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The Andrea Project

a group of young people smiling, standing against a red wall

Some of the writers and actors involved in the Andrea Project

In late 2017, eight young women from Bolton and London worked with professional playwrights Laura Lomas and Rachel Delahay to make their own short plays for a performance at the Royal Court Theatre. This was The Andrea Project, a collaboration between Out of Joint, the Royal Court Theatre and the Bolton Octagon to coincide with our production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Its name is a dedication to the late playwright Andrea Dunbar, who was just 15 when she wrote her first play, and 19 when she wrote Rita, Sue and Bob Too.

Over six weeks the writers, who were aged between 15 and 19, developed their skills and the confidence to write about what matters to them, before writing a short play inspired by Rita, Sue and Bob Too. The pieces were performed to a full house at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs on 20 January 2018.

We wanted to share their experiences with you, so Out of Joint has commissioned them to write a piece each for this blog. We hope you enjoy them. (The Andrea Project will return later this year – keep an eye on our education pages).

– Gina Abolins, Education & Artist Development Officer

 


Abi Earnshaw

The 20th of January 2018 was the best day of my life, full stop. Not only did I watch my very own short play being performed at The Royal Court Theatre but I also met several other amazing, female, creators and writers as well as the cast of ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’.

The process of all this started in October 2017 when a very nervous fifteen-year-old walked into the foyer in the Bolton Octagon Theatre to watch the controversial Andrea Dunbar play; ‘Rita Sue and Bob Too’. Now that was an experience! The following Tuesday, I returned to begin the writing process with three other fantastic young female writers. The next six sessions, led by playwright Laura Lomas, consisted of: intricate discussions about our world; talks about what it means to be a young woman from Bolton; reading various short plays; and developing our writing techniques.

The first few sessions were all about developing ideas and focusing on what was important to us that we could bring into our plays. Those sessions very much centred around Andrea Dunbar and her influence on young female writers. For me, this was the first time that I had been given freedom to write about anything I wanted to so I grabbed that opportunity and ran.

I had written plays before for GCSE drama and other extra-curricular groups but these had been in groups where I had the help and ideas from my peers. This was completely different and one hundred percent my own work, and boy was it hard. I had never been so obsessed with writing something. I became so attached to my characters that my already over-active imagination sucked me away from my life and school work and pushed me into the reality of my characters. There was no escape for me as my dreams led me to new ideas and themes that I could pull into my seven-minute piece; the options were endless. Eventually, after six weeks the sessions came to a sad close. We had a deadline two weeks later to e-mail Laura our first drafts which would be evaluated and sent back to us with written feedback before we submitted our final pieces on the 11th of December.

Just over one month later, I slowly got dressed and made myself look presentable before my mum and I got in her car to get our tram to Manchester Piccadilly before catching the train to London Euston. Everything was running smoothly until the train’s first stop where a rather clumsy woman with a large rucksack knocked my cup of tea onto my lap. We hadn’t been on the train for twenty minutes before something bad happened; it was just my luck. The rest of the journey passed by with ease and we soon found ourselves at the Royal Court Theatre. Climbing what seemed like ten thousand flights of stairs, we reached the Jerwood Theatre at the top of the building and quickly took our seats. Some quick words were said before the first play was announced; “Dear Tim, by Abi Earnshaw.” Glancing at my mum I could hardly contain my excitement as the actors took to the stage.

It was better than I could have ever imagined and as I sat through the rest of the fantastic plays, I couldn’t wait to thank the actors for playing my characters in the best way possible. The experiences from that day will stick with me for the rest of my life, especially watching ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ whilst being sat next to my mum, and I am eternally grateful to everyone who made one of my dreams a reality.

 

 

Beatrice de Goede

Throughout my life, I have been conscious of my excessive worrying about the approval of other people and myself. It was not surprising that numerous people described me as a “worrier”. Second-guessing myself was a part of my nature. Writing had been an enjoyable past-time for me and in September, when I received the news that I was to be writing my very own play to be performed at The Royal Court Theatre in London, I was ecstatic.

When the writing workshops began with Laura Lomas, uncertain as I was, as I usually am when meeting new people, I found that I settled down strangely quickly. I am quite sure, looking back, that it was because of the perfect atmosphere that we were provided with: a small group of young women of a similar age. We all shared something in our similar experiences as young teenage girls and yet, we were all so radically different. The comfort I found in that room to talk and to discuss work of other writers and also our own feelings felt somewhat liberating. Very soon, Tuesdays (the day of the week that the writing group was held on) became the day that I would count down to every week.

Andrea Dunbar, the writer of The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too was the beginning of our journey, delving deep into various plays, traits of society and ourselves. Her seemingly comedic plays had clear themes of female oppression and abuse, enhancing the beliefs of our fully female group to also make a statement through words.

Reading through monologues of unconditional love, cryptic plays requiring deciphering and scenes in which argument’s fuse was just about being lit, I experienced more styles of writing than I had seen before. Reading these pieces, I found a desire to adopt my own style.

I believe that it was more than once, Laura told us that in order to write a play, we must shine the light of our own life through a prism to create a world of excitement not too far from our own. It was during my writing that I found myself fulfilling what Laura had said, as I hijacked characters and scenes from my own life in order to spark my own play. Slowly, the characters began to take on shape, growing apart from their originals as the story carved their personalities until they were much less like carbon copies of the people that I, myself, know. Not only was there a formation of a story, but a reflection on my own life buried deep inside.

As I sat on a seat (actually a bean bag) recommended by Ellie from the Royal Court as the best place to sit in the room, I watched my play, Red Light being performed by a very talented cast of professional actors. Watching them bring to life, characters and scenes based on my own life, the themes of pressure and expectations and desired freedom, touched me deep down. Having doubted my comedic values throughout my life, the laughter that my play created in that room filled me with a sweeping sense of pride, swelled even more with the great applause and appreciation that followed.

As I said, I had always been a bit of a worrier, but the confidence that this project gave me in myself and in my writing was absolutely incredible, and the visible impact that words can have on an audience was exhilarating. Yes, putting a piece of yourself out there is a risk, but the virtue of seeing people’s reactions and the impact of your words is a divine privilege. If ever I was given the opportunity again, I would grasp it with all my might, as the power of writing, in manipulating people’s emotions and extracting from them a communal sense of fear or love or anger or relief or anticipation, is a true gift that anyone would be a fool to overlook.

 

Ambrin McBrinn

It’s 12 pm on a Saturday afternoon. The windows of the coffee shop are foggy with condensation and I can’t stop picturing the air around me as breath. Boredom. Another school email. Click. Extracurriculars. Delete. The milk steamer screams. A toddler drops her plastic cup of marshmallows. Click. Playwriting opportunities? I scroll and skim-read the poster. The Royal Court Theatre, female voices, the world around us. Then I read it again and again until I decide that I have to try to apply. I think of all the things I want to write about.

I want to write about how standing in a crowd makes me feel so insignificant yet somehow so powerful. I want to write about how quickly I’m rushing through what I will one day refer to as ‘the good old days’, being forced to grow up faster then I can cope with.

I start typing a submission and by the time I stop it’s dark outside, I’m wrapped up in my own world and I’m pressing send. I’m shocked when I receive a phone call, and soon I’m counting the 13 stops from here to the theatre. Walking through the stage door, I’m nervous but excited to meet everyone. The workshops are an opportunity to learn about writing conventions while improving and sharing. The others are kind and insightful and witty, but above all, they are inspiring.

I’ve never written dialogue before but it’s been a few hours and I’m already cramming letters into margins and between chunky scribbles. It is both more difficult and more rewarding than I thought it would be. I’m learning how to explore ideas without being afraid of making mistakes, everything can be redrafted until I find the right words in the right order. I find that my favourite lines come sporadically and surprise me, born through mistakes. I want to write about the warm tingle that travels from my toes up to my cheeks when I try something new and realise I love it. I’m learning about how to create the feelings I experience when watching a play, thinking about how I can manipulate time and space to create my own effects. I’m learning that vulnerability or confusion or embarrassment in everyday life is good, I can use these feelings to fuel my writing.

I want to write about things that matter to me, and I am with people who will help me do it.

After many emails, another draft, a meeting, another two drafts, inspiration, and a final draft, I’m finally happy with what I have made. I have remoulded and reshaped characters, I have written variations and considered abstract conversations. Ultimately, I can’t quite believe I’ve written a play. It feels a bit surreal, I want to pinch myself. I want to do it again and again. I’ve decided to write about the realities of my life, the nuanced moments that define me, ones I so often overlook.

It’s 12 pm on a Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting in the Royal Court Theatre. I’m watching professional actors bring my words to life in a way that I hadn’t even thought of, a way that was better than I could’ve ever imagined. I am so excited and enraptured that I realise I’m holding my breath. I don’t want to miss a single second. Around me are the others, I watch as the initial ideas they shared with me have bloomed into even more captivating, poignant storylines and I can’t help but smile. I know this is a moment that I will look back on for a long time. I’m feeling lucky, and totally engaged, but most of all I’m feeling inspired. Tremendously inspired.

Young actors rehearse with scripts on a blue-coloured theatre set.

The performance in rehearsal at the Royal Court.

