Category Archives: Guest Post

Among Angels: A Playwright’s Journey (from first play to full production)

In this guest post, playwright Timothy Graves reflects on the journey of writing his first play: from the initial inspiration to producing it at the Courtyard Theatre for a four week run this April. 

‘Never are we nearer the Light than when darkness is deepest.’

Among Angels’ is my first play.

I have written two novels before – ‘Homo Jihad’ and ‘Pharmakeia’ – both published by Paradise Press. ‘Homo Jihad’ was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. I have also written a memoir, ‘Human Angel’ which is awaiting publication.

Among Angels’ was my first ever venture into playwriting. I had studied Drama and English Literature at Exeter University many years ago and, more recently, completed a professional actor training at The City Lit. I think both my actor training and rediscovering a love for live theatre later in life, helped prepare the ground for me to embark on the playwright’s journey.

My inspiration for writing the play came from various sources.

Many years ago, I guess you could say I had what those in psychotherapeutic circles might call a ‘transpersonal’ experience. Those more spiritually inclined would probably view it as a mystical encounter. All I remember at the time was just an overwhelming angelic presence. Writing ‘Among Angels’ was, in part, my way of honouring that experience.

Although ‘Among Angels’ is predominantly focused on the Chemsex issue in the LGBTQ+ community and the protagonist, Chris Johnson, is forced to deal with a set of traumatic given circumstances that would break many a strong-willed person, there are angels in the play – gay angels to be precise – who come to his rescue.

I also knew the playwright Sarah Kane quite well and was inspired by her writing and her ability, at times, to use personally traumatic experiences as a source of inspiration to create great art; the personal  is also powerful and political. Kane explored the darker aspects of the human psyche and often communicated this to an audience in poetic form. In ‘Among Angels’ there is a chorus of angels who, at times, break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. When they do so, they often speak in verse.

But addiction and not psychosis – as in Kane’s ‘4.48 Psychosis’ – is the territory of ‘Among Angels.’ Addiction to methamphetamine or crystal meth to be specific. Theatre will always play an important role in reflecting and exploring what the lived human experience is all about. Narrative will always continue to explore, in different ways, the interplay between light and dark.     

Other sources of inspiration come from various plays I have seen.

The Inheritance’ by Matthew Lopez, moved me to tears. The writing was heart-felt and like many other members of the audience at The Young Vic last year, I was deeply affected by the dramatic representation  of gay men, towards the end of the first half of the play, who had died during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.

The fact that these gay men were spirits – and of course there are the angels in ‘Angels in America’ – I feel added a further dimension to the work and was an incredible example of how theatre can transport an audience through crossing boundaries; in this case the boundary between this world and the next.

Granted, a Shakespearean audience would, on the whole, have believed in the fairies, the witchcraft and the magic. But despite our modern technology and scientific discoveries, I still feel there is a propensity for a modern-day audience to suspend disbelief and enter into that magical ‘what if’ state of mind. There is, I believe, still the need to challenge an audience’s ontological beliefs.

I wrote the first draft of ‘Among Angels’ during the summer months of last year.

I find morning the best time to write – after breakfast and a strong coffee. I generally feel refreshed from sleep and my mind is alert. I also may have had certain breakthroughs pertaining to certain characters, relationships or narrative structure through dreams – the wisdom and insight  of which can quickly dissipate during the day; an early start to writing helps to minimise this.

In September, I participated in a short ‘Page to Stage’ course at The Arcola Theatre in Dalston.

Run by Rebecca Jones, this course proved to be a baptism of fire on the production side of things. Even though myself and other emerging playwrights on the course were often only showcasing the first few scenes of a full-length play, we were responsible for sourcing props, costume, casting the actors, hiring rehearsal space, finding a director and liaising with the sound and lighting designer.

This was an invaluable experience on two levels: Firstly, it gave me the confidence to produce my own play. So when the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton became interested in ‘Among Angels’, I was ready to take responsibility for producing the play In addition, watching the opening of my play at ‘The Arcola’ was an interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable experience. I realised that I didn’t want my play to open in the way that it did! One thing was certain – a major redraft was on the cards…

Attending a short LPW course run by Kimberley Andrews, playwright and playwrighting tutor at RADA, was invaluable.

Kimberley gave excellent feedback during the course and was incredibly insightful in respect to characterisation, themes and narrative structure. She went out of her way to read initial and subsequent redrafts and meet individually with students to help with the editing process; without her input ‘Among Angels’ would not be the play it is today. She recommended I take time to reflect on the inciting incident of the play which was excellent advice because now the play has a much clearer through-line for the audience.

