Spotlight: CHARGED at Soho Theatre

Charged (jacket)For over thirty years, Clean Break have used theatre for personal and political change, working with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. Last year, the company commissioned six of the most exciting female voices in British theatre to write about these women, and presented the plays at Soho Theatre under the title Charged. The six – ‘blisteringly powerful‘ (Guardian) – short plays were presented over one evening, and published by NHB in a single volume. This week, three of the plays were brought back for another season at Soho Theatre, and here, the playwrights Sam Holcroft, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Chloë Moss introduce them…

Sam Holcroft on Dancing Bears
Clean Break asked me to write a short play as part of a collective of plays exploring different themes under the umbrella of ‘women affected by the criminal justice system’. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with Clean Break. They are an outstanding company and have created some fantastic theatre. Lucy Kirkwood’s It Felt Empty… and Chloë Moss’s This Wide Night are two of the most brilliant plays about women I’ve seen. So how to follow on, and what to write? I have always enjoyed writing about young people (among other things, I’m guilty of piggy-backing on their energy for dramatic effect). And so I proposed to write about young girls’ experiences of gang-life, and the crimes they are both victim of and perpetrate. I began researching several months before putting pen to paper. You don’t have to dig deep to find many extraordinary stories of suffering, triumph and gut-twisting injustice. Clean Break put me in touch with women who had experience of gang culture and they kindly shared their stories with me. I also attended the 2010 Nacro Youth Justice Conference and spoke with social workers, police, teachers and health professionals who helped to shed light on the psychology behind gang-related behaviour. And slowly but surely a structure began to emerge. Clean Break logo

It seemed that all-female gangs often evolved as offshoots from mixed-gender gangs. Girls were choosing to set up on their own to avoid the misogyny, violence and lower social status afforded them in mixed-gender gangs. But, sadly, sooner or later these new all-female gangs would begin to mirror the hierarchies of the mixed-gender gangs they’d left behind. And these hierarchies would be daily reinforced by threats and violence against girls at the bottom of the chain from girls higher up. So it seemed impossible to write a play without both male and female characters in order to explore this mirroring of behaviour. Clean Break has a policy of working with only women and so all characters in the play, whether male or female, are played by women. But I soon realised that this would work in favour of the drama. Boys could morph into girls before our eyes: their machismo give way to femininity; their hunched shoulders drop; they would arch their backs – like a ripple effect, a stage of boys would become a stage of girls. However as we continue to watch, unintentionally, they would begin to mimic the boys they were fleeing from, and this time instead of knives they would wield guns.

Audiences seemed to respond well to the play in its first production at Soho Theatre in 2010 and extremely well to the event as a whole. It was full of such joy despite the sadness and suffering inherent in the stories. The challenge given to us by Clean Break was not to write a presentation of grim statistics, or a catalogue of suffering, but to package the information in a compelling format and to entertain as well as awaken.  Hopefully you walk away from the night both inspired and shell-shocked, and asking questions of our justice system and how we can begin to ask for change.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz on That Almost Unnameable Lust
I had done a few sessions teaching male prisoners in Brixton prison. I’d found it very challenging. It seemed to me that there were severe mental health issues that weren’t being addressed. The men were paid £1 to come along and do a writing class and a couple of them were in a catatonic state, listening and patiently scribbling for two hours to get their valuable pocket money. Others were passionate about the class and made me feel there was far too little on offer for them in terms of expressing themselves. So when Clean Break asked me to write about women in prison I was keen to do it.

That Almost Unnameable Lust by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, production shot

That Almost Unnameable Lust: Beatie Edney (Liz) and Janet Henfrey (Katherine)

I went to Peterborough prison and met a group of nine older women. All were over fifty, but some of them looked far older than their years; they had what was termed ‘prison skin’ because they had been exposed to so little natural light. All of the women were fascinating. One had been a drug mule; vehement in her innocence, I suspected she was guilty but needed to believe her own story just to get by. Another woman seemed very much away from this world and obviously enraged the others with her paranoia and egomania – she needed help and was getting none. The sturdiest of them had killed her husband after decades of beatings. I liked her very much, and respected her quiet strength and intelligence. They were all deeply articulate and funny. And yet you could read the damage in their faces. Those who were bereft at the separation from their children. Those who could not fit in socially and so were living a completely insular life. And then there were those who made of prison life an art form of friendships and talk and relationships. Nobody could think about the long term of it. One day at a time was all they could do.  A few were ‘lifers’. Others were there for a few years for fraud. The energy that they had was amazing and I felt very alive to their predicaments and sorrows. And yet when I left I looked back at this huge ugly edifice and realised they were at least temporarily invisible. I admired the prison supporters who went in every week to hear their needs and requests and to help them with forms and procedures which left them at sea. Their main fear was of being invisible.

