Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Workhouse Christmas in Peterborough.

Seven weeks ago Kate Hall came to Nottingham to see a play of mine. We've worked together on a number of occasions, earlier this year she directed My Name is Stephen Luckwell at Nottingham Playhouse and we have both been involved with RSC community and education projects. She had this idea of putting on a short piece for Christmas at The Old Still in Peterborough where she lives. The pub has been empty for some time and at the moment is home to a group of artists. It's Dickensian in the extreme with panelled walls and a courtyard out the back. Her suggestion was an adaptation of the poem It was Christmas Day in the Workhouse by George Sims. Was I up for it? Absolutely. Any project with Kate is going to be fun. And this week it opened. A promenade performance with three actors, a choir, and mulled wine. What more could you ask for Christmas?

Sometimes I enjoy working at speed - especially if someone as efficient as Kate is taking care of all the difficult bits.

There's a bit in The Producers where Bloom and Bialystok are sitting on the roof with their Nazi playwright trying to convince him to let them put on his masterpiece, two Jews having to listen to his rambling homage to Hitler. He wants to emphasise how much better a painter Hitler was than Churchill and says -

Hitler. There was a painter. One apartment, two coats, one afternoon.

One apartment, two coats, one afternoon. What a brilliant line. And it's become something of a mantra for me and a few colleagues -removed I hasten to add from all Hitlerian context - to be used when any task is getting bogged down in too much detail.

Next Easter we're putting on Finnegan's Wake in a fortnight. Watch this space.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Oh, yes I did!

Yesterday I went to a pantomime at the Palace Theatre in Newark. I don't have a long history with pantos. When I was five I ran out of Dick Whittington at the Dome in Brighton, never to return, when a gun was fired in a market square and I can't recall another one until I took my daughter to a Nottingham Playhouse panto and sat there wondering how anything could last so long.
So I'm not a panto fan, which disappoints me as I love variety and treasure memories of Elsie and Doris Waters, Sandy Powell, Peter Brough, Al Read, Max Wall et al. Cinderella at Newark didn't mark a Pauline conversion, but I did enjoy it.
It had a story. It had real actors who worked hard and were obviously enjoying themselves. It wasn't patronising. It wasn't full of jokes about the X Factor and Eastenders. And when a seven year old, asked by Buttons if he didn't feel he'd left it a bit late to send a letter to Santa, said it was okay because he was going to send an e mail he was generously acknowledged as having come out with the best line in the show.
There was a reason why I was there. My colleague on the Buckland project - that has just got the go ahead for 2011!!! - was the MD so I got to sit in the pit with Matt and Steve the drummer rather than amongst the hordes of screaming kids. I was able to watch the stage and the audience and I was taken by how much the kids were involved in the story, they were visibly angry at the way that the sisters treated Cinders, affronted by the injustice of it all, which gave me hope for the future generation.
Actually the best bit about the whole thing was Matt giving me a horn and allowing me to blow it during the car chase. Enormous fun. And something else for the cv, I think.

Monday, 14 December 2009

A positive approach.

I don't normally greet the end of the year with any particular show of jollity. Default setting: creeping depression re: what have I achieved, Oh God another year gone. However this year is different. This is the year of the positive attitude.

So in particular order some of the things that have been dead good in the last twelve months.

Waiting for Godot in New York.
Steve Earle in Derby.
John Tamms, Chuck Prophet and Alexandro Escavado at the Maze.
Seeing a bear on the Skyline Drive.
Joe Lavano at Ronnie Scotts.
Northern Broadsides Othello.
Sitting in on the dress rehearsal of The Tempest at Stratford and then working on it with kids in Rotherham and seeing again how without the baggage of exams and poor teaching they don't have a problem with Shakespeare - they get it.
Leonard Cohen in Cardiff. Not quite within the last 12 months but so good it's kept me smiling all year.
Seeing Guernica in Madrid and Les Demoiselles in New York.
The new gallery Nottingham Contemporary and the opening Hockney exhibition.
Taking my daughter to see John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett.

So not a bad year at all. Okay, the Hanover job went down the tubes. And I didn't get to the gym as much as I wanted to. But I'm still here and I know what I want for Christmas. Another Christmas.

Monday, 30 November 2009

The research can't go on forever.

It's amazing how confident it is possible to appear when the meeting is discussing your latest commission. Actors are great at pretend confidence, they do it all the time. In an audition if you ask an actor a question they'll always answer 'yes'. Unless 'yes' is going to involve them in something illegal or disgusting, and not always then.

-Can you play the saxophone?
-Ride a horse?
-Ever removed an appendix?

Bless them. Yes to everything and don't worry what you might let have yourself in for until you get the part.
I felt like that today. Is it possible for you get the rough draft in by the 10th and not the16th? As in the week after next. When you've got Peterborough, the thing for the BBC, and the outline Big Window to think about. So I lose six days. I can handle that.
Of course, no problem. Ahhhh!
I will get in by the 10th. I will. Absolutely.
But there is so much research, so much reading, so much to absorb and process into something that resembles the dramatic. Once it's all over and I've written The End, we can start to work on it and shape it into what we want it to be, but oh, how long away that moment seems when I'm only on page 53 with nothing more than the vaguest idea of where to go next.
I mean it is all there, more or less, in some sort of order. All I've got to do is write it. And forget about trying to get it right all in one go. At least she said what I'd sent her was easy to read - that's always a good note to have. Tomorrow I go to Peterborough for a read through of A Workhouse Christmas, but I don't have to leave until the afternoon so I could get a couple of scenes done. And tonight instead of the box set of Spooks I could reread my notes and get the timeline properly worked out. And if I don't take any time out to go to the gym or sleep I can get it done by the 6th which leaves me a couple of days to reflect and check for spelling mistakes before I send it in. Yes, I can do it.

Memo to self: don't over dramatise problems in case those who commission you read what you've written.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Alan Bennett, the Natural History Museum, and Toilet Brushes.

Last night I went to see The Habit of Art and here's hope for us all because at 75 - which for all I know might be the new forty in a few years time - he's written another cracker. Before I saw it I read a piece Bennett had written for the LRB on the relationship between the writer and the director, specifically himself and Nicholas Hytner, which endeared me to him. He said - and I paraphrase - that he was glad that he wasn't so highly regarded that every word he wrote was accepted without question, he felt that the dialogue of development and rehearsal was an essential ingredient that his work couldn't do without. Or something like that. And it's true. I'm lost without the critical voice and I enjoy the process.
At the moment I'm enjoying the research. In London for a few days to spend time in the Nat Hist Mus library poring over old documents to do with Buckland, Anning, Mantell and Owen for the Oxford piece - which will continue to be known as the Oxford piece until the next stage of the contract has gone through - many a slip. It's great fun. Coming across quirky little details that immediately give you a sense of the person. And while I'm in there I get two messages. One, the German film of A Dream of White Horses has acquired a new producer and there are further hopes of money being forthcoming, and two, a company that want to work with me have got the money that will allow the project to go ahead, so a definite yippee for that one.
And it is in fact time I got down to work. Last week I spent in the Lakes with friends and my laptop. I didn't open the laptop, but I had a great time. It was self catering. For ten of us. You know you always get instructions left for you explaining where to find the stop cock and what to do when you leave. I don't really want to imagine what ghastly experience prompted our landlords to leave the following message:

On leaving there will be no dirty lavatory brushes.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Erotic Art

