Highlights from May 2017

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May was another bumper month culturally for me in a personal and wider way too. Not only did my new play The Scar Test (which opens at Soho Theatre in July) go into rehearsal with a cracking team on board, I also saw two astonishing pieces of theatre and made a film:

First up I went to The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Royal Court. Directed by Sam Mendes it has a massive cast including a host of young children and is set in Northern Ireland at the height of ‘the Troubles’. I had my reservations before I saw it – could the writer pen anything to rival his amazing play Jerusalem? Also even though I saw an early performance there was already a lot of buzz about it – could it live up to the hype? For me it really did – amazing performances, nuanced writing encompassing the poetry and drama we all know to expect from classic Irish plays, plus a deeply compelling personal and political story. It did the thing great historical plays should – made me draw comparisons with today and none as stark as the conflict of how best to fight oppression
– peacefully with the pen or with direct action and even violence. The plight of the Irish Hunger strikers is also referred to in the play and it made me think about similarities with the current Palestinian hunger strikers imprisoned in Israel. I found it so compelling that as soon as I got home I booked to see it again – you don’t get much higher praise than that.

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Next, another historical play, this time at the beautiful Lyceum in Edinburgh: Glory on Earth by Linda McLean tells the story of a young Mary Queen of Scots and her early days after returning to Scotland from France when she met John Knox – the man considered the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. He hated Mary and everything she stood for. This beautiful piece of theatre imagines those days and meetings with Knox and Mary and her ladies in waiting (here a chorus of Marys) and we get the very distinct feeling that from the outset the poor woman’s fate was sealed. The way David Grieg’s production playfully portrays this world as a fusion of then and now with oversized ruffs, embroidered boots and the court dancing to Christine and the Queens is so delightfully imaginative. I learned something new and I was massively entertained. What’s more it’s so rare see a play that’s all females on stage (as this was – all bar one) that I left feeling hugely inspired. It’s a brilliant production and one worth travelling for.

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Finally I have to include my short film. I wrote The Record a couple of years ago and won the Tommy Vine screenwriting Award at the Underwire film festival – which was some money towards making it. Thanks to my brilliant producers and SHH productions a dream team was pulled together including two young and incredibly talented actresses who withstood two gruelling days of filming like the pros they are. I was a wreck, barely slept the night before flapping about on set like a fifth wheel. Long and short is it’s going to be brilliant despite my involvement! Watch this space …

