My first theatre festival

My first theatre festival

I was delighted to win a place in Supernova VII recently. This festival of seven brand new one act plays is organised by the Bench theatre company and is held at The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, East Street, Havant.

 Yes, I didn’t know where that was either. As a fairly new playwright, I enter every competition my play scripts are eligible for, paying little heed to geography. So when I found out that out of 135 submitted scripts, mine was one of 7 selected (woop) to be produced, my first job was to find out where Havant is. And my second job was to tell the husband that we were going to have a romantic weekend away together. “Near Southampton, darling.”

Produced by Thomas Hall, this is the seventh year of the festival, and what a fantastic event it was. Brilliant direction, welcoming Front of House, dedicated crew – and that was just my husband on the drive down, (ba boom tish). The Festival ran from Wednesday to Saturday and was a sell-out every night. The night I went, the Friday, we began with ‘Pricking the sides’ by Julia Warren and directed by Jacquie Penrose. This was an excellent piece about a professor and a young student uncovering a mystery about a couple of actors and it was really beautifully staged, weaving the past and the present together seamlessly. It was so well-done, with such an interesting premise well-executed, that I began to fear for my own piece… I would love to see it again under less stressful circumstances.

My play, ‘What you are’ was up next. Directed by Gina Farmer, it was acted by Jo Langfield, Claire Lyne and Jeff Bone. It’s about the little known English author and poet, Jane Taylor and her struggles with love and leaving a legacy. There is something magical about seeing your words up there on the stage: it makes me want to laugh and cry and disappear all at the same time. I managed to stay still though, red-faced, I gripped husband’s hand as though we were watching a horror movie.

 At the end, my husband said the acting was terrific.

“What about the play itself?”

“Better than I expected actually.”

Thanks, darling.

During the break, I mingled among the audience, trying to hear how the plays were going down. Most of them said, “I’ll have a glass of wine, please,” which didn’t give me much insight but they all were definitely enjoying themselves. I also met the fabulous team who had put on my show, and got to embarrass myself for not recognising them in modern day clothing.

I had promised my husband, culture lover that he is, that we could go after my piece. However, he said he was having a really nice time and he wanted to see the last play, “Headless Chickens” by Colin Dowland. It was both a good and bad thing we stayed. Good because “Headless Chickens,” directed by Andrew Caple, about the strain of an Ofsted inspection was rip-roaringly funny, and bad because…well, because it was so good. The audience started laughing after about ten lines, I glared around, a little premature, non? but soon I was laughing loudly too.

“Everyone laughed so much at that,” I said resentfully afterwards. “They didn’t laugh at mine.”

“Yours wasn’t meant to be funny,” husband said. This is true.

“But it was so good.”

“They were all very good,” said husband patting my hand.

It’s fantastic that theatres are supporting new writing – it’s good for theatre, it’s good for audiences, it’s good for writers (natch), its even good for the local economy!  (We stayed at the Old Dairy Farm, and it was gorgeous).

So thank you Bench Theatre for organising this. I won’t forget Havant.


Update: I’m really delighted to report that the Bench theatre are taking “What you are” to the All England Theatre Festival, at Totton (where?) in April.


National Theatre Live – Amateur Theatre Dead?

I have no sense of what will catch on. If you came to me for funding for a new style of communication on mobile phones, let’s call it ‘texting’, instead of buying shares in it, I would have said, ‘Nah, who would want to do that? Shut the door on your way out, young upstart.’

If you came to me with your brilliant invention of, say, a onesie for adults, instead of spotting your preternatural genius, I would have said, ‘what? Dress like a great big baby? – no way’.

And so if you were someone in the National Theatre and you came to see me saying ‘We want to broadcast our shows live, all over the country’s cinemas,” I would probably have said, “Have you gone completely mad? It will kill theatre stone dead…and besides who wants to see theatre at the cinema? You, sir, are a loser and a fool.”

How wrong I am/would have been. NT Live has, of course, been a huge success.  And by huge, I mean really huge.  For example, 80,000 people, in UK and 30,000 in the USA watched Helen Mirren play in ‘The audience’. 110,000 watching theatre all at the same time. That is exciting!

