Sexting in Parliament: insights from the writer and director of Girls Like That

24 Mar

Girls Like That2.inddBack in January, members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre travelled to Westminster to perform an extract from the play Girls Like That in Parliament as part of the launch of YoungMinds Vs, a new children’s mental health campaign.

An urgent and explosive play that explores the pressures on young people today in the wake of advancing technology, Girls Like That tells the story of Scarlett, a secondary school pupil. When a naked photograph of her goes viral, she becomes the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons. But while rumours run wild and everyone forms an opinion, Scarlett just stays silent…

Here, Evan Placey, writer of the play, and Gemma Woffinden, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse, offer insights into how the play was developed, the positive impact it has had on both performers and audiences, and what it was like performing Girls Like That to an audience of MPs and celebrities in Parliament.


Evan Placey

Evan Placey

EVAN PLACEY, writer of Girls Like That

And why doesn’t someone do something? Why won’t someone do something?

Why won’t Russell say something, stop this?!

Why does he just.

Stand there.

So say the Girls in Girls Like That as they watch as Scarlett is physically attacked, none of them brave enough to be the one to take action. And later having to contemplate how complicit they are for their inaction.

As scenes from the play were performed in Parliament as part of the YoungMinds Vs campaign, I was reminded of this. What are we doing to combat the pressures young people currently face and how are we taking action?

Any time we write a script, we’re hoping in some way people will listen, that our words might have an effect, that they might shake people. So the opportunity to see parts of my play performed in Parliament was a rare chance: to really get politicians to listen and to shake the people in charge. It’s one thing for those making policy to say they’re doing it in the best interests of young people, but it’s quite another to give those young people a voice – to let them tell the adults what it is that needs to change, the obstacles they’re facing, and the realities of being a young person in the UK at the moment.

The campaign seeks to highlight pressures on young people and the effects on their mental health, and so the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre who performed Girls Like That last year were invited because of the play’s exploration of those same themes. The play explores the fallout when a naked photo is circulated of a teenage girl named Scarlett. But the play also explores her past and that of her group of classmates as we encounter the girls at 5 years old, 8, 11, and 12, piecing together the messages that have been built up in the heads of these young women since they were children and their resulting (lack of) self-esteem. It’s about feminism and empowering young women. It’s about the conversations we’re not having with young people. But ultimately, it’s about collective inaction. The play is told from the perspectives of all the girls around Scarlett. And watching the play in Parliament, the parallel became starkly clear: we, the adults, the politicians, are all as guilty as those girls for what happens to Scarlett.

Watching those young women perform brought home the power of theatre to engage young people. In a time of cuts to the arts, where often work for young people is first to go, I hope it also showed the politicians present the importance of having creative arts for young people’s expression, to ask the questions no one else is asking. And the young people demonstrated such passion and charisma in their performance that I thought we’ll only be so lucky if they turn out to be our future politicians!

It also made me smile that I was responsible for the (first?) discussion of pubic hair in Parliament.

YoungMinds Vs is an important campaign and I’m glad to have played a part in it. And hopefully, in some small way, enabled action.


Gemma Woffinden

Gemma Woffinden

GEMMA WOFFINDEN, Youth Theatre Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse

Formed in September 2012, the West Yorkshire Playhouse Youth Theatre aims to provide a platform for new performance work that responds to the lives of young people and explores the diversity of their experiences, making high-quality work that gives young people a voice and recognises their creative potential and talent.

Combining our commitment to new writing and our desire to respond to the lives of young people, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in collaboration with the Theatre Royal Plymouth and Birmingham Rep, commissioned Evan Placey to write a new play, a process that consisted of workshops, discussions and improvisation with young people aged 13-16 led by Evan across the three Youth Theatres. Working in this way gave the young casts a real sense of ownership over the play, building a strong working relationship with Evan whilst teasing out universal themes that led to the writing of a relevant and authentic play titled Girls Like That.

I found Girls Like That a gift to direct: lots of roles for female performers, great moments of truth, real tension and clever use of humour. The project allowed Evan to attend several rehearsals and this was a big support to me – as a director it’s so helpful to be able to turn to the playwright and say, ‘do you think the character believes she is doing the right thing?’

Chris Thornton Photography (www.christhorntonphotography.com)

Girls Like That performed by members of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Youth Theatre
Photo by Chris Thornton

The young people involved in the production engaged with the themes of the play in a way that affected their lives beyond rehearsals. One cast member told me that though she saw the problems that the characters experience in the play all around her, she had never understood that these were issues; she felt that it portrayed ‘normal life and I didn’t believe it could be different’. The play helped her to shape her own opinions about pressures on young women and she believed performing the play would help other people think about the themes too. We had a great response from a range of audience members. Teachers wanted to see the play tour to schools to prompt discussion amongst their students and parents talked to me about how the play had opened up some very important discussions in the car on the way home from the theatre.