The other week in London I went to the Pop Life exhibition at the Tate Modern. I came away with an increased admiration for Andy Warhol that grew the further I went into the exhibition. By the time I got to Damien Hurst and his identical twins I felt I was surrounded by naked emperors. And that is an appropriate image as by then I had had two of the least erotic experiences of my life. I wouldn't like to suggest that I am an aficionado of erotica but I know what I like. Jeff Koons. I entered the room that was barred to the under eighteens and saw the uber lifesize model of himself and his porn star wife shagging. (Incidentally I was charmed to discover that a poster outside a church in North Carolina advertising Saturday Night Shagging Classes for all ages was encouraging the faithful to learn a complicated dance step peculiar to the southern states.) On the walls in glorious technicolor were photos of Mr Koons inserting himself into various bits of La someone or other. I didn't stay long enough to comment on Mr Koons bit, but I did come away amazed at the size of his ego. Deconstruct the whole process, starting with all the assistants who must have been milling around during the photo session, the workers who made the sculpture and probably pissed themselves silly in the process and the words silly and exploitative come to mind.
Later in the exhibition I was particularly taken with the video of the couple having sex on a hotel bed. Apparently, it said on the card on the wall, she - I've forgotten her name - had approached a dealer to find a collector who would pay to have sex with her for an hour and be filmed. One was found, the deed was done, and a tape of this coupling plays - for an hour - in the Tate as we speak. I admit I only watched about thirty seconds and therefore I could be accused of jumping to conclusions, but frankly it is, if I may be excused for descending into the rarified language of art criticism, total bollocks.

Thursday, 5 November 2009


Last week I went to see the Northern Broadsides production of Othello and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. It was clear, the performances were excellent, it was moving, frightening, and three of the fastest hours I've spent in a theatre, and that is no mean praise because put me in a comfy seat, turn the lights out, and it's up to you to keep my attention.
One of the things you tell writers on workshops is that the most powerful thing you can do is put the audience in charge by giving them information that that is not available to the characters, and Othello is a master class of how to do it. From the moment Iago opens his mouth we know exactly what is going to happen. His technique is reminiscent of Max Wall who would inform you he was going to tell you a joke, outline what it was about, explain how it worked and where you were going to laugh, and then, tell it, and you laughed exactly where he said you would. Iago is a poisonous, twisted, evil monster, and yet he is funny and full of life and energy. I've just finished script reading and almost every play was written with passion about a cause or an issue that the writer felt deeply about, and in every case, those characters represented the opposition to the writer's own views were cardboard cutouts without an ounce of life in them. Can't say that about Iago.
It was the first production I've seen that captured the pettiness of Iago's imagined slight. Othello feels he's conferring a favour by keeping his beloved Iago close to him, Iago feels passed over for a new friend, Cassio. Straight back to the playground. But how often after the most terrible crime do we find out that the mayhem was precipitated by the daftest of reasons? And what about the end where, when questioned, Iago, who has poured words all over the play from the opening merely says,

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

Shakespeare, what can you say?

There ain't half been some clever bastards.
Ian Dury

Monday, 26 October 2009

John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett

I think as a parent one of the most important things you can do for a child is to introduce them to the things in life that have elated and inspired you and so that is why last night I took my daughter to see John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett. She grew up listening to Otway's version of I Will Survive sung as if by Bob Dylan and knew of my enthusiasm for the man, so it didn't take a lot of persuasion to get her to indulge me. She was knocked out. During Bodytalk - performed with the aid of drum pads stuffed in the pockets of his jeans and a theremin - I thought she was quite possibly going to be ill. But what I loved was that she got it. Yes, it's funny. Otway is no musician, as Wild Willy never stops reminding us, but his songs are quirky, edgy, heartfelt and honest. He means every word and he is an extremely accomplished performer.
In one number he takes two mics, one in each hand, and sings into both alternately, sometimes a word at a time, whilst twirling them around his head and between his legs and twisting up the leads into a cat's cradle, but he doesn't drop them, and the whole works to the split second, he never misses a beat. He sends himself up and sings with absolute conviction.
When Willy Barrett tells us how Otway has been trying to see how he plays one particular chord all tour but he won't let him, and demonstrates how he can play it without Otway seeing, the timing tells you it's a piece of well rehearsed shtick, and it's ridiculous, but you know, it's also true, Otway does want to know how to play that particular chord, and Barrett, the virtuoso who can play anything, won't show him.
It's a rare thing - a performance that's absurd, weepingly funny, chaotically slick, and absolutely sincere. That's Really Free. Brilliant.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Script Reading

Occasionally I'm asked to read scripts and I've just got a new batch. The number of unsolicited scripts floating around at any one time must be in the thousands. Every theatre company, no matter how small, has more than it can handle, but the majority of them get read, sometime, by someone, and sometimes that someone is me. I'm happy to do it. I feel an obligation to do it because my stuff worked it's way out of the pile because someone took the trouble to read what I'd sent them. There is an amazing amount of rubbish to be ploughed through, but I read them all because I don't want to be the like the bloke who didn't sign the Beatles, and every now and then you come across one that grabs you and there's a real buzz. When that happens you put in a recommendation that it be read again, and someone is on their way to getting noticed.
But I can't pretend that it isn't sometimes a frustrating exercise.

Top Tips.
  • There are probably enough musicals about Dracula and Princess Diana and yours might be the definite one, but I doubt it. Though a musical that had both Dracula and Princess Diana in the cast list might be a winner.
  • Plays about playwrights who can never get their plays put on are unlikely to be put on. You'd be surprised how many I've read. The best - and I use the word loosely - was about a writer who kidnapped a member of the Arts Council, the man's real name was used, because he had turned down a grant to the playwright. An indication as to why the Arts Council hadn't supported our bitter and twisted writer could be sensed in the final third of the play when having got his nemesis trussed up in a lonely cottage miles from anywhere, he talked to him about the play he'd wanted to write with the grant he didn't get and then let him go.
  • Try and visit a theatre once or twice before writing a play. It helps if you have a vague idea what goes on. For example - Plays use real live actors (one hopes) and there are all sorts of petty regulations concerning their well being that have to be observed. It isn't really practical to expect one of your cast to be tied by the ankles and dangled above the stage for the whole two hours whilst being periodically attacked by a cattle prod(sic), even if you have seen something similar in the cinema.
  • Don't send in plays that need a cast of twenty eight to a company that specialises in small scale touring.
  • Never write a character you don't want to play yourself. If you're not interested in them, who else is going to be?
  • Plays are about people. Not your own personal outrage. Not lists of statistics. We only understand the sufferings of millions through the experience of the individual as someone said much more succinctly than I've just done.
  • And remember it's a craft - it has to be worked at. Rewrites are a good idea.
  • Writing a play is hard work. But if you're serious about what you're doing don't look for other activities to distract you when you start to feel down hearted.

