Postcards From The Old Country

It’s 6.30 in the morning on a beach in Southern Goa. The heat has yet to descend and I’m sat, half watching the sea, half nervously eyeing two stray dogs, trying to recall my rabies vaccination history. For their part, the dogs are happy to lollop about without a consideration towards me.

Culturally and geographically, Goa faces West and because of the latter the sunrise is a bit of a non-event. That doesn’t matter though because a soak in last night’s travel ad sunset, mojito in hand, has melted months of London mental grime and made me seriously question my allegiance to the city. Hemingway, wherever you are, I get the whole Cuba thing now.

It was a brief moment of un-interrogated joy. For to enjoy a holiday in a hotel resort in the developing world is to partake in a substantial suspension of disbelief in the face of a Brechtian level of disruption.

Just this morning, between the crow dragging a dead rat into the undergrowth, it’s beak clamped firmly around the rodent’s neck vein and the dark, hunched woman, sweeping leaves from the paths amongst a cloud of DTT, it was difficult to escape the fact that, in every sense, this is a paradise built on sand.

I know this smacks of liberal hand wringing. I’m sure that tourism brings much welcomed income, employment and prosperity to the area, and that the locals are happier for it, regardless of how unevenly those gains may be distributed.

It’s just unnerving to be part of a generation of holidaying Westernised Indians returning to splash cash in their ancestral home knowing that the difference between the American girl whopping with glee in a parasail and the malnourished man with the practiced smile thatching the roof of a beach hut is a grandparent who, 70 odd years ago, looked out to that same sea I’m staring at now, perhaps with rabies ridden dogs in their mind, and thought “fuck it, I’m off.”

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What Do Playwrights Need?

Ask not what theatre can do for you…

Last Sunday I attended a symposium at the University of Essex’s Lakeside Theatre that attempted to answer the question, “What Do Playwrights Need?”

My fear of attending a symposium – elegant word, imposing concept – was dissolved both by the presence of my fellow Escalator writers on the train there and crayons at the registration desk. The day was filled with discussions, provocations and play readings (including extracts from our Escalator pieces), punctuated by addresses from Steve Waters and Fin Kennedy. Personally, it was great to see parts of True Brits performed in front of a majority non-London audience. One of my main aims for my time on the Escalator programme was a chance to develop and try out work in the Eastern region, away from my hometown.

Reading an extract from Kenneth Emson's "Capital"
Reading the opening scene from Kenny Emson’s “Capital”

The event wasn’t a five hour back patting session as one might envisage it being. If anything the banner cry of the day was “get off your arse”. Not so much an admonishment of lazy scribes, more a call to recognise that the process of how plays come to be staged has changed and writers need to work at making relationships with theatres and other theatremakers rather than expecting people and opportunities to come to them from the submission of a script alone.

Partially, this is a result of an excess of supply without increased demand. It might annoy some to talk about art in the lingo of economics, but I was heartened to see the attendees at least consider it. The consensus seemed to be that the golden, well funded years of the last decade created a critical mass of playwrights but without a matching increase in production slots. More writers with more plays competing for the same prize. It reminds me of a talk I went to last year where a BBC producer told us that she once had to beg people to write for Eastenders – now she needs an oar to beat them away with. It doesn’t serve anyone to ignore this. This doesn’t mean that a playwright should start pedalling towards what they think a theatre wants or should stop focusing on Making Good Art or throw themselves off the QE2 Bridge in despair – more that they should keep themselves open to opportunities beyond the desk-type-manuscript-mailbox cycle. Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder and all that.

Tom "David Lynch Ate My Haircut" Clancy putting the theatrical world to rights
Tom “David Lynch Ate My Haircut” Clancy putting the theatrical world to rights

Steve Water’s final point in his speech was that playwrights need other playwrights – someone to sympathise with errant casting, someone to be a bit jealous of in a way that challenges you to do better, someone to help foster new and exotic vices. Whilst my year as an HighTide Escalator writer has certainly improved my professionalism and career prospects, the relationships I’ve formed with the other writers has been the most affecting part of the whole experience.