YoungMindsElizabeth Neil, from leading UK charity YoungMinds, had been to see Girls Like That with her teenage daughter back in July 2013. YoungMinds is driven by the needs of young people and aims to support their emotional well-being, putting young people at the forefront of leading and delivering campaign objectives to address sexual pressures, bullying, stress at school, unemployment and the lack of access to counselling. Impressed by the quality of the work and moved by the subject matter, Elizabeth contacted Alex Chisholm (WYP’s Literary Director) to discuss how the Youth Theatre could support the charity’s new campaign, YoungMinds Vs, scheduled to be launched on Monday 20th January 2014 at a national parliamentary event in Portcullis House. Elizabeth invited the Youth Theatre to perform at the event and we accepted with great excitement!

It was a challenge to select scenes from the play that best supported the YoungMinds campaign whilst creating a performance that still reflected the full production and presented a true account of Evan’s original narrative. Girls Like That explores a range of pressures felt by young people in today’s society but for the purpose of the campaign launch we focussed on how the play explores the very real sexual pressures felt by young women. I felt a big responsibility, but also felt very proud to be part of this event. It was exciting that the high quality performance work of our Youth Theatre was to be celebrated in such a way that we could support a valuable campaign that acknowledges the challenges faced by young people today.

castonthetrain

Two Girls Like That cast members en route to London

On 20th January our Artistic Director James Brining, Alex Chisholm, Elizabeth Neil, six of the cast members from Girls Like That and I caught the train from Leeds to London. That morning the Fight the Pressure campaign launch was national news, which only added to our excitement and nerves. Once we arrived at Portcullis House that excitement grew further as we spotted a range of celebrities and MPs who were also attending the event, amongst them Ed Miliband (Leader of the Labour Party), Nick Hurd (a Government Minister responsible for Youth Affairs), Sarah Brennan (CEO of YoungMinds), members of Chickenshed Theatre and Frankie Sanford from pop group The Saturdays.

We were last to present and the young people performed with such confidence, pride and professionalism. I was inspired by their ability to stand out amongst so many adults who regularly address big audiences. After the event, I watched the cast talk with passion about their love for making theatre and at one point I overheard some very sophisticated negotiations around a Girls Like That tour (which is unfortunately not realistic without funding). Staff from YoungMinds praised the cast for their enthusiasm for the campaign and described their performance as one of the highlights of the campaign launch.

One of the young people who performed at the event said ‘I think it’s great to have teens share their opinions at Parliament – not only so we can feel heard and listened to, but also because everyone can hear what we have to say about a world which belongs to us just as much as it belongs to adults and politicians’. Taking Girls Like That to a new audience was so rewarding. This thought-provoking play for young people is important on many levels – as well as being a great piece of theatre, it has a gripping story that speaks to today’s generation and forces audiences to sit up and consider the messages that are presented.

Playwright Evan Placey with members of the Girls Like That cast

Nearly a year after its premiere, Girls Like That‘s influence continues to be felt.  I have heard from Youth Theatre members that monologues from the play are being performed at current Drama School auditions and I am still supporting teachers who are keen to use extracts for GCSE and A level exams with their students. We’ve also kept up our link with Evan Placey: last week the Youth Theatre performed his new play Pronoun as part of the National Theatre Connections Festival. Some staff and young activists from YoungMinds came to see the show, so who knows what next…

YoungMinds and the West Yorkshire Playhouse are committed to giving young people a voice, and what better way than through theatre?


Pronoun, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Evan Placey’s urgent and explosive play Girls Like That, as well as his latest play, Pronoun, a moving, funny and unforgettable story about two teenagers dealing with the issue of transgenderism.

To order both of Evan Placey’s plays at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – visit our website here.

YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

Max Stafford-Clark in Conversation at the Royal Court

23 Jan

On Friday 17 January, renowned theatre director and founder of Out of Joint Max Stafford-Clark appeared at the Royal Court Theatre, London, for a talk and Q&A to launch his new book, Journal of the Plague Year, a personal exploration of the state of arts funding in the UK today.

Appearing on the main stage at the Royal Court Theatre, where he used to be Artistic Director, Max spoke about a range of topics, including dealing with Arts Council England, the ecology of UK theatre, and the climate for young directors trying to break through today.

Listen to the event below in full, via our new SoundCloud page. The recording includes a reading from the book by actor Danny Webb, a discussion between Max Stafford-Clark and the Royal Court’s Literary Manager Christopher Campbell, and an audience Q&A.

By turns funny, alarming and deeply personal, Max Stafford-Clark’s book  Journal of the Plague Year, which recounts his struggles with Arts Council England’s decision to slash his theatre company Out of Joint’s funding, offers a fascinating exposé of the often Kafkaesque workings of arts subsidy in England, and the financial and artistic manoeuvrings which are a fact of life for every arts organisation today.

The book also often takes on an autobiographical flavour, including the unexpectedly moving story of his two fathers, his surreal encounter with the New York theatre world, and the shocking details of what it is to suffer a massively debilitating stroke. It is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the state of our arts, from students to theatregoers, and from struggling arts workers right up to the Secretary of State for Culture.