 

Caitlyn Vining

London is one of those places I’ve been desperate to visit for a really long time and finding out that I was taking part in the opportunity of putting my work on a stage in London was amazing news.

The published script of Rita Sue and Bob Too, resting on a page of handwritten scriptWriting has been a passion of mine for years. I’ve written plays and short stories before but never done anything with them. Then Ian Townsend a playwright I’ve work with at the Octagon Theatre Academy nominated me to go forward and share my work with the world.

The workshops with Laura started and I was nervous at first to share my work because I didn’t know what she would think. My piece was inspired by some life experiences. Witnessing domestic violence and having friends bring out my good side. We got told to write about our life experiences but through the eyes of a made up character. The workshops were interesting and we learnt about Andrea Dunbar and her difficulty of being unaccepted in what she wanted to do with her life. Learning about this was a very emotional journey and I have found a new inspiration for what I write in the future. I will hopefully keep writing and will remember everything I’ve learnt on this journey. I have gained more confidence during this process and just to put something on stage that I have written is massively crazy.

On my travel down to London I was looking over my play having doubts about it, thinking that it is no good or questioning what if people don’t like it? But when it was performed I was shocked at how many laughs it got and how many people came up to me afterwards and said how brilliant it had been written. It was performed by great actors and came across just how I would have directed it.

When I walked into the Royal Court Theatre my face lit up and I knew that this was the start of my ambition. The staff were amazing and were very welcoming. Just from walking in it felt like I was home.

Watching Rita, Sue and Bob too for the second time in London was another amazing thing that took place in the day but talking to most of the cast members were unreal. The way Taj Atwal and Gemma Dobson portrayed the characters of Rita and sue was really interesting to watch as being a 16 year old myself made me think that any teenager my age could be experiencing what they go through on stage, and the way they did this was really inspirational.

James Atherton who played the role of Bob has been an actor who I’ve looked up since he was in Hollyoaks. When he asked me who it was inspired by, I answered with “I think that I was inspired by some life experiences and that domestic violence and friendship come together very nicely.” He replied with “ I think you have a good ear for dialogue and that Its like I have a piece of Andrea Dunbar in my work.” this shocked me because I never thought that I would get words like that from a professional and an inspiration of mine. I also loved how my catchy title was remembered by Samantha Robinson.

So this was a journey of a lifetime experience that I will honestly never forget and another ticked off my bucket list and I will never stop smiling about It. This won’t be the end of me and my work.

 

Katy Hamer

As part of the Andrea Project, I was involved with the Octagon Theatre in partnership with Out of Joint in a writing group of four girls from Bolton. We are all the same age and through a series of weekly writing workshops we developed our own characters, settings, plots and drafted our own plays.

After the workshops finished, we were invited down to London where we saw our own plays along with four other girls from London performed through rehearsed readings by a professional cast. After the readings, we watched Rita, Sue and Bob too and had a Q&A with the cast, some of which had watched our plays be read out. We asked them questions such as the best parts of our plays etc and it was overall a good experience.

My play was called Gray, and was about the experience of grief and the breakdown of relationships that can occur when friendships and such are put under strain. The inspiration for the play was that helping people who are going through grief, particularly young people as were the characters in my play, is a thing that as a society and a community we need to pay more attention too.

I tried to portray the fact that their grief was perhaps not taken seriously because they are young in age and are presumed to be immature by some. I wanted to show that mental health should be taken more seriously, not just in young people but across all ages and all people.

Trying to display the grief that these characters were going through was particularly hard, especially because I’ve been thankful enough to never have to cope with something as tragic as losing your best friend; I tried to show that sometimes they’ll begin to enjoy themselves and remember their situation and try not to be happy, which in my opinion is something a lot of people coping with grief go through. They try not to be happy because they should be sad, and i tried to show the message that being happy is okay, even in the darkest of situations.

Across the project, I’ve learnt a lot, especially that sharing your writing with others is not a bad thing. At the beginning of the workshops, I was very nervous about sharing what I’d written and reading out what I’d come up with, but now I’m becoming more confident in sharing my work, from family to friends and now online too. This is a big achievement for me, and it’s all thanks to the workshops and the help of the other girls in the project with me.

Writing the play was hard to say the least, I think I wrote around seven drafts for Gray and then three drafts of a completely different play I’d written that eventually got scrapped. There were edits and re edits, countless changes in dialogue and pages of character building to try and get it just right. It was difficult but it was worth it.

As the project comes to a close, I feel I have a lot I can take away from it. I have a cast of developed characters, each with a backstory and a friendship dynamic that I can expand on. I definitely think their stories will be expanded on and made longer in different forms of writing say short stories.

I will also be taking away a range of skills, from different character building exercises to setting building to developing descriptions and creating well rounded, interesting characters and plots.

Taking part in this project is one of the best things I’ve ever done, the results were incredible including being interviewed on TV! I’m so thankful for the opportunity and I hope it will lead to more writing opportunities in the future.

 

Writing, Struggling and Believing Too by Beattie Green

Towards the end of last year, wallowing in the tired dregs of a long autumn,  I found myself in a peculiar position. Faced with the opportunity to write my own short play and say whatever I wanted about something, I found that in reality I had very little to say about anything. At all. For years I had been searching, like many young people do, for an opportunity to use my voice and when that perfect opportunity had at last arrived I anxiously opened my mouth to speak. What came out?

A tentative spluttering;

an incomprehensible mesh of half-formed words;

an inaudible whisper.

I had nothing to say.

Several weeks of workshops and research had revealed to me the power of the female voice and I had become more and more excited about its growing recognition in theatre. However, in tandem, I had become more and more certain that my voice couldn’t possibly be a part of that beautiful chorus. So many people around me seemed to be alive with a boiling, scorching passion and I felt, at best, like a tepid cup of coffee. Decaf coffee.

With this uncomfortable feeling brewing inside me I sat down to try and fathom the opening lines of my short play. The pixels of my laptop’s screen taunted me, fizzing in and out of reds, blues and greens. Tentative fingertips tensed over the keyboard and then, eventually, relaxed. I couldn’t do it. I shut the lid of my laptop and let my mind drift. I wondered whether laptops really have lids? Or is it just tops? Whether I would, after finishing my play, end up writing an underwhelming blog post about the process?  Whether it was really that important for a play to have a message after all? Whether a message makes a play or a play makes message? Message didn’t seem like a real word anymore. I was overthinking.

This process of deliberation, doubt and dawdling stretched on for some weeks. I knew that, unlike a blog post, I couldn’t rely on alliteration to give my play some semblance of professionalism. So I turned, as we all do in the end, to some old friends – Rita and Sue. Oh, and Bob too. Andrea Dunbar’s play had, after all, been the inspiration of the project and I had adored mining it for useful new phrases, including “he’s a right fit-bit” and “dirty husband-pinching bastard”. ‘Rita Sue and Bob Too’ is a work rich with such hauntingly beautiful phraseology but it is also dense with important storytelling lessons. The experience of reading this play equipped me with the following tips which allowed me to get over my writer’s block:

Say what you see – although not completely autobiographical, it’s hard to deny that Dunbar’s works are inspired by the life that she led. For me, the process of writing became a lot less daunting when I realised that there wasn’t actually that much for me, as the writer, to do. The magic intrigue I needed to forge a compelling story was already there, readily available all around me. All I had to do was quietly observe and then, later, write. I began to hoard other people’s stories for my own use, like a nosy magpie, except I was thieving compelling narrative arcs instead of shiny stuff.

People are funny – as I tuned into the stories of those around me I realised something important. People are funny. They say strangely candid things through weird and unexpectedly profound amalgamations of words. They are blissfully ignorant of their own poetry and I decided that from then on I would be ready. Ready and waiting to steal the genius of the unknowing poet in every friend, relative and stranger.

Just get on with it – my greatest struggle when writing this play, and in life generally, is that I overthink everything. Chronically. But there is something about Andrea’s writing style, a distinctively uninhibited note, that seems to suggest an absence of agony and frustration in her process. In many ways Dunbar had a tumultuous and difficult life but her writing acts as an incredible contrast to this. It seems to me simple, untainted and honest. I wanted to achieve something similar, and how could I if I didn’t just get on with it?

So I did. I finally wrote the play. I still don’t know whether it has a message and, if so, whether that message is even valid or at all interesting or in any way new. But I do know one thing for certain. I wrote a play. I did it. And so, even if I didn’t have something to say, I definitely had something to share. And, above all, I loved experiencing what everyone else had to share at the project gala.

 

le livre des révélations by Jess Steadman

Jess enters stage right.

She is dressed in an embarrassing school uniform, she is the only member of the group younger than 18 and has come straight from school. She is halfway through the process, she has attended three workshops already and is so far thoroughly enjoying it all. But this time, somehow, it’s different.

She thinks back to the second workshop and her spectacular victory at ‘truth truth lie’, she supposes an advantage of being the baby of the group is that your lies are more believable as they don’t ever feature links and liquor. She remembers feeling pushed out of her comfort zone when she was given her first writing task; a series of questions designed to probe deeper and deeper into her insecurities and subsequently allow for the creation of more convincing characters. It might have been uncomfortable but boy, her characters were better in the long run.