Highlights from April 2017

There are some months were my cultural satisfaction has been so low (mainly because I’ve failed to get out of the house or wrestle the remote from mini me, so as a result watched Hi-5 on Netflix on a loop) that I’ve scrabbled around for things to include in my top three. Not so this month where I’ve struggled with how to pick just three. Then I decided: hell I make the rules so I can break ’em. So this month it’s my top four as opposed to top three cultural highlights.
4856Firstly Dickie Beau’s Re-member Me at the Almeida, directed by Jan-willem van den Bosch. Dickie is an incredible award-winning performer who has been described as an “actor, physical performer and intrepid drag fabulist. He is a postmodern cultural pickpocket, maverick theatre-maker and twisted video star; looting a range of performance traditions, from “low culture” to “high art”, in the creation of distinctive performance experiences.” In this piece he has interviewed many great actors and directors including Ian McKellan and Richard Eyre about the role of Hamlet. He lip-syncs to these interviews and transforms. There are many other exciting visual elements that come into play too and what’s so beautiful is that the journey we the audience take is probably the same as Dickie did in making this show: it starts as being about Hamlet but very gradually it becomes about Ian Charleston whose performance as the Dane stands out in all the interviewees minds. Re-member Me only played for a few nights at the Almeida and I really really hope it gets the further life it so deserved. If it comes back I’ll definitely go and see it again – it was powerful and a whole lot of fun.
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Then I saw Guards at the Taj the Bush’s reopening show. What a flag in the sand and what a piece of pure theatre… two men on stage telling a very simple story about humanity and responsibility. A historical piece set in another time and place but so clearly relevant to today asking the question ‘Where do we draw the line?’ The writing gripped, the performances were engrossing and the direction smooth and unobtrusive. If this is a statement of what’s to come in the new Bush I’m very excited.
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And yet more theatre comes next (a wonderfully theatrey month) The Velveteen Rabbit at the Unicorn directed by Purni Morell and with Ashley Byam, Jason Carr, David Ganly & Christian Roe. I went for my daughter and loved it as much as she did. The beautiful children’s book is theatrically, imaginatively brought to life. The rabbit is played by a man without a bunny costume – no ears even, he just very simply runs his hands along his imaginary ears at the start and that’s enough. We know what he is – we believe what he is. More gorgeous performances and pure theatricality to brighten my day. And mini me adored the fact an actual real rabbit came on stage at the end. Magical.
And for my bonus number four you guessed it – more theatre! This time north of the border in Scotland. I went to see Girl In The Machine by the brilliant Steph Smith at the Traverse, directed by Orla O’Loughlin. A dark futuristic warning with Black Mirror undertones it’s another example of two actors, one writer and one director (along with an amazing creative team) being able to engross and provoke an audience.
My faith in theatre restored I head into May with lots of exciting things planned including Jez Butterworth’s Ferryman at the Royal Court a trip to Paris for some French theatre and back to Scotland for Glory on Earth at the Lyceum. I’m rubbing my hands in glee – lucky me.

Never forget: the path to production is paved with tears

tissuesThink about all the plays that are on.  West End, Fringe, Regional – there are 100s upon 100s. And when you work in the industry at any level you’re constantly aware of colleagues working on different projects. Some you’ve heard about from inception, others arrive fully formed in your inbox or social media feed.

And it’s easy to feel a bit envious about all the amazing work your friends are making – perhaps even wish you’d had that opportunity. So it’s worth remembering in this often super presented social media world that no production is easy and every birthing has it’s complications whatever level you are – from first outing to seasoned vet.

I’m not the former or the latter and not quite in the middle. I’ve have had a few things on. And when you’re part of the process as the writer (hopefully) usually you are a party to all the hiccups that occur in even the best laid plans.

In my experience so far:

  • I’ve had many more funding rejections than approvals (very few of us tweet about the nos);
  • lost actors/ directors/ crew at the 11th hour;
  • had power cuts;
  • had to cancel first night because a show wasn’t ready;
  • had to clean dirty dressing rooms myself (despite paying the theatre a massive hire fee);
  • had contracts changed;
  • dates moved without consultation leading to knock on problems;
  • had actors/crew shout at me about how little they are getting paid/ that they haven’t been paid (often unaware of the irony that I’m  not getting paid at all);

….you name it it’s happened.
In those moments I’ve pow-wowed with the team to problem solve, had extra rations of wine and cried to my friends or other half. I certainly haven’t publicised my pain to the world.

I guess this blog is just my way of reminding myself that there is no easy path in life, every ‘break’ only comes after much pressure is applied and that when I look at others’ timelines and the old green eyed monster is whispering I need to remember it’s tough for us all whether we talk about it or not… So we should celebrate each other’s successes and remember every production is a little miracle – especially in this age of ‘austerity.

Highlights from March 2017

 Cultural highlights for this month include theatre, podcast and something a bit unusual … auditions.

I’ve been part of the team meeting actors for my new play The Scar Test which will be at Soho Theatre in July. The play explores life for women in detention in the U.K. And although the play has a large number of characters in this first production it will be performed by 5 actors: 4 women and 1 man. So we’ve been meeting actors of different ages and ethnicity, it’s completely open. And I’ve been astonished by not only the quality of the actors we are seeing but the dedication and preparation they’ve put in, many learning lines in advance, all of them reading and having thoughts on the play and doing research themselves. It’s been a properly exciting process. So not a usual cultural highlight but a very real one!