Ah... Right.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

High School Musical

High School Musical. Three words I never thought I'd write. Last night we started on the box set of Almodovar that I bought after my wife saw Broken Embraces and after enduring Strictly Come Tedious - one has to make some sacrifices - we watched All about My Mother. When that stunning film came to an end at about midnight we didn't go straight to bed because you need a moment after something as powerful as that, so I made some coffee, flicked back to the TV and scrolled through the channels. I stopped, unintentionally and only to take a sip of coffee, on a couple of kids singing and before I could change the channel we were both sitting with our eyes fixed on the screen. Forty minutes later we were still there. Sucked in. It was dreadful, it reached beyond cheesy, it roared past sentimental until it got stuck in some vomit inducing hinterland, it was shite on a stick, but we were watching High School Musical and we had to make an active decision to turn it off and go to bed. We were in danger of caring about the outcome, we had been overwhelmed by Almodovar's film on almost every level you think of, it's skill, it's nerve, it's compassion, it's humour, it's honesty, it's vision, I could go on and on and I haven't even touched on the acting, and yet we sat there until nearly one in the morning watching manipulative bollocks. Inexplicable. We were suckered in and I feel the need to make amends.
Tomorrow we're off to Lyme Regis on a jolly disguised as research and I shall be taking with me the copy of Finnegan's Wake I got last birthday and have yet to open for more than a casual glance as a penance.
But I do hope they got to play the lead, and the timid little composer was finally acknowledged as the talent she obviously was, and that Troy and his team won the basketball, and the girl with the blond hair and the absurd name I can't remember get their comeupence - we went to bed at the point where it looked as if she and her twat of a brother were about to scupper our heroes chances at the call back by locking them in the toilets but I could be wrong - and everybody was friends in the end and the final performance was very moving and great lessons were learned about life and stuff. Stuff culture, I bet you can get an HSM box set on Amazon.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The German Anthology

I have just finished my 6000 characters including spaces introduction for the section on A Dream Of White Horses (Traum Weisser Pferde) for the anthology that's being put together by the prof in Bayreuth. I'm not sure if my 6000 characters including spaces will work out the same when it is translated in German. Deeply shaming that I have to write it in English. I'd love to speak German and I do try, but it's their own fault that my German doesn't improve. When I ask someone in the street 'Wo ist der hauptbanhof, bitte?' they inevitably reply 'Take the second on the right, go straight on and you can't miss it.' In perfect English. And if I try to speak German my listener will only let me have a couple of sentences at the most before forcing me back to my own language.
Doing the introduction so promptly was of course a classic displacement activity to prevent me from starting on the Oxford commission. I've said Oxford and that could be bad luck because I don't generally go into any detail until the contract is signed, oh, well, it's done now.
I had to answer the usual questions about the genesis of the idea, the characters, my writing style, and so on. I enjoyed doing it. It was interesting to reflect on something I wrote nearly eight years ago. One of the questions was - Has it been produced in the UK? - the answer to which is a frustrated 'No'. It got close a couple of times and people have liked it and given me work on the strength of that liking, but that's a far as it's gone. One day.
I woke up this morning with a brilliant idea for the Oxford piece as it is now officially known. Hymns. Specifically 1. Immortal, Invisible. and 2. All Things Bright and Beautiful. Off I went to check the words on Google to discover that both of them had been written after my protagonist had died and so he could hardly have sung either of them in the dramatic context I wanted him to. I mean to say. That's hardly helpful, is it?
I used to tell my family that I know that House is not a real doctor, I know it's Hugh Laurie and I know he's an actor, but if ever I'm in extremis he's the man for me. Not any more. I watched the first episode of series God knows how many and I have shifted my allegiance back to Anton Mayer as the ultimate surgeon - come on, make an effort he was the cold as ice heart surgeon in Holby City before it became really silly. I have also decided not to go mad in the States if there's a chance of ending up in a mental hospital like the one that is currently housing House. If you didn't watch it I haven't the energy to go into detail but the end made the words struck off and criminal charges come most readily to mind. And it was so good...
While we are still on a what's the world coming to vein, a new Winnie the Pooh book? In which we learn that much of Eeyore's sadness was because he was once disappointed in love? I do hope I've got that last bit wrong, but I probably haven't.
And today my daughter had her first seminar with her new English students. University students. Second year. Afterwards she had to ring me up for counselling. One of them when pressed to reveal something she'd read and enjoyed said - 'Look, I'll be honest with you, I don't like reading, and I don't remember the last book I read. And to be really honest I didn't read any of the books on the course last year. I still passed.' Whatever.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Research Research Research

Lots of reading. Lots of Googling. Lots of cups of coffee. Lots of trying not to think about how it's all going to become a play. Which hasn't been too hard as I have had plenty of distractions. Last night we went to the Broadway - one of several good reasons for living in Nottingham - to see Broken Embraces. It was the first Amaldovar film my wife had seen, and I came to it with the zeal of the newly converted having only recently zipped my way through a box set while she was away down at her parents. I'd picked it up, largely because a friend of mine has been nagging me for years about his films, not really expecting to enjoy them very much and was, of course, knocked out, as was Anne last night. Great film. And Penelope Cruz.
Another good reason to celebrate Nottingham has also been providing plenty of distraction. Cosmic American Music. Where would we be without them? Two blokes who promote concerts in and around the city, chiefly as a labour of love. Most of them take place in the Maze, a small club at the back of the Forest Tavern. Great acoustics, good beer, and a capacity of a hundred and something. In the last few weeks I've been to see Steve Earle, Richmond Fontaine, Chuck Prophet and Mission Express, and Band of Heathens. Next week it's James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards at the Rescue Rooms.
Never let it be forgotten that one of the benefits of being a freelance is not having to worry about having to get up early for work after a late night mid week.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

A reasonably frabjous day.

Last Friday we had the meeting about the commission that wasn't going to happen and it happened. Me and m'colleague have to produce a draft suitable to be taken to a development week that will end in a workshop performance by the beginning of April 2010. Full production in Autumn 2010. It's going to be a play with songs, and I think that sounds a lot less scary than saying it is going to be a musical. I have an exceptional amount of justified faith in m'colleague's abilities on the musical front but it is I, Leclerc, who has to come up with the play bit, asap.
So, so far situation normal, elation on Friday, terror by Tuesday.
I have started by making lists. Things to read, places to visit, people to speak to. Already I have a pile of books and I'm halfway through the second one. I'm caught between writing notes or not writing notes. The play has a historical background and sometimes if I make notes to begin with then I get submerged under the facts. It seems better to read as quickly as possible and then go back to those bits that stick and look at them in more detail. I have four characters to work with and I have to make them mine without doing them a disservice or, to put it more bluntly, bending the truth out of all proportion to serve my own needs as a dramatist.
In my head I want to write it all at once, but I can't. I'll take it slowly. Read. Ruminate. Scribble down images. And try not to think that the company would like a title and a pretty good idea of what it's going to be like - for the advance publicity to the bookers - by November.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Pessimism has its good side.

