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:


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.


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

(c) Helen Murray

8 thoughts on “If In Doubt, Tack Towards Levity

  1. ANY piece of theatre needs ‘competent, considerate playmates’ to succeed – it would indeed be deluded to think otherwise! Of course the style of a play affects the relationship between writer’s intent/expectation and what materialises, but there’s a difference between directorial skill and surprising a writer. You can direct skilfully and surprisingly, but it also takes great skill to precisely execute a writer’s intention. I know your point is mainly about your experience of writing this, but it bugs me how quickly people dismiss directors, unless their impact on a production is really obvious. Subtlety is an art too.

  2. – Of course you need good people to do super well, just some texts are easier to ‘display’ than others. I maintain that a two hander with dialogue full of “the funnies” with clear motivations and intentions – a form a lay audience would settle into quite quickly – is easier to throw up onto its feet quickly in a way that expresses the writer’s intention than, say, a Sarah Kane piece that needs more investigation. I’ve been to a shit-tonne of readings the last year that have borne that belief out.

    – Either way, I am talking specifically about the process of doing this play, which was all about not sticking to my intention if not wanted, even where it was clearer.

    – Luke, the director trainee assisted directed on the Young Vic’s “A Doll’s House”, a straightly directly piece that’s had lots of praise for its direction, and that’s usually the kind of thing he was attracted to. Nobody is suggesting that subtlety or evoking intention isn’t an art. My favourite piece of the night at the Park was a simple two hander that was successfully, subtly directed and acted.

    – Posting on blogs at 1.30 AM is bad for your health :p

  3. “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.”

    I am totally down with that shtick. because it’s, more or less, my shtick as well. I can’t write a scene without gags just sprouting up. I’m not sure this is something I want to change, for now I’m just leaving it as-is. But I totally agree that if you just play it for laughs, you never really reach any destination of real emotional depth.

    I feel you’re kind to those who write “straight drama”. A lot of the stuff I’ve seen on the fringe smacks of self-important SERIOUS THEATRE. Humourless, serious, because it’s “arty”. I like theatre that deals with serious topics but doesn’t take itself too seriously. (I hope that made sense). Combining the humour with the emotional depth is tricky, something I’m trying to find out how to do better myself…

    I think it was brave of you to write something that far out of your comfort zone. Clearly it was a worthwhile experiment. It makes me think that it’s been a while since I’ve seriously stretched myself in that way…

    Señor Playwright

    • Señor Playwright,

      Yeah I think that the humour helps draw out drama and I agree about the Fringe Importance killing off theatre joy buuuuut a good, mostly straight drama done well tears you apart in a way I can’t seem to manage yet (off the top of my head, the recent Dolls House which I saw when it was at the Young Vic I thought was astonishing).

      I think trying new things is useful but with the MASSIVE caveat that a writer’s career is more often than not based on the ability to replicate the same sort of tone as earlier work whilst refining it. That is just as hard, if not harder, than trying new stuff because you the expectation of success is higher.

      Joy to you,
      Dusky Scribbler

      • Vin, I agree about the awesomeness of straight drama, but at the same time I am loving the fact that my ‘research questions’ for German’s plays are almost entirely composed of things like ‘what happens if you’re allergic to Tabasco?’ and ‘how drunk really were they?’ In this respect, the joys of working on comedy are unparalleled…

        (Obviously, entertaining me should be any writer’s chief goal.)

      • Well, as long as we’re still talking about plays, and this isn’t just you searching for more lucrative career options…

  4. But more seriously, what makes a straight drama great (IMO) is the depth and precision of the observations behind it, of what-people-do-and-why: the best ones are like watching a brilliant physics lecture, but about human behaviour. The pretentious ‘serious dramas’ that are depressingly abundant on the fringe often just lack perspective and seem more interested in flaunting the ‘seriousness’ of stuff than quietly examining it.

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