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My play experience was Black Lives Black Words at the Bush. Part of the reopening programming of the new building Black Lives Black Words is the brain child of award-winning American playwright Reginald Edmund, who produced the USA premiere at the Greenhouse Theatre in Chicago in July 2015. The Bush Theatre presented its UK Premiere in Oct 2015 produced by Artistic Directors of the Future. This new iteration featured two plays from African-American writers:  #Matter (Idris Goodwin), This Bitter Earth (Harrison David Rivers), and four new plays by British writers: Womb (Somalia Seaton),The Principles of Cartography (Winsome Pinnock), My White Best Friend (Rachel De-Lahay) and The Interrogation of Sandra Bland (Mojisola Adebayo). Poet Anthony Anaxagorou also performed his poems If I Told You and Master’s Revenge.

The culmination of the evening was Mojisola Adebayo’s reimagining of The Interrogation of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was pulled over by police in Texas for failing to signal, the interrogating officer took against Sandra and arrested her. Three days later her body was found hanging in a police cell. Adebayo has transcribed the original interrogation and presents it here with a cast of seven women of colour playing Sandra. They are joined by more actresses from the community in a chorus as the piece continues. It was a powerful, breath-taking and unforgettable memorial, deftly directed by Omar Elerian.

Black Lives Black Words  only had three performances and I do hope it will come back.

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Finally a podcast – here was me thinking only BBC Radio could make compelling drama but Gimlet’s Homecoming proved me wrong. Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaacs and David Schwimmer lead the cast in what is billed as a ‘psychological thriller’ about a programme to rehabilitate disturbed war vets. I don’t want to give anything away so I wont say any more except have a listen – it’s free to download – but download all 6 because you will eat them up.

3 things writers are doing while you are reading (or failing to read) their script

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We’ve all done it. We’ve all met writers at parties or conferences or an event and said “Send me something, I’d love to read your work”. 80% of the time the writer will do it (and the 20% who don’t I’ll talk about later) and it lands in your mailbox and you think – “oh great I’ll read that this weekend”.

Three months later you’re on the loo, or making a cuppa or walking to the station and you think: “Shit! I haven’t read X’s piece yet – must do that”. Then at this point you either forget about it again or consign it to the pile of things I must do that I feel bad about and never get round to.

If you recognise this scenario, now is the moment to resolve not to ask to read people’s stuff again. You’re not a bad person (I’m including myself in all this to be clear – I’ve done it) but if you don’t have time don’t ask, because it can really mess with a writer’s head (I’m talking for all writers here – I know that’s ridiculous so actually scrub that I’m talking about myself).  Here’s three things writers (me) might be doing while you are sitting on their script.

  1. Sending test emails to their best mate to ensure their email is working
  2. Looking at your twitter/facebook/instagram account to see if you are in the country/still alive/ sending subliminal messages about how much you hate their script
  3. Feeling 100% sure that you have read it and hated it so much you can’t bring yourself to send any kind of message about it.

Pathetic perhaps but very true. We are delicate beasts us writers – thin skinned to let the world in and not thick skinned enough to keep it out when insecurity strikes.

The 20% of writers who DONT send a script when you ask are probably smart enough to know you are unlikely to find the time to read it and don’t want to open the door to paranoia (as detailed above).

So next time maybe think twice about asking – or when you realise you haven’t read it send a message just to say “I’m busy but nag me” (only if you want to be nagged) or “don’t hold your breath”. Seriously its much nicer than leaving a poor writer spending their time fixating on you. There’s only so many times we can check our email in one day.

Or perhaps us writers (me) should resolve to become one of the 20% and not bother to send work just in case it never gets read…

Nah!

PS This is not a dig at any one – or a cry for help! Currently I am fairly sure I’m not waiting for anyone to read any of my work 🙂

How many hours of dead women do we watch on TV?