Last week I went to first read through of the youth theatre piece, now tentatively titled The Journey, and listened while the group read it through for the first time. it seemed to make sense, helped by some very impressive sight reading, and I am hopeful that it will work for them. Then yesterday I went to the first performance of the abridged Tempest I did for a Nottingham Playhouse co production. I had provided the text for the company - who work with deaf and hearing audiences - so it was interesting to see how they'd used my contribution. The most impressive aspect, probably because it was so unfamiliar, was the signing. They went for signing meaning, not individual words, and I became fascinated by the way their hands danced around the text. So that meant in under a week two projects had more or less come to an end which always leaves me feeling a bit empty and let's in my natural pessimism which is only exacerbated by my being a freelance playwright, two words designed to mock any idea of financial stability.
Obviously my immediate feelings as I left yesterday's performance were of undiluted pessimism. The proposed tour for next year won't go ahead, the various companies that are considering my ideas will all reject them, Stephen Luckwell won't get a German production(it has been nominated for a Writers' Guild award which it won't get but it's nice to get the nomination), and basically I am probably looking at having to get a job delivering free newspapers. But the good thing about pessimism is that there is always the chance that things will not turn out as bad as you predict, and they haven't. Last night I got a phone call inviting me to meet and discuss a project I thought had died in the water weeks ago and this morning there's an e mail from Germany from a prof at Bayreuth University who wants to put A Dream of White Horses in an anthology and asks if I can supply a few well chosen words about how I came to write it.
I am cheerful again, I haven't been forgotten after all. Onward and upward.
Pathetic, isn't it?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Blithe Spirit

Last night we went to see Blithe Spirit at Nottingham Playhouse. It's not a play I know well, in fact all my knowledge of it came from half watching Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford from the sofa one afternoon dosed up to the eyeballs and nursing a heavy cold. We joked about how nice it was to see a proper play with proper French windows, real scenes with real curtains that feel between each of them, and a real fire in a real fireplace, but it was very very good. Okay there's a bit of a problem when Charles says that his dead first wife is upstairs with his dead second wife and then the scene finishes with Ruth's - the dead second wife's - entrance as a ghost when we already know that she's up stairs with the dead first wife. And Ruth doesn't seem particularly miffed with Elvira for causing her death in her attempt to kill Charles and have her to herself forever but perhaps in the afterlife such petty resentments. And then it is sort of convenient that the maid is one wot dun it all along. But, it was, is, very very good. Good production too.
But what has really got me is that I read in the programme that he wrote it in the Blitz in five days flat ans six weeks later it was on the stage. And here am I trying to get beyond page eleven after God knows how long. What a bastard! I imagine living and working in a war zone does concentrate the mind a tad, but five days, that's just silly.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Rehearsals on Tuesday.

It's meet and greet and a read through for an adaptation I've done. Wednesday I'll also have to go in, but after then probably not very much at all as my work is basically a template for the company to work from, and it will be interesting to see what they come up with. It feels odd and something of a relief to know that what I have written will be regarded as a starting point and changes will be made from day one that have nothing to do with me. Also this month I shall have the first meeting with the youths from the youth theatre and then we'll see how many of them have dropped out, how many more have joined etc etc, and I do expect to have to do considerable rewrites. I enjoy it. It forces you to be flexible and come up with solutions that meet their needs but are still integral to the play. Nothing wrong with a bit of pragmatism.
Question about a previous show.
'I loved the way the battle scene was so stylised. You used two actors standing on opposite sides of the stage and a sound scape. So simple. What gave you the idea?'
'The other actors dropped out at the last moment and it was the only thing we could think of.'
Necessity is the mother of something or another.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Feelings of virtue.

Today I have been mostly doing my tax and that makes me feel virtuous. I have done my travel, payments, and expenses and bundled them up for the taxman. I get ridiculously overexcited about doing tax returns, even though I have alarmingly little to return this year I couldn't help but notice, because I feel sure that I am going to be hauled over the coals for some infringement I don't even know about, although I am scrupulous to the point of paranoia about declaring everything and not making dubious claims. I think it's because every year I make a error that throws everything and takes me hours to discover. This year the totals across column across wouldn't match the total down column. It took me over an hour to discover that I'd transposed a couple of figures in the the total for expenditure on computers. But, it is over for another year, and I shall continue feeling virtuous for quite some time yet.
This hasn't solved the problem about what I'm going to write next. I know what I'm going to write for the various people who want me to write something for them, but I am determined that this year I will write something for myself and it will be good, which, of course is the difficult part.
I have a notebook, several notebooks, full of ideas. Last night as I was dropping off I had a cracking idea. It came to me fully formed and I thought it through there and then. Needless to say in the morning I couldn't recall a thing. So that is why this morning I started on my tax. Nothing creative, had to be done, and now I have a clear desk. Tomorrow I'll go back to making notes, tomorrow it will all be clear, and I shall start on the piece for myself. Unless I go round the scrap yards looking for a rear light for the Peugeot. Depends on whether it's raining.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

I'm not sure how but I think it's going to work

I finished the youth theatre piece today. This was made easier because last night I got an email from the teacher in charge saying that she liked it. All I needed. A bit of reassurance that it wasn't complete pants and I could get my head down, make decisions, cuts, additions and there it was, finished. I've been farting around with it for too long, but then that's what happens with every piece, until it gains some kind of momentum of it's own (spurred on by a bit of praise/reassurance) I feel as if I'm wasting my time - which of course I am, playing spider solitaire. I'll have another look at it and then send it off. I think we can leave it now until the kids read it through and start to do some work on it, but at least it feels like a proper play. Onward and upward.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


This morning I got an email from someone I taught once a million years ago in another lifetime. It didn't say that I'd blighted his life and made his every moment at school a living hell, in fact, he seemed to have quite enjoyed the work we did, so that lifted my morning before it began. I remembered all the things he referred to except an amazing piece of advice I'd given to another student. Sadly, he didn't say what this advice was which prevents me from passing it on.
Last night I went to see Bruno. Not as sharp as Borat was my opinion. There were some stunning moments, most of which I watched from behind my fingers like I used to watch Doctor Who but for different reasons. There were two in particular, one, when he consulted two American 'ministers' whose mission is to convert the gay to the straight, and the other when he set up a cage fight as Straight Dave and then proceeded to make man-love to his assistant - too complicated to explain - in the cage in front of a crowd of baying red neck heterosexuals. But, in general, the targets seemed to diffuse, too easy, lacking the attack that there was in Borat. Maybe the character was too outrageous to take in any but the very dim, or perhaps people are getting wise to him. Actually, as I think about it there were more than two moments. The martial arts lesson where he was shown how to repel a homosexual armed with two dildos was especially wonderful.
I keep wondering what this amazing advice was. I asked him to tell me, and I'm sue when he does it won't be amazing but something really silly, but I'd like to think I came out with something worth adhering to as I feel in particular need of guidance myself at the moment.
We did get a reply about the commission. Our director wants to like it and would like us to come up with a page of A4 to show how it can be made to look exciting. Now that is something I could do with some advice about.
I mustn't do myself down, I did give some excellent advice to my wife last week as she turned out of Salisbury's car park and onto the main road. I said - Now we're back in England, I think you should drive on the left.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Is it really the right moment to call?

Some months ago a friend suggested someone she knew might be interested in my work and it might be worth while getting in touch. Some months ago. I sent the e mail today. I can't begin to list all the excuses I had for not sending it but basically they all boil down to how do I know this is the right moment to make the approach? If I send it now they might have a head ache, they might be in the middle of something really important and they'll shove my little plea to one side and forget about it, they might be sick to death of unsolicited requests, they have just split up from their husband/wife/partner, their dog might have just died. I don't know these things, do I? And so I put off the email, delay making the phone call. In this case I got an out of office reply saying that they wouldn't be back in until tomorrow. I immediately I decided that they would have such a backlog of e mails that mine would certainly be discarded unread.
What's even worse is trying to work out the right moment to call to find out if the first draft's been read and is it alright? If I don't get an answer to that one within a day, two at the most, I get definitely twitchy. And what's worse still is making the call to ask if the commission we discussed is going to happen. You ring someone up about that one on a bad day and you're buggered before you start. All of this is obviously nonsense, but that doesn't stop it being real - for me.
This morning I talked to a colleague about the commission decision we're waiting on and we worked out what he should put in the email so we didn't look too demanding, so it isn't just me.
On the upside Sea is on it's way to the publishers and the yoyth theatre piece is in front of me, and as soon as I've had lunch, yes, it will be started.