An extract from the book is available to read on the Guardian website.

Formatted

Journal of the Plague Year, £10.99

Nick Hern Books is delighted to publish Journal of the Plague Year, Max Stafford-Clark’s truthful, personal and insightful exploration of the state of arts funding and carrying on in the face of adversity.

To order your copy at a 20% discount, no voucher code required, visit our website here.

Be sure to follow NHB on SoundCloud to be among the first to receive future audio content from the UK’s leading performing arts publisher.

West End Producer: ‘The secret to first-night presents’

28 Nov

WEP_6717_mattcrockettIn this second extract from his new book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting, theatre impresario and Twitter phenomenon West End Producer lifts the lid on the thing that can make or break any actor’s career: the first-night present. 

Many people in the industry get their priorities all wrong. As soon as they get offered a job they spend the next few months preparing for the role, doing research and learning their lines. Whilst this effort is not completely wasted, it is certainly a shame that they don’t spend more time concentrating on the real priority. Namely, the first-night present.

The first-night present is a tradition that dates back many, many years – to one of the most memorable and theatrical nights ever. That first Nativity performance when Jesus was born in a stable was a monumental piece of theatre. It was lit so beautifully by the Star of Bethlehem, and had a wonderful set designed by shepherds. And when the Three Wise Men presented Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh, it marked the beginning of the ‘first-night present’ tradition.

A first-night present can change everything. People are judged on many things – the most important being the size, value and originality of the present. Of course, now that times are hard and some actors are forced to take work that pays as little as £0 a week (or minus figures if it’s a ‘profit share’), it may become necessary to remortgage your house to participate in this touching and important discipline. And I think, in time, you will realise it is money well spent.

When choosing a present it is essential you consider what is expected. There is no point buying someone a bra and panties as this could be deemed inappropriate. However, if the bra and panties are branded with the show’s logo then you could become the most popular person in your company. There was a time when all that was expected was a card. And in some companies this is still okay. But there will always be an air of disappointment and bitterness if everyone else goes to the trouble and expense of buying a gift and you do not. It can take years of buying drinks in the pub to make up for this error of judgement.

You don’t have to buy everyone a different present – and often this is a wise decision, as favouritism will then be judged on the expense of the gift. In fact, it can be very sweet and thoughtful if you get everyone the same thing. However, if you do this, you must make the cards personal.

IMG_9390

WEP with his Miss Saigon blow-up doll – apparently it’s been ‘surprisingly useful’…

No one likes a card that reads ‘It’s been great working with you.’ This smacks of insincerity and lacks any sense of personality – indeed, you could be writing the card to someone you’ve only just met. It is essential you remember something funny that happened in rehearsals, or if that fails, just make something up.

If you are extra keen on the present and card tradition you could take the ‘stalking’ route and find as much information about every cast member as possible by asking their friends and ex-partners, or by reading their diaries. Of course, this will take up a lot of time – and may result in you getting a restraining order, but you will be very well-respected for your ‘first-night initiative’.

Some of the most bizarre first-night presents I have received over the years include:

  • A full-body massage by six members of the male ensemble.
  • A pet snake called Cameron.
  • Fifteen signed copies of Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography.
  • A year’s membership to the Fiddler on the Roof Appreciation Society.
  • A signed sculpture of John Barrowman’s willy.
  • The greatest hits of Marti Pellow.
  • A Miss Saigon blow-up doll (which has been surprisingly useful).

Never make the mistake of only buying for the cast. This is highly inappropriate and will get you a bad reputation with everybody else involved in the show. There are so many people to buy for – backstage crew, wardrobe, dressers, stage-door keepers, lighting designers, resident directors, musical directors, cleaners, wig-makers, writers, second cousins of the director, the director’s children, the musical director’s wife and, most importantly, the producer. Be certain that no one is left out. Obviously it is most important to buy for the director, casting director and producer – as they are the ones who will be hiring you again. This is essential to remember – always be thinking of your next job, dear.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here (discount valid until 31 December 2013). Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last. 

To read the first extract from the book, where WEP reveals how casting actually works, click here.

West End Producer: ‘Auditioning from my side of the table’

21 Nov

WEP_6717_mattcrockettWith his striking good looks, sharp wit and genuine love of the industry, theatrical impresario and anonymous Twitter phenomenon West End Producer has taken the theatre world by storm, amassing a devoted following. As his book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting is published, here’s an extract to whet your appetite, dears.

The casting process is a long, arduous and exhausting business, particularly for the people doing the casting! I equate it to building a rocket out of chocolate – it’s hard to do, but when completed is very tasty. Casting directors and directors feel immense pressure to make sure they find the right actors for the job, and in some cases feel just as nervous as the people they are auditioning. So how do we go about casting a show?

