Category Archives: Guest Post

Adaptation, or what you will: Chloë Myerson from Monkhead Theatre on writing adaptations

Ever wanted to know more about writing an adaptation? We asked writer and co-founder of Monkhead Theatre,  Chloë Myerson, to reflect on her experience of working on adaptations and to share her tips with us…
Monkhead Theatre’s latest show, Collective Intelligence #1 The Interpretation of dreams, an adaptation of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, takes place at the Bunker Theatre on Monday 12 November. Book here

 

Sir Toby Belch is wearing a gold lamé doublet and matching hot pants, Elizabethan boots and a blonde 60s-style wig. Andrew Aguecheek has long stringy cornflake-coloured hair and wears a watermelon-stained white onesie with suspenders, his feet are bare and his mouth is always open. They stand on the side of the stage behind two microphones, drinking wine, making obscene puns and cracking jokes about French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent ‘Benalla’ scandal.

The audience, packed into the gorgeous, two-hundred-year-old baroque velvet shelving system that is the Comedie Française theatre in Paris, howls with laughter. But something else happens as well. They sit up, they shift their bodies just a little closer to the performers, they shuffle their buttocks as if they want to stand up, they take quick, tight breaths. You notice it most sharply with the kids and teenagers (this is a Sunday matinee).

The one in front of us swivels her tweeny bespectacled head around to the parent/ guardian next to her with a half-scandalised-half-delighted look that says ‘can they do this?!’ They react the same way when Andrew waggles his penis at Malvolio in fury, when Malvolio is trapped in a well with turds schlopping down on him from above, and when at the end of the play the walls behind the stage are literally pulled down.

These kids weren’t exactly bored for the rest of Thomas Ostermeier’s bombastic La Nuit Des Rois Ou Tout Ce Que Vous Voulez (Twelfth Night, or What You Will), but until these moments had perhaps forgotten something that we all forget most of the time.

There are no rules (in art).

We’re in a constant state of forgetting this. And when we are reminded of it, by a piece of great art, there’s a kind of physical feeling, isn’t there? I feel it in my chest, like a little motor’s just been switched on. Like I want to get up and run.

Hopefully, all good or great pieces of art perform this function in some way, but when it comes to adaptation, particularly of the serious classics, it becomes the whole point. For me, anyway.

My name’s Chloë, I’m a TV and theatre writer who (without thinking all that much about it) has come to specialise in adaptations. I’m currently developing a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for Wall to Wall (Warner Bros.) and my theatre company Monkhead Theatre, which I co-run with director Nico Pimparé, does experimental versions of classic literature. We began last year with a full-length adaptation of Gogol’s unfinished novel Dead Souls and since then we’ve worked on site-specific pieces, setting Julius Caesar in an actual hip-hop festival stage-and-mosh-pit in Senegal and Hamlet in an abandoned suburban house in Paris. Now we’re back in London and although we’re in an actual theatre again, our latest venture – The Interpretation of Dreams – is by no means a more traditional adaptation.

 

Monkhead adapt a site-specific Hamlet in a house in Paris, September 2018. L-R:Thibault Matard (Barnardo)
Sean Hardy (Horatio), Thomas Peterson (Hamlet),, Kasper Klop (Marcellus), Nico Pimparé (Director)

As part of our new semi-regular rapid-response night Collective Intelligence, we’ve invited a range of writers, artists, musicians and performers to collaborate on a collective adaptation of Sigmund Freud’s seminal turn-of-the-century-text about the inner workings of our sleeping and waking brains. This involves bringing our 3 writers, 3 performers, 1 movement director and 1 sound & video artist together on a grey Wednesday to chat about psychoanalysis, dreams and fantasies and to run around improvising pieces at SET Dalston (thanks again, guys). Right now our creatives are all squirrelled away, working on their pieces (due in Friday!) which will be collated along with my material into a full-length show by us, in time for November the 12th.

So, what advice would I give them if they asked me what the four keys to a great adaptation are?