PS. 10pm. Got an out of office reply in response to the query about the possible commission. Won't be back at the desk until September. So that means I've got a whole month to not worry about it.

Monday, 3 August 2009

I really have started.

Today I made a proper start. Not to the youth theatre piece because I thought I needed to get back in the swing, but I began revising the text for Aurorametro who are publishing We Didn't Mean to go to Sea in the spring. They want everything by September so I thought it would be a good way to get the wheels turning again.
I spent a good part of the morning working on the dedication. I've never dedicated a book before and they said I could so I thought ti was important to give the matter some thought. It didn't really need much thought because there's only one dedication I want to make - to all those who got me started and sailed with me and my family and helped us to have such a good time messing about in small boats. (I've phrased it better that that for the book, but that's the gist.)
It's true- the smaller the boat, the greater the fun - that is until you injure your back so every time you get on board and you're bent double like a hairgrip you can't wait to get off again. Which is why I am an ex-boat owner. But trailing our boat down to sail around Salcombe and Dartmouth and the years we had in the Walton Backwaters gave us some of the best holidays imaginable - if you like getting cold and wet, mud, anti fouling in the pouring rain, engines breaking down at exactly the wrong moment, weeks waiting for the weather to allow you out of your berth, and toilets getting jammed... no, it was brilliant, all of it.
I'm on my own this evening, if you don't count the dog, so I have started on the text itself. I did have a bit of a problem deciding which was the definitive text out of all the rehearsal drafts, alterations, the final drafts one and two, not to mention the three versions with track changes from Ivan Cutting the director, but I think I found it, and with luck, and not too many distractions, I should be finished by tomorrow. And then I'll start of the youth theatre piece properly. I will.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Waiting For Godot Mk2

Last Thursday I went to see Godot, which means that having not seen a production since I was student I've now seen two in a matter of weeks. It was fascinating how different the London Godot was from New York. It seemed cosier, an investigation of the minutiae of a relationship, domestic rather than universal. Great to see McKellen and Stewart playing off each other of course, but it lacked the focus and precision we found in New York. Lucky's speech was a good example. John Glover was both funny and erudite. They had obviously put in a huge amount of work on the text, following the logic behind the seemingly disjointed thoughts. Each segment was begun with confidence and at any moment you felt he would be able to marshal his arguments and break through to some universal truth. We waited in tense anticipation, as did the other characters, for the revelation that was so nearly discovered. It was like when you are lying in bed half asleep and your brain is within a hair of grasping the reality of the infinity and then it suddenly lurches off into some nonsense about fishing for crabs off the top of Big Ben and the moment's gone. In London Ronald Pickup had to play it as nonsense that made the other characters laugh at him. At one point the tramps leant against the pros exaggeratedly miming their boredom - wasn't much he could do after that except soldier through to the end.
Last night four old friends came ot saty and we went to see the Hot Club of Cowtown - hot jazz meets western swing - at The Maze and they were absolutely brilliant. And I heard that a mate - Graham Lester- George has won SOHO Rushes with his short film Washdays. Tonight we're going to see Wilko Johnson.
Monday I will get up early and start the rewrite. Target - to get a draft finished by Friday. It is attainable. It can and will be done.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The Thing is...

The thing is I've decided to try and think about the problems I've got before I start work. The youth piece. I don't know exact cast numbers - between 20 and 30 - or the number of boys to girls, I know there will be more girls than boys because there always are, but not how many more. I can't have a couple of protagonists who run all the way through the play because they won't be able to make every rehearsal as they'll have extra science or a job at Morrison's. I can't have more than a handful of named characters because I don't know about the cast, so it has to be possible for the dialogue to be distributed easily, but I can indicate where a precise number of characters are talking to each other and that is useful. And I've made the decision that the story is going to be told by the group. I've got three characters that we see at the start and who crop up throughout and that helps hold it together and give the audience a way in from the beginning to the end. Always nice to see a friendly face. I've got an opening and a big finish. It's the bits in the middle I've got to sort out.
The first draft has given me the structure and a lot of the incidents. Some of them just need tightening. Others need chucking out because they don't earn their place, they don't move the action on, or they don't tel us anything we don't already know about the characters, or because they are pretty boring. That's okay. Sometimes the first time round you think to yourself, I know more or less what should go here but it's not quite there, and so you write anything knowing that it will be changed. There are moments when it is enough just to cover the blank paper with words. You can always rewrite rubbish, can't do much with a blank sheet.
So, the next step is to rewrite what I've done so far, this will involve cutting the naff bits and leaving holes in the text, that will be followed by rethinking the whole piece, and starting again. Deadline the end of August.
In fact the rewrite is the best part, and I am looking forward to getting to grips with it. No, really. But I did bump into a mate last night outside the Broadway - we went to see Harry Potter which is very long - and when I told him that I was allergic to Facebook as I don't need any more displacement activities, he reminded me of a night at the Nottingham Writers' Studio when five of us stood round comparing the different things we do to avoid writing. This blog is not one of them - it is an important part of my creative process and as soon as I've finished it, had breakfast, read the paper, and done my turn clearing up the house for the friends who are coming to stay, I shall start work.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Back to the grindstone. Well, sort of...

I started work again this morning. Two and a half solid, more or less solid, hours on the youth theatre piece. I did have a coffee. And I read the post. I had to check my on line account and transfer some money. And I had to send Mik Godley an e mail about his piece in Staples magazine about his Virtual Silesia project which is brilliant. But I'd say that work was done and progress was made. And now I'm stopping. For lunch. And to go to town and pay my tax bill and pick up some tickets for Wilko Johnson at the Rescue Rooms. Then I've got to go to the gym and try and work off three weeks in the States, and then to the Broadway this evening for Harry Potter which I suspect will be long.
I know I haven't done much, but I've made a start, and that's the main thing. Also I need some thinking time about what I'm going to do next in the rewrite and about an idea that's just started to work it's way into my head. So, onward and upward, and lunch.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Only in America

Only in America is a wonderful phrase. It can be said with pride, with baffled amusement, in disbelief, in anger, in any way that suits the moment. In Staunton, Virginia there is a replica of Shakespeare's Blackfriars Theatre - only in America. The only one in the world.
Staunton is a small town. Probably about the size of Mansfield, possibly smaller. Jim Warren and Ralph Cohen the co founders wanted to build their theatre in Harrisonburg. Harrisonburg wasn't keen and so they took the idea the Staunton who said , yes, please, and now every spring, summer, and autumn there is a programme of plays from Shakespeare and his contemporaries. And it supports a touring programme. We saw Merry Wives, and, carried on its cast's enthusiasm, it made for a very enjoyable evening. As far as I could discover the actors are mainly amateur at the moment, but they hope that will change soon. The whole place is full of enthusiasm. Enthuisasm is a good thing. If someone suggested a similar project here in the UK - cf The Globe and how long that took - we would only see potential difficulties, over there, a small town took about a week to say - Okay,why not?
Next year in Staunton they intend to start building a replica of the Globe (sic).