One of the most important things we have to remember is what show we are casting. It’s no good casting Othello if the show is actually Annie. This is a vital thing to remember, and one which I often have to remind my casting director about. I knew a director in the eighties who once assembled a fine cast of young actors, only to realise that he actually needed dancers as he was casting a ballet. What a silly prat.

So, after we’ve decided on the show, we have a few other decisions to make before the casting begins – we have to book a venue, book a lighting designer, have a set designed, assemble a front-of-house team, taste the ice-cream flavours, market the show, drink some Dom, go on a team-building weekend, read Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography, and meditate. Basically we do everything we can to put off the chore of casting until Equity get in touch, slap our wrists and threaten to take our diaries off us unless we start. So, apprehensively, we do.

The next step is in the hands of the casting director. Casting directors are usually very nice people who like drinking far too much alcohol, and mostly during the day. The ones that don’t drink usually have other habits, which can’t be discussed here – but often end in them being discovered on a bench outside Waterloo Station at 5 a.m.

Jean Valjean teddy

WEP’s Jean Valjean teddy – “he ensures I am never ‘On My Own’”

The first thing the casting director does is to release a ‘breakdown’. This doesn’t mean he sends out photos of himself in tears, screaming in despair, and taking Prozac. It means he sends out an email of what roles are available. This is usually done through the Spotlight Link – and sent to most agents. Sometimes certain agents will be kept off the list, but only in extreme cases (if they haven’t bought me gifts for a long time).

For those that don’t know, the Spotlight Link is an online service that allows casting directors to email all agents about castings, and receive submissions in response. It is also widely used by actors who have managed to steal a casting director’s password – who use it to stalk and stare at other actors’ CVs.

Once the breakdown has been received, your agent will decide which of their clients are right for the part. This involves reading the breakdown – which can be tricky for illiterate agents (an alarmingly high number of them). Luckily these agents are very clever and have assistants or interns. These assistants only have one role: to read out loud to the agents. This avoids embarrassment, and proves invaluable experience.

When the agent has digested the information they will spend a few hours drinking tea, coffee or gin. Then suddenly they’ll get inspired and mix some vodka with Red Bull – and away they go! They look at photos of all their clients, and remind themselves whom they represent. Some people think it’s easy being an agent, but sometimes they have over twenty actors’ names to remember (and sometimes they have an Equity name and a real name, which confuses things even more). Once they’ve reminded themselves of their clients, the agents make honest, considered and well-informed decisions about which actors to put forward to the casting director.

Things they must consider are: Do they look right? Are they the right age? Can they do the accent? Can they walk in a straight line? Can they speak loudly? Can they tie their shoelaces? It is tough. And sometimes an agent gets incredibly upset and doesn’t know what to do – so decides by using the ‘Eeny meeny miny moe, pick an actor for the show’ technique.

Once this important decision is made, the casting director will receive an influx of actors suitable for the role. It is not unusual for a casting director to receive more than a thousand suggestions for one role: a huge amount. So the casting director then has to sift through all the submissions and decide which actors to invite for an audition. This is where it gets difficult. Do they bring in new actors who are unknown to them? Do they bring in actors they have employed before? Or do they bring in actors they fancy? Invariably it’ll be a mix of all three, with emphasis on the latter.

Then your agent is called and you get offered an audition. You are told an audition time, what to prepare, what role you are up for, and, if you are lucky, the venue for the audition. And then it’s all down to you.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here. Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last. 

Jez Butterworth: ‘who knows where plays come from?’

31 Oct

Butterworth, Jez 1995 credit Henrietta Butler:ArenaPALAs his debut play Mojo receives its first major revival at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the West End, we’ve delved into our archives to bring you this interview with writer Jez Butterworth. Originally published in the anthology Jez Butterworth Plays: One, this extract of a conversation between Jez and NHB founder Nick Hern, dating from October 2011, covers Mojo and Jez’s subsequent plays up to his 2009 hit Jerusalem.

Can we start when you’re twenty-five, which is when you write Mojo? Do you want to say how that came about?

I left London and moved to Pewsey in Wiltshire, which ended up being the fictional model for Flintock in Jerusalem. It was a dreamlike experience: I left London with the unrealistic dream of writing a play which spoke to people. And that’s kind of what happened.

It was very odd – to spend this period of utter penury through the winter out in the countryside, writing every day and every night, no television, no car, only a bicycle…

But Mojo is a very urban play. Where did that come from?

The actual initial impetus for the play was a conversation I had with Malcolm McLaren. He was talking about Soho and the wonderful collision between early rock and roll and gangland violence. It wasn’t something I knew anything about, but there was something about the collision between these two things that sparked something. Who knows where plays come from, but in this case it came from Malcolm.

What I didn’t want it to be was about gangsters. I wanted it to be about people who think they are – or who possibly know – gangsters, but aren’t. Because they’re a bunch of children, everyone in the play: it’s like a school playground game really. Sweets and Potts aren’t gangsters. Skinny’s not a gangster. Nobody in it is, really. Baby’s just a lost soul… It was always taken as a gangland play, but it’s not at all.