With some initial reluctance, I also ‘killed off’ two of the characters and cut entire scenes from the second half of the play. I also added a final scene which was inspired by a short by Mark Ravenhill, ‘The Mikado’. An inanimate object in the second half of the play is also now deeply imbued with symbolic meaning and relates to the backstory and history of the two lovers  – which gives a greater resonance and emotional depth to the play.

I think there is a time to work in solitude on a play and  be protective of the unfolding creative process – usually during the first draft, when ideas are germinating and the creative juices are flowing. And there is a time for workshopping and getting feedback. In the latter part of the writing process, I also think it is important who is actually giving advice and suggestions and how they are doing it. If it is done well, constructively with insight and informed by a knowledge and understanding of what works well on stage, the feedback will strike a chord and give one the impetus to edit and reshape in a way that feels right.

Plays come in all shapes and sizes. Some are two-handers. Others more epic in scale. Some seek to entertain. Others, more to challenge. Naturalism may be the best vehicle for some material whereas different dramatic styles will be more appropriate to other material. A skilled dramaturg or consultant in the dramatic arts will be supportive of and encourage a diverse range and variety of different dramatic forms.

Among Angels’, to a certain extent, plays with theatrical form: The fourth wall is broken, the narrative timeline is non-linear, there is a modern-day chorus that raps about the dangers associated with methamphetmaine, most of the cast play multiple characters, and yes – there are angels! During the short course at LPB, I was made to feel that these were some of the strengths inherent in the work; and for this I am truly grateful.

My advice to anyone who is writing their first play…

You have to love the shared experience of live theatre and its’ potential to be a transformative experience in order to write for it. And yes, some theatre doesn’t quite hit the mark. But isn’t it interesting when it doesn’t?! What can we, as emerging playwrights, also take from these experiences, that will help us to write plays that will engage, empower and challenge our audiences even more?

I would also recommend that, at some point in the journey of giving birth to a play, it’s probably a good idea to get some constructive feedback from someone you trust and who knows their stuff! And finally – as with all forms of creative writing – don’t be scared to go to those places that a part of you might be reluctant to go to. Therein, often lies the creative power and the inspiration. After all, more often than not, what do we do as writers – of novels, poems or plays – do but dig deep down into our guts and serve up a portion of ourselves for the greater good of the wider community.

Timothy Graves is currently seeking publication for ‘Among Angels’ which opens on the main stage at The Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton, London on 3rd April for a four week run. It is directed by Peter Taylor, director of the award-winning play ‘Glitter Punch’, and performed by Seraphim Theatre Company. BOOK YOUR TICKETS HERE. 

@timothygraves69  @SeraphimCompany

 

Induced Structural Collapse – Writing a Text From Inside the Skin of its Forebear

why this sky will be presenting their show Portents as part of The Space’s Spring Season. The play began as the result of devised workshops and in this guest post, writer Nat Norland shares his tips for deconstructing and reworking the original text to create something new. 

I can’t really talk about how I started writing Portents, because I didn’t start writing it.

The first draft was written by a friend of mine off the back of a number of devised workshops I directed, playing with ideas related to conspiracy theories and self taught artists. I made a slightly clumsy attempt at staging it, and then I put it in a box and forgot about it for quite a long time.

And then I took it out the box, and decided I wanted to hack it to pieces.

Not completely to pieces, maybe. In situations like this, you have to be quite clear with yourself about exactly what you want to keep, and what you want to make your own. In my case, I wanted to hang on to a lot of the content and tone of the piece, while tearing out as much of the characters and structure as I could. Of course, new themes and ideas started to creep in – something that had been largely about conspiracy theories began to be increasingly preoccupied with language and religious experience – but the main thrust of the rewriting was about unmaking the structure, collapsing it from the inside out.

So, with all that said, here’s a few ways of tearing a play’s insides out and putting them back in stranger:

1 – Killing the authorship

Before I start talking about slicing things out, lets talk for a minute about splicing things in. One of the really freeing things about doing a heavy rework of an existing text, rather than starting from scratch, is that it releases you from the idea of a unitary authorial voice. Since you’re immediately dealing with lines you’ve written coexisting with lines you haven’t, authorship starts to feel like another structure that can be played with and bent out of shape. To this end, I started experimenting with including direct quotations from different sources, spliced unceremoniously into the flow of scenes. It felt in some ways similar to music production – if you’re remixing something, why not try throwing in other samples for added texture?

