Interviews with some of the best contemporary British Playwrights

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GUEST BLOG: Emma Manton: “Our job as theatre practitioners is to tell these stories and remember to imagine ourselves in their position – to practice empathy.”

Emma Manton
Emma Manton

Emma Manton

In 2014, I was cast in the RSC’s Winter Season, which involved spending 6 months in Stratford-upon-Avon. Fired up by the beauty of the place and having achieve a few good night’s sleep, away from my 6-year-old son, I agreed to join playwright Michelle Terry on a 2-mile run. I had no idea where that run would lead.

In the summer of 2015, the media was full with harrowing images of refugees washing up on the beaches of the Mediterranean. I wanted to find a way to help – so I contacted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and, before I knew it, I’d agreed to run the London Marathon for them. Having no experience of fundraising, I called a few friends and realised that people were desperate to find a way to help the unfolding refugee crisis.

I curated Moving Stories in response to the current global refugee crisis and it was first performed at the National Theatre in 2016. David Edgar, Richard Bean, Phil Porter, Michelle Terry and other incredible playwrights wrote and donated material and 36 actors gave up time to perform. We raised nearly £15,000.

Since then, the danger and persecution faced by refugees around the world has only worsened, particularly in the light of Donald Trump’s postponement of the US refugee programme. The distress that the fear surrounding the confusion of ‘refugee’ and ‘terrorist’ runs the risk of blinding us to the simple fact that the vast majority of people displaced by wars are fleeing the same people that scare us in the West. We see the huge numbers and not the thousands of individual stories.

Nevertheless, our job as theatre practitioners is to tell these stories and remember to imagine ourselves in their position – to practice empathy. When we see the world from other people’s point of view, we are more able to work together to find answers.

To quote UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees) Ambassador Neil Gaiman, ‘It’s not just about financial support, although funds are desperately needed and every donation is deeply appreciated (please do donate!), it’s also about staying informed and helping tell the refugee story – to friends, to family, at school, at work, around the kitchen table.’

On Sunday 26th February at 4pm, I’m calling on you to join us at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and stand in solidarity with refugees. You’ll be treated to brilliantly funny and moving plays and some new writing for good measure. Also, Great British Bake-off’s Mel Giedroyc will be hosting and joined on stage by a host of British Theatre stars, including Rufus Hound (One Man, Two Guvnors), Denise Gough (People, Places, Things), Andy Nyman (Ghost Stories), Adjoa Andoh (Doctor Who), Lisa Dillon (Cranford), Edward Bennett (Photograph 51), Anna-Jane Casey (Billy Elliot), Caroline Sheen (Mary Poppins) and Evelyn Hoskins (Sound of Music Live).

See you there, folks!

Emma Manton

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Interview with Playwright Phil Porter: “I often think about the song ‘A Woman’s Touch’ from ‘Calamity Jane’.”

Phil Porter

Phil Porter is a playwright, who has brilliantly just co-adapted ‘The Miser’ with Sean Foley, a West End production due to open at the The Garrick Theatre. Hurrah.

Phil won the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize for Cracks in my Skin and the Arts Council’s Children Award for Smashed Eggs (Pentabus Theatre). His recent plays include The Man With The Hammer (Plymouth) The Christmas Truce (RSC) Blink and A Mad World Masters (RSC) The Tempest (adaptation co-written with Peter Glanville for the RSC).

I thought it would be good to chat to him ahead last week. Here is what we discussed.

Phil Porter

Phil Porter

Hi Phil, where are we and what can you see?

Right now I’m in rather delightful surroundings. A rather posher hotel I would normally find myself in. I can see you mostly and a hanging light thing over the bar with lots of fake but nonetheless beautiful candles. It reminds me of an event I went to in a park in Brighton with lots of fire-based installations and rusty metal. Lots of Pagan things go on in Brighton in the Winter.

How is ‘Dry January’ going?

I’m not big on abstinence. I’m a vegetarian – maybe that one small sacrifice is what makes me feel entitled to drink as much wine as I fancy. If I was ever going to attempt a month dry it wouldn’t be January!

You’ve had quite a busy week, haven’t you?

Well, the first two days of this week I was in rehearsals for The Miser’. This is a script I’ve co-adapted with Sean Foley and which he is now directing, with quite an impressive starry West End cast – Griff Rhys Jones, Mathew Horne, Katy Wix and Lee Mack, who is making his West End debut. We open in Bath on February 8th for a couple of weeks of previews, then a week in Richmond, then into The Garrick following ‘This House’ from March 1st.

From what I’ve heard adapting is a bit of a ball ache. With this in mind is co-adapting a bit of a double ball ache?

I don’t even know if it is an adaptation really. Adapting suggests taking it from one medium to another. Molière wrote it as a play and we continue in that fashion. The first thing I did with Sean was work on ‘A Mad World My Masters’ for the RSC a few years ago. That was kind of easier because Middleton wrote it in English, and as a result there was only so much we could change without stomping on someone’s very clever original play. So we just edited the play to make room for some songs and put in a few new jokes. But when a play is written in a different language the process is inevitably a bit more interpretive. But it wasn’t a ball ache – it was great fun. Maybe normally there would be a difficult status thing where you are fighting with your co-adaptor over every line. But Sean is the director so if we were to disagree on something – and generally we don’t – I’d probably let it go because he is the one who has to bring the thing to life. If he has a strong sense of how he’ll make a particular line work I’m happy to follow his judgement on that. I think it works well. I’m there just thinking as a writer while Sean is sort of writing and directing at the same time.

Tell me about Sausages

Eh? Oh, I know what you mean by that. Something I said in an interview I did with the Soho years ago. I wrote my first play on a train to Plymouth when I was about seven. It was about some sausages trying to escape from a freezer – written in the 1980s when all sausages were frozen. Maybe it could come back as an experimental opera; a play for voices. Looking back I didn’t really understand what screenwriting guru Robert McKee would describe as ‘progressive complication’. The sausages simply found a hole in the corner of the freezer and escaped halfway down the first page.