But this time it’s different, she feels like an outcast, small and stupid. She starts writing…

Her writing hasn’t changed, only what she is wearing, and she really would be shallow if she let her clothes become a label. She was younger than the others, she was still in school and she was in a lilac tartan kilt but why should that become a disadvantage? If anything, her ‘naivety’ was something the others couldn’t even pretend to have.

Perhaps it is something that her characters could have?

The final workshop. Everybody is discussing what makes each one of our voices important, what makes us unique. She doesn’t know what makes her unique, she’s average when put against the backdrop of girls like her…

She feels like a schizophrenic half the time with the amount of voices whizzing about in her head when she has to make a decision. It’s not a mental illness, that’s her brash voice talking, it’s just human nature.

Jess…

‘Pick up your pen, start writing’

20th January, performance day. Raining.

Jess enters stage left, thankfully not in her uniform. She knows she is still the youngest writer in the room… but this time she doesn’t care.

She’s nervous, of course. She supposes it’s like handing your new-born baby to another mother to raise and then visiting them twenty years later when they are a fully-fledged adult. She hopes that this ‘mother’ has done a good job. She thinks of all the things she could have changed.

The lights are dimming, it’s starting. The actors are on stage, but she can’t tell who will be playing who, she hopes they’ve cast Izabelle right…

The final revelation

She needn’t have worried.

Finis

Thank you to Out of Joint and the Royal Court Theatre for this phenomenal experience.

 

Jasmine Jones

“The facts are there….You write what’s said, you don’t lie.”

Said a young Andrea Dunbar, who at 26, was a woman of many accomplishments: not only had she written two plays (The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too) which both premiered at The Royal Court she somehow managed to balance this with being the single mother to two children. I was first introduced to Andrea Dunbar in a very factual way indeed, when I was 17 I watched the documentary The Arbor, having not heard of Andrea before nor having read any of her work. The documentary struck a chord in me as a young, aspiring writer driven by a passion to tell the stories of people in my community and my life and reflect their truths honestly and on the scale they deserved as Andrea had.

Just over a year later I became aware of a revival of Andrea’s sophomore play Rita, Sue and Bob Too and simultaneously a writing group for young women that was to be attached to the production. Remembering the strong resonances the film had with me I was eager to apply to the course and luckily was accepted. All I knew before entering the building for the first session was that the writing group would bring together eight young women, four from London (myself, Ambrin, Jess and Beattie) and four from Bolton (Abi, Beatrice, Katy, Caitlyn) to be mentored and taught skills by two professional writers Rachel De-Lahay – who would lead our sessions in London – and Laura Lomas – who would lead the sessions in Bolton, with a view to writing short plays by the end. Admittedly, I was curious about the impact that us all being of the same gender would have on the sessions: Would there be a discernible difference between this group and other writing groups I had been a part of? Would discussions around gender and gender disparities have a bearing on the work we produced and ended up writing for our plays?

Drawing on Andrea’s commitment to telling the truth, we began our first session with introductions albeit with a tinge of fallacy…. We played Two Truths and a Lie, a game whose title belies its content all too well. This game effectively set the precedent for what we would be doing with Rachel over the next couple of months, drawing on truths and fleshing them out with a bit of fiction: good old-fashioned playwriting. In the sessions Rachel, with the help of Ellie, helped us solidify the two pillars of playwriting: the sourcing and discovery of an idea followed by its crystallisation using technique and craft. Our discussions connected pop culture to politics and capitalism to cultural appropriation. Rachel created a space where these discussions were frank and it ought to be said despite us all identifying as women did not at all guarantee us having the same opinions on issues! The beautiful thing about the group was how our different experiences in life informed the creative energy of the room. Disagreement was key in forming the bones of our writing, at least for me, as I wholeheartedly believe conflict is the basis of all drama. Whilst having one of these big discussions to help us come up with material, the subject of the Kardashians came up and more specifically Kylie Jenner. What proceeded was a big group discussion on the ethics of reality TV and living your life in the public eye as a young woman. It was in that moment, I came across the nub of the idea for my short play, I wasn’t absolutely sure what it was yet but I knew it would live at the intersection of race and gender under the lense of the viral nature of social media.

Fast forward to mid-January and our short plays were premiering as staged readings on the Royal Court Upstairs stage: I was filled with a mixture of nerves, excitement and curiosity as to how they would be received by the audience. What unfolded was beautiful. Stories were being told onstage that were of direct concern to us as young women – and they were not only about subjects stereotypically attributed to our demographic – but would serve to reflect the full span of our intellect, abilities and nuances. In spite of all this, one thing continued to trouble me after watching the playreadings – what had been the source of my nervousness in the first place?

Was it the fear of my play’s rejection or misunderstanding by the audience? Partially. But then what was behind this?

I began to realise that the root of my doubts and worries stemmed from one of the first questions that came up in our sessions with Rachel: What is inherently dramatic and what is worthy of being onstage?

The two characters of my play were two 20-something Black British female students – characters I don’t often, if ever, see onstage and the drama my protagonist Savannah was facing was, in effect, was a smearing by way of social media. Those characters and that story is not one I have often come across on the British stage but know all too well in day to day life. Immediately after seeing my play being read, against my better self I began to question the legitimacy and right of those characters being represented onstage.

I began to think that the reason for the scarcity of representation of stories like that with characters like that was because they just weren’t theatrically interesting enough.

Then, Andrea’s words for all those years sprung to mind: “The facts are there….you write what’s said, you don’t lie.” It was then I realised that my duty as a writer is to tell the truth of what I see around me as I see it and not be unhelpfully concerned with how it will be received by an audience. My primary focus should be reflecting the voices of those I see and know honestly. It is only through this that theatre can serve its purpose and hold a mirror up to the whole of society and it is perhaps only in this way it can reflect the most grossly underrepresented parts of society: which is exactly what Andrea stood for.

If the stories that are relevant to me and people like Andrea aren’t being told, me and young women like me must write them.

Precocious Writers

Andrea Dunbar at home on Bradford’s Buttershaw Estate in the early 80s while she was writing Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Photo: Don McPhee.

Raised on a Bradford council estate, Andrea Dunbar was just 15 when she wrote her first play, The Arbor. A drama teacher encouraged her to send it to the Royal Court Theatre, where it was first staged as a one act play in the Young Writers Festival before being expanded into a full two-act show in the prestigious main house. Andrea was still in her teens when she wrote her second play, her biggest hit Rita Sue and Bob Too: it was commissioned when she was 19.

In case that doesn’t make you feel under-achieving enough, here’s a look at some more writing prodigies. With thanks to Kelly Slade.

ALEXANDER POPE (1688 – 1744)

Pope wrote his first poem, “Ode to Solitude,” in 1700 at the age of 12. He suffered from ill health following a childhood illness and had a curved spine, asthma and headaches. He also had a disjointed education due to his illness and tough laws against Catholics. According to his sister, all he did was write and read.

His first major work, Pastorals, was published in 1709, and brought him instant fame at 21. His most well-known poem is The Rape of the Lock, a satirical look at a high society quarrels in a pastiche of a heroic epic.

Pope eventually gained great financial success and is the third most frequently quoted author in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations behind Shakespeare and Tennyson. He died in 1744.

 

CAITLIN MORAN (b. 1975)

Caitlin Moran on the cover of her novel, which she wrote when she was 15.

Caitlin Moran’s novel The Chronicles of Narmo was published when she was 16 – the same age at which she became a reporter for Melody Maker. She grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton and was home educated, an upbringing that inspired her sitcom Raised by Wolves.

Moran – she pronounces her first name “Catlin” – is a Times columnist and has published several books of memoir, journalism and fiction, including How to be a Woman and How To Build a Girl.

 

BARBARA NEWHALL FOLLETT (1914 – ??)

Barbara was an American child prodigy novelist. Her first novel, The House Without Windows, was published in January 1927, when she was 12 years old and her second, The Voyage of the Norman D., received critical acclaim when she was 14.

In December 1939, aged 25, she reportedly became depressed with her marriage and walked out of her apartment with thirty dollars. She was never seen again, and later investigations failed to find trace of her alive or dead.

 

BRET EASTON ELLIS

The American Psycho author wrote his first novel Less Than Zero when he was 21 – the movie rights were sold before the book was published. He published his second, The Rules of Attraction, at 23.

JEAN NICOLAS ARTHUR RIMBAUD (1854 – 1891)

Rimbaud’s poem “Les Étrennes des orphelins” (“The Orphans’ New Year’s Gift”) was published in Revue pour tous when he was just 15. Having been raised by an ambitious mother who would punish his academic mistakes by depriving him of meals, Rimbaud became the image of the romantic rebel poet. At 16, he wrote “Le Bateau ivre,” which he sent to the poet Paul Verlaine as an introduction. At Verlaine’s invitation Rimbaud travelled to Paris and began an affair with the older poet, who abandoned his wife and child when the two men moved to London.

When he was almost 19, Rimbaud returned to Paris; when Verlaine later joined him, the reunion did not go well, and Verlaine shot at Rimbaud in a drunken rage, hitting Rimbaud in the wrist. (As a result of the ensuing police investigation into the attempted murder as well as the two men’s relationship, Verlaine received a 2-year prison sentence.)