It quickly became apparent that different sources lent very different flavours. Song lyrics were fun – not as finely wrought as poetry, but more stilted than prose – making them stick out immediately in an interestingly jarring way. I also played with transcripts from television interviews, and, owing to the aforementioned religious themes, snatches from the Bible.

I think this is a technique where trial and error is really valuable. Pulling from a lot of different places, and seeing what was pleasantly and unpleasantly incongruous. At the very least, it makes for an enjoyable process.

2 – Gutting the dialogue.

Portents, Portents Mk I, pre-disembowelment Portents, had a number of scenes which were just characters talking to each other. In the same place, about the same things, at the same time. This crops up in plays occasionally, I’ve noticed. There was a flavour to them that I really liked, but I wasn’t that interested in people talking to each other in the same place at the same time any more. Somehow that framework had to go.

There’s a number of ways you can go about this, but I think setting some sort of formal constraint that runs counter to one or more of the scene’s internal rules is often a really good place to start. That kind of rule bending can force your writing into some really interesting and unexpected places, without the burden of knowing exactly where you’re going beforehand. And dialogue scenes have a whole lot of internal rules to tear into – characters talk to each other, roughly alternating lines; they’re generally assumed to be in the same neighbourhood of spacetime; they respond to at least some of the information presented to them by their partner in conversing.

In my case, I tried keeping one character’s lines exactly intact, while stripping out and replacing the other’s. The new lines had to either seem to be from an entirely different time and place as the originals, or to completely ignore the other participant in the conversation. This threw quite a disconcerting sense of distance into the scene, but didn’t completely paper over the original flavour.

3 – Shuffling the grammar

Of course, you can’t throw in a sense of distance between two voices when there’s only one voice talking. Somehow, that distance has to come between the voice and the audience. Finding a rule to twist to that end was less obvious, particularly as the speakers were generally addressing the audience directly

My solution here was based on parsing speed: how quickly an audience can understand what’s being said to them, syntactically and semantically. The slower and less completely an audience can process what’s being said, the more conceptual distance they feel between themselves and the speaker. Like something interfered with the text before it reached them.

I suppose a more extreme way of doing this might have been to have the speaker talk in another language, but too much of the information would have been lost on a predominantly english speaking audience. Also, I’m rather too unilingual to have been able to write it. So instead, I attacked the grammar of the speeches. You if you can rewrite a sentence using malapropism, repetition and start stuttering to make it harder considerably harder to process without as a reader or listener, without taking making it impossible. It can be done to a lesser degree than that, or to a much greater one, till the text feels like half ordered words with their meaning hidden half out of sight.

There are other ways you could experiment this as well, perhaps tacking semantically rather than syntactically, loading sentences with double meanings and incongruous ideas in order to slow parsing speed.

4 – Letting go of determinism

One of the common features of all these structural destabilisations is pulling things out of context, breaking the rules of where words and lines have to be situated. In the final section of Portents, I tried to bring all these different distortions of structure together, and deprioritise context even further, by leaving the order in which lines were spoken up to chance.

I wrote down pages individual, isolated lines – some of them lines of dialogue culled from the original text, some of them quotes from other sources, some of them lines grammatically scrambled using an algorithm called a Markov chain*, and then allowed the performers to read from them in an order of their choosing. Because there could be no predicting what was said moment by moment, all meaning had to emerge slowly, from the lines taken together, en masse.

Although this sounds like giving up an awful lot of control over the text, there are a lot of different ways you can try to manipulate what meaning emerges. The most obvious one is deciding what lines to throw into the mix – different ingredients result in different effects. You can also try adding back in subtler overarching structures. I split the lines the performers could choose from into five different sections, and then had them start selecting from section one, and slowly move all the way down to section five, at their own pace (an idea mostly cribbed from Terry Riley’s in C).

As with everything before, the randomness lives within rules, and the rules can be changed and rewritten. I think, more than anything, you just have to experiment with it. Tearing the structure out of a text can be a really liberating thing. You just have to let yourself enjoy it.

*Markov chain text generators take a piece of source text and calculate the probability of one letter coming after a short string of others across the source. They then use these probabilities to generate a new text. They tend to produce text that retains the tone of the source, but often makes no logical sense at sentence level. In any case, they’re a lot of fun to play with. This is the one I used when writing Portents.

Portents runs at The Space from 26 February – 2 March 2019. Book tickets here

Catching the Devil: Writing in Response to a Well Known Play 

Playwright Athena Stevens’ short play, Recompense, is being performed at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of Dark Night of the Soul: The Feminine Response to the Faustian Myth. In this guest post, she shares her experiences of writing in response to a well known play.