Well, that’s very specific, I’d say, but here they are:

1. Why this? Why now?

Our Collective Intelligence artists didn’t have much of a choice of material. But it’s true that, as corny as it sounds, the material often chooses you. Sometimes you pick an old book up off the floor outside your housemate’s room and read it and, instead of feeling like you’re in a cosy little 19th century drawing room, you feel like you’re suspended upside down at the highest bend of a rollercoaster, watching your own society below. It’s a feeling both exhilarating and worrying.

For instance, we were attracted to Gogol’s flaming satire Dead Souls partly because of how similar the subprime mortgage crisis that precipitated the crash of 2008 was to the protagonist’s task in the novel (collecting technically dead but legally ‘alive’ souls from idiotic landowners in order to fraudulently use them as collateral for a government loan). There seems to be something nauseatingly enduring about Capital’s ability to turn human beings into numbers and profit, and wedded to that was the fantastically specific story of Chichikov, the broke and insecure upper-lower-middle class nobody that pursues this wretched scheme.

And there comes the second key…

2. Embrace/ Incorporate problems.

At Monkhead we’re often attracted to texts that present both a clear modern analogue and a lot of contrast with our current world. Chichikov’s a specific character, formed by Russian society’s complicated relationship with the emerging middle class at the start of the 19th century. We wanted to explore that too. We let the modern world and the old world co-exist on our stage. Anachronisms and glitches abounded. Our characters dressed in 19th century clothes and used Skype and phones. On live video, they left the stage and chatted to the ‘real people’ in the pub below the theatre, asking about local landowners and plagues. We let the audience take it all in, without patronising them by trying to jam a round peg into a square hole for an hour and half. That’s probably a Beckett play…

3. Be Experimental.

People, some more politely than others, have asked what we mean when we call ourselves an ‘experimental theatre company’. One answer is that it associates our work with a certain school of theatre-makers (more German, less British, more multimedia, less text-based). But that’s only half-true. If you ask me what it really means I’d say just remembering that there are no rules, and seeing where that takes you. Letting the creative solution become the play.

We did this with our live video in Dead Souls, our collective creation in Dreams, and our use of two languages (French and Wolof) to represent the divide between politicians and plebeians in Julius Caesar. The great thing about having a classic text upon which to base your play (especially one written by someone long dead) is that you as the writer are freed up from the usual don’t-touch-my-fucking-script-you-don’t-understand! role and instead take on one similar to the actors and director – one of interpretation. Suddenly you’re free to tear things up and start again, in a way that’s so hard to do with your own work.

4. Think Like a Director.

It’s that separateness from the text that is so freeing, and it will also make you a better writer. There are many British playwrights decrying the German/ European style’s disregard for the sanctity of the text (including me, especially when I’m drunkenly arguing with my French co-Artistic Director, Nico). But it might be useful to think about what writers can learn from directors, or from performing a similar role themselves.

In our recent Hamlet et Le Spectre (Hamlet and The Ghost), I reconfigured the early scenes from Hamlet, smooshing together all the parts involving the ghost: Horatio and the soldiers on the battlements where it first appears, them telling Hamlet, and finally Hamlet confronting it. This became a single 20 minute play, set during the late/ early pitch-black hours of a suburban twenty-something house party. We had to come up with creative ways to glue the scenes together – Hamlet’s I.2 scene became an irate phone call with his mum, and the space between Hamlet being told about the ghost and seeing it for himself became an impromptu music jam featuring drums, guitar, piano, trumpet and megaphone.

Those parts were fun, but there’s a deeper satisfaction to making an adaptation really flow, and it’s not just about chopping. It’s the thrill that comes from holding the text’s heart, its problems and your own ideas in your head at the same time, and finding the magical points where they converge.

As I queue for the toilet at the Comedie Française (almost three hours, no interval, wtf), the old ladies behind me chat about the play. They aren’t sure it was suitable for kids, but their attitude seems generally tolerant and amused. They all agree it was thoroughly déjanté. Later I ask Nico what this word means. Crazy, he says, and goes on to tell me that a jante is the rim of a wheel, and déjanté means that the car has been going so fast and furious that the rims have spun completely off.

I certainly don’t believe that theatre should be all destruction and bombast. I don’t think Ostermeier does either. But I do think, in these specific times, that it might be important to make works of art in which things come violently apart. I like to do that with texts I love by old white men, but it could be anything.