So you sent it to the Royal Court?

My agent at the time, Nick Marston, sent the play to the Bush, and Dominic Dromgoole [then artistic director of the Bush Theatre] mentioned it by mistake in conversation with Stephen Daldry [then artistic director of the Royal Court], and Stephen Daldry just poached it.

Mojo Cover

From our archives – the original cover to Mojo, first published in July 1995

So the play was virtually fast-tracked onto the stage? It was, as you say, a dream come true.

I finished the play in January. In February I was sitting in an office at the Royal Court with Stephen and Ian Rickson.

He’d been brought in to direct it?

Ian wanted to do it and to do it on the main stage. I went through a process of rewriting it for a week and then they decided they were going to stick it on the main stage. I moved back to London on May 1st, on May 2nd I won the George Devine Award, and we started rehearsing a month later. And a month after that it was a sell-out.

So no wonder in the photo on the front of this book [Jez Butterworth Plays: One, photo also at the top of this blog entry] which is you outside the Royal Court at that period, you’re looking a bit…

…shell-shocked.

Exactly: shell-shocked!

And then me and the Royal Court kind of parted company… I directed a film of Mojo the next year. And lost touch with Ian, partly, I think, because Ian had wanted to do it. I don’t think I was very sensitive about it at the time. It was a good long while before I set foot back in the Royal Court.

And you were writing a large number of screenplays during this absence from the theatre?

Yes, lots of screenplays – lots of which didn’t get made, lots of which were working on other people’s things. I realised by the time I was thirty-three, thirty-four that I’d taken a wrong turning. Some dreadful cocktail of fear and being paid just enough money meant that I had completely wheel-clamped my creative desire to go in any direction that was going to satisfy me. And I had to own up to that. So it was around that point that I moved back to the countryside.

Was there a Road to Damascus moment?

There was a moment in 2003/2004 when the music I was trying to listen to didn’t sound as good: troubling rather than nourishing. I’d started lying to myself about something to do with my nature and what I want, and I’ve got to go and find it out. And so the next year or so was a fairly fearless swan-dive into a place where I felt I could write a line that was true and resonated with my own heart rather than being the right length and suiting someone else’s needs.

I do understand that: you were psychoanalysing yourself in a sense…

On a lot of long walks by rivers with a dog we’d just bought, where I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my work. I realised I was properly marooned and needed to do something about it. The Winterling was the first play I wrote out in Devon, where I was living. It’s pretty much a cross-section of what was going on with me at the time. I’d started to keep, slaughter and butcher animals. And that play is very much a visceral, animal-like experience. Really it’s about the question – it strikes me now – as to whether there is any mercy in the world. Of course there is: we’re the only ones that have it. But it’s a question of where it gets exercised in the course of that play. There’s an act of mercy at the end of that play, which is the first thing that happens in it that a bear wouldn’t be capable of doing.

The Winterling

The Winterling, 2006 – ‘I wish to God to I’d dedicated it to Harold Pinter’

You wrote it at top speed because of this gap that had opened up in the programme for the Royal Court’s fiftieth anniversary year?

I sat down to write one play and another one came out. I was left alone in the cottage that we lived in and it was the night that Harold Pinter did his Nobel Prize speech, called ‘Art, Truth and Politics’. And I watched it. I knew Harold – I’d directed him in the film of Mojo – but I hadn’t seen him for ages. And in the first part of that speech, he tells you how to write a play – in the first ten minutes: he just takes you through it. It was like being reminded how to write a play. You’ll remember Harold was extremely ill, too ill to go and collect the award: it was like he was going to die any day. So I decided to sit down and write using entirely his technique. And try to speak like him. The Winterling sounds a lot like Harold Pinter.

It really does.

Everybody said that – except Harold. I wish to God I’d dedicated the play to him, because then it would have been obvious what it was I was up to: it was really an exercise in homage and also a wish to try to get close to him.

Close to him as a person or…?

Close to him as a creative force. To try to stand in his shoes. I saw the play again the other day for the first time and I was surprised by how much I liked it. I expected to find that it was a stuffed bird, but it’s not at all. It flies. I don’t give a fuck how much it sounds like Harold; it’s not easy to sound like Harold. If you’re going to do any kind of apprenticeship – and I still consider myself in one – it’s a great experience to… Everybody does it: there’s a point where you sing in someone else’s voice before you sing in your own. There’s this thing that critics get up to here where it’s almost as if they’re trying to work out who you copied your homework off. Voice is the hardest thing to grasp. But the critics’ attitude to writers is: ‘Let’s stamp the shit out of them when they’re on a journey to finding their voice.’ Were I a different person, I could have been destroyed by the response to that play.

You said you were too busy to see the play more than once. That was because your film career was carrying on in tandem? But not so very long after that you seemed to be returning to the theatre more frequently. Did you deliberately wind down your film commitments?

