Thoughts for new writers – or would-be could-be writers

I was asked by the Old Vic to write an introduction to an ‘Inside guide for Playwrights‘. It turned into a bit of a rant and so I thought I’d post it here. The guide also features tips and exercises from some very clever writers, so do check it out.

“At what point can you call yourself a writer? Is it about how many words you write a day? Or if you’ve finished writing that play? Or does it have to have been produced? Or is it about if you’ve earned any money from writing yet? Or the number of plays you’ve written? Or if you’ve won a prize?

These are just some of the questions that used to make me feel rubbish about myself and whether or not I could/should write when I started out. My advice now after lots of years of writing is none of these questions matter. All that matters is if you want to write, then you must write; and if you fancy giving it a go but you’re unsure — go on, try.

I’m a playwright, my name’s Hannah Khalil and I’m going to talk a little bit here about my ideas about writing and why I write and how. One of the few things I am sure about in this world is that every writer is different, and no one has the answer or the formula to how to write a good play. But more on that in a moment. Here are some things that should not stop you writing a play:

1. There’s no one who writes the kind of things you would (either in terms of the story, or who it’s about, or the language, or the style)

2. Someone tells you you don’t have the right qualifications or you’re from the wrong background

3. Because you are scared

On the contrary, these are absolutely reasons you should write.

I wrote my first play after a difficult conversation with someone who heard I’d turned down this guy who asked me on a date. He was nice but I wasn’t interested. This someone told me if I kept turning down offers of dates from nice blokes, I’d end up old and alone. I was really angry. But I couldn’t find the words or the confidence to argue with her. So, I sat down and wrote a little play. And that helped me a lot. I mention this because writing for me has become what that first play was: a way to try and understand the world and other human beings and why they do the things they do. A way to try and understand how I feel about things that happen to me, and people I love, and come to terms with it. A kind of therapy I suppose. Which makes it sound like my plays are probably really boring, but I hope they’re not. And if they’re not it’s because I really think hard about why something I’m writing is a play — as opposed to a short story or a film or a novel or something else.

As I said above, I don’t believe in formulas in writing. I think formulas are for maths. I like maths. But playwriting is absolutely not maths. Well not the kind of plays I want to write or see anyway. So, if anyone tells you they have the answer of how to write the perfect play I’d be very suspicious indeed. Because there is no perfect play, there’s only the play you want to write in the way you want to write it, and anyone who wants to help you create your play, like a director for example, should be helping you find out what and how that is rather than imposing what they think you should be writing on you. I’ve been lucky. This is going to sound mad, but I’ve had so much rejection and that has been — ultimately — a good thing, though it didn’t feel like it at the time.

You see I couldn’t afford to do an educational course in playwriting. After my stint in acting, I knew I wanted to write, so I just did it. Evenings, weekends, after work. I wrote lots of bad plays and gradually they became less bad. I met a lot of people who were interested in my background and my writing, but who didn’t think I was a writer for lots of reasons. I never got to the bottom of that — I suspected sometimes it was my age. Or my gender. Or my background. Or that I wasn’t writing the kind of things or characters, that they were used to reading. Or that they expected someone who wrote my play to look differently from the way I look.

There’s a huge amount of courage needed to be a writer. First you have to be brave to put pen to paper. Then you have to be courageous to show it to anyone. Then you have to grit your teeth to hear it read for the first time and once you are sitting in an audience who have no idea (or care probably) that you are the writer — well, if you get through that you feel like Hercules.

Yet the most important first step (once your play is written) is to show it to people. Plays are not written to sit in drawers. They need actors and a director to breathe life into them. You can submit your plays for the many available playwriting competitions — though this can be a dangerous game. Some charge for entry (I’d advise against entering any that do) and you can end up in a rollercoaster of hope and misery living from deadline to shortlist announcement, as I did for many years.

What I ended up doing was gradually making friends with an ever growing and changing group of actors and creatives, (including a brilliant director) many of whom share my cultural heritage so understood the stories I wanted to tell and the way I wanted to tell them. I’d invite them round for dinner when I had a new play, then ask them to read it out for me and we’d talk about it. In time this wonderful group ended up being involved in fringe productions of my plays, and most of them I still work with now. It was a long process but one that helped me make the plays I wanted to write.

All my plays are very different in style, influenced by many other writers and plays/ films/TV shows/books, however, in all of them I’ve asked myself two main things:

1. What’s the central question I want to explore in this play? For example, that first play I mentioned after the ‘you should go out with that guy’ nonsense, the question there was ‘Can humans survive alone?’