If we are very lucky, a playwright’s commission comes with a set of boundaries and guidelines. There is little so overwhelming as an open ended prompt. “Write about anything you want” can quickly become the kiss of death as the parameters quickly become unwieldy.

To be commissioned to write a response to a well known play almost feels like a relief.

Until you start doing your research that is.

When Michelle Terry approached me a year ago with the request to write a feminine response to Faust, I knew I wanted to become more familiar with the story before putting pen to paper. So I started reading. Then I started asking. A fellow feminist wrote a university dissertation on the Faustian Bargain, so we had coffee. A friend in the US was a professor of religion at an Ivy League school, we had late night Facebook chats on how one quantifies the value of a soul. Others told me of their interpretation of a Faustian Bargain: it was a quest for power, it was a form of self hatred, it was to give oneself a temporary advantage which could never be repaid, it was to give up what was most valued in the world, it was to give up what was valued least.

After a while I came up with one question which unified everything: Are we even talking about the same play?

I’m a plotter by nature. While impressions and ideas are important, I have to be able to tell a well made story in order to feel like I’m doing my job well. Like questioning the Devil, the longer I interrogated the backbone of Faust, the more bewildered I got and, to be perfectly honest, the less I wrote.

As much as writing a response to a well known play feels like it should give you a huge amount a structure, very often the task becomes so daunting it can seem that we have no place to put pen to paper at all. Who are we to respond to Marlowe, or Shakespeare for that matter? Perhaps it were better nothing were to begin?

Walking around my London office I somehow didn’t feel like committing that kind of career suicide for the sake of keeping my mouth shut. So I started with some very basic and simple steps towards putting pen to paper, even if it meant throwing it all away in the process.

1. Look at the original prompt, then look at the promotional materials.

 The Globe’s website was pretty clear on what is was I needed to be focused on, and it wasn’t where my gut instinct was taking me. The central question of the festival was: what would I sell my soul for? It was not:  What would women sell their souls for, or what is the value of a soul, or even how would Faust be different if she were a woman? None of the academics mattered. Rather, I had a deeply personal question to ask, and then had to come up with a script that answered that question.

2. You are HERE, and that’s exactly right. 

Whatever you feel like is your connection to the play, that has to be your starting place. It does nobody any good to read all sorts of academic articles or the moral ambiguity of Faust if you simply are enchanted with the idea of being able to talk to devils. By all means do your research, but don’t let scholars or literature teachers, or even critics tell you how you should relate to your play. Your way ‘in’ is completely valid, and as long as you are answering the questions put before you, it doesn’t matter if your in is the story as a whole or a single word choice.

3. They were writing for then, you are writing for now.

It sounds really obvious and yet sometimes it needs to be said, centuries can separate you and the author you are responding to. Yes, human nature can be universal, and sure the more things change, the more they stay the same. However, artistic sensibilities have changed. The narrative tools we use to tell stories have progressed, and, most importantly, what was once considered to be cutting edge is sometimes quite simply an everyday occurrence now. Figure out how to keep the stakes as high as they once were, even if the original problem seems easily solved today. My job was never to write a new Faust, nor was it to prove myself a comparable playwright to Marlowe. My job was simply to put the Faustian bargain within the context of my life.

4. Nothing is sacred. 

I’m probably the last person Marlowe would ever expect to have a decent response to his play. The idea that a brain injured, thirty something, single, immigrant woman could even show up to a production of Faust never crossed his mind, much less that I would be granted a commission to speak to it. The world keeps changing and it is our jobs as artists to give voice to those changes. As writers it is never our job to write a ‘modern’ anything. Instead, it is our job to lend our voice and our times to give a new shade to the story that has already been told. It might be that simply shifting the setting of a familiar tale is enough to throw it into new light, or perhaps the story has been waiting for someone of your exact background to throw it on it’s head. Never be afraid to put your own voice towards redefining the work of the canon, its author was a mortal just like you and was confined by their place and time in the universe,

5. Whatever you do, just keep writing. 

Writing is rewriting. Sorry. There’s no getting around it. Even Ayn Rand talks about sitting at her desk and simply not wanting to do the work. I say this not because I hold Rand up to be some extraordinary writer, but because if the high priestess of hard work paying off admits to the struggle, why do you think you are immune? Set a reasonable page quota daily (mine is four pages) and meet it. If you go over, great. If you don’t meet it, the days you exceeded your goal help to fill the gap. Keep writing, slowly consistently, even with a good amount going straight to the trash, just getting the words down is progress.