There are no rules.

Chloë Myerson is a TV and theatre writer represented by The Agency  She co-founded Monkhead Theatre with Nico Pimparé in 2017 and their debut play Dead Souls received critical acclaim for its sold out run at Theatre N16. She now lives and works in Paris and London.

You can watch the trailer for Collective Intelligence #1 The Interpretation of Dreams below…

The Dead Stage by Dan Weatherer: book excerpt and and advice for new playwrights

Staffordshire based author, Dan Weatherer, is set to release a new book, The Dead Stage, detailing his experiences as a playwright and offering advice for writers wanting to break into the theatre industry. 

Dan, 39,has been writing stage plays for three years. In that time he has seen a number of pieces performed in the UK and USA. He has also published and sold performance rights to several more.

In The Dead Stage, he shares his early mistakes, offers tips on tailoring your work to the needs of the theatre industry and draws upon advice from theatre professionals. 

Here, Dan shares his motivation for writing the book along with an excerpt…

“This book is about sharing my experiences and mistakes, in the hope that I can help others avoid the pitfalls that I fell into.”

Placing a stage play with a theatre company is (in my experience) more difficult than placing a book with a publisher. Open theatre calls are highly competitive, seeing hundreds of entries for a call that can possibly stage only three or four pieces. Quality of work is no longer enough to guarantee consideration for performance.

The tips and advice contained in The Dead Stage allowed me to build an impressive portfolio of theatre work in a relatively short space of time. I believe it is important to share experiences if they may be able to help others achieve success.

Throughout my career, I have worked to create opportunities for others, believing it is better to be a small fish in a thriving ocean, rather than a big fish in a stagnant pond..

Theatre, more than any other medium, is a tough industry to break into. Every piece a playwright will write will always be in competition with work from the greatest playwrights of all time.

Theatre is a business: seats need to be sold in order to keep theatres running, and so often established pieces are booked instead of the work of what many might term the ‘New Writing’. This is because they are considered safe bookings, and the theatre will, in most instances, not lose money. New writing is considered a risk. Usually, theatres set aside a budget for new writing, but this is often small and tightly contested.

But theatre needs new voices and there are theatre companies willing to give new writing a chance. This book is my way of saying that yes, it is possible to see your work performed on stage, no matter your previous experience in the theatre industry.

Excerpt from The Dead Stage

From ‘Place the Play’ essay…

So, you have penned your theatrical debut and it is a masterpiece, but what now? How do you get your freshly completed stage play from your hard drive and onto the stage?

Believe it or not, this is not as daunting or as complicated a process as it might sound. While there is no 100% sure-fire way to ensure your piece gets to be performed on stage, I will share a few useful tips that will save you a lot of time when it comes to submitting material, and help manage your expectations of what you can expect to experience during the process. Again, I must stress that this is in no way, shape or form the ONLY way to get your work onto the stage, but as of writing this I have only been writing as a playwright for eighteen months, and I have already had several pieces of work staged/aired in the UK/USA, and have successfully landed representation as a playwright. What has worked for me may work for you.

OK, so let’s dive in with what I have learned during my short stint as a playwright:

First, some truths as regards to theatre and new writing (most of what I will discuss is born of my experience with the UK theatre scene, but I imagine some of it will ring true wherever you are in the world). New writing is seen as a gamble, more so than with regard to traditional book publishing. Many believe that theatre is the toughest nut to crack when compared to film and book industries. The aim of the theatre is to make money by filling seats. The sad truth is that new writers are not often seen as seat fillers, and theatre companies are reluctant to take a risk on any piece, regardless of its merit, if they feel the name of the author is not enough of a draw to cover their overheads and make a profit.

However, don’t despair! There are many theatres that DO encourage new writing, and they often post submission calls detailing exactly the kind of work that they are looking for. I use the Play Submission Helper and the London Playwrights Blog. Check them often and I guarantee you will eventually come across a theatre/group that will be willing to read your work. From then, it is a case of following their submission guidelines and waiting patiently for a response (please bear in mind that response times vary considerably, and as with any submission, decisions are based a multitude of factors, and feedback is rarely provided with a rejection).

