. And also just how it echoes play.
  • The casting of Laura Elphinstone as both Helen Burns and St John (among others), and how it echoed Amber McMahon’s Michael when I saw Tom Wright’s play of Picnic at Hanging Rock (Malthouse Theatre). This is either an amorphous thought about rhymes in visual character design, or it’s just that Twelfth Night casts long shadows.
  • The casting of a human (Craig Edwards) as Pilot (the dog), and how sometimes the easiest way to write animals is to write them as a particularly aggravating (or aggravated) person.

I’m trying to remember to include a brief plan of how to ‘steal’/repurpose elements. This page doesn’t go as far in that direction as I’d like. But it did tease out a few more topics I wanted to think on, and (as usual) at least meant I could hold a useful conversation about the play!

Observation Journal: Mix and Match

The length of the observation journal pages got thoroughly out of hand in mid-February.

Two densely handwritten pages from the observation journal. The first has notes on things seen, heard, and done on 10 February 2020. The second mixes and matches elements of Pride and Prejudice and Little Red Riding Hood.

Left page: Magpies and the doppler effect of lawn mowers, and how memory is stored in places.

A drawing of a man trying to mow very long grass.

Right page: Most ways I have of breaking things open and/or finding ideas involve knocking two stories (or other things) together until something interesting falls out. In this case, I was trying to formalise that approach. It spilled over into another double-page spread, and the conclusion that this is a process that works better in motion.

A close-up of the Pride & Prejudice and Little Red Riding Hood page.

The basic idea is to mix and match two stories. There are a few ways to do this, including:

  • Looking for resonances (intriguing and useful, but particularly for express reworkings of a story);
  • Randomising or forcibly mismatching all the elements (interesting but hard work if I don’t want to default to a mash-up/repurposing, which isn’t my favourite thing);
  • Picking one pair of elements that aren’t an obvious match, pairing them up, and then following the consequences.

The last one is my favourite, and it’s useful for drawing and choosing textures, doing close readings, and playing with stories. For instance, making Mary Bennett from Pride and Prejudice the Little Red Riding Hood of a story forces a careful consideration of her relationships to other characters — and she doesn’t have many. (I like to use a version of Little Red Riding Hood that involves her getting away from the wolf and running over a river on sheets stretched by washerwomen, but in the case of Pride & Prejudice the best thing for Mary is (explicitly) finally being away from her sisters.)

Making Rochester of Jane Eyre a Little Red Riding Hood and committing to that misreading once turned into a whole story (“The Wolves of Thornfield Hall, variations on a theme”,  Eleven Eleven Journal #19, 2015). There’s a lot of material to work with.

Here’s the first half of the second double-page spread (the last page turned into a story outline which is still in progress).

A handwritten page matching up elements of Twelve Dancing Princesses with aspects of Little Women.

In this case, I was listing the elements of the key story (“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”), looking for a corresponding element in the target story (“Little Women”), then finding echoes, and looking for imagery to enhance on that basis. This has a bit less character exploration in it, and isn’t as useful academically as an outright misreading, but it is really useful for playing up thematic and visual elements, choosing metaphors, and getting a source of coherent and consistent vocabulary and tone — more on this in future pages (or it’ll be familiar if you’ve done a narrative imagery workshop with me).

But codifying the ideas, while a useful distraction from… whatever I was meant to be doing, or possibly just from mid-February, isn’t as exciting as picking up the thread of an idea, the first interesting element, and running with it — pulling it until it unravels, or wandering off into other paths entirely, and following dancing princesses to see where they go in search of new adventures.

A drawing of a demure princess in a high-waisted dress.

Art/writing exercise

This exercise is fun for practising close-reading, spurious argument, and description. But allow yourself at the least provacation to bound away chasing some new and marvellous idea:

  1. Pick two rather different stories. For example:
    • pick two unrelated stories you’re familiar with (perhaps a favourite novel and the last fairy tale you saw referenced)
    • or try, for example, something like choosing the first and last movies you remember seeing in a cinema — for me this would be The Hunt for Red October and Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears and I have no regrets,
    • or take a story you love but that isn’t like the genre you work in, and a story you are currently trying to write or draw.
      In the example on the page above I had just watched the new Little Women and picked “Twelve Dancing Princesses” as the second story in an effort to tear myself away from using “Little Red Riding Hood”.
  2. Jot down the key characters (or places, or objects) from the first story.
  3. Match them up with elements in the second (randomly, or use less-obvious matches).
    E.g., here, I made Marmee stand in for Princesses 2-11.
  4. Work out what the resonances between those elements are or could be (even if it’s a bit of a stretch — this is the fun part).
    E.g., with Marmee (as with the intermediate princesses) she’s there and part of the story, but not obviously instigating or obviously primary to the narrative, but also manages to create a sense of abundance.
  5. Consider how you could describe or paint those characters (or places, or objects) in the second story to bring out those resonances — using, for example, observations or language or textures from the first story).
    E.g., I’ve just written “treasured, ornamented” here, because I was being seized with an Idea