Athena Stevens’ short play Recompense is being performed at Shakespeare’s Globe as part of the Dark Night of the Soul Festival between 5 January and 1 February. The festival brings together a chorus of women’s voices to respond to the Faustian myth, asking the question: What would you sell your soul for? Find out more about the festival and book tickets on the Shakespeare’s Globe website.

Four tips on how to write a historical play that still feels contemporary

Reflecting on her experience of writing ‘Dandelion‘, which is set in 1988 and centres around the impact of the homophobic law Section 28, guest writer Jennifer Richards discusses writing a play for a modern audience that isn’t about the modern at all. 

Writing a play that’s not set in today’s world feels risky; with the idea of “newness” often favoured in theatre, with new writing theatres tending to ask for plays about the modern world. This suggests that historical plays (new ones, not the classics!) may not have a place in today’s theatre scene. But just because a play isn’t set in a contemporary time period, doesn’t mean it can’t have a contemporary feel.

My latest play Dandelion is set in 1988 and explores the impact of Section 28, a piece of legislation introduced by Thatcher that banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by schools and local councils.

You may be thinking that 1988 isn’t exactly Elizabethan times, but history is so important to this play, with the entire one hour and 20 minutes centred around the fallout of this legislation on the two queer female protagonists. As I was writing Dandelionlearning to make a play that so steeped in history feel contemporary was definitely a learning curve, but here’s the tips I picked up:

  1. Ask yourself: why is this story still relevant today?

When learning historical texts at schools, whether that was a Shakespeare play or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I always felt slightly distant from the story.

I was 14 and knew nothing of forbidden love or scary scientific inventions; and it’s not that I’ve now spent all the years since I’ve left school having my own Romeo and Juliet story set in a mad-scientist’s lab (though, great idea for a play), but I’ve seen loads of wonderful new takes on these plays and stories, which has helped me discover my connection to them.

Also, finding myself in unequal relationships where there wasn’t the correct balance of power, I’ve learnt the universality of the themes in those stories, which often do deal with power and love.

Shakespeare’s plays are still staged so frequently as they have something important to say to a modern society. In writing a historical play, it’s about looking where that universal connection still lies, that point within your play that exists outside of its time period.

With my play Dandelion, its’ ideas around identity and learning to be comfortable with yourself are not thoughts that only existed in 1988. And though the intricacies of any historical play are likely contained to that time period, it’s the wider themes that should make your story enduringly relevant.

  1. Plan an event exploring the history

Exploring that relevancy I mentioned above doesn’t have to just be contained to the script or stage. With Dandelion, we’re hoping to run a panel event in the New Year centred around the impact of Section 28 and why it’s important to remember queer history.

This has further helped us explore that historical significance of a piece of work in a modern setting. Putting on events like this, or perhaps running workshops that offer the chance for people to learn more about the history of your play and why you chose to explore that history, will further foster this connection between the historical and the modern.

  1. Don’t shy away from the time period

Making a historical play feel contemporary doesn’t mean trying to minimise the history as much as possible for fear that that part of the play will seem dull. If you want the world you’re creating in your play to really resonate with your audience, it has to feel genuine.

Using the correct language from the time period, having fun with the costumes and the music all helps cement the time period. Building a world that does seem different from today also encourages audience members to examine this difference, and look at how we’ve changed as a society, or perhaps how we’ve not changed.

  1. Understand the historical significance through the character

When I first started writing Dandelion, because it centres so specifically around a piece of legislation, I didn’t know how to introduce Section 28 to the play without it sounding like I just really needed to funnel in the description of what Section 28 was so the rest of the play could work.

And it would have been these stilted historical references that would’ve prevented the play from resonating with a modern audience. I needed to learn to tell this history through the characters rather than name-dropping legislation every other word.

Therefore, at the beginning of the play, we play the sound clip of lesbian activists crashing the BBC News to protest Section 28 (an event that really happened) to make it clear from the start that though this play is about a time of historical significance, it centres on the people of that time.

Plays are typically about having a strong voice and characters that people connect with and it’s important to remember that doesn’t change when it comes to historical plays.

Rehearsal shot for Dandelion, taken by Rosie Featherstone

Dandelion has been my first time writing a play not set in the modern day, and it’s been great learning how to combine the historical and the modern – and decking myself out in all the 80s costumes hasn’t been too bad either!

Wait – you’re telling me those costumes are only for the actors?

 

Jennifer Richards’s show Dandelion is running at the King’s Head in Islington on December 16th and 17th December.       

 

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.