Before You Submit:

Proof it.

How many times have you looked over your work, confident that it reads perfectly well, submitted it, then later found a glaring typo?

Proofreading a script is just as important as proofreading a manuscript. Shabby submissions rarely get to the stage. Remember, you might be submitting alongside countless other playwrights; you may as well give your work the best chance of acceptance possible by submitting a watertight script to begin with.

Further, if you can get a group of people together to read your script aloud before submitting, you will immediately hear if your dialogue is in need of further work. Hearing others speak your material will highlight any clunkiness of dialogue, or other shortfalls (such as the flow of the piece, plot holes, etc.). I would also advise listening to what your readers/performers have to say with regards to your characters. For example, not everybody speaks in full sentences, and your readers may highlight lines that feel awkward when spoken aloud. Properly written dialogue can be wooden and unbelievable. Listen to how it is performed and amend accordingly. You will be surprised at how different a line is heard as to read inside your head. However, taking into account their feedback is entirely up to you (not every piece of advice you will be given need be followed, after all: you are the architect of the piece), but sometimes they may be able to highlight issues that you may have overlooked. All of this effort can help fine-tune a script and make it ‘pop’ from the page, improving your chances of success.

The Dead Stage by Dan Weatherer is published by Crystal Lake Publishing and is available from 19 October via Amazon.

You can find out more about Dan Weatherer on his website. 

Working class voices: vibrancy, determination and finding inspiration in the ordinary

The lack of working class voices in UK theatre at the moment finally seems to be coming to the forefront of discussion, with theatres such as the Royal Court attempting to address the issue.

 

In this guest post, playwright Joanne Sherryden reflects on being a working class writer, talks about why we need to hear working class voices and shares some advice…

“Writing about working class characters and their stories wasn’t something I did consciously. It’s just what I did.”

Until recently, it genuinely never actually occurred to me that I was a ‘working class’ writer. Writing about working class characters and their stories wasn’t something I did consciously. It’s just what I did. These are the voices that I hear in my head. Their stories are the stories that I want to tell.

For me, I believe that theatre, like all art, should represent the full spectrum of society. Nothing thrills me more than seeing, characters on stage who speak like me and tell stories about people where I come from. Not literally, although that’s great, as well. But I’m talking about working class characters worldwide. Their stories, when told well, are universal. And I have to say most of these characters don’t happen to be racist, scrounging, uncultured, thugs. And they tend not to be victims, either. They have an energy, vibrancy, dynamism and visceral drive that, for me, is life affirming. These characters come more from the heart, rather than the head. Soul music, rather than classical. I love the poetry and bite of their language. The colloquialisms, the slang, the banter. I’m not gonna lie – I also love a cheeky swearword. I think there’s an art to swearing. Just as I disagree that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit – I love a sarcky put down, I also think there can also be a sublime eloquence to a perfectly placed swear word.

“Nothing is wasted. Life experience fuels my writing”

I’ve been asked if I have any advice to give other writers. I am the last person to give advice! But I would say if you have to write, you will write. I would also say writing is hard. But it’s meant to be hard. Get used to it. Like most people, I don’t have a trust fund, so I also work a ‘normal job’ and I have two children. Although my life is busy and can get in the way of my writing, I’ve also learned that nothing is wasted. Life experience fuels my writing. The main protagonist in my play, Lia, was inspired by someone I met at a bus stop on my way to one of my many crappy jobs.

“Send your stuff out.”

I sent my play Mermaids out in response to a call out for working class writers – and now it’s being produced. There is no way I would ever have been able to afford to produce my work in London. But it all started because one person, our director, Shiv, read my play and liked it. It’s now being produced in an Off West End Theatre with all creatives being paid on an Equity Scale. Hat’s off to the King’s Head who put their money where their mouth is.

“Believe in yourself”

Finally, believe in yourself. Of course you’ll have days when you think you’re crap. But overall, you have to believe you have something to say and a unique way of saying it. Cos if you don’t believe it, no one else will.

Joanne’s play, Mermaids takes place from Monday 2 July 2018 – Friday 6 July 2018 at the King’s Head Theatre and is directed by Siobhan James-Elliott. Find out more and book tickets here.