The woman who had murdered her husband said to me at one point, ‘I smile, and I talk to you, but inside I’m screaming. Every minute. I’m screaming.’ And she was the one who laughed most and seemed to support the group and the lame ducks. There was incredible strength there but also this fragility of simply being inside. Leaving them, I felt only one certain fact, that incarceration as we have it now is a thoroughly deadening process. Economically unviable, and spiritually facile. I didn’t know how best to summarise or dramatise their stories. I wanted to give them a voice. So I simply built on what I’d seen and felt, and ended up with part fact, mostly fiction, but hopefully embodying the spirit of those I had met.

Chloë Moss on Fatal Light
Fatal Light tells the story of Jay, a vulnerable young single mother who’s simply trying her best to bring her daughter up and is eventually sent to prison.

At the beginning of the research process, Clean Break put me in touch with Inquest – a charity concerned with the treatment and care of people in custody leading up to and around their death and then the care of the bereaved families afterwards.

All the bereaved family members that I either met or read about agreed that Inquest was an absolute lifeline for them; they would have been very much in the dark if it wasn’t for the support, and most importantly, information they received through the charity.

The first scene in Fatal Light is based loosely on one family’s experience of being visited by a young police officer who got the name of their sister wrong and then couldn’t even confirm whether she was still alive, just that there had been ‘a serious incident’. The officer had been sent from a local police station and had been given scant, incorrect information. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence.

Fatal Light production shot

Fatal Light: Rebecca Scroggs (Jay) and Isabella Mason (Aine)

Another thing that came up a lot during the research process was that, although prison sentences are often utterly devastating to the families of women in prison, there was an assumption that at the very least, their loved ones would be safe inside. Even though prison was the last place that their sister, mother, daughter should be, they trusted that they couldn’t come to any harm. That’s clearly not the case at all. The vulnerable are constantly being criminalised for having mental health problems.

One woman tried to commit suicide in her flat by setting fire to her couch, then realised that she was putting other people in the building in danger. She tried unsuccessfully to put it out herself, and phoned the fire brigade, but still got a hefty sentence for arson. Tragically, though perhaps inevitably, she killed herself in prison.

The Corston report (a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system) was published in March 2007, following the deaths of six women at HMP Styal in just over twelve months. Four years later, there has been slow progress in implementing its recommendations for the sentencing and treatment of female prisoners. There are still so many cases of women who’ve spent their lives dealing with mental health problems and abuse, who are then incarcerated miles from families, support networks… their kids. Prison is the final straw for them.

The subject matter of Fatal Light is bleak of course, but that’s because the reality of the situation is bleak and therefore it’s hugely important to tell these stories and to question why deaths in custody keep happening.

I actually think the play itself is, strangely, quite hopeful. Lucy Morrison’s brilliant direction injects lots of warmth and humour and shows the immense amount of love between the three characters. The piece plays backwards in time and ends with Jay in a positive situation. Starting with her death and working backwards serves to highlight how avoidable these tragedies really are.

RE-CHARGED logoRe-Charged continues its run at Soho Theatre until 9th April. If you can’t get to see it, then you can buy the fantastic value playtext featuring all of the six plays by E V Crowe, Sam Holcroft, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Chloë Moss, Winsome Pinnock and Rebecca Prichard for just £9.99 with free P&P (UK customers only). Click here, and quote ‘BLOGOFFER’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also save £5 off full-price tickets (£3 off concessions) if you quote ‘PLAYTEXT’ when booking through the venue’s box office, Tel: 020 7478 0100.

Spotlight: MOMENT

Deirdre KinahanDeirdre Kinahan, Irish playwright and Artistic Director of  Tall Tales Theatre company, reveals the inspiration behind her latest acclaimed play currently playing at the Bush Theatre, MOMENT.

I feel I pick up plays from off the street, from the top seat of a bus or from a fragment of newspaper. Plays often present themselves in the furrowed brow, pained complexion or twinkling eye of a passer-by. Plays echo all humanity as I encounter it.

One morning frying eggs I turned on the radio. The voice of a mother echoed out, a mother in extraordinary distress. She told the story of her son. Her son who suffered from depression. Her son who lay in jail. Her son who murdered her daughter.The woman seemed so ordinary, so gentle, so wise. She spoke explicitly about her grief for her daughter and her grief for her son. She spoke for a full hour about the horror of that day, that phone call, that moment that shattered her existence. She spoke with such compassion, with such confusion and with such conflicted emotion that I forgot the eggs and listened. I listened without moving. This woman loved her son. This woman loved her daughter. Yet her son killed her daughter. She spoke for an hour and circled, circled, circled around the heart of her distress, around the murder itself. She could never enter it.