I was happily watching a TV show I like the other night.  It started: a woman – beaten… abused. Suddenly I wasn’t concentrating on the story, I was feeling uncomfortable, realising how often women on screen are beaten, abused or dead on a slab. It’s something my other half complains about often, but this was the first time it really hit me.

I don’t want to name names, because this isn’t about slagging off individual programmes, but it got to me. So I did something I try not to do, I ranted on Facebook. This is what I posted:

Another night another tv programme where a woman is abused – I’m getting tired of so many shows with women being killed or beaten or hurt I KNOW there are other interesting genre busting shows being pitched by writers everyday – it’s time for change!

Give women writers and directors the reins then that change will come!”

Very quickly the post got a lot of likes and comments. Most people seemed to feel the same. It made me wonder if programmes about the abuse of women and children are made because audiences want them or because commissioners THINK audiences want them.

And then I wondered, am I being hysterical? IS it REALLY that bad or is it in my head – do those programmes just stand out a bit more?

Other half and I chatted and he challenged me to do a test – see how many hours of telly in a week are devoted to programmes with a storyline in which a woman or child is abused or murdered.

Challenge accepted.

But when I started scouring the telly guide for next week I realised I’d have to put in some parameters – for example these kind of topics can’t be shown till after the watershed. And there are so many channels now and I do have a life… So I took a sample- one week,  the four main channels, between 9pm and midnight. Here’s what I found out:

  • In total across 28 hours of telly 8 of those featured these kind of stories
  • There was one hour every week night bar Friday and more than that at the weekend because of films.

That means 38% of telly in that slot features stories where women and kids are abused and/or killed. And to my mind that’s far too much. I’m not even including in my sample storylines in soaps or continuing dramas.

Imagine if we could get commissioners to commit to lowering that percentage significantly? Or just to take one of those hours and devote it to something different – something innovative, something where  woman walks around talking unscarred…

Might we be able to make a wider positive change in the way people think about women and children by commissioning uplifting, positive stories that explore what it is to be human and have relationships in new, unusual ways. And make new genres, or – hell – get rid of genres all together.

There are other kinds of dramas waiting to be born and plenty of female (and male) writers, directors and actresses ready to step up and make them given half a chance… So come on commissioners, what are you waiting for?

 

Highlights from February 2017

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It was half term in Feb, so in honour of that, my choices this month are all kids movies.

Firstly Zootopia. I’m late to the party I think (hell it won an Oscar at the weekend), but Disney making a film that featured animated animals to explore the nature of prejudice is mind-bendingly cool. I loved it, mini-me who is 5 enjoyed it but I think the detailed plot was a bit tough for her in places. If you’ve a 7 or 8 year old in your life I bet they’d adore it.

mv5bmji4mzu5ntexnf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzy1mtewmdi-_v1_uy1200_cr9006301200_al_Next up ANOTHER Disney – Moana. Some catchy tunes – outwardly, more obviously ‘Disney’ – one girl’s quest to save the world (rather than find a husband as Disneys of old worked) and a nice twist around the notion of the monster. It’s very watchable, though there’s a bit on a boat 3/4 of the way through that loses its way a bit. All in all a positive watch and safe bet for mini ones.

Finally Sing. You’ve probably seen the trailer – a theatre producing koala decides to run a talent contest… cue lots of amusing turns by animals singing well known songs. The Brit thug gorillas were my favourite, with a son who sung like Elton John and whose rendition of “I’m still standing” secured a big thumbs up from me. This was the one my daughter loved the most – the song vignettes, humour and different characters journeys really hooked her.

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Sing’s probably the only one of the three that doesn’t try to consciously cater for an adult audience too with tongue in cheek asides or anything like that – but I actually really liked it for that. And it did make me giggle a lot.

To be clear those aren’t the only kids movies I watched – in a rainy half term there were more but these were the ones I liked best. A warning about Lego Batman: we took mini me as it was a U and were shocked at how violent it was. It seems violence is ok to the people rating if it’s between Lego characters rather than humans. So be careful with that one.

March is more grown up: I’m most excited about the reopening of the Bush and the Black Lives Black Words event.

Highlights from January 2017

I start 2017 with a museum trip in my top 3 – I don’t think I’ve featured a museum in my blog up till now. So that’s a first. There’s also a play and a telly:

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I made the very worthwhile trip to Stratford Upon Avon to see Anders Lustgarten’s Seven Acts of Mercy.

The play is set in two times, 1606 with Caravaggio hiding out in Naples and painting the eponymous canvas, and in modern day Bootle where an old man holds out in his rented home against the tides of commercial development trying to eject him.

It’s a beautifully crafted, state of the nation play, but what Anders has that so many other writers who attack big national topics don’t is huge heart. This isn’t a cold, academic autopsy but an impassioned cry for change, for justice. Erica Whyman’s production moves effortlessly between times and there are some stunning performances, my favourites from Tom Georgeson and Alison McKenzie. The play’s now closed but I really hope it gets a national tour.

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My museum visit was to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich – not the sort of place I’d normally be chomping at the bit to get to. Why then? No I’m not writing a play about Napoleon, instead I went along on my daughter’s school trip and was delighted with the place and how much the kids got out of it. There are all the usual galleries with naval paraphernalia, but there are other interesting spaces too including Ahoy! which is a nice sized play area with a special section for babies and toddlers. Recommended.

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I feel a bit of a cheat with my final choice – BBC One’s Apple Tree Yard – as it’s only two episodes in (of four) but it’s already a favourite. This telly adaptation of Louise Doughty’s novel is  tense, sexy, nail-biting and totally engrossing. I won’t risk any spoliers but already in just two episodes it’s genre-busted all my expectations. And with the brilliant Emily Watson, Ben Chaplin and Mark Bonnar there’s a feast of acting talent to savour too. I’ll be sad when it’s over.

Feb brings Bubbly Black Girl at Stratford East and Feb 2018 brings Hamilton ! I managed to get tickets – ok it’s a year away but I’m believing the hype!

 

The session I SHOULD have called at Devoted & Disgruntled or Why fringe theatre is only for trustofarians

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Last Saturday I went to Devoted and Disgruntled 12: What shall we do about Theatre and the Performing Arts Now in Bristol, hosted by Improbable. For the uninitiated it is an open space event – a sort of free for all conference, where attendees make up the seminar agenda when they arrive.

I’d never been to one before and it was an engaging experience to say the least. I didn’t call a session (though now I realise I should have hence the blog), but went to a broad range from ‘(How) can we teach playwrighting‘ (I had stuff to say about that); ‘Mothers who make’; ‘Can you be an artist in the evenings and weekends’; and the one that inspired this blog: ‘Come and rant at two White Male Artistic Directors’. That last one got me curious for sure.

I bumbled bee-d into it for the last 15 mins as I’d got caught up in another conversation and in fact (disappointingly) no one was ranting at these two Artistic Directors at all. This was because they were talking about things they were doing right – and differently – to most other small theatres to try an enable new theatre makers to get their work going, and their methodology was refreshing to say the least.

Although no one was ranting when I arrived at the session, I have to admit I did rant a bit.

You see, hearing about these seemingly great models of getting work on got me thinking about the way most theatres (on the London fringe at any rate) do things: in a way that is almost impossible for anyone who doesn’t have MONEY.

Let me explain: normally if you want to get your play on it’s a case of an approach to that theatre and then IF they like you and your work and want it in their building they invite you to be part of the programme.

That invitation however does not come with any funding attached. Au contraire, in order to have your work on in said theatre you need to be about to raise the cash (normally in the vicinity of £1.5/£2k per week for the theatre hire alone) to put it on there. The theatre may well help in kind, with marketing or rehearsal space if you are lucky but the onus is on you, the producer or creator,  to find at least several grand up front to secure the venue.

Then you’ve got to pay the actors, and the director, designer, stage manager, get insurance, and there’s set, props costumes and a million other things besides.

In most cases where this model exists you DO get 100% of your box office. But I’d argue this is NOT a good thing, here’s why:

1. You don’t get it until the show has closed so you have to defer paying for things, and most things you can’t defer payment for and

2. It means that the theatre doesn’t have anything at RISK by having your show on there. If there was a box office spilt (where some of the box office goes to the theatre and some to the producers instead of a hire charge) there would be more onus on the theatre to sell tickets, get bums on seats. At the moment all the risk is with the producers, so if the show is a failure the theatre can pretend it was just a hire, but if it’s a hit it’s the theatre who gets all the credit.

This is a broken system. It makes theatre exclusive – if you’re not a trustofarian how on earth can you get work on? Of course there are charities and funds and the arts council but everything is getting more and more squeezed – when I first put on a play back in the mid 2000s there were charities that could fund emerging artists – now those same charities are giving to the huge established organisations so what hope do newbies have?

What’s more the people at the top of the industry seem to be blind about this problem. Anecdotally several directors I know have been told by people who run buildings to ‘keep putting on plays and we will come and see something’. In one case the emerging director had to explain the current model to the established director who presumed box office splits were still the way things worked as they did ‘in his day’.

During my D&D rant I asked the two Artistic Directors with innovative models to go and evangelise about them to the people at the top. Because without another way forward fringe theatre – the space that is meant to be a training ground for emerging artists – will continue to get whiter and more privileged and frankly more boring and dead.

I hope they will spread the word and the people who count listen – then there might be a chance for change.

Rant over.

My best of 2016

Yes it was a shit year in so many ways – but I’ve picked – not my top 3 (too hard) but top 5 cultural things: a play, two tellys, a radio drama and a concert.

In order of when they happened:

Scenes from 68* Years at the Arcola in April

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Well you didn’t think I was going to miss out my own play did you? I’m not being big headed I promise, I know the reason the production was brilliant (if you think it was and I do) was because of the amazing cast, director and crew who made my writing look 100 times better than it is. I feel so lucky to have had the perfect alchemy of that team working on it. So massive thanks to them all. And if you missed it and happen to be in Chicago in February you could go and see a reading of it there then…

Mum on BBC Two in May

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This comedy was one of the best things on telly in 2016. Lesley Manville was hilarious and touching as the eponymous Mum. Go and buy it on BBC Store if you missed it and watch it all… I am going to do that just so I can see it again. And the best news ever is that it has been recommissioned for a new series.

The CBeebies Prom in August

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What to say about this one, I took mini me and blubbed my way through it – then wrote about why I cried more than my daughter.

Tracks on Radio 4 in September

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I love my radio drama. As my world is so busy and fragmented with writing and mumming and other work, being able to download and listen to dramas while I’m on the move is a life saver. Tracks was an epic nine-part twist and turn conspiracy thriller. It had epic ambition and managed to pull off televisual style car chases and the like that you don’t expect to hear on the radio. Kept me listening for nearly 7 hours. Brilliant. And it’s still downloadable if you fancy a try.

Witness for the Prosecution on BBC One in December

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We all love a Christie for Christmas don’t we? But I sort of expect them to be old-fashioned fusty affairs – in this case I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sarah Phelps’ adaptation was immediately engrossing – Christie and Phelps make a great team, what’s more the performances were excellent especially from Andrea Riseborough (pictured) who absolutely transforms in every role she plays (last seen in Channel 4’s National Treasure though I almost didn’t recognise her). Add to this some beautiful camera work and you have an absolute Christmas treat. I know the beeb has plans for 7 more Christie adaptations for future Christmases I really hope they can recreate the magic conjured here again and again.