Let’s all give thanks that I am not (yet J) the head honcho at the National Theatre.

30 plays have been broadcast live over the past 5 years, in over 700 cinemas, in 22 countries around the world. Shame-facedly, I must admit, I was very late to this party and so far, I have seen only a paltry three of them.  Oh but what three! My first was ‘A view from the Bridge’. It was absolutely mesmerising/compelling. I didn’t remember I was at the cinema, I didn’t really remember that this was theatre, I felt as though I was there. The audience stood up and clapped loudly at the end of it and when it won awards (for best director, best revival and best actor), I was as proud of it as if I’d given birth to it.

The next play I saw at the cinema was the much-talked about Hamlet.  I might not have been a Benedict Cumberbabe before that October night but afterwards, I definitely was. It was superb: I’ve seen Hamlet before, but actually, I never really ‘got’ it, this production was fantastically accessible and because of that, so much more powerful.

Finally, a few weeks ago I saw ‘Of Mice and Men’, and although I’m aware that I seem to be saying the same thing each time, this too was awesome, powerful, compelling and it felt like I was there. (I especially liked the interview with director Anna Shapiro during the intermission).

Yet some have voiced some concerns about the whole concept of National Theatre Live. Alan Ayckbourn suggests that audiences will get a “Second hand performance” which is not really the point of ‘theatre’. He is worried that the filming will distract: actors and audience and that productions will be geared towards the filming and not the theatrical experience. The biggest fear is that it will eat into regional audiences. That people, especially in these tightened times, will not have the budget to support both National Theatre live and their local theatres. He might be right – time is going to have to tell.

The National Theatre live is intended as a compliment not a replacement. Now, I live in a town that is regarded as a cultural *-hole or as our most famous export, Helen Mirren/The Queen once put it, ‘the Armpit of England’. There is no way I would have been able to see any of these three productions if they weren’t at the cinema. Professional theatre is so expensive and going to see a play in London would mean a whole day and night away from the family (now wait a minute…)

Will audiences go off local theatre when they compare it to the national live productions? Maybe that under-estimates the wonderful power of amateur theatre. I’d never give up the magic of seeing an unexpected performance of Bill Sykes by one of my kid’s teachers from the school, or the innovative staging of Macbeth achieved by the milkman, or the powerful singing voice of the woman I recognise from the corner shop. I have had too many brilliant evenings out watching plays put on by amateur drama groups to ever think about giving them up. And, it might well be that the technological advances that are enabling National Theatre Live to be so successful will mean local theatres will be able to seamlessly tream their performances so gaining bigger audiences too.

So right now, I’m off to get my tickets for Les Liaisons Dangereuses (live from the Donmar) directed by Josie Rourke, including Elaine Cassidy, Janet Mc Teer, and Dominic West. I can’t wait.  And talking about Les Liaisons Dangereuses, I’ll also remember that much talked about production starring Alan Rickman, ‘the cat who got the cream’, which must have been wonderful to see, and I’ll pinch myself at how fortunate we are to get to see some of these greats works, kind of live, yet just up the road.

But I’ll also check out what amateur dramatic groups are putting on locally and I will book my tickets to ‘Copenhagen’ and ‘Measure for Measure’, happy that I can do all this and text while wearing my leopard print onesie).

Staging the First World War

As we go through the Centenary years, many theatre groups will be turning their attention to the First World War. We all know how important it is to remember the suffering, the waste and the horror of that terrible time. But what is there to say about the First World War that hasn’t already been said and is theatre the right medium in which to explore it?

Sebastian Faulks, who wrote the compelling novel ‘Birdsong’ over twenty years ago, has said that he feels the First World War has been rather neglected by film and theater makers (compared to the Second World War) He suggested that is because “The Second World War was remembered in a very different way. It was a much more obviously just, glamorous war in a way. It was a war of movement, not a static bog of killing fields. There were Spitfires and Hurricanes, there were Desert Rats and cockleshell heroes, there were escapes from Colditz.”