2. Why is it a play — what will make it special and particular to theatre?

I always feel if I can do those two things in anything I’m writing I’ll be on the way to making it work — for me. And if it works for me it might just work for an audience — that is if it’s the right creative team, the right actors, directors and other creatives. Whether in a reading in my sitting room or sat in the audience of a theatre. And it’s in that moment when I think ‘YES! That’s it — even better than I heard it in my head…’ that those questions I mentioned at the start subside a little — because in truth they never entirely go away — and I really feel like a writer.

Lockdown lists

A blog that set out to list my cultural top trumps could depress me right now – indeed I’ve not posted here for ages. So I’ve decided to post some alternative lists for lockdown that I can look back on ‘after this is all over’ as the popular refrain goes. I’ll keep updating until the moment comes :

Apple cake

Apple Cake (with a stray pear added – was nice)

Lockdown bakes
3 apple cakes
2 batches of rocky road (purely in the name of researching my tiny play for Fly High Stories honest)
Scones
Chocolate cupcakes
A loaf of white bread
A peach and blackberry crumble
2 mix ups of Shortbread
Naan Bread

shortbread

Saturday family movies
The Rise of Skywalker
Solo
Ghost Busters
Ghost Busters ll
Labyrinth
Bednobs and Broomsticks
Home Alone
Home Alone 2
ET

Hump day Wednesday musicals
Easter Parade
Singing in the Rain
American in Paris
Summer Stock
Anchors Aweigh
Gigi
On The Town

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Books what I’ve read
Red carpets and other Banana skins – Rupert Everett
The Vanished Years – Rupert Everett
Normal People – Sally Rooney

 

 

TV Shows
Cobra (didn’t finish – too close to the bone ATM)
Intelligence
Berlin Babylon (didn’t finish – too dark)mv5bnzzlmthlyzktmdlmzc00yti1lthlnzktzwu0mty4odc2zwy4xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynta1njyymdk40._v1_
Unorthodox
State of Happiness (LOVED THIS)
Devs

Grown up Movies
The Favourite
Marathon Man
The Conversation
Three days of the Condor

Virtual Plays
I want my hat back
Cypress Avenue
That’s not my hat
Barber Shop Chronicles

This blog will be updated periodically until that moment I can go to the theatre again…

Museum in Baghdad features & blogs

2853_baghdad_play-hub-image_1440x1368_no-title.tmb-wo-1440This autumn my new play A Museum in Baghdad opens at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, it will then transfer to the Kiln in London in April 2020 (still pinching myself). I’ve written a few blogs and done a few interviews to tie in with the production and thought I’d put them all in one place:

RSC features and blogs

RSC Videos

Interviews/ Features elsewhere

Theatricality and spectacle

I had the pleasure of talking with some students at Edinburgh University a few weeks back. One of the things we chewed over was the notion of theatricality versus spectacle. It’s something I’m still mulling so I decided to put down my thoughts and remembrances of that conversation really for my benefit but then thought maybe I’d blog about it too.

So the first thing we considered is theatricality – I spoke about how my experience of script reading for various theatres over the years meant the first question I ask of any theatre script is why is this a play rather than a telly or film script. What’s the thing that makes this uniquely theatrical? That doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be someone popping up through the trap door or flown in from the rafters, it could be as simple as a monologue – which is inherently theatrical to my mind as it’s one person speaking directly to the audience for an hour or so. Wouldn’t work on telly or film but in theatre can be majestic. I encouraged all the playwrights there to be bold in their theatrical scripts – to demand and imagine the impossible and not be constrained or worry about how the director would make it work. Write freely and worry about that stuff later.

On the subject of spectacle one of the many insightful students compared it to circus – feats that astound us- make us gasp. Visually and aurally exciting moments. So what’s wrong with those in theatre? Nothing. As long as they’re serving the play – I know, I would say that as I’m a writer but put that aside! I’m thinking about creating a collaborative holistic piece of theatre so if the high octane spectacular moment is written in to the text – is integral to the storytelling- then that’s perfect. Or if in production the director and creative team have a genius idea of how to translate and crystalise something vital in the play’s dna into – not just the set but a theatrical moment – then that’s theatre at its best.

What’s problematic for me is when productions employ spectacle that isn’t integral to the play and then this is masqueraded as theatricality. A director seeking to make his or her mark – make their role in proceedings clear or indeed cover up difficulties in the play might well do this. But if writers aim to make their plays truly theatrical then directors won’t strain for ways to make them so in production.

A ‘successful’ 2019

At this time of year when everyone’s making resolutions I’ve been thinking a lot about that slippery beast success. It’s something we probably all wish for ourselves and our loved ones but it’s a fickle creature. A hologram. You think you know what it is, but as you reach for it it shape shifts.