You can’t turn on the TV these days without seeing an advert for sausages. Anyway, what writers do you rate?

In terms of the playwriting giants my greatest hero is Federico García Lorca . He had an amazing poetic sensibility that I really love. I rate many of my contemporaries – Dennis Kelly and Mike Bartlett spring to mind. The way they can write so well, and also so much, is amazing and makes me jealous. Lucy Kirkwood is a fantastic writer. James Graham is another who is very brilliant and extraordinary prolific. And of course my pal Amy Rosenthal, a great writer who posseses a real understanding of comedy – a rare and much undervalued talent.

What are your thoughts on Hull as UK City of Culture 2017?

The choices often seem to be quite provocative. I remember when Glasgow was announced as a European City of Culture years ago, and people reacted in uproar: Glasgow?! As if it had been decided once and for all by a committee that Glasgow was Europe’s Most Cultured City. If that were the case then Hull as the UK City of Culture would be a perverse choice, but that’s not what it’s about. Overall, it’s a positive thing.

Contemporary arts centre Mac Birmingham has been hit by a 70% cut to its council funding, as part of major reductions inflicted on the city’s arts by its local authority. These are challenging times for new work, what are your thoughts on where the next Phil Porter will come from?

My very first play was on at the Mac. The landscape is obviously changing. It’s a big problem that places like Mac, where writers might find support as they’re starting out, are losing the funding they need to offer that support. Most writers, even if they’re really good, won’t get picked up by the big new writing venues, at least at first. It also damages the touring infrastructure, further limiting opportunities. And besides arts funding there are some even broader problems, in the way our society is changing, that make it very difficult for a writer from a remotely normal background to develop a career. I left university with no significant debts, moved to London, paid £250 a month in rent, and picked up a couple of commissions from new writing theatres who could afford to take a chance on an unproven writer. None of that would happen now. But on the more positive side, at least if you write a good play there are people genuinely committed to unearthing new talent.

Talk to me about your work with the RSC.

I’ve been working with the RSC for nearly 10 years now. I owe a lot to Pippa Hill, their Literary Manager, who commissioned me to write a five minute play for an event in 2008 and has been offering me bigger and bigger challenges ever since. This has culminated in ‘The Christmas Truce’ in 2014 and now ‘Vice Versa’ which is on in The Swan over the coming summer. It’s great to work somewhere with those kinds of resources. Having the support of a company like the RSC gives me a great push.

How do you feel about deadlines?

There are two kinds of projects. There are ones that are already in the brochure. Then my brain understands that it is no way a soft deadline; people are going to do this play and it needs to be ready for rehearsal and ready for an audience. Those deadlines I take very seriously. If it’s a more open commission I will always try to make the deadline or as near damn it. But I know from experience that what a theatre really wants is a play they can do rather than one that has arrived on time. I had a play on in Plymouth last year and I was quite late on the first draft deadline. For a little while I felt a bit like I was hiding which is the worst thing. If you owe someone a play you just have to keep the channels of communication open. As long as they know you’re working on it they’re generally fine. But it’s definitely a good thing career-wise to be known as someone who delivers on time.

What is your favourite theatre in London?

I still get very excited about going to The National. I think it goes back to that period when you start discovering theatre and you find this palace on the river with three plays going on a night and at least one of them is something that will completely blow your mind. I still get really excited about going to see a West End show. It’s funny doing the West End thing because as playwrights we are simultaneously taught to be slightly snooty about the West End but on the other hand if you get a West End transfer then you’ve made it.

Are West End ticket prices too high?

Undoubtedly. Some shows and some producers definitely take the piss more than others –  I’m pleased to say The Miser is relatively inclusive. I don’t understand the economics of it well enough to know why the inflation is so rapid. But yeah, it’s a crazy system.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS FOR THE MISER

What’s your favourite musical?

I like musicals more than you might imagine. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for ‘Cabaret’. Every Christmas me and my girlfriend watch ‘Meet Me in St Louis’ and it gets me every time. And I often think about the song ‘A Woman’s Touch’ from ‘Calamity Jane’. Whenever I’m writing something and trying to think about how to transition quickly from one state to another I imagine Doris Day and her pal cleaning up that house. It’s the ultimate montage sequence – a very important artistic reference point for me.

Amazing. What have you got coming up in 2017?

We have the RSC show, ‘Vice Versa’, which is a Roman style comedy. I never wrote it as such but it’s starting to look like a Trump satire. Um, I’m writing a sort of futuristic musical for The Soho with a composer called Marc Teitler who wrote ‘The Grinning Man’. On a day-to-day basis I’m currently writing an adaptation of ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ for Joe Murphy to direct. Joe directed my play ‘Blink’ (Soho Theatre) and is directing ‘Woyzeck’ at The Old Vic this year. Then I have another commission for Plymouth and I’m trying to adapt my old play ‘The Cracks In My Skin’ into a film. But right now it’s mostly about ‘The Miser’ and ‘Vice Versa’

 

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Interview with Playwright James Graham: “I’m a human who doesn’t like or know how to talk about himself.”

James Graham
James Graham, photo by Steve Tanner

James Graham, photo by Steve Tanner

James Graham ‘mayhem’ (ie not mayhem at all)

So, I went along to a matinee of ‘This House’ at The Garrick Theatre. It’s pretty amazing. Later that day I met with the writer, James Graham, for a whiskey cocktail. Graham is a witty man, who is a curious mixture of mischief and innocence, and who has the youthful appearance of a Dorian Gray entity.

Fortunately, James is good at talking: about ‘This House’, about his place in the theatre universe, and about the physical demands of being a playwright in 2016.

Anyway, all playwrights are subject to the whims of fashion, going in and out of fashion according to fads for writing styles or categories of plays, or even the political climate. Politics aside, the vital element in the brilliance of This House’ is that the writing is of a phenomenally high standard: it is a prescient exploration of the mechanisms at play in government. Ultimately, there’s a clarity of vision that’s virtually unrivalled in the current theatre scene.

This House

This House. Click on the image to book your tickets.

This House premiered at the Cottesloe Theatre in September 2012, directed by Jeremy Herrin, and transferred to the Olivier in 2013 where it enjoyed sell-out runs with critical acclaim and admiration from current and former MP’s for his rendition of life in the Commons. It was broadcast internationally by NT Live and received nominations for the Evening Standard and Olivier Best Play awards. (‘FYI’ I’m calling it now, ‘This House’ is the greatest play written in the last five years.)

Studies of lying show that when telling a lie, most people are tempted to add a vast amount of detail to their stories; they believe that the more aspects they add, the more sound their stories will be. ‘This House’ does not feel dishonest, but you could argue that the suggested extent of this play’s familiarity is an illusion of sorts, or at least an example of sleight of hand.

Graham’s more recent work includes Privacy created with Josie Rourke for the Donmar Warehouse and receiving its New York premiere at the Public Theater this July, starring Daniel Radcliffe. His play Monster Raving Loony opened at the Theatre Royal Plymouth this year and transferred to Soho Theatre in May. The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse aired in real time on TV in the final 90 minutes of the 2015 polling day and was nominated for a BAFTA. His Channel 4 drama Coalition also aired during the election and won the Royal Television Society award for Best Single Drama. James has written the book for Finding Neverland with music by Gary Barlow. It opened on Broadway in April 2015. He remains a Writer in Residence at the Finborough Theatre. Bloody hell.

(There were lots of things covered; this is a definite cup-of-tea-and-a-biscuit job.)

What sort of human are you?
I’m a human who doesn’t like or know how to talk about himself. I’d say I am an inconsistent and uncertain person.

If they could invent a robot to replace you and do all the boring stuff political playwrights have to do, what would you get up to instead?
I’d love to write a novel; I have an idea for a fantasy adventure story set in New York and one is a time hopping piece.

So, let’s get political; is there anyone you’d like to pour boiling water over, he says
No… However, I would pour cold water over Boris Johnson; he needs some perspective and probably ought to have some discomfort.”

What’s your worst play? 
Hahahaha! Oh that’s a tough one. Only because it was the first play I ever wrote and I was still learning: ‘Coal not dole’ about the miners’ strike.

Amazing. What’s your best play? 
This House, I guess. I am relieved – that by accident or design – it’s proven itself able to survive the times.

If you don’t follow politics you’re uninformed, if you do follow politics you’re misinformed. What is the long-term effect of too much information? 
Democracy isn’t allowed to function, there is a conscious shift by some parties or media to use that as a tactic to distract or destroy any conversation.

Serious question: Baths or showers?
Oh, goodness. 100% showers. Baths are 100% evil, man. I mean, to sit their doing nothing for that period of time. No. Thank. You.

Is Nigel Farage a fictional character? 
In a way, yes; he’s a construct. I don’t believe he can possibly be a real person.

What are your three favourite apps? 
Right, The London Bus checker – I do use google maps but I think being lost sometimes can be a good thing. I love Pocket to save articles. SignEasy is amazing as I don’t have to post contracts and things!

Do you think some writers cheat when they’re working with people and go “oh I haven’t done any prep let’s just jam and let the vibes flow” or whatever it is people say in a creative scenario, when actually they’ve got a brilliant idea in their head that they’re going to pretend just suddenly appears as if by magic.
Yes, I do but it’s destructive – I remember the OVNV 24 hour plays you can always tell because the ones that are don’t normally feel as fresh or good.

Do you think drama schools should have diversity quotas? 
That’s a hard question and I understand arguments against and for them. The problem of lack of diversity, whether race or gender or class, is genuine and very serious. And if quotas can solve that problem then maybe that’s the way to go. The arts are a lot like politics – in that sense – it’s about representating a group of people you’ve failed.

What does Gary Barlow smell like? 
Oh, Heaven and the north.

Do you think people are too distracted by the internet these days?
Yes. Including me – I may switch off for a New Year’s resolution.

What were the last three things you Googled?
Okay, let me check, I’ll be totally honest:

  1. Reviews for The Missing
  2. Beyond the Waterfall A cocktail odyssey.
  3. Arts Education and Schools

 

what are your experiences of young writers programmes? 

I did the RC young writers programme – BBC writers room. Look at whatever your local theatre does get involved. NT Connections is astonishing if you’re a teacher or a writer.

Do you think it helps being friends with people in the industry because you can all sort of relate to what’s happening?
I don’t think it helps in terms of your own work. It’s psychologically and emotionally helpful yes.

Do you have anything special planned for 2017?
Well, I will finish ‘1984’. I want to stay in London more – cook and watch television and do London jobs based in this city. Just so I can be home for a while, which I miss.

*This House is currently gracing the West End in a limited run until 25 February 2017.*

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUT TICKETS FOR THIS HOUSE 

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Interview: Broken Biscuits Tom Wells: “The other day I was trying to explain something a bit awkward and eat a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer at the same time and it went a bit wrong”

Broken Biscuits is part of Paines Plough’s Programme 2016 which has also included Sabrina Mahfouz’s With A Little Bit of Luck, Come To Where I’m From: Ahead of the new coming-of-age comedy world premier of Broken Biscuits.

Tom Wells

Tom Wells © Matt Humphrey

I had a chat with its writer, Tom Wells,  about how he came to be a playwright, being part of Paines Plough 2016 season and getting something stuck in his throat.

Hi Tom! Can you tell us a secret about Broken Biscuits?
Something really good happens at the end.

How did you come to be a playwright?
I did a course at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds – you didn’t need to have written a play before, you just wrote them a letter and had a go. Some things I did in the workshops ended up being my first play, which they put on. And then I just carried on.

When was the last time you got something stuck in your throat?
The other day I was trying to explain something a bit awkward and eat a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer at the same time and it went a bit wrong.

What emoji best sums up your life at the moment and why?
The biscuit is popping up quite a lot just lately.

Have you ever managed to get a cuddly toy out of those machines with the claw thing?
No. I’ve given up.

What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done while drunk?
I woke up in a skip once. But my friend Kate got in a bin and weed so it seemed less bad.

What is your favourite biscuit?
Hobnobs.

Broken Biscuits is part of Paines Plough’s Programme 2016 – that must be exciting! Could you tell us a little about your history with the company?
I first started working there in 2009 – Tessa and Rox, who now work at Birmingham Rep, ran a year-long attachment called Future Perfect, which was brilliant. We put short pieces of work on, talked to lots of different writers, went to see properly good plays and somehow just turned into playwrights. And then James and George took over and commissioned a play called Jumpers For Goalposts, which James directed in 2013. And we had a good time working on it so we’ve had another go, which is Broken Biscuits. I think Paines Plough as a company has got magic in it. It is lovely to be part of this year’s Programme.

Broken Biscuits

Easy question: who do you think is the best living playwright?
Annie Baker.

Following it’s run at Live Theatre in Newcastle, Broken Biscuits will be heading out on a UK tour – are you excited for audiences around the UK to see it?
Really excited.

Broken Biscuits opens at Live Theatre in Newcastle upon Tyne from 5 – 22 October before embarking on a UK tour. Click HERE to buy your tickets for Broken Biscuits.

 

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Interview, Amy Shindler: “I have three strands to my career: I’m a writer, actress and voiceover artist. Okay, I’m clearly a wheeler-dealer.”

Amy Shindler’s writing is mainly in television: she co-created the ITV 1 series, Pat and Cabbage, and has written for the long-running BBC comedy, My Family. Other credits include: Trollied (Sky 1)Threesome (Comedy Central) and Horrible Histories (CBBC). As an actress she has played the role of ‘Brenda Tucker’ on Radio 4’s The Archers since 1999.
 
Amy’s first ever playBurning Bridges’ opens at Theatre 503 this week and the run includes several relaxed performances that are specifically designed to welcome people who will benefit from a more relaxed performance environment, including audiences with an Autism Spectrum Condition, sensory and communication disorders, or a learning disability.
It’s wonderful to see minor adjustments being made to make topical new writing truly accessible.
I caught up with Amy to ask about the inspirations for the play, rewriting history and the enduring popularity of The Archers.
Amy Shindler

Amy Shindler

Amy! Where are you and what are you doing currently?
Carl! I’m currently sitting in my study in my house in West Dulwich and I’m answering your questions. In a broader sense I’m working on a couple of original  television comedies for ABC in the States and for the BBC over here; storylining a new TV drama, still in early stages; and waiting nervously for my play, BURNING BRIDGES to preview tomorrow night. I’m also trying to digest a homemade green smoothie which is turning out to be less than enjoyable.

Simon Bubb and Rae Brogan

Simon Bubb and Rae Brogan in Burning Bridges  © Sam Taylor. Click on the image to book you tickets now.

What can you tell us about Burning Bridges? Is it good?
Burning Bridges is a play about an American woman, Kate, and an English man, Dan, living together in London, they’re professional colleagues and also newlyweds. They invite Kate’s younger sister, Sarah, who has Asperger’s syndrome, over from the States for a two week visit. However Sarah has some major surprises for them and things quickly spin out of control. It’s a bit dark and it’s intense, but there’s lots of humour in it too because I can’t seem not to put comedy in everything. It explores issues surrounding Asperger’s such as sensory overload, obsession and difficulty forming relationships, but also questions that come up when you’re living with someone with AS: how far do you go to protect them? Is that even the right thing to do? It also looks at issues outside autism, like gender politics at work and home and how do you prioritise childcare if you and your partner are equally professionally committed?
I can tell you that it is very good, because it’s being performed by three very talented actors: Rae Brogan, Anne Adams and Simon Bubb, with the ace Sally Knyvette directing. Also Theatre503 is just a brilliant place.

It’s fair to say that you have quite an eclectic CV isn’t it?
Yes I guess I do, although that does make me sound like a bit of a wheeler-dealer! I have three strands to my career: I’m a writer, actress and voiceover artist. I spend most of my days doing the former, mainly writing comedy and, more recently, drama for TV. I’ve also played the character of Brenda Tucker in the Radio 4 soap, ‘The Archers for 18 years, I was in the movie, ‘Everest’, last year and I’m the voice at the end of the phone if you call National Rail. Okay, I’m clearly a wheeler-dealer.

Theatre 503 has produced some outstanding work Rotterdam, The Girl in The Yellow Dress etc. What have been some of your favourite shows there?
Yes it’s a really good theatre, they’ve produced so many excellent shows over the years. I particularly liked Stephen Brown’s Future Me, Sam Ellis’s Starlore for Beginners and the brilliant The Mountaintop by Katori Hall.

What hopes and aspirations do you have for your play Burning Bridges?
Each of my characters makes flawed decisions but I really wanted to keep the audience’s sympathy shifting as I explore the humanity behind their actions. I hope it resonates on some level with audiences and gives them something to debate in the bar afterwards, it would also be great to make them laugh. Above all though, I really hope this play raises awareness of Asperger’s in women which is hugely, often dangerously, under-diagnosed or mis-diagnosed. It’s also sadly under-represented in the arts.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS FOR BURNING BRIDGES NOW 

You play Brenda Tucker on the soap opera ‘The Archers’. Why do you think the show has such enduring popularity?
It really does have the most loyal following. I’ve been told by many fans of  ‘The Archers’ that it’s been in their lives for so long that listening to it has become almost ritualistic. Like brushing your teeth or making dinner. They will talk to me like the characters are real people, sometimes friends, sometimes annoying neighbours. Recently, I’ve had so many fans come up to me, almost apoplectic over the evil doings of Rob Titchener. I sometimes have to gently remind them that it’s a drama and the characters are played by actors. This isn’t a popular line of thought though.

Are artists quite difficult people to be friends with?
Yes we’re awful. I personally only befriend people in the construction industry. They do useful things like putting up buildings.

If you could change one major historical event, what would it be?
Well I don’t know if this is entirely historically accurate but apparently due to a mix up over what time exactly it was in Berlin, Lloyd George declared war before Kasier Wilhelm had been given the final ultimatum asking Germany if they’d care to pull out of Belgium. When the mistake was detected in London, a nervous young civil servant was dispatched urgently to the German embassy to ask for the ultimatum back, as there was still technically 20 minutes left before the agreed deadline. However the Ambassador’s butler refused to let him in because it was “bed-time”. I like to think the whole first world war could have been averted if someone had read their watch correctly or the butler hadn’t
been a jobsworthy pedant.

Are you looking forward to one day being 50?
Only if there is a party involved. Otherwise it’s not worth it.

What are your top tips for an aspiring writer?
I’d say what my dad said to me at the start of my writing career – it’s a quote from PG Wodehouse: “the art of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”. Best advice I ever got and amazingly difficult to do

How good out of 10 is Burning Bridges?
Carl, this is not Strictly Come Dancing.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?
I’d like to add that these are really fun questions to answer. Apart from the previous one which is ridiculous.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS FOR BURNING BRIDGES NOW 

Tune into Amy Shindler talking about Burning Bridges in the next two videos

 

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Ray Rackham: ‘I won’t read a bad review twice; I’ve not come that far!’

Ray Rackham

Ray Rackham

As he brings Judy Garland to Southwark Playhouse the director of the glorious Through The Mill talks about casting, the circumstances of his own death – and social injustices.

Hello Ray! Through The Mill is about to open at Southwark Playhouse. How is it looking?
We’ve just had our press night and, to coin a Judy phrase, things are going marvellously. I don’t think any of us, cast, creative and production, have ever worked so hard, but when you get a full standing ovation on your opening previews, and then in each performance in our opening week, it’s strangely re-energising. That being said, I feel like I could sleep for a fortnight!

Do you read reviews of your work?
I never did as an actor or director, I felt that it was unnecessary. I came to realise it was actually because I don’t take criticism particularly well. My career evolving of late into writing, I find reviews more interesting than terrifying now. What do people get from the work? What points am I making that aren’t translating? As a writer, I think you innately become more self-critical because your responsibility is to provide clarity and simplicity in the form, however beautiful you wish your dialogue to be. That being said, I won’t read a bad review twice; I’ve not come that far!

How did you start out in this business?
I tried collecting art, and that didn’t work. I tried collecting antiques, and that didn’t work. I tried acting, and that didn’t work. In fact, a rather well known, but now late, casting director told me, at the age of twenty, to come back in twenty years time when there will be plenty of roles for me. When I had more than a few years to go until that time, I thought I would give directing a crack. And it worked. Writing came as a natural successor. I’ve got four years to really nail it, or you may see me playing “affable, dumpy towns person 4” in a musical near you!

What’s your favourite Quality Street?
The eponymous Green triangle! Anyone who says otherwise is not to be entirely trusted.

Where were you – and what was your reaction – when you discovered you’d been nominated for a Broadway World and Off-West-End Theatre Award?
Well, there have been a few, but alas I’m always the bridesmaid and never the bride. I don’t recall them all, but I do remember the first. I was congratulating everyone else and had started voting online when I saw my name for Ordinary Days. I won’t say if I voted for myself, but I’d like to thank that one person who did. I have a feeling he’d be tall, handsome and exceptionally witty. A regular Noel Coward!

How did you celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday in June?
Like our glorious Majesty, I celebrate my own birthday twice, so I had a few friends around for a slice of cake and a spot of narcissism. I met the Queen once, she complimented me on my hat. I replied it was from Moss Bros, and wasn’t bad for a hire job. I was to learn she was actually talking to Esther Rantzen, who was stood beside me.

If you could eliminate one social injustice a year, each year for three years, which would you choose and in what order?
I think love will always be the answer to injustice. If we all just loved each other more, and celebrated, supported, accepted; well all types of social injustice would lessen overnight, and we’d all be a tonne happier. But, sadly, that seems less likely each and every passing day. So my plan would be Poverty, Discrimination (in ALL its forms) and Classism. It’s so sad that, all these years after the introduction of incredible social reform under a post Second World War government, that there’s still a establishment snobbishness throughout the political elite. I often think the world would be better run if the world leaders had spent some time down the Upper Street launderette with my Great Nana Ada, my Nan, and my Aunt Yuni.

Who’s the best Theatre Director?
I’m not answering that question. No, don’t make me!

Do you spend a lot of your time thinking about how much of your life you have left?
All the time. If my horoscope were ever to tell me I was going to meet a tall dark stranger, I’d withdraw all of my money from my bank account, stock up on gin, fly myself to the Bahamas and await the Grim Reaper. I’ve never written a bucket list for that reason; in doing so you’re more or less contracting to shuffle off at some point. So, whatever time I have remaining, I want to fill it with being good at doing what I want to do. And maybe getting paid for it!

What do you look for when you are casting a show?
Talent and Timeliness.

Who are the last four people that you called on the telephone?
I am renowned for never answering my phone. Because I spend so much time in the theatre, my phone is usually always on silent mode. So I’ve just looked at the last four calls I’ve missed. The answer? Mother, mother, mother and mother.

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Playwright Brad Birch talks about dealing with rejection, Brexit, En Folkfiende, learning on the job and more.

Brad Birch

Have you read many Brad Birch interviews before? He’s good at interviews. The recipient of The Harold Pinter Commission 2016 has a chat with me about dealing with rejection, Brexit, En Folkefiende, learning on the job and more.

Brad Birch

Brad Birch

Hi Brad, what did you do yesterday?
Hello Carl. Yesterday I was in tech rehearsals for En Folkefiende. It’s a very technical show so everyone’s very busy; sound, lighting, video, stage management, everyone, I suppose, apart from me. My role in techs often seem to be as an extra eye and ear for the director (this show is directed by Andrew Whyment) and I also like to check in with the actors and crew and drink a lot of coffee. I’ve been in techs in the past where I’ve had to be more hands on, having a more active role in the room, but these instances tend to only come about if there’s text work still to be done. At this late stage in the process it’s obviously less ideal to still be working on the text. Now that’s not to say I’m 100% happy with the text, there’s some stuff that’s still up in the air, but this process is slightly unique in that the production is going up to Edinburgh in the summer too and we have time to rehearse and rewrite again in the coming month or so. I’m looking forward to rewriting in response to this run in Cardiff and the audience’s reaction to it.

Have you ever felt like you didn’t fit in?
I think everyone has moments of feeling as though they don’t fit in and some have more moments than others. In a way school was where I felt I fit in the most, but I left at 15 while doing my GCSEs. School for me was a social thing and I’ve always learnt and thought better on my own. It has meant that life took a slightly circuitous route but I’ve my own reference points and process. For a long time I didn’t feel as though I fit in in theatre as I didn’t come to it through drama school or university. I developed through working with individual mentors rather than groups or institutions and it took a while to find my feet in the broader ecology.

What are your thoughts on Brexit?
I’m fearful of what the right wing will do to this country without certain safeguards provided by the EU. Just look at what they’re trying to do to the Human Rights Act, for example. There’s a left wing argument against TTIP and what have you, but can you imagine we’d end up with anything better under an isolated Conservative government? Just look at the food industry, for example, and the kinds of preservative crap that goes into food in the USA; it’s the EU that prevents that kind of stuff from going into our food. I worry about the general trend of isolationism and nationalism that’s currently festering in the right and left. I don’t buy the SNP, I don’t buy Plaid, I don’t buy a devolved north (George Osborne has a northern constituency so this idea that everyone in the north is crying out for a socialist utopia feels to me unlikely). I’ve never felt my identity particularly tethered to a nation, I don’t feel fundamentally more this side of the street rather than the other side of the street. I get more excited about the potential for international left wing answers to global capitalism rather than parochial left wing answers to global capitalism.

How has your writing developed over the past two years?
I think my writing has become more controlled and considered. I’m harder on myself. And I think that comes from going from production to production. You develop a muscle and a rigour and you learn what works and what doesn’t. As I say, I didn’t have a university drama society to practice on, so I’ve been learning on the job. There’s work I’ve not been proud of because of this but I can feel my writing maturing and I’m excited about the next couple of years of shows. I teach now as well and this certainly makes me a sharper writer.

You are the writer in residence at Undeb Theatre and on attachment at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Can you talk us through an average week in the life of Brad Birch?
An average week at the moment is a bit hectic, balancing a few projects at once. I enjoy writing but days whereby I’m having to look at more than one thing can sometimes be a struggle. I am quite strict on my routine and at the moment I have little time for anything else other than typing but usually I try to read about two books a week, go for a lot of walks and talk a lot in pubs. Meeting with people for an afternoon pint and a chat is one of the most joyous things I can think of doing. Zoe and I have also recently had a baby boy called Woody, so life is currently full of concentrated meaning.

How do you deal with rejection?
You just have to not care.

In March 2016, you were announced as the recipient of this year’s Harold Pinter Commission. Tell us something really exciting and top secret about the commission at the Royal Court that is ‘in development’.
This play feels like the culmination of a long relationship with one of the most important buildings of my life. I’ve been in and around the Court for about six years. However the play I’m writing is just like any other play currently on my slate – it’s about a question I can’t answer.

Let’s talk quickly about what put this current business in motion — how did you start out on your career path?
So as I mentioned above I left school early and for about three or four years I just bummed around doing terrible jobs and doing a lot of thinking and reading. When I started writing I wanted to write books. I didn’t grow up with theatre. I fell into it and a bit like a spider in a bath, now I’m in, I can’t get out. I’m fascinated by people and for me theatre is the best medium to explore what people do to each other.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Jeremy Herrin once told us in a group at the Court to always see yourself writing more than one play. And it’s that perspective that prevents you from throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the current draft of your current play. I’ve still got fragments and set pieces and lines that I wrote in 2009/2010 that will one day make it into something.

The Brink was quite good *well done* were you happy with it?
I was very happy with it, thank you. It was such a talented room. I want to make it a life maxim to only work with people who are better at their jobs than I am at my job.

Your next show is EN FOLKEFIENDE. Is it any good?
I really like it. The students we’re working with at Welsh College are, again, brilliant. I don’t know what it is about this school, there must be something in the water in Cardiff. In terms of the play, it’s been a delight to get under the bonnet of one of Ibsen’s most fascinating plays. People talk about the politics of An Enemy of the People but for me it’s a play about brothers.

Can you write a Haiku for our readers (plural)
I try not to write
In cafes or pubs or clubs
And yet here I am

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Andy Sheridan, Playwright interview: “Loyalty, hardwork, bloody mindedness – the three most important lessons I have learnt in my career as a writer.”

Interview of Playwright Andy Sheridan

Andy Sheridan

After perfecting the art of theatre writing, playwright and actor Sheridan won The Bruntwood Prize in 2008 for WINTERLONG, which went on to be produced in the studio at the Manchester Royal Exchange in 2011. Sometimes he is on TV.
But what does he think of the Daily Mail? And,
who dared him to write his first play? I guess you could read this as a Q&A chat or as quite simply as a lengthy pub crawl transcribed.
If you are still reading this then do continue below and you will find out more.

Andy Sheridan. What’s happening and where you are today? 
I’m sat in my office trying to finish my next play that’s going on in at The National Theatre of Sweden in Stockholm next year. Prior to this I’ve been out to buy my 19-month-old daughter Betsy a pair of summer shoes. Rock-n-Roll.

What’s the biggest mistake you have ever made?
To pick one is hard because there’s been so many. A couple spring to mind immediately.

  • My younger brother had spent a day in the summer holidays making me a table out of scraps of wood   he’s foraged from a skip. When he gave it to me later that day I systematically smashed it to pieces with the hammer he’d used to make it. It was fucking cruel and I still hate myself for it.
  • Instead of saying my final goodbye to my granddad before he died I selfishly decided to compete in a running race. I didn’t win and I never saw my granddad again.I was a bit of a cunt as a teenager. Who isn’t.

What most drives you to be brilliant – fear of failure or thirst for success?
I’m the middle child of three brothers. They are both brilliantly spectacular. My older brother is a consultant cardiologist and my younger brother civil engineer. I’ve never really felt I’ve lived up to their brilliance and in truth neither have my parents. Even now I suppose I just want to please my family and now my daughter.

You won the Bruntwood Prize in 2008 with your play WINTERLONG. What are your recollections of that period of your life? 
I was out of work as an actor and the playwright and my closest friend, Robert Holman, dared me to write a play. I still don’t really know how I did it. I remember winning the award and speaking to my partner who was visiting her grandmother in Hong Kong. For some reason I remember hearing the chickens in the background of that telephone conversation.

What does the Daily Mail mean to you?
It means fuck all to me because it’s just terrible bollocks. My dad used get it delivered when we were growing up and he’d batter me if I did the quick crossword before him.

How many pints can you drink before you fall over?
Don’t know. Never done it. 5 pints is my limit and then I go home.
What are the three most important things you’ve learned in your career as a writer?
Loyalty. Hard work. Bloody-mindedness.
What word do people correctly use to describe you?
Calm.
Mainstream in Theatre: What is going on with it?
I don’t know what that means.
What is your favourite Fruit? 
Pineapple. Though I do like raspberries.
Anything you’d like to add? 
I can’t wait for Van Gaal to get fired. He’s turning my football team into a turgid embarrassment

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David Eldridge, Playwright Interview: “If you don’t want to change people, even a tiny bit, through the experience of your writing then don’t write.”

 Playwright David Eldridge

David Eldridge ( Picture credit – Keith Pattison/Royal Court Theatre 2012)

START
Questions: Carl Woodward
Answers: David Eldridge (Obviously)
David Eldridge is a prolific playwright. His work has been seen on our country’s biggest stages (The National, Donmar Warehouse, Hampstead theatre and The Royal Court to name a few.
He was busy marking essays but agreed to talk to me for a few minutes.
Just don’t get him started on cooking…

Hello! Where are you and what are you up to? 
Right now it’s 8.30am and I’m at home in north London. I’ve just had a bowl of porridge and I’m catching up on a few emails before I head to my office to crack on for the day. Not a writing day today though. I’ve a pile of plays to grade as I teach part-time at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Your work has been commissioned by the National, The Royal Court, Bush, Hampstead, Almeida theatres and many more. Do you ever pinch yourself? 
All the time. I always remember vividly a time in my early twenties when I was living at my mum and dad’s after Uni and working in the evening in the hotchpotch old extension at home. As I was writing I could hear the sound of my dad outside in the garden shed tapping heels in to women’s shoes at 10p or 20p a pair a time to earn a bit more extra money for him and mum and by extension me. I always think about that when I’m struggling with what I’m writing. I never want to be that writer that signs a card to a friend “David Eldridge”. In a sense Dominic Dromgoole is right about me in his book. I’m incredibly serious about what I do and totally committed. But there’s another part of me that could not give a fuck. Having a play on at one of those theatres is great but it’s always the audience that makes the play, wherever it’s on and much of a writer’s life is quite lonely and boring. I’d be quite happy cooking full time (I write now on a laptop on the kitchen table) and the best days are days spent cooking and writing. Last May I spent a Sunday when my girlfriend was away making a Dal Makhani (which has to be cooked very slowly and with real care) and writing. It was perfect. Being a parent is the most important and fulfilling thing in my life. What’s making a play compared to raising a child and trying to be a good dad?

 I was chatting to a writer recently and she said that a lot of the writing process is about when the planets align, when that perfect moment comes along. Do you work to that principal or do you have a knack to force the planets into alignment?
I can see a bit of truth in that. Just this autumn I had an unexpected gap partly because a film company couldn’t get together a meeting for a few weeks to give notes on a draft of a screenplay I’ve written. My fingers were itchy and I couldn’t sit still and I wrote a play I’d been wanting to write for ten years, but never found the right moment until then. On the other hand I think when we talk about planets aligning it makes me cringe a bit. No disrespect to the other writer but I believe more in screenwriter William Goldman’s approach “Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.” Its work, writing. I think you get the first draft out. And then you rewrite until its ready to share. Managements never see anything less than my third draft. I think a lot of young and new writers are crazy to show managements their first drafts. Your third or fourth draft should be the managements first draft. It’s play-WRIGHT. Do the graft. That’s not to say you don’t collaborate and often you rewrite a lot more. But do your job first.

Which other writers would you recommend at the moment?
Oh God. There are so many brilliant playwrights, we’re very lucky in the UK. I think Penelope Skinner, debbie tucker green and Annie Baker are the bees knees. Anna Jordan and Chris Urch both wrote wonderful Bruntwood Award winning plays. Gary Owen has had a great year as has Jack Thorne, both of whom I admire hugely. How does Caryl Churchill still do it? I said to someone recently she’s “our Picasso, our Pankhurst, our Bowie, our Orbach” and I believe that. Robert Holman is a great playwright and fortunately not such a secret pleasure any more after the last few years. But my mind is full this morning of Leo Butler’s “Boy” which I saw last night. It’s fantastic and brave and true and unlike anything else. He’s not always had a great luck (his Royal Court downstairs debut premiered on 9/11) but this play is a reminder he’s one of our best and most thoughtful playwrights painting on a big canvass. Really Rufus Norris should commission him to write for one of the big spaces at the NT. While Rufus is at it he should try and persuade screenwriter Sarah Phelps to write for theatre again. She’s ace.

What would be the worst way to die?
My paternal great-grandmother was burned alive in a house fire. I don’t want to go that way and I don’t want any of my nearest and dearest to go that way.

Easy question: what’s the best play ever written?
Yeah, right do one mate. Seriously you’ve got to be kidding. I’m a play geek. You could get a dissertation length answer. For me, this morning it’s Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. I don’t think that can ever change for me because it’s the play that turned me on to theatre aged 17.
What word do people incorrectly use to describe your work?
Naturalistic.
It seems that you’re quite ambitious in terms of wanting your work to make an impression. 
If you don’t want to change people, even a tiny bit, through the experience of your writing then don’t write. If I was running a theatre I would not programme or commission writers that are merely wanking or getting the next play on the shelf.
If for some reason I had to ban you from making theatre is there something else you’d like to do?
Well I’d write for TV or film (as I am already) or write a novel which I want to write, or I might get to spend enough time on some of my poems so they’re good enough to actually show someone one day. But as I say I’d be happy cooking. I’d be happy being a full time dad.
Anything you’d like to add? 
Writing for performance is an odd endeavour as its all collaboration in the end. But you have to be independent (and absolutely not dependent on others) and do your job and know yourself and your work as much as possible to be the best you can be in that collaboration. A collaboration that often starts with you alone one morning, wasting time on social media in your PJ’s and ends several years later in a little theatre above a pub in W12 with an audience. You don’t make the best work if the writer gets lost along the way.
END

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Mark Ravenhill, Playwright: “There is really only one rule to learn before writing a play”.

Mark Ravenhill
Mark Ravenhill

Mark Ravenhill

Mark Ravenhill is a playwright. 20 years later ‘Shopping and Fucking‘ still looks like it’s from the future and Mark continues to look ahead. I thought it would be nice to catch up with Mark to see exactly what’s happening. And I was right – it was very nice indeed.
Despite not really doing interviews he agreed to a chat. Here’s what happened.

Hi Mark Ravenhill. If you were to draw a graph of the last ten years, how would it look?
Some leaps of imagination needed here.  First, that I could draw a graph. Which I can’t.  I’ve never been able to stick to the squares on graph paper. And second, that I have the kind of mind that imagines shapes that fit on graph paper.  Which I don’t have either.  So my graph of the last ten years would me trying to think in a way which I can’t, using a medium that I’m not suited to.  In other words, my graph of the last ten years would be one of messy failure. That is not a metaphor. Or a cry for help.

A view from Islington north

A view from Islington north

 

What can you tell us about A View From Islington North the ‘evening of political satire’ you are contributing to with Out of Joint? ‘A View From Islington North’ is a celebration of Max Stafford-Clark’s relationships with playwrights.  All the playwrights who’ve written the pieces have had work directed by Max over decades. He first directed work by Caryl Churchill and David Hare in the 1970s.  I’m one of the johnny-come-latelies, having only first worked with him twenty years ago.  Max is a brilliant, infuriating, insightful and relentless director

What’s your favourite emoji?
The winky one

Shopping and Fucking

Shopping and Fucking

Shopping and Fucking is often described as a period piece isn’t it.
I don’t know how other people describe it (if it all) but yes I would describe it as period piece. I wanted to write what it felt like to be in your twenties in that moment in time.  It doesn’t have any references to contemporary events outside the play but it’s whole mood and style belongs to the late 1990s. It’s a play that is sorted for Es and whizz.

With writers it feels like there’s a constant expectation, and that they need to keep proving themselves, throughout their career. Which perhaps isn’t quite the same for a director where you can just keep going until you fall over. Is that a fair analysis?
Do you think so?  I think directors suffer from constant expectation and many fall out of favour and fashion.  But it’s true that there is a high burn out with playwrights.  Some have one brilliant debut at somewhere like the Royal Court upstairs and then never write again. Plenty write three or four plays and then find they have no more plays to write.  Very few write plays over a lifetime. I’m fifty this year. To ensure that I too ‘can just keep going until you fall over’ I’ve mapped out a cycle of forty full length plays.  I’m committed to writing one a year, finishing each one on my birthday June 7th.  So that will take me until I’m 90, when I will fall over and die as I will have advanced osteoporosis.
If you were to write a playwriting rulebook, what would Rule One be?
There is really only one rule to learn before writing a play.  Never under any circumstances use the line ‘the door was open so I let myself in’. Everything else is allowed.
Let’s imagine we’re putting theatre as an art form in a capsule to sending it into space, which one play do you put forward?
One play to represent the whole of world theatre?  Wouldn’t it need to be a DVD of a performance? (the question is in danger of conflating a ‘play’ with ‘theatre’).  But let’s say it’s a play text.  I think it would have to be one of the Greeks. That’s drama in its purest and arguably most powerful form.  I would pick Sophocles’ ‘Antigone’, although it could just as well be Euripides ‘Medea’ or Aeschylus “Oresteia’.  How about I write a new English version and we ping that into space alongside the Ancient Greek text?
Do you endlessly analyse your creative decisions or are you impulsive?
I write first drafts almost entirely on impulse and then use analysis (often aided by the director and sometimes the actors) to work through further drafts.

Do you pay attention to critics?
I’ll listen to anyone who can help me understand what I’m doing and how I might get better at it.
To the people who are still reading, do you have a final message?
The door is still open. Let yourself out. Thank you.