Indeed, (yet another) drama of ‘Colditz’ has just been made starring Damian Lewis and Tom Hardy. When I think of theatre and film about the Second World war, I don’t have to think very hard. From ‘The Great Escape’, ‘Dambusters,’ to ‘The Winds of War’ and even ‘Shine on Harvey Moon’, I feel like I’ve been brought up on a diet of brilliant impassioned stories from The Second World War.

The same  can’t be said of The First World War. Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’ was adapted into a TV series which wasn’t particularly well received.  There have been other ‘difficult’ film and TV adaptations about the First World War. Vera Britten’s ‘Testament of Youth’, her brilliant memoir was recently adapted to a less than successful movie. And while ‘‘War horse’ based on Michael Morpurgio’s much-loved children’s book has been hugely successful on stage, with a long West End run and much international acclaim, the Stephen Spielberg’s film of the same name was once again less well received.

I don’t know if it’s just because, as Faulks said, it’s because it’s less clear who the goodies and baddies are, nor that its just the static bog of killing fields. Other reasons, First World War dramas might not have traditionally worked so well is that many of us learnt about it through poetry so perhaps poetry created our narrative rather than TV or movies. And perhaps some writers themselves have shied away from exploring the First World War because of the distance of time, fear of not being relevant or even from fear of depressing their audiences.

Having said that, there have been great thought-provoking,  and successful dramas about World War One as well: ‘Oh what a lovely war’ Joan Littlewood’s 1963 satirical masterpiece was turned into an award-winning film and was recently re-staged at it’s birth-place Stratford East to great acclaim. Accrington Pals, the 1981 play by Peter Whelan contrasts the Battle of the Somme with life back at home in Accrington . Radio Four’s Home-Front is a pleasure to listen to and for some of us, it was a light-hearted TV programme that best got the message of the futility of the First World war across: In the third series of ‘Blackadder’ we spent time falling in love and laughing with the characters. And then they had to go to their pointless deaths. It’s little wonder that ‘Blackadder’ the Stage play is so very popular with theatre groups and audiences. What more can we possibly say about the First World War after that?

But of course, there is more to say: For each of the millions of dead on the battlefield, there is a story. For all those who survived, there is a story. For those who stayed at home, or for those born to those who had died, or those who had survived, or those who had stayed at home, there is a story. Its up to us as writers, producers, artists and performers to tell it and to try to tell it well.

What’s so good about Rehearsed Readings?

What’s so good about Rehearsed Readings?

The Oast Theatre group in Kent recently arranged a rehearsed reading for one of my new plays.  I had no previous connection with the group – I had simply sent off something I was working on after seeing a call for One Act submissions. When they said they had selected mine – working title ‘What you Are’, I was delighted. I was also scared. Not only would complete strangers be reading my play (eek) but I had to drive on the M25 to get there! (When it comes to motorway driving, I’m of a very nervous disposition)

The Oast Theatre is wholly owned and managed by Tonbridge Theatre and Arts Club members – all volunteers. They present a Play of the Month for ten months of the year and have two large and enthusiastic groups for younger members too. They run their ‘Rehearsed Readings’ project a couple of times a year – charging £5 for a stimulating (hopefully) afternoons entertainment. Plus cake. Plenty of home-made cake.

About a month after I had submitted ‘What you are’, I had a huge crisis over the whole project – Oh the tortured artiste – so I changed the ending. And I may have changed some of the beginning.  And the middle. Ha! How would the Oast Theatre group deal with that?

They dealt with it, as they did everything, with aplomb.

I arrived, sweating, my fists still clenched. Not only had I dealt with a motorway, but mist too. What odds!  I was introduced to the actors who were in period costume. Brilliant. They had arranged a set too and it was exactly as I’d visualised it. Better than I’d visualised it actually. I remember sitting alone at my computer thinking, ‘ooh it would be nice to have a hat stand’ and here we were: hat stand and all.

Then the audience came in. There were loads of them! I hadn’t visualised that.

Throughout the one-hour performance, I was grinning like a Cheshire cat. I watched the way the actors said the lines. I heard the lines that worked and the ones that didn’t. The ones that should have got a laugh and the ones that shouldn’t have!