What do I think playwrights need? Tough love, an idea about where they want to go (even if it’s not where they end up) and a reminder that we’re all not long for the grave. Basically, they need to take a car journey with Kenny Emson.

Some of Steve Water’s thoughts can be found in this Ideastap interview and a transcript of Fin Kennedy’s keynote speech is available on his blog.

£15 Patels

JayabenI adore this photo of 70s factory strike/union leader Jayaben Desai.

It makes me think of my grandmother, though her situation was a little different.  Whilst she, like Desai, worked in a factory when she came over, she got spat on by union workers for her trouble. My granddad – a man who used to be a union shop steward – told me that as much as he disliked Margaret Thatcher, he was grateful to her for getting police to put a stop to the abuse women like my grandma got from union men.

 

Allegiances: Always a lot messier than you’d like, eh?

If In Doubt, Tack Towards Levity

I woke up a lot less hungover than I thought I’d be this morning and continuing with this productive start, I thought I’d write a few words about the process of bringing Slingshot to the stage. You can find the script here.

First of all, when I sat down to write it, I knew I wanted to write something different from what I usually do, something that absolutely had to be for theatre, and so threw out my usual process. Instead I just gave myself a couple of “rules”: No scene longer than eight lines (bent that rule a bit), as little punctuation as possible, no scene headings, stage directions. I wanted it to be a play built on repetition and reflections and fluidity, with these being the source of audience satisfaction rather than a classic story arc. The only hint as to where I saw the scene breaks was that the last line of every “scene” as I saw it could possibly be played in the scene before or after it. The result was something far less prescriptive and controlled than my standard writing. It was writing that was, hopefully, less inflected with intention and something a director and a couple of actors could play around with as much as possible. Of course, the upshot of this is the nerves set in more fiercely than normal. I usually hope, in a somewhat cowardly/deluded way, to write pieces that are “bullet-proof”, that is they would still mostly work as pieces of writing by themselves with minimal work, or if something went wrong. That isn’t the case with Slingshot – it needs competent, considerate playmates to bring out its potential.

The first of which was the director, Luke. He said he picked it because he “read it and had no idea what it would look like.” Brilliant! Not sure I’d be that brave. I had a certain idea of how I would direct the play if I had to (I think all writers do) – mostly light, lots of awkwardness, the occasional hit of something stronger. Luke worked up the drama in it more, whilst retaining a sense of playfulness, and it was fascinating as a writer watching that happen. I don’t really have a head for straight drama, which is why I like my comedy-drama shtick. I’m trying to teach myself to get better at it, but it’s hard to resist a gag. People say comedy is hard to pull off, but I think a strong mostly, straight drama is far more difficult. Irony sits at the heart of most British audiences and performers and I think we find it hard to take ourselves or anything too seriously. To make a drama work, it’s got to have a certain seriousness about it that you commit to. I reckon I’d walk out on drama fairly sharpish. The reward for sticking with it though is the possibility of moments of real beauty, and seeing what I did of the play in rehearsals, those started to pop out from the script in ways I hadn’t intended or could’ve imagined, due to the investment the team made in it. I think this is partly visible from this timeline they made. It contains a list of firm choices made from the loose (ish) script. Some the same as I’d thought, some very different, all indicative of a lot of thought and care:

Timeline

Slingshot was a superb experience for me, both in terms of the development of my writing and working with others in an unfamiliar way and if I’ve never been shaking more before a piece of mine was performed, I also don’t think I’ve been more pleased with it after.

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Slingshot, performed at the Park Theatre, 30th September 2013, as part of the Little Pieces of Gold Showcase.

Director: Luke Lutterer

Assistant Director: Maxim Ryder

Sound Design/Composer: Finn Anderson

Cast: Callum Cameron & Tiana Khan

Sling
(c) Helen Murray