I did, yes. Around 2007 I started to change my ideas about what I wanted to use the theatre for. It wasn’t just a mysterious process that you threw yourself at in a short space of time. I suddenly realised that it was of foremost importance to me that I’d always written for actors not audiences. I love the idea that an actor gets to spend a month – or two if you’re lucky – with your work, your words, and thinks about it in a way that an audience isn’t privileged to. It becomes a part of the actor’s life. And I realised the whole process is about evoking anxieties that we share, anxieties that you can bring to light and deal with in the theatre. It hit me like a bolt of lightning: that’s what it’s for; this is a church. If I get this right, and I try hard enough, and I’m brave enough about it, I’m going to be able to access something which is going to be of importance to the actors first of all, and then to the audience.

ParlourSong.indd

‘There’s been a wood; it was here for a thousand years. Now it’s gone: we’re here.’ – Parlour Song, published 2009

With Parlour Song and then Jerusalem appearing on stage here in the UK in the same year, it seemed that some floodgate had been opened. What happened? Did you write them in parallel? Is the one related to the other?

One takes place in a wood and the other takes place in a new estate that’s been built on the site of a wood. Ned in Parlour Song says: ‘There’s been a wood; it was here for a thousand years. Now it’s gone: we’re here.’ And then in Jerusalem there’s the idea that the wood is going to be erased and replaced by housing estates. And though they’re set in different parts of England, those two ideas speak to each other. Rooster Byron in Jerusalem and Ned in Parlour Song couldn’t be more opposite. One is utterly defiant, courageous and free-spirited, the other is occluded, scared, closed, neurotic and shutting everything out – throughout. Albeit they’re both in states of delusion and denial, they’re opposite ends of the scale.

So did they come together in your mind?

Not consciously, but then at this point very little is conscious in terms of what it is I’m trying to do. I’ve found a way of disengaging consciously altogether from the process and of following a path, almost like following a trail of breadcrumbs through a wood, of goosebump experiences. I’m just using it as a compass: if the next bit creates goosebumps in some way, I’ll go there and I don’t ask why.

Harold Pinter used to talk about writing down snatches of dialogue or even just images which then went nowhere. Do you have false starts, or are you able to follow your compass accurately?

Jerusalem was a false start in as much as I wrote a first draft in 2004 and wholly disliked the first stab. The play was obviously big in scope, and I simply was unable to corral its effects into any kind of satisfying whole. Whether this was because, on a basic level, I hadn’t composed for that many instruments before, or whether it was because I was afraid to really say what the play wanted to say, I will never know. But I returned to it in the spring of 2009, by which time, as I’ve described, my whole approach to my work had fundamentally changed. And it just came.

Apart from that, I don’t have many half-written things. If I sit down to do it, I’ll do it. I tend to end up with very few notes, usually a small amount that I will have lost along the way. It’s almost like a performance, I suppose, where you sit down and set yourself an unfeasible time limit, usually dictated by a deadline, so it’s got to happen. It’s that feel of an actor walking on stage. What a neurologist might call ‘performance arousal’ occurs, where your brain sets itself up along different lines under pressure.

In 2007 I became friends with Harold Pinter and had lots of lunches with him and conversations with him about writing. In the two years before he died I saw him a lot and went to visit him. The conversations that we would have made it clear to me what it was I wanted to do professionally for the rest of my life, if I can. The things that Harold was saying were so extraordinarily profound and so meaningful to me that there was to be no fear from now on. There was going to be no place for that at all. In July 2007 he said something to me that was absolutely the ignition and spur to my decision to dedicate myself to playwriting.

Can you put it into words?

I’m never going to tell anyone.

That was 2007.

After The Winterling, before Parlour Song and Jerusalem.

Did Parlour Song start with a specific image? Did you, for instance, turn into a particular housing estate and think, ‘God, how deadly’?

I grew up on a new-build estate. We moved in a good five years after the houses were built on green-belt land on the edge of the countryside. Birthday Girl [a film written and directed by Jez, starring Nicole Kidman, in 2001] deals with that as well: he’s got suburbs out the front and wilderness out the back. I knew that world. I knew it really clearly. It wasn’t something I needed to research. We grew up in a house where the house next door was a mirror image.

Both Parlour Song and Jerusalem came about from following the breadcrumbs and getting goose pimples?

Yes.

Jerusalem 2009

The original cover to Jerusalem, first published in 2009. The play would go on to be an international hit.

I have the impression that the pre-rehearsal draft of Jerusalem that I read was a good deal longer than what appeared on stage. Do you get it all down and then look at what you’ve got?

I was producing a film in New York at the time by day, Fair Game, and writing Jerusalem by night. There’s an idea that this play took eight years to write, but actually it took about nine weeks over eight years: three weeks, four weeks and two weeks. The last bit was in New York, literally moonlighting, trying to get it finished at the very last minute. So we went into rehearsal with it not completed, which is, by the way, my dream state to enter any rehearsal. Ian was wonderful about it, even though I know he’d much rather have his annotated script before he goes into rehearsal.