I think they liked it. They said they did, but you can never trust actors (joke!). They had changed some lines that jarred or felt unnatural. They pointed out anachronistic words: ‘Movers and Shakers’ was an offender. They gave me some sage advice: “Never write that a character sits at the piano and plays Bach” – for this makes it quite difficult to cast apparently! They apologised that the actors ages were not as I’d suggested. (no need to apologise: they were all fab).

The audience were given questions about their response to the play.  Eleven out of twelve of them said they would definitely recommend my play to a friend! (As for the one who won’t, don’t worry,  I’ve got a hit-man on to them). Other advice was that I needed to go further into the character’s backgrounds – and I should consider developing the piece into a full-length play. This was very nice to hear.

The whole experience confirmed to me how much I love play-writing. To have the opportunity to see your work staged is very special. The collaborative/team aspect of it is great. I love the fact that I can write something and others will add to it, improve and interpret it as they like. It’s like having a baby but you get someone else to feed it every night.

Well worth driving on a motorway for.

I urge all amateur theatre groups to do more rehearsed readings. Here’s why:

  1. It’s a simple and effective way to raise money and profile of your group.
  1. It’s a good experience for your actors to work with new writing and new writers. A chance to act in front of an audience but without expectations of perfection.
  1. It’s a fabulous experience for writers. (I’m available!)
  2. It’s a great place for your group to experiment and try out stuff you wouldn’t try usually.
  3. And who knows? You might uncover some dramatic gold… (And then in years to come, you will say: “Ah yes, xxx – the latest Broadway sensation, well, we Little Ballymory Players first performed that ten years ago. We knew it would go far….) Er herm.

There was a play on after mine ’Teenage Wasteland,’ by Andy Taylor, which I couldn’t stay to see but I’m sure it went brilliantly.  Many, many thanks to The Oast theatre, especially to organiser, director and actor, Stuart McCreadie, to the other actors, and everyone. Such a kind and friendly bunch.

I’ll be back if you’ll have me!

Snow White’s got Talent

Snow White’s got Talent

Let’s get the obligatory joke out the way:  My husband hates the pantomime. Oh no he doesn’t. Well yes, actually he does. Incredible, isn’t it?!

I don’t know what really gets his goat: I think he is afraid of interaction: The idea that Widow Twankey might end up on his lap.  Or that he’ll end up on a winch with Tinkerbell.

So last year, when Principal Girl productions asked me to write a pantomime script and I said, ‘Whooppeee, you betcha!’  put it this way: he wasn’t thrilled. (Oh no he wasn’t.)

Principal Girl Productions already had a fab venue – our local community centre – they planned six performances – 120 people a time – thank you very much, they had a great cast including several professional singers, a great tech team, a wonderful director, a fabulous name for the show Cinderelleigh – because Leigh is where we are – all they lacked was someone to magic up the beans.  Ta da! Here’s where I Entered. Stage left or something.

We wanted a panto that worked on lots of levels.  There would be something for the kids, and something for Mum and Dad too. Kids want to see Mum and Dad laughing. Mum and Dad want kids laughing. It’s like a wonderful cycle of fun. (Husband, are you reading this?)

We wanted it to be musical and contemporary: so we had our two ugly sisters battling it out over  ‘Fairytale of New York’. We had local hero and actor,  Phil Cornwall playing Cinderella’s Dad – and he did it beautifully. It really was quite funny if I say so myself: my favourite joke was an Ugly Sister’s line: ‘She cut off her toes to spite my face’ – the members of the audience who were still awake at this stage, were in stitches. (I also had a brilliant if obscure joke about Japanese Knotweed. How many pantos have a complex yet hilarious joke about Japanese Knotweed in them? It’s rather too long to explain it now, and anyway the production team decided to cut it but still…)


So when Principal Girl productions asked me to do another script again this year, (actually, I might have asked them), it was all good.  “How much are they paying you?” asked my husband making a good impression of someone doing an audition for ‘Grumpy’. ‘It’s behind you,’ I responded. No I didn’t. I don’t want to say exactly what was said, but it went something like, ‘Panto is brilliant fun, you miserable b**stard, and anyway, all the money is going to charity.’

