This month NHB publishes Lou Ramsden’s Hundreds and Thousands, the follow-up play to her critically acclaimed debut Breed (2010), for which she was shortlisted for the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award. Here, exclusively for the NHB blog, Lou spills the beans on what it’s like for a playwright in those final days leading up to opening night, and answers the big question – when is a play actually ‘finished’?
Last year I wrote a play called Breed, staged at Theatre503 in September. It was a story about parenting, and sometime during late-night redrafting I changed my Facebook status to :
‘I’m writing a play about a baby, and starting to get a tiny hint of what it might be like to have one : sleepless nights… endless changes… and general anguish at the thought of handing it over to someone else…’.
Cue lots of annoyed remarks from my friends with babies (sorry, friends with babies). And of course they’re right – writing a play is nothing like having a kid. But now, preparing for my second production – Hundreds and Thousands at Soho Theatre Upstairs – I’m starting to remember why I made the comment. As one mate pointed out, your play is never going to vomit fish pie down you in the middle of playgroup. But still, some of the thoughts and emotions it throws up have got to be similar: trepidation; excitement; pride. And a big question mark over when and how it’ll finally come of age. Because – when is a play actually finished?
On the first day of rehearsals, maybe? We started rehearsing Hundreds and Thousands at the end of May, under the guiding hand of director Lisa Spirling. Our initial read-through was very nerve-wracking but exciting, and in the following days we began to pick apart the play, discussing every scene in detail. And….I discovered that it wasn’t actually finished, quite yet. Actors’ questions highlighted moments that need clarifying. Hearing it aloud made me realise that some bits could be slimmed down. So I made changes; felt good about them; felt almost finished, but then…
The actors got on their feet. The space was marked out in the rehearsal room, and Lisa began blocking the action. And that’s when you really start to understand the physicality of the piece. How many lines characters will need to travel from A to B. Why that character can’t be locking that door at that point. Some of the stage directions I’d written disappeared, new ones were added for clarity. Got to be nearly finished now. But then…
We get into the space. Tech it, dress it, and previews start. As I write this, we’re in our first few nights of a preview week, and I’m watching as the play takes baby steps in front of its first proper audiences. We’ll see what people will laugh at. Where the action flies and where it needs to speed up. I’m making cuts, honing, and talking to Lisa about aspects of the performances.
And it’s just about now that I really realise – perhaps a play never, totally, comes of age. Because it’s an audience that ‘finishes’ it, isn’t it? Their presence, and reactions. And they’re different every night, so the play changes every night, so…
Perhaps ‘finished’ is the wrong word, then. The wrong feeling to be aiming at. What writers should really hope for is that, as their play grows up, it keeps good company – it finds people who understand it and care about it. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to get that with Hundreds and Thousands. I’m part of a creative team who are all amazing at what they do, have got a real passion for the play, and are just as excited about seeing it in print as I am.
Ironically, Hundreds and Thousands’ central character, Lorna, craves children. After a rocky childhood herself, she longs for the chance to build something better in the future, and she pursues her dream ruthlessly. It’s a play about the dark-hearted selfishness which I think we’re all, sometimes, in danger of giving in to. But in the rehearsal room we’ve discovered lots of humour too, and realised that it’s also a story about the things that are best in people – determination, devotion, and love. I’m working with a team who have all those – and that’s the best cure that I’ve found for playwrighting’s sleepless nights.
Buckle For Dust theatre company in association with English Touring Theatre present Hundreds and Thousands – premiering this month at Soho Theatre, London (21 June – 16 July 2011). Special Ticket Offer: tickets only £10 (usually £12.50 -£15), valid for all performances (subject to availability). To book call the Soho Theatre Box Office – Tel: 020 7478 0100 and quote ‘HOT TICKETS’, or visit http://www.sohotheatre.com and enter promo code ‘HOTTICKETS’ at checkout.
Nick Hern Books proudly publish the playscript alongside the debut production at Soho Theatre. To purchase your copy with a 10% discount and free P&P (RRP £9.99, UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.