The Andrea Project
21st Feb 2018
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
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.
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.
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.
Writing 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.
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.
‘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.
Thank you to Out of Joint and the Royal Court Theatre for this phenomenal experience.
“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.