Around the same time, Rimbaud published Une Saison en Enfer, his first and only work published by himself. By age 20, Rimbaud had given up creative writing for good. When he was 21, he enlisted in the Dutch Colonial Army, but deserted once he got to the Dutch East Indies.

 

ANYA REISS (b. 1991)

Anya Reiss’s debut Spur of the Moment in its Royal Court production. Photo: Keith Pattison.

An alumni of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme, Reiss was 17 when she wrote Spur of the Moment, for which she was named Most Promising Playwright at both the Critics’ Circle and Evening Standard awards. (She received her A-level results during the play’s Royal Court run!). As well as subsequent plays and Chekhov adaptations, Reiss has been a frequent writer for Eastenders.

See Rita, Sue and Bob Too on tour from September 2017 – February 2018.

How I write plays

kermit

“Keep on writing, even if it’s crap. You can always throw it away later”.

Maybe all writing advice boils down this bit of practical wisdom from Alistair Beaton. We spoke to Alistair and other successful playwrights to ask them about the business of writing. Where does inspiration come from? When is the best time of day to write? What do you do if you get stuck?

Whether you’re a writer, trying to be a writer or are just interested the creative process, we hope you find insight and encouragement. If you’d like to read more, you’ll find the full interviews on the WiT Award website.


ON GETTING STUCK

“Stuck, to me, just means it’s hard, it’s not fun, you don’t want to suffer the shame of writing something terrible… but you just have to get it out, get through it, accept it won’t be perfect the first time”
James Graham (This House)

“Keep on writing, even if it’s crap. You can always throw it away later.”
Alistair Beaton (Feelgood)

“Getting stuck is the sign that I need to step back and create thinking space. It also means that the story might not have the legs I initially thought it had.”
Oladipo Agboluaje (New Nigerians)

James Graham

James Graham

“Stuck is not necessarily quicksand – it’s simply a refusal to move in a certain direction at that time. If I can’t write then I’ll try and watch some brilliant films”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Her Naked Skin)

“Often being stuck is because I’ve not thought enough about my intention. I kind of think writer’s block is an invention of people who want to think of themselves as writers but not do any work… It can be avoided by thinking and preparing properly.
Simon Stephens (Curious Incident)

“When I’m stuck I do a lot of violent self-loathing, which is unhelpful, and discussions with my husband, which are very helpful.
Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica)

“Lots of writers clean when they’re stuck. I don’t. I probably should. I go to the coffee shop. Phone my granny. Do some yoga.”
Jessica Swale (Nell Gwynne)

“I try and write through it. I go ‘off book’ and write around the script. I try stream of consciousness writing in character, or write scenes that I know aren’t part of the story I’m writing but that help to unlock the characters a bit more for me. Sometimes I like that stuff more, and it ends up going into the final piece.”
Suhayla El Bushra (The Suicide)

HOW I WRITE stella

Stella Feehily

 


WHERE INSPIRATION COMES FROM

“The news. And the past”
James Graham

“I write satirically, so I riff off news stories and I observe people and situations.”
Oladipo Agboluaje

“Galleries and museums can be very helpful, so can talking to people. I try to follow my obsessions because if you can’t stop thinking about something you might have to write about it.”
Dawn King (Foxfinder)

“I find a lot of inspiration in true stories. I always think I should keep a notebook of ideas and never do. People’s acts of bravery I find inspiring”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Suhayla El Bushra

Suhayla El Bushra

“Previous inspiration has come from teenagers I’ve worked with, my dad, my mum, my upbringing, history books, Greek tragedies, fiction, cinema. Some music videos I find really inspiring. Listening to music while running. Eavesdropping on conversations on trains and buses.”
Suhayla El Bushra

Blue Stockings, my first play, came from a detail in the research I was doing on another project entirely. I was reading about the life prospects of women in the 1800s to help an actress with her character, and I stumbled across the fact that women weren’t given access to University. The whole thing grew from there.”
Jessica Swale

“People talk about inspiration like an event but I think it is more of a cumulative thing, the gradual synthesis of different ideas and emotions and ambitions until there is something interesting and concrete enough to provoke a play.”
Lucy Kirkwood

“My inspiration usually comes from a feeling that there’s more to something than meets the eye, and I want to find out what that is. I also have an inbuilt distrust of authority and want to know what’s really going on.”
Robin Soans (Talking to Terrorists)


WHERE AND WHEN TO WRITE

“I split up working at home and working out of the house in cafes, because I get bored of being in the same place and I find if I move locations I can often squeeze out another couple of hours.”
Dawn King

“Usually after the 10 o’clock news and then through to the early hours. I’m often close to a state of dreaming. I’m not sure how helpful that is though. Sometimes I fall asleep…”
Stella Feehily (This May Hurt A Bit)

HOW I WRITE oladipo

Oladipo Agboluaje

“I have a lot of creative mental activity in the fuzzy area between sleeping and waking, and so have a burst of outpouring when I first reach the computer, probably before breakfast… I will go on writing through the day, but that initial burst is always the best and most productive. I usually write to music: Always Bach in the morning, then through Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, into Schubert and Mahler, Verdi, Tchaikovsky late afternoon, and if I’m burning the midnight oil, either Elizabethan polyphonic music, Plainsong, or Indian mystic music.”
Robin Soans

“I write any time of day. I’m more of an inspiration than a perspiration writer. If the spirit doesn’t move me, no time of day is ideal.”
Oladipo Agboluaje

“I rent a portacabin… it has far less distractions than at home. Cafes can be good; trains if my brain says yes.”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz

“Nine o’clock till lunch weekdays when it goes badly; nine till five weekdays when it goes well”
David Hare (Plenty)

“I can write anywhere. At the moment I am enjoying writing in my kitchen with my puppy at my feet”
Simon Stephens.


PROCRASTINATION

“I’m addicted to Facebook. It can be a nice break if you work from home as it’s the equivalent of having a chat around the water cooler, but you can end up staring at the screen numbly scrolling, or wasting time and energy arguing with people you don’t know very well about contentious political issues or what the best Bananarama single was.”
Suhayla El Bushra

“I don’t have a smartphone and only check emails once a day – sometimes once every couple of days if I am really in the trenches with something. This isn’t something I’m proud of, I think other people find it easier to juggle things”
Lucy Kirkwood

Jessica Swale

Jessica Swale

“I realised a short time ago that procrastination was a fundamental part of the job. I set myself rigorous deadlines and compartmentalise the objectives of each working day strictly according to meet those plans. I know what I want to achieve each day. I can procrastinate as much as I like as long as I hit those objectives. Sometimes the objective might be writing a number of scenes. Sometimes refining a plan or doing a redraft. But I never miss the objective.”
Simon Stephens

“I give myself restrictions. So, for example, I will only read three of the ten Guardian leading news stories before I start work. I’ll answer one email but will not get distracted by funny videos on You Tube… I’ll review what I’ve already written but if I’ve got a distance to go I won’t allow myself to edit – I keep going. Plus, I sort of believe in procrastination. Sometimes an idea pops up when you are unnecessarily dusting the skirting boards.”
Stella Feehily

 


 

ON CALLING YOURSELF A WRITER

“I still blush or feel like a fraud when I have to say what I do now to strangers. I don’t know why. No one should.”
James Graham

“My first review ever was in Plays and Players. “The most pointless evening I have ever spent in a theatre”. I knew I was a writer then.”
David Hare

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage - Robin Soan - 21 January 2015 co-produced by Out of Joint and National Theatre of Wales members of the cast rehearse for national tour of new play about rugby player Gareth Thomas, the world’s most prominent gay sportsman.

Robin Soans

“Getting the type-set proofs of my first play from Nick Hern Books. It was very exciting. It was the first time that I felt like a writer.”
Stella Feehily

“I remember being asked my profession was when I registered at a new doctor’s in 2000, and I was resident dramatist at the Royal Court and I said “writer” and that felt great.”
Simon Stephens

“I remember hearing my name on the radio for the first time, following a sketch I had written, and was stunned with what felt like sudden fame.”
Alistair Beaton


WHEN IS A PLAY FINISHED?

“You never know. That’s why deadlines are essential. They stop you from tinkering and force you to commit.”
Simon Stephens

“When intelligent actors can’t find any more questions to ask. The greatest moment in playwriting is when the actors take it out of your hands.”
David Hare

HOW I WRITE david

David Hare

“It never really is. I sit there at the first night noticing the little things I should have improved”
Alistair Beaton

“When your actor says ‘I don’t want anymore lines’.”
Stella Feehily

“You can tell when a draft is finished. That’s usually when you feel you’ve done all you can for now and you need someone else to cast a fresh eye on it. But I don’t know that a play ever feels finished…  you just have to let it go and move on to the next project.”
Suhayla El Bushra

“A play is only ever the recipe not the finished cake. But I know when it’s ‘finished’, as in I’ll let people look at it and judge it when I can’t think of anything else to do to it to improve it.”
Dawn King

“A reticence to change any of it is the closest I can feel to “it’s finished.” When you’re moved by it and you don’t want to change it, it’s a good guide to down tools.”
Rebecca Lenkiewicz 

 

Find the complete interviews on the WiT Award website.

 

Corbyn & May in the spotlight: read short satirical plays by top writers

Exclusive: read short new plays by Alistair Beaton, Stella Feehily and David Hare.