Monday, 20 July 2009

Stephen Luckwell

I heard this morning that at the season review at Nottingham Playhouse the staff voted My Name is Stephen Luckwell the best show for direction, writing, acting and design. What a perceptive bunch. And very gratifying too. I'm still hoping that it might get another production somewhere, I know it won't be in Germany next season but Boris thinks it is only a matter of time before someone takes it up. I'm tempted to think about Edinburgh next year, but it could be a lot of hassle for nothing, and it would depend on everyone being available.
On Tuesday I'll be home and, having switched off to such an extent that I was wondering if I'd ever feel like writing again, now that the plane is only a day away the itch has returned and I want to get back and get going once more. The second draft of the youth piece waits, and there are other ideas to follow up. The Sea script needs to be to prepared for publication, tightened up a bit, and a few messy sections need to be rewritten to make them easier to read. I hope it'll do quite well with the Ransome following, even if they hate I think they might want to read it. Fingers still tightly crossed about the tour - 'several theatres interested, none confirmed as yet' was the last I heard from Eastern Angles.

Monday, 13 July 2009

I could get used to Southern Hospitality

I'm in Charleston South Carolina. Pelicans have flown by, the fan on the back porch is moving the air around, and I am sitting in a rocker with a cold beer, dependant on the kindness of strangers. Not actually strangers, but my stepson and daughter in law who have invited us to share their holiday with them. There's a pool and a golf buggy in case we can't be arsed to walk the hundred yards to the beach.

I haven't written a word since 26th June. My notebook is unopened. I haven't had a creative thought in weeks. Oh, the guilt, the guilt.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

It Doesn't Do To trust the T'Internet.

I finished the youth theatre piece the Friday before I left for the States and sent it off by e mail. Just over a week later I got twitchy as I'd heard nothing so I e mailed the school and they hadn't go it. Without quite realising how I'd signed up for and got back up from the Virgin service V Stuff so I was able to download the text from my pc back home and send it on. Should have sent it by post.
My sighting of Steve Earle has been overshadowed this week by the black bear cub we saw on the other side of the road when we returned to our car for a walk. Now I don't know much about bears but I do know that cubs have large mothers and so after a quick photo we got in the car and locked the doors. From there we watched a family of four disappear into the woods following the bear to get a better photo. Mum and dad were large, didn't look quick on their feet, and the kids looked - if you were a bear - tasty. We didn't hang around.
Still plotting how I can get get a sabbatical in New York.

Friday, 3 July 2009

New York.

At this moment I am feeling as near to cool as I am likely to get I think. I'm writing this in a cafe on Bleeker Street. Last night we went and saw Waiting For Godot and the night before we sat listening to the blues in Arthur's Tavern. Oh, and a few minutes ago I bumped into Steve Earle. That is, in fact, strictly true, because I did bump into him.
Godot was excellent. Tight, disciplined, and very very funny. I'd read that some of the dark side was missing at the expense of the comedy but that is not so. Please let there be tickets for the London production.
We are staying in a basement bedsit in the Village having bagels for breakfast and I'm getting quite taken with the idea of staying right where I am and not coming home at all.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Lowdam Book Festival

I did my schtick at the Lowdam Book Festival this morning. I did about 45 minutes with two actors taking care of the readings. For the opening moments I kept calling one of them Kevin, although I knew that wasn't his name I couldn't stop myself, and eventually he interruptede to point out that his name was Gary, which I knew perfectly well. There were more there than the one man and a dog I expected which was gratifying and It seemed to go okay - people said nice things afterwards but then they would, wouldn't they?
Still no word on the project we pitched last week. Although we know we won't hear anything until the company have had a couple of important meetings, you sort of hope that there'll be a phone call along the lines of 'I'm going to do it, I'll make the board approve it, it's the best idea we've had pitched to us in years. The contract's in the post.'
Tomorrow we fly to New York for four days before visiting family in North Carolina. Sunday night will be a meal in Little Italy and jet lag. Tuesday night we're going to Waiting for Godot . That leaves two nights in hand. Monday at the Village Vanguard? Try for tickets for Shakespeare in the Park? The free concert at Battery Park? Which day do we spend in Brooklyn? So many decisions to make. I can't remember having gone on holiday in June before and it feels very decadent, like coming out of the pictures on a Sunday, or coming out of the cinema to find it's still daylight.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Cracked it!

Yesterday I finished the youth theatre piece, one day ahead of schedule. A small miracle. I spent an hour or so in the evening looking through it and correcting the most obvious typos, and then gave up when the urge to start rewriting became too great. As soon as I've finished a first draft I can see, with great certainty, exactly what to do with it next, and I'm almost always wrong. Which is why it's a good idea not to touch it but put it away for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes. This morning I shall e-mail it off, send in the invoice, and pretend to forget about it for the next few weeks.
Tomorrow I'm doing an hour at the Lowdham Book Festival. I usually do this sort of stuff for writers' groups but I thought it might be a good idea to try the stuff out on a more general group. I shan't be alone as I'll have a couple of actors - Kevin and Sylvia - with me to read the extracts. I'm trying to tell myself that it isn't a shameless act of self promotion, but I know it is. I did it once before in a public library in North Carolina on an RSC residency with two actors from the company. The majority of the extracts are examples of bad writing and usually get a laugh but on this occasion we were greeted with baffled looks - my fault, I'd not explained it was supposed to be funny.
The contract from aurorametro for the script of We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea came in the post. They are publishing it early next year and then I shall have two books in print. I can't see how they make any money out of it, I certainly don't, but it is good to have a book on the shelf, it keeps you noticed and prolongs the life of the piece. They sent me a catalogue too, and it was already in there, and I got really excited. Hopefully, the retour with Eastern Angles will come through and the book can be launched alongside it. One of the best parts is googling the title and discovering that it's in the library of the University of Miami, or being sold second hand in a bookshop in Brooklyn. How did it get all the way out there on two print runs of 500? I'd like you to know that googling my one published book is not an obsession, and it's just by chance that I happen to know that at the moment, on the Amazon sales chart, it's rated 2,158,327th.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

It's research, not a jolly.

I went down to London yesterday. I was supposed to be going to a Writers' Guild Theatre Committee meeting but they'd changed the date. I could have got a partial refund, or tried to change the tickets to another date, but, as there is the possibility of a commission in the offing that if it comes through will need a trip to town, I decided to have a day in London. When I got home my wife asked if the trip had been useful.
Yes, it had. Firstly, on the train down I had listened to music, dozed, and made notes for the youth theatre piece I have to finish by this Friday. Taking a day away when I should have been working is good because it means that now I only have two days to finish the first draft and that will help to concentrate the mind - as soon as I make a start on it, that is. When I got to London I had a cup of coffee and watched the world go by, because it isn't good to rush into things, and then made my way across town to the building I wanted to visit. (Please note that I shall remain coy about the proposed project until it becomes a reality and contracts are signed. Could be thought of as needlessly superstitious but I don't care.) Mooched around there for a while. Went to the V&A. Stuck my nose into the Science Museum. Discovered the Serpentine Gallery is closed for redecoration, got nearly to the end of Melvyn Bragg's brilliant, honest Remember Me in Hyde Park as I dared, stopping only when I was in danger of weeping in public, caught a bus to Trafalgar Square, crossed to the South Bank, had a coffee outside the National, bought Kenan Malik's latest book in the NT Bookshop AND discovered that they had a copy of Warrior Square on sale, and yes, I've looked for it every time I've been in and I don't care about that either, wandered up to the Algerian Coffee Store for 500 grams of Java, had a glass of wine in the French, a meal in the Amalfi, and went home. And that is a useful day.
Why? Because I didn't talk to anyone all day. I wandered. I did nothing. I stared at the world. I sat on trains. And ideas seemed to pop up all over the place because I wasn't searching for them. Most of them won't be any good, but some of them might. In the building I visited for the project that shall be nameless I only wandered about, but my characters will go there, and it is important to them, and now I've been there, I can go there again, with them - if the pitch worked and we've sold the project, fingers crossed. I suppose what I'm really trying to say is that writing is a selfish and solitary commitment and much as I need and relish people - especially those I love - a bit of self imposed exile, even if for only a day isn't a bad thing.
Got back to an e mail from Boris my agent in Germany saying that he'd like to try and get a theatre to take up the project I was working on for Hannover and would I send him a brief expose. I note this as it is the first time in eight years he has ever misused a word in English, and he doesn't think he speaks the language very well; I wish my German was as bad. I shall do this, but not as it was for Hannover because I've had time to think and I want to do something different now, and anyway I think it's not a bad idea to leave some room for manoeuvre.
Also discovered an e mail from Paul Harman saying that he'd read my blog and that he'd enjoyed it. That's the third person who's told me that they've read it.
Right, it's now 10.45 am. Time to start work on the youth theatre piece that's due in on Friday. That means I open the document, look at yesterday's notes, decide to play best of three Spider Solitaire to clear my mind, make a cup of coffee, look at the document again this time scanning through to the last page, play more solitaire, and eventually, hopefully, actually write something. And I wish I was joking.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

