Interviews with some of the best contemporary British Playwrights

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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.

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Amy Rosenthal, Playwright Interview: “I’d be surprised if any playwright felt a constant coasting satisfaction; in any freelance career there’s always an element of fear.”

The other day I had a bit of chinwag with Amy Rosenthal who just happens to have two new plays on the verge of coming out. Amy is a playwright who is a very obliging woman so she answered all the questions, and some other ones too.

Here’s what happened during the chat.
Greetings! What are you up to currently? 
Hello! I’m currently in rehearsal for my play Pelican Daughters, which is part of the Shakespeare In Shoreditch Festival 2016. I’m one of four playwrights commissioned to write one-act plays inspired by Shakespeare, Shoreditch and storms – to be performed in site-specific locations from 20th-30th April.
Mine’s a modern-day spin on King Lear about three Jewish sisters, focusing on the eldest, Gaby, who’s desperate to please her dad on his eightieth birthday. He’s a naughty old tyrant who once ruled his East London patch and is now prey to redevelopers who want to gentrify the area. It’s about family and roots, and I hope it’s funny. I have a great cast and a terrific director, Kay Michael. It’s lovely to be in a rehearsal room after a period of solitary writing time, and I’m lucky because I then go straight into rehearsal for Fear of Cherry Blossom at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre.

What can we expect from your new play Fear of Cherry Blossom?
Funnily enough, it also focuses on a Jewish family. Dinah and Abby are unmarried sisters on either side of forty, and Abby, the youngest, has become a committed Buddhist. Dinah and their dad Ronnie are alarmed by Abby’s choices, and Dinah wants to pull her sister back to her values, and what she thinks life ought to be. The play touches on themes I’ve wanted to explore for a long time – it’s about Anti-Semitism, which feels pertinent and (on stage) rarely addressed – about inherited, inter-generational fear – and about faith, in all senses. Judaism, spirituality, and how to keep faith with oneself, especially in the middle patch of one’s life.

Amy rosenthal

Amy Rosenthal.

Will you tell us a secret about yourself?
I’m Jewish.

I didn’t see that coming, Amy… Can you describe your state of mind when you are writing a play?
Tortured? My close friends, especially playwright Phil Porter, get the brunt of it – the fat tears, the self-doubt. The beginning is the worst, it’s as though in order to find my voice, which is essentially light and comic, I have to go through some dark night of the soul that can last – well, considerably more than a night. Once I finally know what I’m doing and the play starts to take shape, I’m very happy. I love my own company, I’m rarely lonely, the play becomes more real than reality. I write from 5.30 a.m. in a joyful state – a bit like the feeling after a migraine. Everything feels light.

What cereal do you like to have in the morning?
I’m not a cereal girl. I like toast and I love eggs. Sometimes I have porridge oats baked in the oven into a flat pancake, buttered, with cucumber, because someone once told my mum it’s good for you.

Is this industry, are there a particular of personality type that rise to the top? 
I don’t know about a personality type, I’d say a lot of playwrights are quite shy, but what you need is staying power. “Rising to the top” can happen fast, or mid-career, or late; most writers rise and descend many times. I’d be surprised if any playwright felt a constant coasting satisfaction; in any freelance career there’s always an element of fear. It’s a solitary profession and there are long periods of writing before productions happen (especially in musical theatre, which can take years to come to fruition because its so collaborative) so you often feel forgotten or as though the world thinks you’re not working. You have to just keep working, keep faith, and take on other jobs too – teach, run workshops, interact with other humans. It’s taken me a stupidly long time to learn crucial lessons about all this and I’m still learning. But I’m very disciplined now, and very committed.

Can you tell us about your Russian Doll painting sideline? 
The great David Edgar, who taught me playwriting at Birmingham University, also inspired my mad sideline. David collects Russian (matryoshka) dolls – mostly political figures. He commissioned me some years ago to paint his family on a set of blank wooden dolls. I loved it and I’ve been doing it ever since – painting families from photographs. A commission often seems to come along at the right moment and it’s a great antidote to writing because you don’t have to think. It’s meditative. It’s not easy to paint an accurate portrait on a curved surface, and the tiniest dolls are a challenge, but if you get it right they can feel uncannily alive.

Russian Dolls ( Dynasty Dolls) by Amy Rosenthal

Dynasty Dolls.

Is your life an open book?
I wonder. I’m not at all secretive and I like making people laugh, but on the whole I’m the listener in a lot of my exchanges.

If I were to hand you a book from the future, and it was the autobiography you wrote when you were 80, would you read it?
I don’t know. I’d be scared. Is there an index?

Anything that you’d like to add?  
Not really, I think I’ve gone on at length.

That’s that then. 

Russian Dolls by Amy Rosenthal

Amazing.

‘Pelican Daughters’  to be performed as part of Shakespeare in Shoreditch Festival 2016, 20-30 Apr, tickets available to purchase at  New Diorama Theatre