So I thought: how do you deal with that? How do you survive in such acute trauma… how do you survive your love?

I have suffered loss myself. I know the grief of losing a family member and so have some notion of trauma. I know its bizarre state where the world slows down and spins to your tune. I know that it demands extraordinary reserve.

And so I decided to write about trauma. A trauma that shapes you, wounds you and envelops your life. I did some preliminary investigation and then began to reimagine. To reimagine a family and build an afternoon. An afternoon where Mammy goes for a walk, where Niamh and Hilary practise for a talent contest and where Nial commits murder. I reimagine – and I have a play.

Tara Wilkinson, then producer at London’s Bush Theatre came to see the premiere production of MOMENT in Dublin in 2009, and between herself and Artistic Director Josie Rourke, they invited us over. Playing at the Bush means a lot to me, not only because it is an extraordiany theatre but also because it has a long history of supporting and championing Irish writing. The space echoes with story and atmosphere and charm; I felt a palpable energy as soon as I entered that tiny room.

MOMENT jacket

MOMENT by Deirdre Kinahan

I am so pleased that MOMENT has impacted on the Bush audience. Reviews from bloggers, stragglers, twitterers and critics alike have been phenomenal. I feel quite humble. I am served by extraordinary actors, an extraordinary director and enjoy the support of an extraordinary British theatre.

MOMENT plays at the Bush Theatre until 26th March, though tickets are like gold dust. If you can’t get to see it, then buy the playtext here with free P&P (UK customers only). Just quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

THEATRE AWARDS ROUND-UP: with James Seabright

Olivier Awards logo
The annual awards season is drawing to a close, and we’re thrilled that so many NHB plays and theatrebooks have picked up gongs along the way. The King’s Speech won both the Bafta and Academy Award for Best Screenplay; Simon Callow beat off stiff competition to take the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography with My Life in Pieces; and Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn was voted the Best Play of 2010 by the 45,000 theatre-going voters in the WhatsOnStage.com Awards.

Anne Boleyn jacket

This Sunday is the biggest theatre awards in the UK calendar – the Oliviers – and both Nina Raine’s Tribes and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park are nominated for Best Play – the latter having already picked up the same prize at the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. James Seabright, author of So You Want to be a Theatre Producer?, considers the impact of the Oliviers, and how he feels about being nominated for the first time…

‘This is an exciting year for the Olivier awards. A major relaunch funded by sponsorship from Mastercard has allowed its organisers, the Society of London Theatre, to give the whole event a much bigger public profile. This includes a red-carpet style ceremony this coming Sunday at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with extensive coverage on the BBC both in advance – through the Audience Award promoted via Radio 2 – and on the night, as you can watch the whole thing via the red button at home, or listen in on the radio.  I see all of these as very welcome developments, especially for the selfish reason that for the first time one of my productions has been nominated in the awards: Potted Panto is up for Best Entertainment.

So on Sunday, I will be donning a tuxedo (the last time I did was a decade ago!), and joining several colleagues from the show – and several hundred from the industry as a whole – at my first-ever red carpet awards ‘do’. The hope is that, despite the considerable competition presented by major hits in our category like The Railway Children and Ghost Stories, our show is smiled upon by the mysterious panel of Olivier voters.  Whether or not that happens – it will be a great opportunity to celebrate the success of the show, which is the third in the series of “Potted Productions” that I have developed with Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner since first seeing them perform an early version of Potted Potter at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006.  Potted Panto is the first of these to transfer to a proper West End run, hence making it eligible for Olivier consideration. So whatever the envelope reveals on Sunday,  the awards will be a welcome celebration of five years’ hard work developing a fringe format into a mainstream, award-nominated one.

As well as this year’s awards taking on a new format and enhanced presence in the public eye, it feels like there are some exciting developments in terms of up-and-coming theatre practitioners being acknowledged through the Olivier shortlists – and not just the single category given over to ‘Affiliate venues’, as the off-West End houses are euphemistically known. It is particularly welcome to see the wonderful work of the team at Opera Up Close being recognised with a nomination for their production of La Bohème, which moved all the way from a pub theatre in Kilburn to two record-breaking runs at Soho Theatre. Now that would be a quite extraordinary achievement, to win an Olivier above the publicly-funded opera houses. So for a whole host of reasons, selfish and otherwise, I’m hoping that the underdog wins out on Sunday night!’