And so to Warwick

Last weekend I was at Warwick University for a theatre conference - All Together Now? The British Theatre after Multi - Culturism - a topic that the conference was successful in avoiding for most of the two days. There were some real high points, amongst them were Michael Boyd on Shakespeare's own relationship to history both cultural, historical and personal, Stewart Lee and Richard Bean and particularly Kenan Malik on the nature of offence. And it was good to see colleagues and to meet new people. But I wish we had spent more time discussing how we move onwards to a more inclusive theatre.
One of the speakers looked forward to a time when theatre audiences can be shocked and offended rather than the offence being reserved for those on the outside of the building holding the banners. But we can't be seen to be offended even if we are, because we're all part of the same club, and to be offended would mean that we lacked the sophistication to understand the metaphor, and we also assume that whatever happens on stage can't really be about us. I resisted An Inspector Calls for years but when I saw Stephen Daldry's revival I realised that it was so much more than an amdram warhorse, it was a precise and brutal dissection of the hypocrisy of the very people who would have been sitting in the stalls on the first night. But of course, like us, each one of them would have been convinced that the play was about someone else, not them.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Young Voices, Punk Rock, and Warhorse.

This week I finished the Young Voices project I have been working on for Nottingham Playhouse. The seven plays the children had written were linked together to form a narrative about three children who meet, fall out and play together on a piece of waste ground. The youngest writers were top infants, the oldest top juniors. The writers were invited in for the dress rehearsal which was also watched by Club Encore the Playhouse over 50 group. It was good to see the adults wanting to talk to the kids about their work, and the surprise on the kid's faces when they realised we meant what we said when we told them their work would be performed on a real set, with specially composed music and real live actors. It was a long project, frustrating at times - organising anything involving seven different schools is bound to be fraught - but ultimately, I think we got it right for the kids.
The same night I went to see Garage Band Andy Barrett's new play about a group of 40/50 somethings who try to recover their lost punk youth. I can't remember when I've seen four actors having so much fun.
The one piece of theatre that's stuck with me since I saw it a couple of weeks ago is Warhorse. We nearly went one Sunday afternoon in November when it was on at the National, and they had some returns. I actually had the tickets in my hand when I sensed something wasn't right. I turned round, saw my wife's wobbly lip and handed the tickets back unbought.
We'd recently been to see John Tams, who did the music for the show, and he played a couple of the songs explaining the context so movingly and singing them so beautifully that there was hardly a dry eye in the place when he'd finished - Anne's included. And mine, a bit.
Since that Sunday when we had to return the tickets she read the novel and the play text and finally decided she was ready to go a see a play where horses die.
She was a little watery as she read the programme and we couldn't leave our seats at the interval but she survived and she's now able to talk about it without bringing on an emotional crisis. I don't get easily affected by cheap emotion, but this wasn't cheap emotion so I had tears on my face almost continuously from beginning to end and there are moments it's not safe to dwell on even now, three weeks later.
I keep thinking about it because it is like nothing else I've seen. True the story gets a bit lost, it takes a while to get going, because of the size of the horses the actors are literally left on the periphery most of the time, and it's all a bit shouty, but I bought every minute of it. A friend asked me if the horses spoke and they don't, but they are so eloquent they might as well have voices. I have no idea how they did it but I believed every moment and at the end all I wanted to do was to go and give them a pat and an apple.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Welsh Connections.

I spent the last couple of days in Cardiff at a small conference on German Theatre for Young People organised by Kevin Lewis of Theatr Iolo. We looked at six plays in all, workshopping four of them and seeing rehearsed readings of the other two. On the surface the overall impression was that German writers see life for the young as very serious business, suicide attempts, death, abuse, loneliness, violence, sexual assault, on the face of it not a lot of laughs. But it did underline how much more freedom there is in the German theatre for writers and young people. Everything we do has to be filtered through the national curriculum and how will it play in a school hall with an audience of year four.
I like visiting Cardiff. I lived there for a short while when I was small and I love the Taff and the arcades and the bay where I was never allowed to go because it was Tiger Bay then and a den of vice and iniquity in my aunt's eyes. But most of all I love Spillers - the oldest record shop in the world. For the last few years it has been hidden away in the building site that seems to have taken over more and more of the city each time I visit. Kevin has taken a pledge to buy his cds nowhere else in his own personal effort to help it survive, so I did my bit with the new Christie Moore and another Spillers t - shirt, very good value at only £6.99 and almost guaranted to get you into conversation with interesting people when and wherever you wear it. In Nottingham we are dominated by HMV and that is not good, If you've got one, preserve your local record store, Amazon is no substitute.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

On a roll?

I've spent the last week reading round an idea for a new piece. I'll be collaborating with a friend and now we've got to the point when we think can take the idea to a meeting with some confidence that we can make it stand up. In other words if we do any more work on it we'll be in deep and there's no point in continuing if it's not going to be commissioned.
I've found it increasingly difficult to work on something that hasn't been commissioned. When I was trying to get out of the slush pile I did it all the time, but then I was only hoping to have someone read it, I never seriously believed that any of my work would get produced, I knew they were calling cards. I got GFA money the other year to develop and write a play and it's not bad, people like it, it's got me work, but it hasn't found a production. I can't bear to put all that graft in if it's not going to be produced. I do write all the time though around ideas I've got to see how they might play out, but that's not the same as committing myself to a complete play with no sign of interest.

Now, because I've got an unexpected gap thanks to Hannover, I am working on an idea I've had knocking around for a time and I keep returning to it and I think each time I do it gets simpler and therefore better. The other day I worked on it morning and afternoon and then when I was on my own in the evening instead of falling in front of the TV for some aimless channel hopping I went back upstairs and carried on. I feel as though I'm on a roll, but it could be an illusion. Again.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Somebody actually reads this!

In the last couple of days I've met two people who've confessed to reading this blog which was ... nice. I haven't consciously thought about anyone reading what I write which is probably a good thing. I try to make what I write reflect what I'm doing at the time, and of course it is an act of shameless self promotion because what I'm really about is getting people interested in my work. I do know that I'm not as honest as I could be all the time. I don't mean I make things up, but I don't think it would endear me to potential employers if I started sounding off about how this director ruined my work or that literary manager demonstrated the cultural awareness of a flea. Not - I hasten to add - that any directors or literary managers I have had dealings with ever since the dawn of recorded time could possibly fit either description.

I was talking to colleagues about pitching the other night which is surely one of the black arts I have yet to master. If you know and have worked successfully with the person you are pitching you can just about get away with - I've got this idea about three blokes on a mountain, I don't quite know what's going to happen, but it's going to be good - provided under interrogation you're prepared to flesh it out.
Assuming you've requested a meeting with someone you haven't worked with yet there are a number of pitfalls to be avoided. I don't think you should give your idea away in advance of the meeting because it gives them too much time to come up with a mountain of reasons why they don't like it before they've even met you. Too much detail is a bad thing too. So I believe is relying on the stunning one line - Think War and Peace set on a lighthouse helipad. Obviously that is an inadequate example because I'm not going to waste something good, but you get the point. If someone tells you to think something, the natural response is - shan't. The best thing is if , by subtle prompting, you can get the pitchee to pitch your idea back to you the pitcher, so they become totally committed to the idea believing that it was theirs in the first place, but, be warned, it's high risk and I've managed successfully only once. The worst moment is when you see the glazed look descend within seconds of opening your mouth. Then the best thing would for both of you to admit that the meeting will go nowhere, but politeness prevents this and for the next half hour you listen to yourself losing the ability to string together a half decent sentence until the outline of your wonderful idea starts to sound like a badly told joke - There's this man, well, actually there are two men, and two women, but there's only one man at the start, and he's got this wheel barrow.... etc after boring etc.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Just when you think you've got it cracked...

I knew I shouldn't have got so excited about sorting out the German play. This morning I was talking to a friend about it and I said 'It's all there - all I've got to do is write it.' This afternoon I got 2 e mails. One from my agent in Germany and one from Heidi, my German director, and surprise, surprise, the play's been dumped. A new artistic director has come in and told Heidi that she can't programme the 10/11 season because he hasn't made up his mind if she's still going to be there. What a way to treat your staff...

I knew it felt wrong. I couldn't get a contract, Heidi kept being given different reasons why it was not quite ready, at the same time as being told that everything was fine. And now they've screwed her, poor woman, and for all she knows, having only been appointed about eighteen months ago, she could be out on her ear and looking for a new job. Wonderful. I feel more pissed off for her than I do about the play I've almost written.

I was in Sheffield on Friday last to see the Rotherham kids present their take on The Tempest at the Lyceum and they were brilliant. I'm not sure how many boxes they will have ticked on the national curriculum and I don't imagine what they achieved would have impressed any OFSTED inspector I've ever met, but how many times do you come across a theatre full of ten year olds who know, because they and their teachers weren't afraid to attack the text on their feet and not behind desks, that it doesn't matter how long ago he died, because they love the language and they know Shakespeare is speaking to them? Dump the pointless testing, get rid of SATS, let the teachers out of their straitjackets and let them and the kids rediscover the excitement of learning.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

How long does it take you to write a play?

How long does it take...? It's the most frequently asked question, particularly from novelist friends who all secretly harbour a bitter resentment that we lucky playwrights only have to write a handful of words and our work's done while they are still struggling with chapter four. And when I'm asked about a particular play I can never remember and mutter something about it not taking very long once you've got it all sorted in your head. And I think that's because once I've really got into the piece and produced a first draft - after which the writing starts to become fun - I wipe away all memories of how desperate it was trying to find my way into what I wanted to write. Yesterday afternoon I sensed that I might have found a way into the play I'm writing for Hannover and this morning I think I have.
I have thought this several times before in the last few weeks only to discover that all my great ideas folded under pressure. But this time... This time I feel all I have to do is write it. And when I get to that moment it usually means the first draft is on the way. So how long? From the first thoughts, through the first meeting in Hannover, to now, today, has been eleven months. And I really thing that at last it's there, and now I'm scared that if I rush into the next section I might mess it all up so I'm going to do the only thing possible and leave it until tomorrow afternoon when I get back from the RSC Tempest Playback session with the kids from the Rotherham schools at the Lyceum in Sheffield and go and cut the hedge.
I saw The Tempest again last week because I wanted to see it with a full audience, not in a rehearsal, and it was as brilliant as I thought it was going to be. I also went to the young peoples' version that Kate Hall was running on the Thursday afternoon and that was really good too. I've been avoiding reading the adaptation as I'm doing one for a Nottingham Playhouse co-pro but as I'd finished it and sent it off I felt it was safe to go. I find myself missing loads of stuff, films, novels, plays, if I think there might be some thing in there close to the work I'm doing - terrified of copying someone else without realising it. And that's what I did all the time, for years, when I was trying to write, let myself be influenced by someone else - trouble was I didn't know I was doing it until too late and I'd written a second rate version of someone else's play.
Had a good day on Sunday too down at the Trent Navigation. Matt Marks, who I've worked with a lot, was playing there late afternoon and Andre the percussionist from the Tempest company came down to sit in on drums. I watched the three of them Matt, on keyboards, Steve on bass, and Andre negotiate their way through the first set. The grins became wider and the music more adventurous as they started to play off each other you could feel their pleasure in what they were creating. I wish I could manage more that C F and G.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

It's hard to get started.

I started this morning on the piece I'm writing for Hannover absolutely certain that I knew where it was going. That confidence lasted for about ten minutes. Then fear set in and I retreated into games of spider solitaire. Eventually I forced myself to think of something useful I could do and I went back to the adaptation of The Tempest. I took it into the garden and read it through. One, it didn't seem too bad, and two, the bits that needed changing were immediately obvious. So that took me through to lunchtime. After lunch I went back to Hannover and this time I realised that half of it needed to be cut and I worked on it more or less successfully until about five.
I wish I knew how I arrive at an idea that works. And why it takes so long. And why it doesn't seem to come at the end of any logical thought process that I can identify. I have discovered that two things seem to work. Despair. And a fast approaching deadline. Not an original thought but it gives some comfort.
The last series of The Wire arrived this morning and I haven't watched any of it yet - and that is impressive.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Krazy Kat and The Tempest

I've set up this blog because the news section of my website has become too cumbersome. It takes forever to load and I can only access it form one computer... to try and explain any further would only emphasise my own inadequacies. Basically it's down to two things, one, my lack of expertise, two, Paul Nix, the kind man who set it up for me is longer with us and without him I don't know how to alter any of the settings. So if you've navigated here from my website that's why.

I spent last week working at Nottingham Playhouse on an adaptation of The Tempest - a co - production with Krazy Kat a company who work with hearing and deaf audiences and actors. I'm only starting to get a taste of the politics of the deaf world and I don't understand all of what I'm learning, but I know that the company doesn't have the approval of all because of their inclusive nature. I took the job because it was unlike anything I've been asked to do. I discovered too that the artistic director, Kinny Gardner, has spent the last twenty years working with Lindsay Kemp whose company left a great impression on me when I first saw them when I was student.

We spent the week playing with the text, different performance styles, signing, design, music and puppets. We ended up with a feeling that all the different aspects of the production were facing in the same direction. My job is too provide a textual framework around which everyone else can work. I got the groundwork into place fairly quickly and now thankfully I've got a couple of weeks to try and shape it into something the company can use.