So this year’s panto is set to be bigger, better and more-best-selling than ever. It’s all very exciting. ‘Snow Whites got talent’ is based around a fictional talent show in Leigh on Sea. The Wicked Queen banishes Snow White to Belfairs Woods because she ruins her audition. The Queen will have revenge. It’s a light-hearted take on the classic fairy tale.

We’ve got fab songs, including, of course Pharrel Williams’ ‘Happy’,  all arranged by our superb musical director and fab dances arranged by our excellent choreographer, we’ve got the cutest kids in town (possibly including my own). And you should see our twist on the mirror! We’ve got Simon Cowell and his panel – no not the real Simon Cowell – actors! Instead of dwarves we’ve got the outlaws ‘The Bell Wharves’ including Lance instead of Dopey and a Bashful who is far from shy. In a daring republican move, we’ve got no Princes.  Ours is a thoroughly modern panto; our heroines are so cool they don’t sit around waiting for proposals from royals. They are do-ers and go-getters. Our Snow White is far too ambitious to settle down – she’ll be touring with her fabulous band in a venue near you next year. As for the Wicked Queen, if I told you, I’d have to kill you – etc, etc.

Naturally, we’ve got poisoned apple products galore. We’ve got grown ups dressed as dogs, we’ve got a bit of politics,  we’ve got sparkle, spirit, and a few excellent surprises too. It’s funny! It’s magic! It’s romantic! It’s traditional AND modern.  I even managed to sneak in the Japanese knot weed joke too. Oh yes I have!

Do come for a happy ever after this Christmas. And say hello to the husband – you’ll find him propping up the bar. 😉

Strong Women

Strong Women

Suffragette star, Carey Mulligan, recently said that she is offered far more love interest parts than parts of a protagonist. She said, “Playing so and so’s wife, or so and so’s girlfriend: that’s not where the story is: I want to play him.”

I agree with her. For a long time in film and theatre, women have been boxed into playing the girlfriend, or the daughter or the long-suffering wife. These are often bit parts – as my Mum used to say ‘the crust but not the filling’.

It’s perhaps not surprising, that a top actress is mostly offered only minor roles when we consider that most produced films and plays are written by men and the main protagonists are overwhelmingly male.  Nearly 68% of theatre audiences are women and many amateur dramatic groups are dominated by women too yet despite this, at one point, last year, there was only one play in the West End written by a woman (Agatha Christie!). Only 37% of artistic directors are women and an incredible 90% of Olivier Award winners are male.

So until more women’s stories are written about and produced then the – ‘women will just play so and so’s wife’ is likely to continue.  But it’s important to change that, it’s really important to put women centre-stage, not just so that we can provide juicy award winning roles for great actresses like Carey Mulligan to get her teeth into, but so women, like men, can see our lives reflected on the stage, for female characters to be acknowledged, represented, cheered or booed in their own right. And so our daughters too learn that they can be more than just the crust in someone else’s sandwich (!)

I had just starting writing for theatre when I learnt about Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm and it felt like a gift. Here were two fascinating women – the only British nurses allowed on the Western front – incredible dare-devils, risk-takers, and wives, girlfriends, lovers and mothers to boot. I hadn’t heard of them before, indeed no one seemed to know very much about them. I couldn’t resist writing about their complex friendship and the tragic secrets that pulled them apart.

As I told people about this play which I called, ‘Entrenched’ I found myself saying, ‘it’s about these two really strong women’.  And then, I began to wonder why I was even saying that. As Carey Mulligan says, “You don’t say to male actors, you played another really strong man.” And by saying, ah, this one is about strong women, “it seems to perpetuate the idea that women are inherently weak and we’ve identified the few who aren’t.”  While it’s great, fabulous, and long over-due to have stories about strong women: what about weak women, tired women, passive women, conflicted women, are they not allowed their moment in the sun? As a weak, tired, passive and often conflicted woman myself this makes me sad!

So ‘Entrenched’ has got two main female protagonists – who may or may not be “strong” (tbh I’m leaning towards yes, very!) but they are not Only strong. What I hope is that they are three-dimensional characters who are interesting and compelling to audiences no matter what gender they are. And if Carey Mulligan wants to audition, you know what to say!