So You Want To Be A Theatre ProducerJames Seabright runs his own production company Seabright Productions and is the author of So You Want To Be a Theatre Producer? (£12.99, 9781854595379). You can order your copy of this title – plus any of the award-winning books featured in this post – through the NHB website with free P&P by adding ‘AWARDS blog offer’ in the comments field (UK customers only).

Potted Panto is currently touring the UK to June 2011, click here for more information and to book tickets.

THE KING’S SPEECH Special

Jacket of THE KING'S SPEECH Shooting Script

The King’s Speech dominated this year’s Oscars, winning awards for Best Film, Director, Actor and Original Screenplay. Here, its author, David Seidler, explains the inspiration behind the film – and why it is such a personal story to him.

The crackle of the radio always got me excited. I loved that radio. The case was made of wood. Bakelite, as plastic was called, was too fancy for a lad. My wooden radio had holes in it. I’d been given a toy drill for Christmas. Never give a drill to a small boy unless you want holes in everything.

The static, like an overture, readied me for the thrills to come. If I’d been particularly well behaved it might be an American favourite, Burns and Allen, Jack Benny, or Bob Hope. This was an extra special occasion… the King was speaking tonight.

I remember his voice, high, and tense, with occasional pauses and hesitation. Yet the cumulative effect was marvellous: stalwart, staunch and stirring. Despite his stutter he was able to deliver glorious sentences that rallied the free world. He was my King (I felt so proud of being British), and although everyone in the world, ally and enemy alike, listened critically to every syllable he uttered, he doggedly persevered. So there was hope for me.

Childhood for those who stammer is not pleasant. You live in self-imposed silence because it is too painful to speak. Hard not to notice how uncomfortable everybody becomes: eyes glaze over, fingers tap, they want to get away as quickly as possible. Or try to be helpful, which is even worse. ‘Take your time… slow down… relax.’ If only it were that simple.

There was hope though. I heard it on my Swiss cheese radio. My parents told me, ‘The King was far worse than you.’ George VI of England, known as Bertie, gave inspiration to a little boy exiled to a former colony.

Of all the moments in the film, there is one that is especially close to my heart. It is a very crucial moment—although unfortunately earning the film a ridiculous R-rating (the same as Chain Saw in 3D) in the US and a 15, later reduced to 12A, in the UK. It’s a scene where the King swears and says the naughty f-word (which is heard every day in every school playground everywhere). The naughty word is not in the scene to shock, nor for prurient interest. It is there because it demonstrates an important aspect of stammer therapy that I learned from my own stutter, and which all speech therapists I’ve ever spoken to agree has validity.

image of David Seidler
David Seidler receives his Academy Award for ‘Best Original Screenplay’

I was sixteen and my defect had not eased. I’d been told if a stammer doesn’t disappear by the end of adolescence, the chances of its leaving decrease dramatically. That’s another reason I felt Bertie was so brave; he was still slogging away through his twenties, thirties and forties. That takes guts. Well, I got angry. My hormones were raging, but I couldn’t ask a girl out. Even if she said yes, what was the point, I couldn’t talk to her. Was this fair? I was a good lad who hadn’t done anything dreadful to anyone. Hadn’t slept with my mother or killed my father. Why was this awful burden being placed upon me? Naughty-word it! I’m a human being and I’ve a right to be heard. If I’m stuck with this naughty-word affliction for the rest of my life, well naughty-word it, the rest of you are just going to have to naughty-word listen to me!

That flipped an internal switch. The stutter melted away. Two weeks later I was auditioning for the school play. Even got a part. A small role in Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. I was a Christian, about to be eaten by a lion in the Coliseum, but I didn’t stutter as I died. I’m sure Bertie must’ve had a similar defiant defining moment. How else could he carry on so bravely. That’s why the naughty word is there.

Why tell the story at all, though? It’s old and forgotten. Well, one per cent of the population stammers. That’s an awful lot of stuttering. A great deal of living in silence. An awful lot of emotional pain and anguish. If this film brings hope to those afflicted and understanding as to their plight, I’ll be very well pleased. From the Introduction to The King’s Speech shooting script

‘A richly enjoyable, instantly absorbing true-life drama’ Guardian

‘Thanks to the best efforts of writer David Seidler… The King’s Speech isn’t just an enlightening period drama, but a very entertaining, heartfelt and surprisingly funny crowd-pleaser.’ Time Out

‘For a film about being horrendously tongue-tied, Seidler’s words are exquisitely measured, his insight as deep as it is softly spoken.’ Empire

David Seidler’s Oscar and Bafta-winning screenplay for The King’s Speech is published in the UK by Nick Hern Books (£12.99), and can be ordered through the NHB website with free P&P – quote ‘TKS blog offer’ in the comments field (UK customers only).