Sarah Alexander in The Accidental Leader. Photo by Robert Workman

“Oh, I do love your centre ground. Sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? The centre ground. But does the centre ground stay in the same place? I don’t think so.”
– The Accidental Leader

READ THE PLAYS:

Alistair Beaton: The Accidental Leader
Stella Feehily: How To Get Ahead In Politics
David Hare: Ayn Rand Takes A Stand

In May we opened a show called A View From Islington North*, comprising short political satires. Here we publish three of the scripts in full, with the kind permission of writers Alistair Beaton, Stella Feehily and David Hare. We think they make for a funny, exasperating and illuminating read.

One proved uncannily prescient: Alistair Beaton’s The Accidental Leader imagined a Labour MP orchestrating a mass resignation of shadow cabinet members in protest at the party’s Corbyn-like leader. We could barely believe it when in late June, towards the end of our run, this happened in real life almost exactly as Alistair had written it, to the extent that people who saw the play subsequently got in touch to ask if it had been hastily rewritten. We hadn’t changed a word. Alistair’s play brilliantly articulates the debate in the Labour Party today: the arguments over its soul, its mission, its achievements and the compromises it must make to gain power.

In the highly imaginative Ayn Rand Takes A Stand, David Hare puts the then home secretary Theresa May on stage in a searing piece that found a deep contradiction in her political philosophy. It’s well worth a read now she’s the boss.

And Stella Feehily’s gloriously cynical How To Get Ahead In Politics was inspired by accusations of bullying and sexual harassment within the Conservative Party and sees a Chief Whip practising his dark arts to contain a scandal.

READ THE PLAYS:

Alistair Beaton: The Accidental Leader
Stella Feehily: How To Get Ahead In Politics
David Hare: Ayn Rand Takes A Stand

SEE ALSO:

A brief history of satire
Can laughter change the world? Satirists on satire

*Islington North is Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency – and it’s also where Out of Joint is based!


If you’ve enjoyed reading (or seeing) these plays, please consider making a small gift to Out of Joint.

Donate with JustGiving GiftAid

“You can be hated but you mustn’t be laughed at”

a caricature puppet of Margaret Thatcher at a war meeting with colleagues, at a table with miniature military figures and vehicles, from the Spitting Image tv show

Spitting Image (ITV/Rex/Shuttersock)

Is laughing at politics a catalyst for change – or a substitute? With A View From Islington North about to open in the West End, we asked three brilliant satirists about the relationship between comedy and politics.

JONATHAN LYNN co-wrote Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. He wrote and directed Clue and Nuns on the Run and has directed films including The Whole Nine YardsJOLYON RUBINSTEIN has won a BAFTA for writing and performing BBC3’s The Revolution Will Be Televised alongside Heydon Prowse. ALISTAIR BEATON wrote for Spitting Image and Not The Nine O’Clock News, and penned the TV films The Trail of Tony Blair and A Very Social Secretary. His play The Accidental Leader is premiered in A View From Islington North (the title of this article is a quote from the play).

Why does politics lend itself so well to comedy?

A young man in dark-rimmed glasses brandishing a video camera as if it was a gun

Jolyon Rubinstein

Jonathan Lynn: Insincerity, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, dishonesty and corruption are the ingredients of political activity. When these qualities are revealed in those who tell us how to live, what to think and what to do, the pleasure is irresistible.

Jolyon Rubinstein: Because the powerful dressing up the pursuit of their own rampant self interest as logical for the great unwashed is hilarious.

Alistair Beaton: Because it’s so serious. Its very hard to be funny about something that’s already funny.

What or who is ripe for satirical treatment at the moment?

JL: The target never changes: anyone who wants power over their fellow citizens.

JR: The left and right seem to both be simultaneously exploring their most extreme nether regions. Trump & sadly Zac Goldsmith seem to have ushered in the normalisation of open ‘no offence’ racism; whilst Sanders & Corbyn seem to have shown that collectivist, bottom-up hope needs silver hair and wrinkles to be considered authentic.

AB: Just about anyone who hasn’t yet faced up to climate change.

Tell us a piece of satire or political comedy you’ve particularly admired?

JL: The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol.

JR: Chris Morris and Brass Eye were a big influence on us.

AB: I love the savage intelligence of cartoonists such as Chris Riddell and Steve Bell. Going back in time, it’s hard to beat the Latin poets. Catullus is is up there with the best; he’s witty, filthy and fearless. Nowadays he’d probably be sued for libel.

close up of a man with a white beard smiling

Jonathan Lynn

Do you think satire has a purpose beyond entertainment – and do you think it ever succeeds?

JL: Satire is comedy with a purpose: it seeks to change society. But if it ever succeeds, which I doubt, the success is superficial and brief. Seven years of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister produced many laughs and some understanding of the way we’re governed – but no change for the better. I can’t think of a play that ever changed anything but that doesn’t mean there’s no point in making the effort: art is criticism of life and satire is criticism of life by ridicule. Absolutely necessary.

JR: Yes I do. Satire’s job is to ridicule the powerful by highlighting the absurdity of their deeds and actions. I think once you see the balloon of the most powerful pop we are all empowered. It reminds us that they are in fact just like us and that’s empowering.

AB: I’m not sure satire changes anything, but at the very least it fosters outrage – and gives heart to the losers.

Do you think there’s anything specific or unique about how the British portray the establishment?

a middle aged man smiling and leaning on a banister

Alistair Beaton

JL: British politicians are in trouble if they are perceived as having no sense of humour. We can get away with much more than satirists in many other countries because every politician dreads not being seen as a ‘good sport’. So satirists don’t get jailed or shot. Instead, the establishment embraces us, flatters us, and hands out OBEs and knighthoods to writers and comedians who are seen as a potential threat. Satirists are thus made part of the establishment, which is a much more sophisticated way of neutering them.

JR: Not particularly. We have a uniquely consolidated ‘establishment’ in London. It runs through the highest echelons of all our major industries and it’s as tightly kit as it’s ever been. Our establishment think they’ve won. They are vitriolic and have reframed their self interest as good for all of us, just like George Orwell said they would.

AB: There’s a healthy British tradition of irreverence towards power. But curiously, it’s mixed with a sickly respect for outdated institutions. What other country would fail to abolish the House of Lords? (Not to mention the House of Windsor).

Steamy scenes – trains in theatre

blog - barnum

You can’t see the steam train that comes to a halt, hissing and clanking, in the middle of the auditorium during All That Fall – theatre-goers are blindfolded throughout. But you’d swear it was there, thanks to Dyfan Jones’ nine-directional sound design.

Beckett’s radio play tells the story of a woman’s arduous journey to a rural station to meet her blind husband, and the train’s mysterious delay. Its director, Max Stafford-Clark, is a big train aficionado (an impressive model railway takes up his spare bedroom).

Trains cast a strong spell– steam trains especially. Railway and miniature railway expert Tim Dunn suggests “They’re the closest we’ve come to creating life; and the need all the elements – fire, air, water and coal from the earth.”

Here are some other wheeled stars of the stage:

 

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN 

The York Theatre Royal/National Rail Museum production of The Railway Children, now at King's Cross

The York Theatre Royal/National Rail Museum production of The Railway Children, now at King’s Cross

York Theatre Royal teamed up with the city’s National Rail Museum for this successful adaptation of E. Nesbit’s novel, in a production whose undoubted star is a real steam train which chugs into the theatre. The show, staged around a railway track, moved to the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station before arriving at Kings Cross in a purpose built theatre.

 

STARLIGHT EXPRESS

Blog - starlight

The current, long-running production of Starlight Express in Bochum, Germany

A sort of gender-reversed Cinderella story (it was actually more… complicated than that, gender-wise: engines were male, coaches were female), Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe’s musical pitted an underdog steam engine against arrogant and cheating electric and diesel engines in a racing competition. Choreographer Arlene Phillips sent the cast hurtling around a transformed Apollo Victoria theatre that was kitted out with multi-level tracks and a huge, moving bridge by the designer-supreme of 80s behemoth musicals John Napier. For a show that romanticised old technology it wasn’t shy about embracing the shiny and new. As such it’s unlikely to have a fringe theatre revival any time soon – but we’re only saying that in the hope that someone is inspired to try it. Roller Disco anyone?

 

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN

Another piece that was first written for radio, David Mamet’s claustrophobic, creepy one-act play is set on a night train crossing Wisconsin in 1910. As his fellow passengers gamble over an increasingly fraught game of cards, a travelling salesman recounts a story of murder and jealousy with a paranormal twist.

 

THE DUTCHMAN

A production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York

A production of Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York

Set entirely on a New York subway car, Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play (written under his birth name, LeRoi Jones), uses a charged encounter between a white woman and a black man to look at race relations. A 2013 revival was staged in the Russian and Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village, performed by skimpily glad actors to bathrobed audience members.

 

THE PERMANENT WAY

The Permanent Way

The Permanent Way

One of the most successful stage documentaries, David Hare’s verbatim play (for Out of Joint and the National Theatre) examined the 1990s privatisation of Britain’s railways and its consequences, as told through the series of four rail crashes that happened in its wake. “Like Groundhog Day” was the memorable, chilling observation. William Dudley’s set featured metal railway gantries framing a giant screen that initially brought to charming life an old steam railway poster (cue affectionate gasps from the audience); became an increasingly ominous departure board; and appeared to smash to pieces as a CGI train crashed through it while coming off the rails.

 

THE GHOST TRAIN

Told By An Idiot's production of The Ghost Train used foley-type live sound effects to create train noises and other sounds

Told By An Idiot’s production of The Ghost Train used foley-type live sound effects to create train noises and other sounds

[SPOILER ALERT] Arnold Ridley’s 1923 thriller is set in the waiting room of a remote station, supposedly haunted by a ghost train that dooms anyone who sees it to death. It turns out that the train is real, and being used to smuggle arms (Enid Blyton used a similar device in her Famous Five novel Five Go Off To Camp). Ridley was inspired to write it after being stranded overnight at a station.

 

ETTA JENKS

Marlane Mayer’s play is about a young woman who arrives in Hollywood with dreams of fame, and achieves it – by becoming a porn star. It opens with her arrival by train at the Los Angelis train terminal.

 

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Kneehigh's adaptation of Brief Encounter

Kneehigh’s adaptation of Brief Encounter

Kneehigh theatre company brought Noel Coward and David Lean’s iconic station romance to life in an production at Cinema Haymarket, in which live actors interacted magically with newly-shot film footage.

 

All That Fall plays at the Arts Theatre, West End, from 13 April to 14 May 2016 following sell-out performances at Wilton’s Music Hall and Bristol Old Vic.

Interview with Max Stafford-Clark

Max Stafford-Clark, shot by Beinn Muir at Wilton's Music Hall during rehearsals for All That Fall

Max Stafford-Clark, shot by Beinn Muir at Wilton’s Music Hall during rehearsals for All That Fall

Out of Joint is bringing Max Stafford-Clark’s in-the-dark staging of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall  into the West End for just 5 weeks from 13 April, following sell-out performances in London and Bristol. He talks about why the play appeals to him more than Beckett’s better known work – and his love of trains – with Jon Bradfield.

JB: When did you first encounter All That Fall?

MSC: I read it I suppose about 25 years ago. I think I find myself out of sympathy with the nihilistic, non-specific worlds of Beckett’s better known stage plays, such as Waiting for Godot, so I was intrigued to find that Michael Billington had chosen not one of the better known plays but All That Fall for his book The 101 Greatest Plays.

What’s interesting is it contains the tropes of Beckett, the decay and death and that view of the world he had after the war when belief in Christianity, or socialism, seemed to have been eradicated…

But it’s softened in All That Fall?

It’s contextualised more, and therefore it’s more comprehensible. I find his a gloomy philosophy of life but it’s one he held, and when you read his life you begin to understand his certain cynicism. He was a medical orderly and a nurse in a bombed-out French village after the war. And indeed his experiences in occupied France – the local priest in the place he was hiding was involved in giving information to the Gestapo.

I think the fact that All That Fall is socially specific, that it evokes a particular suburban world of Anglo-Irish Protestantism drew me to the play.

It’s a very simple story – Mrs Rooney’s journey to the station to pick up her blind husband on a Saturday lunchtime. It would have been quite normal to for people in office jobs to work on a Saturday morning. But to that simple structure he adds a specificity of the social class of people she meets.

It’s certainly more naturalistic than Godot or Endgame or Happy Days. Is the Irishness part of the draw too? Like Beckett you were at Trinity College, your wife [playwright Stella Feehily] is Irish, you’ve worked regularly with Sebastian Barry, you’ve twice directed Tom Kilroy’s Irish version of The Seagull…

Well I’m a Hibernophile from way back. And Beckett was drawing on real life. Connolly’s van passes Mrs Rooney on her outward journey in the play, and there was a grocers called Connolly’s in Foxrock… When I was in Dublin in the early sixties it was still a collision of country and town. Donkeys were used as working animals in rural towns around Dublin.

So Foxrock would have been semi rural?

It would have been completely rural and is now suburban. The station has gone.

The play is slightly unresolved. We’re left not knowing if Mr Rooney had something to do with the incident that’s revealed at the end of the play – and there’s a mystery around the object that he’s dropped. Do you and the cast need to know these answers in rehearsal to make the play work?

I left it open as late as possible last year but by the middle of the run the actor playing Mr Rooney became convinced he was involved. When Beckett himself was asked he said “if I knew I’d tell you” so he was deliberately out to create an unresolved mystery.

And do you like that, or do you find it frustrating?

Initially frustrating, but eventually I found it very satisfying that we don’t know.

It’s a way of suggesting a distance between them as a couple.

The thing about them as a couple is that in the first half when Mrs Rooney’s going to the station by herself she’s entirely dominant. She’s a rather acerbic and fractious neighbour to the people she meets. Yet when she meets her husband she’s totally dominated by him. It rings true of a number of literary relationships and probably rings true of a number of relationships Beckett had.

You like your trains. Was that part of the appeal?

It was part of the appeal of the sound effects, yes! There’s scope for a couple of trains to pass and I have a very clear picture in my mind of what kind of locomotives would have been involved.

maxstafford-clark_leaning RGB

Max on the Bluebell steam railway during rehearsals for The Permanent Way, David Hare’s play about the privatisation of the railways. Photo by John Haynes.

Someone recently suggested to me that steam trains are magical to us because they’re the closest we’ve come to creating life.

I’ll have to digest that but they’re very exciting creatures.

They sort of breathe.

Yeah that’s right. I think my first memory was driving down to Devon with my parents for a holiday. There was a huge traffic jam outside Honiton and we stopped and walked across a field, my father and I, and sat on a fence above a railway cutting and saw these extraordinarily beautiful and noisy steam engines going by. And as you know I have an extensive model railway that I return to every night.

You play with it every day?

Operate it. Not play! It’s a complete world, it’s Vermont in 1956, about the same time as All That Fall in fact, so I’m fifteen when I go in there, and Stella doesn’t exist.

So coming back to the play, for this revival is there anything you’d like to change from when you staged it last year in Enniskillen?

I think I’ll make Mrs Rooney a bit more impossible. I mean, I think she’s a person that if you saw her coming down the street you might cross over to the other side of the road rather than risk a social confrontation with her.

She’s both flirty and scolding isn’t she.

That’s right – she’s that kind of unpredictability that’s quite difficult socially. You don’t know if she’s going to tear you off a strip or ask you to tea.

Did you know Beckett?

No. I met him a few times. He’d talk about the impossibility of guarding his work. “I spend my life trying…” So when we sought permission from the Beckett estate to stage All That Fall and Edward Beckett asked me what was my vision for the play, I knew the correct answer was that there was no vision at all. Beckett’s instruction was that the voices come “as from the void”.

Trains RGB

Max’s model railway

BOOK TICKETS TO ALL THAT FALL

Something witchy this way comes

A topless woman with her hands behind her head with six pairs of nipples

In August 2015, villagers in the Indian state of Jarkhand dragged five middle-aged women from their beds and beat and stoned them to death on suspicion of witchcraft. It wasn’t an isolated case. In India’s eastern states, “witches” are often blamed and attacked for causing illness, poor harvests and other misfortunes. There’s a horrid timelessness to the phenomenon: it echoes accusations made through history as people sought to explain nature’s cruel mysteries. But in 2015 with all our shared wealth of accumulated scientific knowledge it shocks that such wild ideas can still bring a mob to murder.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ new play Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is inspired by the case of a Hertfordshire village’s “healing woman” in 1712 – one of the last witch trials in England. We’re touring the play across England and we’ve dug up some stories of witch persecutions and other happenings near to the theatres we’re visiting. There are stories of strange apparitions, superstitions, religious fundamentalism and con-artistry. Some are fascinatingly odd; others just heartbreaking.

 

HERTFORDSHIRE: THE PAUPERS OF TRING

a house with people standing in front of it by two trees watching two people being drowned in a riverWalkern, where our play is set, is in Hertfordshire but here’s another piece of local witch history.

Ruth and John Osborne were elderly paupers who lived in a workhouse in Tring. In 1751 they were both tried and executed for witchcraft, despite the Witchcraft Act outlawing such punishment in 1732. Ruth Osborne went begging for food at the residence of local farmer John Butterfield, who turned the old woman away. Ruth left, muttering obscenities towards him under her breath. In the fllowing weeks, Butterfield began to suffer from fits and his cattle too fell ill. He accused Ruth of having cursed him and declared that she and her husband were witches.

An angry mob descended on the workhouse where they stayed and dragged them to a muddy river where their hands and feet were bound together, and both were ‘ducked’ in the water. Having choked to death on the mud, Ruth’s naked body was left on the riverbank, while John died later from his injuries and shock. The leader of the mob, Thomas Colley, was tried in Hertfordshire Assizes and condemned to death as a murderer. Local authorities pressured Colley to renounce his belief in witchcraft, which he did, before being taken back to Tring and hung for his crimes. Despite this, the local villagers supported Colley and continued to believe that Ruth Osborne was a witch.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern plays at Watford Palace Theatre from 23 September.

 

SUFFOLK: THE BRANDESTON MARTYR

an old drawing of figures and animals inscribed 'Matthew Hopkins witch finder generall' In 1596, John Lowes became the vicar of All Saints in the Suffolk village of Brandeston. He was not yet 30, and was to remain in the role until he was killed at the age of 80.

Priests like Lowes, who were associated with the “high church” and its rituals, were viewed with increasing suspicion by a puritan-leaning local population who wanted the Church of England to resemble more closely the protestant churches of Europe. They could be prosecuted as “scandalous minsters” – but Brandeston’s puritans took things further and with a nod from the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, Lowes was charged with witchcraft. The old man, who had served his parish for 50 years, was tortured until he confessed to employing two imps to sink ships at sea. He was taken to Bury St Edmunds, where he was among 40 innocent men, women and children to be executed in the autumn of 1646.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern tours to Brandeston and other rural locations in Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk from 6-17 October.

 

YORKSHIRE: THE LAST BURNING AND MORE

Old Wife Green
Hanging was the usual method of execution for witches, rather than the more expensive burning. The last burning of a witch in England was in 1630 in Pocklington, East Yorkshire, where the parish register records Old Wife Green was burned for being a witch by an angry mob in the village square.

a sculpture of teddy bears hanging from a cave roof

Toys petrifying at Mother Shipton’s cave, now popular with tourists

Mother Shipton
The famous ‘witch’ of Yorkshire was born in a cave in Knaresborough in 1488 during a violent thunderstorm. Her mother died giving birth. Mother Shipton’s original name was Ursula Southeil. Throughout her childhood she was associated with many mysterious events, such as furniture moving of its own accord and bright lights coming from a property. She became well known as a fortune teller but her crooked facial features frightened many and she was often thought of as a witch. She’s associated with many famous predictions, including foretelling the Great Fire of London and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Mother Shipton’s cave still exists and attracts visitors from all over the world to see the magic power of the well near the cave which can turn things to stone: Objects, such as teddy bears and dolls, are hung up inside the cave and the limestone-drenched water from the petrifying well gradually turns the objects to stone with its sediment.

Mary Bateman
A criminal and alleged witch known as the Yorkshire Witch. She was tried and executed for murder during the early 19th century. She became a prominent fortune-teller in Leeds who prescribed potions which she claimed would ward off evil spirits. She poisoned a couple who asked for her help in lifting a curse and was found guilty by a jury of fraud and murder. She was hanged in 1809 in York and her body put on public display with strips of her skin sold as magic charms to ward off evil spirits. Her skeleton is on display to the public in the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern tours to West Yorkshire Playhouse 21-24 October.

 

NORTH WEST: THE WOMAN WITH THE LANTERNS

Llanasa in Flintshire is a village near the North East coast of Wales, just across the Dee estuary from The Wirral. Around 1,000 people, many of them seafarers, lived there in 1665 when charges of witchcraft were brought against a local woman, Dorothy Griffith.

Her two main accusers were William Griffith, a sailor, and Thomas Rogers, an ale-house keeper. William Griffith said that he had been walking at night to the ship in which he served, when Dorothy had come towards him “with many lanterns lighted about her”, and had led him to Rogers’ house whereupon he looked back towards the marsh and saw it was “soe covered with fire and light that one might have gathered needles”. He fell into a trance, and the next morning sent for Dorothy. When she subsequently prayed for him he recovered.

This was the middle of the 17th century, when witch persecutions were at their height. The judges who presided over the Dorothy’s trial, John Bradshaw and Thomas Fell, had sent several women to the gallows for witchcraft. Dorothy seems to have been saved by her fellow parishioners, 31 of whom signed a petition in support of her. As J. Gwynn Wiliams wrote in the Journal of Flintshire Historical Society, “it is remarkable testimony to the sense of fairness of the chief parishioners of Llanasa that they unequivocally came to the aid of a defenceless spinster, so often the victim of persecution in less favoured communities.”

What did William Griffith see that night? Marsh gas or methane that had somehow caught fire, perhaps, or ball lightning or phosphorescence. There was a popular idea at the time of “corpse candles” – lights or flames which would appear when a nearby death was imminent. This would explain Griffith’s terrified state.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern tours to Liverpool Everyman Theatre 27-31 October.

 

WEST COUNTRY: HAG RIDING IN WESTON-SUPER-MARE

a woman lying on her back with her head and arms hanging down as though she were dead with a gremlin like figure sat on top of her Hag-riding was the alleged practise of disturbing others in their sleep, and provided an explanation for phenomena such as sleep paralysis and what the academic David Hufford has called “sensation of presence” – that feeling we’ve all had at night of someone or something being in the room.

In 1875 in Weston-super-Mare (just along the Severn Estuary from Bristol which we’re touring) 72 year old Hester Adams was prosecuted for stabbing 43-year-old Maria Pring in the hand and face. Adams accused Pring of having hag-ridden her and her husband on many occasions, and though conceding that ‘she does not come bodily” she claimed Pring would be present in “a nasty, evil, spiritual way, making a nasty noise.” Adams had concluded she must draw blood from Pring in order to stop her ridings, hence the stabbing – for which she was fined one shilling, and bound to keep the peace. Had it been 200 years earlier, it would likely have been Pring in the dock.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern tours to Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatres 3-7 November.

 

SALISBURY: THE HEALING WOMAN OF FISHERTON

Anne Bodenham lived in the Fisherton area of Salisbury (a five minute walk from where Salisbury Playhouse is now) and, like Jane Wenham, worked as a cunning woman, teaching children to read, recovering lost items and curing illnesses.

The Goddards, a gentry family who lived in the Cathedral Close, sent their servant Anne Styles to Bodenham for advice on misplaced items and family disputes. Tensions within the family began to escalate: Mrs Goddard became convinced that her daughter in law, Sarah, was trying to poison her, and there was a law suit between Goddard and one of his sons-in-law. When Bodenham’s assistance in these matters was sought, Styles witnessed unusual sights, such as ragged spirits appearing and, when a green “scrying glass” (like a crystal ball) was placed on a book, she could see persons in her Master’s house.

a topless woman with her hands behind her head with 7 pairs of nipple like marks going down her body

Inquisitors would search the body of a suspected witch for Devil’s marks or extra teats

Styles was asked by Bodenham to purchase arsenic, which was mysteriously burned to prevent the poisoning of Mrs Goddard. Over the next few days Styles visited Bodenham and witnessed her displaying diabolical pictures, calling on the devil to conjure up evil spirits, and using the scrying glass to discover arsenic under Sarah Goddard’s bed.

Bodenham sent Styles to collect herbs which, along with the witch’s nail parings, would be put in Sarah Goddard’s drink to make her drunk, mad and her teeth fall out. These arrangements came to the attention of Sarah Goddard and, when it was discovered that Styles had bought arsenic, the family dismissed her. On Styles’ final visit to the “witch”, Bodenham attempted to persuade her to stay with her and, when Styles refused, she made her take a vow of silence, signed in her own blood in the witch’s book of the devil.

Styles set off for London but she was returned to Salisbury by one of the Goddard’s son in laws. On her return she confessed and fell into a coma racked with terrible convulsions. Styles and Bodenham were charged with attempted poisoning and committed to Fisherton gaol.

Anne Bodenham was tried at the Lent Assizes, found guilty of witchcraft and sentenced to death. She refused to admit her guilt, even though the marks of a witch* were found on her body, and would not pray or be prayed for or reveal the whereabouts of her magic or other witches in the area. Anne Bodenham was hanged in 1653.

*Inquisitors would search the body of a suspected witch for marks made by the Devil, or for teats from which a familiar or the Devil himself could suck. Skin infections, the hint of an extra nipple or moles and other marks could be interpreted as Devil’s marks.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern tours to Salisbury Playhouse 10-14 November.

 

DALSTON, LONDON: EXORCISM

In 2005, Sita Kisanga and her brother Sebastian Pinto were found guilty of aiding and abetting the physical abuse of an eight-year-old girl. The girl’s aunt, who had brought the girl to the UK after her parents died, was convicted of child cruelty. The girl had been beaten, cut and had chilli peppers rubbed in her eyes to ‘beat the devil out of her’.

Kisanga and Pinto, attended the fundamentalist Combat Spirituel church in Dalston, east London. At the trial, Dr Richard Hoskins, an expert on African religions, said that what marked such churches out from the mainstream was the practice of exorcism.

Kisanga denied she had taken part in the beatings of the girl and said that she had tried to stop the abuse by the child’s aunt. But she admitted that like the aunt she had believed that the girl was ‘kendoki’ – a witch.

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is at Arcola Theatre, Dalston, 5-30 January 2016.

Beckett Beginnings

Ciaran McIntyre in Endgame, Liverpool Playhouse 2008

Ciaran McIntyre in Endgame, Liverpool Playhouse 2008

Out of Joint is presenting a rare live production of Samuel Beckett’s radio play All That Fall, in collaboration with the Enniskillen Happy Days Festival. We asked some of the cast about their first encounters with Beckett.

 

GARY LILBURN

“Leaving three actors in charge seemed a recipe for disaster”

My first opportunity to perform in a Beckett play came in 1994 when I was cast as Estragon in a New Victoria Theatre production of Waiting For Godot. Other New Vic regulars Paul McCleary and Lennox Greaves were to play Vladimir and Pozzo respectively. When we arrived for the first read through our director Peter Cheeseman announced that he didn’t believe we would have much need of his services and handed over the direction of the production to us three .

The play is difficult, dense and multi layered enough for any experienced director, but to have not one but three actors, inexperienced at directing, who were also in the production, in charge, seemed a sure recipe for disaster.

Thankfully we were saved by a Birmingham University professor and Beckett expert who took pity on us, gave us a crash course on the play and playing Beckett, and we managed to pull it off.

 

GARETT KEOGH

“High flung philosophy from low lying mouths”

I knew Beckett from schooldays – well, knew of him. The sort of person you were supposed to know about. The obscure and difficult artist that for a teenager to know was cool.

But I first really met him in a tiny hall off Sherriff Street in the centre of Dublin when some school pals were arguing, fighting more like, over what lines to include or cut from their adaptation of his novels for a one-man show. Jim Sheridan and his brother Peter, armed with well-worn A4 pages and biros, Vinnie McCabe the actor voicing the results of their latest joust. So this is who Beckett was? A master of words, and rhythms I knew. Hilarious. Speaking the thoughts inside Vinnie’s mind.

These three and Mister Sheridan had done a famous production of Godot that shocked the amateur circuit. They were baptised in Beckett. They bit the nose off each other fighting for sense, non-sense, for continuity, and laughter.

Then in a dark and dingy basement on Abbey Street which was the original incarnation of the Project Arts Centre I saw my first theatre apart from school Gilbert and Sullivans. Vinnie as Krapp, and how he sat into the part, or the part seemed to sit into him.

One night I was lucky to wander into the Gaiety and see Jack McGowran do his one-man Beginning to End. Funny, seemingly effortless, the native Dublin cadences that Beckett had knitted into something profound, poetic, provocative, and funny. Here was high flung philosophy from low lying mouths. Here were dilemmas of birth, death, and the in-between, condensed, crystallised, and comic. Here were us humans tying ourselves in knots with words.

And here was silence. And the man who dared to ask, what happens when your questions are left hanging in the void?

 

GINA MOXLEY

“There’s no end to the learning”

By the time I moved from Cork to Dublin, after I graduated from Art School, I can only remember having seen two plays – The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds with a student Fiona Shaw, and a stultifying production of Joyce’s Embers that almost doused my budding interest in theatre.

Without any knowledge, experience and precious little talent I managed to be cast by an education theatre company touring to schools. In Sligo we crossed paths with the Irish Theatre Company on their final tour with a production of Waiting for Godot. It was the first Beckett I’d seen and I was of course blown away – but also I realised just how little I knew and how much there was to learn.

And here I am hundreds of years later performing in my first Beckett and realising there’s no end to the learning.

 

CIARAN MCINTYRE

“I find him hilariously funny”

As a theatre-goer I first encountered Beckett when I was a student in Dublin. I saw Waiting For Godot at a student drama festival and loved it immediately. My first Beckett on the other side of the footlights was a few years ago at Liverpool Playhouse, wedged in a dustbin with my feet poking out the back hidden under rubble, playing Nagg in Endgame, which starred Matthew Kelly and his son.

I find Beckett funny – hilariously funny. Very dark, but so, so funny.

 


See All That Fall at the Enniskillen Happy Days Festival, 22 July – 2 August 2015

An interview with Gareth Thomas

On a night in late February, Gareth Thomas – former captain of the Welsh rugby team and the most famous gay team sportsman in the world – took his family and friends to a theatre press night. He’s no stranger, now, to shiny showbiz events but this was special. The play being premiered was Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage, which tells his own extraordinary story, set against that of his hometown Bridgend, which has had its own share of the media’s attention. For a play that contains its share of darkness, it also contains a lot of humour and there was a lot of laughter in the theatre that night – not least from Gareth’s own mother, who shrieked with shocked glee whenever the actor playing her caught one of her mannerisms.

The sight and sound of Thomas’ family watching his story unfold is hard to beat as in image of acceptance. Although perhaps his reincarnation as a star of family pantomimes comes close. (“It’s great to be part of a team in theatre” he says. “Even if it’s a smaller team than in rugby it’s still a team where you work for each other and help each other out.”)

Does this mean things have changed? Would it be easier today for a young player to come out?

“I’d like to think so. The fear I had was that no-one had done it before, so I had no idea if I was going to get any support. I had no idea what the crowd’s reactions or the reaction from my teammates would be, or from the press. When you’re the first person to do something, everybody is unsure of what to do. I went through some bad times, but the majority of it was good times and I’d like to think people can look at that and think ‘he did it, he got through it, he carried on playing, he didn’t lose much from it, in fact he gained a lot from it’. I think mine is a positive story that people can look at and think ‘yeah, I can too’.”

In Wales, rugby isn’t just a team sport. It’s the people’s game in the way football is in England. It’s the centre of communities, whether that community is a small town or the nation itself. That his coming out, while still a major player, has been so uncontroversial is heartening. But he remains a rarity. Thomas says it’s about more than just looking for the famous cases.

“To me it’s important not just that a professional rugby player could potentially come out, it’s that anybody can decide to take up sport. There are billions of people in the world that play sport and the fact that it could make a difference to a few of them is enough for me. I know for a fact there are a few people out there who’ve had the courage to join a team because of what happened with me.”

Does he feel an obligation then to gay sports people? “100 percent” he says, then qualifies it. “I never came out because I felt I had an obligation to a community – I had to come out because I felt I had no life left to live. But after coming out, I realised that I do have a responsibility to others, and I have to take it seriously. When you realise you could influence somebody else’s life, that’s a massive responsibility. I want to influence people. By doing positive things, and consistently giving positive messages the more people you can start to influence.”

His success has seen him travel, which must give him a perspective of how things are for gay people around the world and at home. Are we as progressive here as we like to think?

“So many people are willing to say that everything’s okay but not to show that everything’s okay. I’ve been to countries where people say, ‘You know, I don’t mind if there’s a gay rugby player or someone gay living in my street’ but they don’t want to be associated with them. I think we live in a world where everybody wants to say the right thing but actions speak a lot louder than words. There are something like 78 countries where it’s illegal to be gay. Is that okay? That there are other places where people are afraid to live their life the way they want to?”

Thomas is very famous now, and much loved in Wales. Does he ever encounter homophobia himself?

“Not so much now, but I’m a stronger person. When I came out I was very self-conscious. I’d be constantly looking out for how people looked at me or listening to someone who’d just walked past in the street to see if they’d say something. I didn’t want people to dislike me or judge me for my sexuality. In sport, you’re trying to please people all the time and it’s very hard to stop thinking that way. Now, if someone does have a problem with me, that person becomes irrelevant. That comes over time, and from realizing who your friends are.”

Did his training and discipline as a sportsman help him block out the bad stuff?

“It’s probably a hindrance. You need positive support to play well so it’s very hard to not to notice the negative stuff. If somebody is calling you something, repeatedly, you can’t ignore it.”

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage was the idea of veteran theatre director Max Stafford-Clark, himself a keen former scrum-half. It’s been written by his regular collaborator Robin Soans, well known for his successful “verbatim” plays, based on extensive interviews with real people. Previous projects have seen Soans meeting with everyone from terrorists and their victims to Neil and Christine Hamilton, who became unlikely celebrities after disgraced MP Neil was caught up in a cash-for-questions scandal.

As well as telling Gareth Thomas’s story, the new play gives voice to young people from his hometown, Bridgend, which hit the headlines a few years ago following a number of young suicides in the wider Bridgend area. Newspaper photographers and headline writers fell over themselves to paint a gloomy picture of the town. For someone who grew up there that must have been strange at best?

“To me, Bridgend is something everybody has – it’s a home. All my friends live there – it’s a friendly place, everybody is willing to do anything for everybody else. It’s a lively town, and it represents a lot of who I am. It’s a place that’s proud. It’s been through turmoil, but it’s willing to fight to keep its reputation strong. People on the outside may read an article or hear a story about a place, but that doesn’t define that place. A place that’s willing to overcome adversity, that’s willing to fight for its reputation as I’m willing to fight for mine is a good place to be in.”

Is he not tempted to move to somewhere bigger? London, perhaps?

“I did. One of the best things I did was move away for a while. I thought, there has to be more to life than going to the pub and seeing Dave in that corner because he’s always there and Jen behind the bar because she’s always behind the bar. So I went to London for about three years and I felt so alone it made me realize the thing I was running away from was exactly what I loved – that I can walk into the pub and know people or people can stop me in the street to talk about the rugby. I had to go away to realize what that meant to me and moving back was the best thing I ever did. I’m part of a community where I feel safe, and I’m proud to be part of it.”

Since coming out, Thomas has worked with a lot of young people in Wales and across the UK. What advice would he give to a young person struggling with the idea of coming out?

“It’s difficult to give generic advice, because coming out is such a personal thing. But the thing I would say is, I get a lot of credit for coming out but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my mum and dad and my friends. So I’d say, the best thing is to find two pillars – it could be your parents or close friends. And then you realize, the rest of the world could hate you but you’ve got someone to fall back on. And it will be alright. Find your support network, your failsafe. Your bookends. I was lucky – I had a great family and friends.”

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage is touring until June.