So would the Royal Court, presumably.

They were brilliant about it too. We were a week into rehearsal, and Ian and I were saying, ‘We need another actor.’ And they were fine. ‘And it’s going to be three hours and fifteen minutes long.’ And the Royal Court were absolutely fine. Dominic [Cooke, then artistic director] is a big, big reason why this play ended up being what it is.

Is there anything else you want to say about this period that you feel should go on record?

The most important thing in my career so far, without a shadow of a doubt, has been Ian Rickson. His sense of what it is I’m trying to do has never faltered. To watch him in rehearsal… He’ll go in with one set of ideas – running the Royal Court, coping with the politics – then, twenty minutes into rehearsal, he’s changed completely, he’s become a different creature: I don’t think he knows it. He’s become this intuitive blob that can put stuff together the way it should be put together. He directs not like a conductor but like a composer: this goes here, that goes there, so beautifully put-together. He’s fearless in what he does and doesn’t want to have in it. It’s been a terrific working relationship. It’s had fits and starts, and we often go off in a huff with each other. But I love working with him, and if I could spend my entire life fruitfully collaborating with Ian, it would be wonderful.

Mojo

Mojo, £9.99

To mark the first major revival of Mojo - now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre In London’s West End – NHB are thrilled to publish a new edition of the award-winning script. To purchase your copy at a 25% discount (no voucher code required), visit our website here.

The full text of the above interview is available in printed form as part of Jez Butterworth: Plays One, a collection that includes the plays Mojo, The Night Heron, The Winterling and Parlour Song, and the previously unpublished short plays The Naked Eye and Leavings.

It’s also available to buy through our website at a 25% discount – click here to get your copy now.

Jessica Swale: why the Blue Stockings were ‘the movers and shakers of their age’

25 Sep

Jessica Swale

Now premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe, Jessica Swale’s debut play Blue Stockings depicts the fight of female students at 1890s Cambridge University to be treated equally with their male counterparts. Here, the playwright gives an insight into the historical context of the piece, and the astonishing prejudices the ‘Girton girls’ had to endure.

In the mid-1800s, girls in England were lucky if they got an education at all. Some wealthy young women had governesses, some girls went to secondary school, but the curriculum was often limited to ‘feminine subjects’: needlework, art, maybe French if you were lucky, whilst the girls’ brothers were learning algebra and translating Virgil by the age of eleven.

That began to change when Emily Davies, the pioneering educationalist, led a successful campaign to incorporate serious subjects and examinations into ladies’ education. Then, when she’d conquered the curriculum, she turned her attention to higher education. In 1869 she set up Britain’s first residential college for women at Hitchin, Cambridgeshire. There, in a farmhouse twenty miles from Cambridge (considered to be a safe distance), the first women’s university college was born. There were five students, taught by any lecturers that were willing to risk their reputations and cycle the forty-mile round trip to do so. But it was a beginning.

Blue Stockings production photo

Blue Stockings, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2013
(Photo by Manuel Harlan)

By 1896, the College had moved to Girton, a mere two miles up the hill from Cambridge (a schlep which was quickly christened ‘the Girton grind’.) Yet, though the girls studied identical degrees to the men, when they’d finished their courses they were sent home empty-handed. When the men donned their caps and gowns for graduation, the women were denied their certificates. It was then that Girton’s new Mistress, Elizabeth Welsh, alongside her staff and students, decided to begin the campaign to win the girls the right to graduate. And that is where the play begins.

As for the girls themselves, we tend to associate the Victorian era with stuffiness, modesty and proper manners. The girls at Girton were rebelling against that. Whilst they followed social rules and etiquette, in their passions and ambition they were stretching out of their Victorian corsets, pulling away from their demure mothers and moving rapidly into the twentieth century. They are feisty, they are driven and they are the movers and shakers of their age.

As for the men, it would be easy to assume that those who condemn women’s education with as much vitriol as the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Henry Maudsley, who appears in the play, are heartless misogynists. That’s simply not the case. These men speak the prevailing opinions of the time. They’re not the devils of the piece; they genuinely believed that women’s health and the future of Britain was at stake. As Maudsley says in the play’s opening scene: ‘it may be a pity for women that they are born women, but in running the intellectual race, it’s unlikely they will succeed, and perilous to even try.’ I’d heartily recommend reading Maudsley’s short book Sex in Mind and in Education, on which some of his text, and many of the sentiments of the play, are based, as a place to start.

Blue Stockings

Blue Stockings, £9.99

Nick Hern Books is delighted to publish Blue Stockings, Jessica Swale’s moving, comical and eye-opening debut play that tells the story of four young women fighting for education and self-determination against the larger backdrop of women’s suffrage.

To buy your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – visit the NHB website here.

Blue Stockings is currently premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, until 11 October.