I was further prompted by Vinay Patel’s excellent blog on reviews and how to respond to them – he said “there isn’t necessarily a correlation between success and a sustained peace. I’m sure a part of me thought that was the case when I was a younger man, but the final thing 2018 has taught me is that this is categorically not true.” Spot on. 

Hilariously I’m now thinking ‘the two people who will read this will think I’m a big head who reckons she’s really successful’. To be clear: I don’t think of myself as ‘successful’ – well not all the time anyway. And even when I feel I have achieved success it can be a disappointing thing. Elusive, then disappointing and can ruin my creative mojo.

Sometimes there’s that awful thing of wanting something really badly, but then once you have achieved it it becomes less worthwhile BECAUSE you have achieved it. It’s attainability by me somehow makes it less worthwhile. And that’s a dreadful place to be. One where happiness is impossible.

The fact is: what success looks like changes as we do. My personal idea of success has morphed from writing a play, to getting a play on, to being paid for it, to being able to write full time – but all of these successes came with their horrid realisations and compromises.

Of course that’s life, nothing’s perfect or as we imagine, but  a writer’s sense of self can be fragile so we have to be careful. I think my main fault has been thinking of the goal, the big picture, and not being thoughtful, exacting or rigorous about the steps towards it. Sometimes making compromises I shouldn’t – working with or listening to the wrong people, not demanding more time if I needed it, and not calling out behaviour that is unacceptable because I don’t want to rock the boat.

I’m good(ish) at knowing my own boundaries but not always at adhering to them or laying them out to others. This means the pursuit of whatever the particular success I’m after at the time becomes all important and that can be damaging: To my mental health, my relationships, my financial health – you get the gist.

Obviously it’s hard – as a writer you can feel powerless and want to grab every opportunity that becomes available – be flexible and adaptable to the point of contortionism – but as a very wise man (David Eldridge) once said, a writer’s power is in their ability to say ‘NO’. Backed up by a very wise woman – Maggie Smith in Nothing Like a Dame who said: “if in doubt, say no”. 

And I have to remind myself that even when I’m are feeling rubbish and unsuccessful others will be looking at me and wishing that they has what I do  – we all know the writer’s tendency to compare themselves to others and it is deathly. That subjectivity and in-your-own-head-ness can also be damaging to a writer’s creative life. When I’m in that mode I remember some thoroughly good advice Jon Jacob gave me: “Mentally pull back and look at your thoughts like bugs on a window. Observe them moving around – they’re just thoughts” – this has been extremely useful in overwhelming moments. 

Measuring success through other people’s judgement is also a no-no for your mental health as Vinay’s aforementioned blog attests. So few reactions to your work will ever be ‘right’ for you – in my opinion you cannot write to please other people, only yourself.

So it’s about figuring out what success looks like for me. Figuring out the steps to get there and the boundaries.

So my New Year’s resolution is to not look for ‘success’ but to be more specific than that, decide what I want and what I’m prepared to do to get it. Oh and to not seek happiness through my work. Well not only through my work. Wish me luck 🙂 

Why Bodyguard inspired me

Note: Although much has been said and written about this already – because I’m still talking about it a month on I decided to put my thoughts in writing. N.B Spoilers.

At the moment my greatest inspiration is Bodyguard the BBC One drama by Jed Mercurio. It’s the most recent in a long line of dramas that misrepresent Muslims and make my blood boil. When I first picked up a pen to write drama it was precisely because of this kind of TV show – I’ve always known many talented Middle Eastern actors and I became so angry watching them continually audition for roles as terrorists, that I made it my mission to write parts for these actors – roles portraying non-white characters in all their glory, not some reductive stereotype.

In the last few years I began to feel like things might just be changing. We’ve seen hijabi characters in US shows like Orange is the New Black and Walking Dead, although we are yet to see any regular Arab or hijabi characters in a UK continuing drama – which is a real missed opportunity. But with a regular Muslim family in EastEnders (even though none of the women wear a hijab) and brilliant actors like Adeel Akhtar and Sanjeev Bhaskar being given more and more interesting roles (not defined by skin colour) in groundbreaking shows like River and Unforgotten my optimism has grown that things are changing. Then I turned on the telly a few Sundays ago and balked at what I saw. The first 20 minutes of, what I was later to learn was the “UK’s most watched drama since current records began”, consisted of a white male saviour coming to the rescue of a Muslim woman in a hijab with a suicide vest strapped to her. I was so angry I could have cried. But I tried to give the show the benefit of the doubt and watched on. By the time we got to the final episode when the female Muslim character is revealed to contain not one but two ‘brown woman’ stereotypes (oppressed woman and jihadi terrorist) I was feeling physically sick. For days afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about it and was disappointed by the lack of criticism or conversation about it in the main stream media. So I did something I very rarely do. I tweeted negatively about it. I worded the tweet carefully – it said ‘Genuinely shocked at how upset I am about Muslim representation in #bodyguard it’s really affected me – I think I’ve woken up to realise how little things have changed – I thought we’d come far in terms of representation but we’ve gone backwards and it makes me angry and sad’. I was astonished at the onslaught of abuse I received in response – it was misogynist and racist and I’ve never experienced anything like it. But for me it proved a point – portraying Muslims – indeed any minority – in a reductive stereotypical way especially if it is negative, gives permission for racist and in this case islamophobic behaviour. Television has great reach and with that comes great responsibility. If there were many different representations of Muslims on our screens then this programme might not matter. But there aren’t and so it really, really does. It was completely irresponsible and I believe that if a non-white person, or indeed a woman had written this drama then things would have been very different. So again I am inspired to keep writing by something that left me depressed and saddened because when I’m authoring my own television dramas they will undercut audience’s expectations and portray people of colour in a real, three-dimensional way.

The Arab Theatre Institute Festival – Tunis January 2017

As anyone who watched my acceptance speech for the Arab British Centre Award for Culture will know – I was shocked to win the prize. I still am. But it all became real on 12 January when I boarded a plane to Tunisia to attend the Arab Theatre Institute’s 10th theatre festival there, as part of my prize generously funded by the British Council.

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I brought a copy of Hanan Al Shakyh’s Arabian Nights, a swimming costume (I’m an optimist) and, most importantly, Alia Al Zougbi with me. Alia is a brilliant theatre producer (and actress and storyteller) who worked on my play Scenes from 68* Years and who I’m proud to call my good friend. On this occasion she was also my voice, as my French is poor and my Arabic worse. I needed a translator and Alia had kindly agreed to come with me for that reason.

tunis-1500x750

The Municipal Theatre

 

When we arrived in Tunis it was raining (we’d brought the weather with us!) but the sun quickly came out in the form of Imed Belkhodja , who is the Projects Manager for British Council Tunisia and one of the nicest and most hospitable humans I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. He was the mastermind behind my packed three-day schedule which saw me attend six plays and meet a host of Tunisian theatremakers, both veterans and from the emerging generation.  He’d also kindly allowed time for eating which was a delight, my first taste of Tunisian food (and wine) at the wonderful Fondouk El Attarine had me hooked. Particularly the local Tunis special: Brik a filo pastry triangle with meat and a runny egg in the middle – I’m salivating at the thought of it.

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Brik

 

On the first day Imed was sure to show us where all the theatres were and instruct us how to collect our tickets for the shows. Over the course of the visit we saw many plays: A Moroccan production of Genet’s The Maids directed by Iraqi luminary Jawad Al Assadi; The Escape by Tunisian actor and director Ghazi Zaghbani – whose theatre, L’Artisto, is a small but perfectly formed black box any director in London would kill to work in.  On Sunday we saw In the Heart of Bagdad by Mohannad Hedi (Sweden/Iraq) ,  and Lebanese director Roger Assaf’s The War of Troy at the gorgeous and sumptuous  Municipal Theatre (Alia and I even managed to seat ourselves in a box as it was open seating).  Then Monday brought two Tunisian shows, a delicate puppet show The Encounter at the cavernous Ibn Rachik Cultural Centre and finally an impressive piece of physical theatre/ modern dance by Nejib Khalfallah called Miscarriage.

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The beautiful ceiling of the Municipal Theatre

On Sunday, Robert Ness the head of the British Council in Tunisia graciously hosted a lovely lunch where Alia and I had the opportunity to meet a host of interesting people from many different walks of life, not just theatre. He even organised some sun for the occasion.

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In other meetings we encountered  veteran Tunisian critic Abdelhalim Messaoudi; actresses Chekra Rammeh and Khaoula Hadef;  and Wafa Taboubi a director who was the first woman to take the Best Director award at the Carthage Theatre Festival last year for her play The Widows. Alia and I were sad to have missed that one, especially on glimpsing the recorded version which was theatrical and compelling, even on a small screen.

After our whirlwind trip I felt exhilarated and inspired. I’m really hoping the trip will lead to further fruitful conversations and hopefully, in time, collaborations with some of the impressive people I was privileged to meet. Watch this space…

This blog originally appeared on the Arab British Centre website.

My best of 2017

lyceum-glory-on-earth

Yes yes I’m very late to be publishing my cultural highlights from 2017 so I’ll keep it pithy. Experience wise being part of The Bush Theatre’s Project 2036 was an important thing for me. But in terms of my cultural highlights, in no particular order my faves were:

Theatre

Wonderfully all but one of these are written by women. Some EVEN had female directors:

This Restless House – Zinnie Harris (Lyceum Theatre)
Lions and Tigers – Tanika Gupta directed by Pooja Ghai (Sam Wannamaker Playhouse)
The Interrogation of Sandra Bland – Mojisola Adibayo (Bush Theatre #BlackLivesBlackWords)
Glory on Earth – Linda McLean (Lyceum Theatre)
The Great Tamer – Dimitris Papaioannou (Avignon Festival)

It would be arrogant to also put The Scar Test my play here, as I wrote it but I was very happy it was produced this year at Soho Theatre and very proud of all the brilliant women (and the odd clever chap too) involved in bringing it to the stage.

2017_19_obs_handmaids

TV

Handmaid’s Tale (of course)
Broken
Quacks

Yup those were the special ones for me in 2017 🙂

 

Highlights from December 2017

My December highlights are child’s play to choose… in that all of them are plays for young people.

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The first is the RSC’s new Christmas Carol adapted by David Edgar. You might think Dickens for Christmas is a bit chocolate box but not in this version. Not at all. It’s an angry social commentary, urgent and relevant to now. Time and again I was struck by different brilliantly resonant lines, at one point Marley says to Scrooge (in a wonderful performance by Phil Davis):

“We are all dead if we can’t see ourselves in the hundreds, the thousands” – this gave me tingles. Hopefully a few politicians will see this one… It continues until 4 February so do get to Stratford Upon Avon if you can (Tory MP or not).

joanne-sandi-rapunzel-at-stratford-east-scott-rylander

Next was a magical panto – Rapunzel at Theatre Royal Stratford East. I took mini-me and she and I both adored it, she for Baby Bear and the songs, me for the brilliant performances and cheeky winks to adult culture (the witch makes her potions in a Winnebago with walls covered in post-its in a nod to Breaking Bad). I can safely say a new tradition has been born and I’ll be taking my daughter to TRSE for panto every year from now on.

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Finally I travelled to the Lyceum for a taste of Arabian Nights. Suhayla El-Bushra’s clever adaptation makes the naughty stories work for a young audience without straying too far from the spirit of the original work which winds stories into stories in a magical kaleidoscope. Once again there’s great songs, lovely performances, plus here the addition of talking goats to make a classic Christmas show. It was super.

In January I’ve already been to the Arab Theatre Institute’s Festival in Tunis – what a place… my Jan Highlights blog is already writing itself…

Highlights from October 2017

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I’m a bit late to post this month – no way a reflection on some of the excellent stuff I’ve seen.

There was a mesmerising production of Dido Queen of Carthage at the RSC Swan in Stratford. Now I can’t pretend Marlowe’s text isn’t massively problematic (queen drugged by Cupid falls in love with man and gives up everything for him – hardly a feminist text) but it was a beautiful production. I love the Swan and designer Ti Green showed off the space to the full, while Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting was simply sublime – a work of art in its own right.

4000Then I went to Edinburgh – seriously everything I see at the Lyceum is inspiring and pushing the boundaries at the moment and Cockpit was no exception. Incredible programming.  This play is set in a theatre in Germany at the end of the Second World War where displaced persons are being held until they can go back to their countries – whatever is left of them. So far so timely. But what’s astonishing is that it was written by Anglo-Irish playwright Bridget Boland in 1948. Wils Wilson’s compelling production uses the whole theatre and some amazing choral work to bring the brilliant company together to breath life into this forgotten classic. I really hope it gets a further life, it deserves to be seen south of the border and more widely for sure.

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My last choice will surprise no one – at last I’m catching up with one of the most talked about TV shows this year, The Handmaid’s Tale. What a story. Again it feels hideously timely despite being a ‘dystopian future’. I haven’t read Atwood’s novel but I’m glad because I don’t know what is coming next and it is bloody riveting. Amazing performances, beautifully filmed with loads of space to really help you put yourself in the character’s shoes and let the full weight of what is happening to them settle on you. It’s deeply disturbing viewing (you need a glass of wine) and it makes you think about the world in a new way. Earth-shattering stuff.

I’ve already had to cancel two November theatre outings because of sinusitis, but I’m hoping to get to the cinema to see the new Armando Ianucci film which I’m excited about and I’ve also discovered an excellent new comedy on Netflix…