Mike Alfreds: ‘The play is not the thing’ – actors and storytelling in theatre

28 Aug

Alfreds, MikeA legendary theatre director with over 200 productions to his name, over his long career Mike Alfreds has garnered a reputation as a true performance pioneer. As his new book Then What Happens? is published, the revered Shared Experience founder reflects on how stories are told on stage, and how actors, not plays, lie at the heart of theatre.

Many years ago – in fact, once upon a time – I found myself rehearsing a collection of stories from The Thousand and One Nights. Up to that time, I’d always directed plays. It was my good fortune that most of them were wonderful plays by great dramatists, plays that continue to give me intense pleasure and sense of purpose. But when I began working with these stories, it was as though what I’d always thought of as the parameters of theatrical practice were suddenly lifted; as though my theatrical wings could spread and take flight. It was a sort of creative liberation. It didn’t cancel out anything that I’d learned or done up to that moment; on the contrary, all of that became a firm foundation on which to build completely new structures. This freedom came to me because I had, unknowingly, entered the world of storytelling.

Theatre is not about plays. The art of theatre is acting. The theatre isn’t there to serve plays.  Plays are there to serve the actors. Plays need actors and without them, they’re just blueprints. Actors, however, do not need plays. They can improvise. They can mime. They can tell stories.

Mike Alfreds' first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

Mike Alfreds’ first book, Different Every Night, has become an essential resource

What first drew me to theatre and has ever since engrossed and thrilled me most is the extraordinary phenomenon of the actor, not virtual but actual, present and immediate, endowed with our infinite human potential to express what it means to be alive. To that end, over the years, all my work on plays has been a search to provide actors with the maximum space for creative freedom in performance, a spontaneity that allows them to play nightly not as if for the first time, but actually for the first time; to be different every night – not for the sake of being different – but to be true to the moment, to what is happening at any instant in a performance. Different Every Night, published by Nick Hern Books in 2007, is a detailed account of my rehearsal processes aiming for just that goal when working on plays.

But as I worked with these other forms of fiction, fiction never intended for performance – novels, short stories, sagas and the like – I found this entirely new world of storytelling demanded a seemingly endless supply of fresh techniques to accommodate the variousness of the material. Plays, because of their need to be performed, all more or less comply with  a certain conformity of means: scenes of dialogue, usually chronological, in a limited number of locations with a limited number of characters and playing over an average of two or so hours. But stories have no such constraints of length, language, characters, place or time. The conventions of acting in plays is inadequate in this world. Here actors have to become first and foremost storytellers. They are the core of the theatrical experience. Within them, they contain the entire story which they relate in an infinitude of ways, each new story requiring a particular performance language of its own. So to tell stories, actors need to acquire techniques that extend and expand their skills and functions way beyond the already complex and demanding job of creating a character.

It’s interesting that current attempts to break the mould and refresh the nature of theatre rely less on human beings and more heavily on all those aspects of theatre that have always been tangential to the main event. I mean sets, lights, costumes, music, sound effects, burlesque and circus acts, installations – now of course made more available and dazzlingly expressive by unceasing digital innovation. As far as I’m concerned all these elements take theatre further and further away from its roots, in many cases, actually tearing them up and casting it in shallow soil.

Of course adaptations are nothing new.  They’ve been around for centuries. Principally they were achieved by squeezing stories into the corsets of whatever happened to be the conventional dramatic structures of the time. Novels were forced to become plays. You more or less lost the novel and ended up with something that wasn’t quite a play. Two incompatible forms cancelled each other out. What I found out was by trying to put a story on stage virtually intact, true not only to the spirit and the plot but also the word – and ignoring the conventions of a play – whole new worlds, new forms of performance began to open up. I’ve found it exhilarating struggling to find a way to make non-dramatic material dramatic, non-theatrical material theatrical. Each new story is an adventure, an expedition into the unknown, provoking unceasing invention and challenges to the imagination.

Initially, the fundamental difference between playacting and storytelling is the actor/character’s ability through narrative to step outside the story being enacted in order to talk about it. This single simple difference unleashes what seems an unstemable torrent of new conventions. And because storytelling by its nature needs an absolutely direct contact with an audience, the contact is natural, unforced and unselfconsciously interactive. Audiences, too, are given space for their own creativity. Storytelling invites them to bring their imaginations to bear on a story.

My new book, Then What Happens?, describes the discoveries I made in learning to adapt and tell stories. More than half of it is devoted to workshops full of exercises and improvisations to develop techniques for storytelling, mainly in an empty space with nothing apart from the considerable skills and imaginations of the actors. It also describes processes of adapting material in a way that remains as true as is possible to the material in its original form. I heartily recommend the world of storytelling to you.

Layout 1

Then What Happens?, £10.99

Nick Hern Books are thrilled to publish Mike Alfreds’ Then What Happens? – Storytelling and Adapting for the Theatre, his impassioned, engaging case for putting story and storytelling back at the heart of theatre.

To order your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,172 other followers

%d bloggers like this: