‘Reaching out for life in a new country’: Winsome Pinnock on her play Leave Taking

Winsome Pinnock’s play Leave Taking, about a Caribbean family living in North London, is as powerful today as it was when it was first performed in 1987. As a major new production opens at the Bush Theatre in London, the author reveals how she came to write it, and how it was inspired by her own family story…

I hadn’t read Leave Taking for several years when Madani Younis, Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, told me that he wanted to revive the play as part of the theatre’s 2018 season. He said that he and the Bush’s creative team considered the play a classic in the canon of work by black British playwrights and that they felt that it remained relevant: Enid’s predicament – the plight of many immigrants regardless of where they come from, caught between worlds – reaching out for life in a new country, haunted by memories of what she has left behind.

On the first day of rehearsals at the Bush I was asked to talk to the cast about how I came to write the play, the first full-length play I had ever written. I found it difficult to answer the question. Engaging with the text again had put me in conversation with my younger self, who I felt was a presence in the rehearsal room. I wished that she could answer for me.

Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

I developed a passion for theatre and performance as a child of around twelve years old when, with generous grants from the GLC (Greater London Council), our school took us on visits to the theatre. I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. There wasn’t enough money in our household to afford such trips and there wasn’t enough time either. The interest was awoken, and, along with my younger sister, I became part of a group of young people who became regular theatregoers. We were given the resources (by our school, youth theatres and drama clubs) to dance, act and write. My mother offered quiet encouragement. When I doubted myself, she reminded me that success was usually a matter of holding on, of seeing things through to the end. When I expressed a desire to play the piano I came home from school one day to discover that she had purchased a piano so old it had a few missing keys, but it was functional. She found me a teacher: Miss Wright who lived off the Holloway Road and taught local kids to play at 15p a lesson. My mother and siblings listened tirelessly to the stories I wrote as a child; I was the acknowledged writer of the family.

My mother migrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom in 1959, following her husband-to-be who, like Enid’s spouse in Leave Taking, saved his salary for a whole year before he was able to afford the money to buy a ticket for her passage over. The shock and disappointment of those who migrated to the UK at that time is well documented. My parents’ generation had been indoctrinated by a colonialist education that lionised all things British. They celebrated Empire Day (24th May) when their schools distributed British flags and lollipops. Despite their disappointment on entering a country whose environment was often hostile (‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish!’), they didn’t complain and rarely discussed the hardships. After all, they had grown up on plantation villages where the legacy of enslavement was still evident in the wretched poverty they endured. Jamaica achieved independence the year that my youngest sibling was born. My parents’ marriage disintegrated a few years later, and my mother became a single parent to four young children at a time when there was still stigma attached to divorce.

Sarah Niles and Wil Johnson in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Writers are given their preoccupations at birth. I am the descendant of enslaved Africans who were forcibly denied the right to the written word, or to express themselves through art or song and yet held on to aspects of their African heritage in both. Traces of African spiritual rituals were preserved by clandestine practices like obeah, which was made illegal in Jamaica in 1898, a law that remains on the statute books. Despite its illegality, my mother and some of her peers retained an interest in obeah, consulting obeah men and women in times of crisis for advice and healing.

As a schoolgirl I thought I was going to be an actress. I idolised Glenda Jackson and longed to follow in her footsteps. When I left school, the headmistress predicted that I had a future in the industry. At university I was told that, although I was considered a talented actress, I probably wouldn’t be cast in many productions because I was black. I focused on my writing. I had started writing a play (a sketch really) about two girls getting ready to go out but never managing to leave their bedroom. I sent it to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group and was invited to join. It was there that I wrote Leave Taking, my first full-length play, when I was twenty-three years old. I wanted to make Enid the heroine of the play because I couldn’t recall ever seeing such a character – a hospital cleaner – as the lead in a British play. I specifically wanted to write about the black British experience as distinct from African American culture because producers often seemed to think that they are interchangeable. I submitted the play to the Royal Court’s literary department who sent me an encouraging rejection letter.

I knuckled down to write another play – A Hero’s Welcome – which received a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court. As a result of the reading I was commissioned by the Liverpool Playhouse Studio and dusted off Leave Taking, restructuring and rewriting to their financial requirements – the budget would only allow for five characters and two sets, so I cut characters and locations. This meant that I could focus more on Enid’s relationship with her daughters, Del and Viv. I was a young feminist. At consciousness-raising groups the mantra ‘the personal is political’ was drummed into me. Similarly, at the Royal Court Young Writers’ Group we were encouraged by workshop leaders Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Wakelam to ‘write what you know’. I now understand that you write what you come to know. Writing is an exploration, the pursuit of the answer to an unanswerable question. I started out wanting to write about the daughters – this new breed of black British woman – but ended up fascinated by Enid and the complexity of her relationship with England, her daughters, and herself, as well as her long-standing friendship with Brod whom she has known since childhood. Brod and Enid have travelled a great distance, both physically and psychologically. They would not have survived without each other. Mai is an enigmatic figure, especially for Viv and Del who have no direct connection with the culture she represents, but she comes to have a powerful influence on all of them.

Adjoa Andoh and Seraphina Beh in rehearsals for Leave Taking at the Bush Theatre, 2018 (photo © Helen Murray)

Leave Taking has been produced four times (the 2018 Bush production will be its fifth production) since 1987. Years after the play was produced at the National Theatre (1994) I was told that it was the first play written by a black British woman to have been produced there. I also learned that it was the first time that a black woman writer and director (Paulette Randall) had worked together at the venue. After the first performances of the play at the Liverpool Playhouse Studio women from different cultural backgrounds collared me to say: ‘That’s my story. I’m Enid’ or ‘That’s my mam. She’s just like Enid.’

The young woman who wrote Leave Taking had no idea that a generation who were very young children or who hadn’t been born when it was first produced would feel that the play still speaks to their experience. I hope it will connect with new audiences in the same way. Some of the speeches feel as though they were written recently: Brod’s words about having to seek naturalisation after thinking of himself as a British citizen for his whole life echo words spoken thirty years later by victims of the 2018 Windrush scandal (a misnomer considering it involves immigrants from diverse backgrounds and not just the Caribbean).

When I was a child my mother told me that she thought that I might have a gift for clairvoyance. I understand now that she had always instinctively known that I was a writer. It’s not that writers are necromancers, but when I read the play I raise again the spirits of those characters. I hear their voices very clearly; I see my younger self consulting with my mother, asking her how you make chocolate tea, and hear her ribbing me all over again about the royalties I owe her or joking that I should credit her as co-writer. I experience again the writing of the scene where Enid breaks down. I know what that feels like now because I have lived through it. I want to ask that young woman if, when she wrote the play, she would ever have imagined that she too would one day howl with grief into a rainy London night after witnessing her mother take her last breath just as Enid howls for a mother she will never hold again.


Reproduced from the new edition of Leave Taking by Winsome Pinnock, published on 24 May 2018 by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Leave Taking is revived at the Bush Theatre, London, 24 May – 30 June 2018. To book tickets, visit the Bush Theatre website.

Author photo by Bronwen Sharp.

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‘A writer of protean gifts’: Lucy Kirkwood on Caryl Churchill

This year’s recipient of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Outstanding Contribution to Writing is the playwright Caryl Churchill – one of the leading figures in contemporary world theatre, and an NHB author for over thirty years – ‘in honour of her illustrious body of work and a career which has spanned over six decades’.

The presentation of the Award on Monday 15 January was preceded by a speech, reproduced here, by fellow playwright, WGGB Award-winner and NHB author Lucy Kirkwood, who paid tribute to Caryl’s unrelenting and hugely influential innovation, craft and creativity. 

My house is full of books and they are badly organised. So as I prepared to write this speech about the recipient of tonight’s special award, I set aside time just to find my collections of Caryl Churchill’s plays, thinking it might take a while.

It didn’t. There, right at the top of one pile, was Plays: Three. On top of another, Plays: Two. Plays: One and Plays: Four were also in easy reach, in dog-eared copies already on my desk. I’m not sure why I was surprised: like so many other playwrights, I keep her works as close as I keep the tea bags and the emergency cigarettes. They are necessary.

‘They are necessary’ – two collections of Caryl Churchill’s plays

To anyone working in the theatre today, the outstanding contribution of Caryl Churchill is beyond question, to the extent that the word ‘contribution’ doesn’t quite seem up to the job. Her invention is ceaseless. Her influence is profound. In the course of a writing life that spans sixty years, she’s changed the dramatic landscape of two centuries, and evolved more than any other British playwright our conceptions of what a play even is. She’s even changed the way we write them down.

In the words of [playwright and academic] Dan Rebellato, ‘she never repeats herself. She always seems to be asking the question what’s the world like and what form of play do I have to write to express it. She has invented forty or fifty different play forms that everyone else uses, and meanwhile, she’s moved on.’

Rebellato goes on to note that the overlapping dialogue she invented is now used by everyone except her. She’s used doublings, one actor playing many parts, or many actors playing the same part, to political and metaphysical effect over the years, but also just for the sheer theatrical fun of it. Her writing is omnivorous, and slips between naturalism, fantasy and verse with unwavering confidence.

Although Owners, produced in 1972, is usually recognised as her first play, in fact she’d written roughly twenty others before that.

But it was her collaborations with Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock, beginning in 1976, which were to be a turning point in her practice. She describes these experiences as having permanently changed her attitudes to herself, her work, and others. With Monstrous Regiment she made Vinegar Tom, a play about witches with no witches in it and with Joint Stock she made Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a play about a revolution that didn’t happen, and followed this with Cloud Nine, a deeply theatrical play about the relationship between sexual and colonial politics, with a structure that leaps from Victorian Africa to ’70s London. It is incisive and vicious, very funny and cautiously optimistic about our ability to free ourselves from the repressions visited upon us from above, and within. It ran for two years in New York, and was followed by Softcops, inspired by the work of Michel FoucaultIn the ’80s, with Top Girls and Serious Money, she took on the Siamese twins of Thatcherism and London’s financial industry, and in Fen she looked at potato pickers in the bleak flatlands of East Anglia. The Skriker collides the modern and the mythical to give form to the ungovernable forces in women’s lives. In A Number, a man is confronted by clones of his dead son, in a play not really about cloning, and Blue Heart consists of two plays, one of which has a virus.

The 2015 National Theatre revival of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Photo by Marc Brenner)

It should be clear by now we’re talking about a writer of protean gifts, completely lacking in complacency. Simply put, she is the only person writing today who says something new in both form and content every time she puts pen to paper.

Her work is profoundly political, but never didactic, charged with metaphorical power not journalistic editorial. Far Away which, in Dan Rebellato’s words again, ‘feels like it invented British 21st -century playwriting in some ways’, is my own favourite play and the first work I want to share with any young person interested in theatre. It is constructed of scenes depicting a series of universal domestic scenarios: a child waking in the night, afraid. A workplace romance. Taking a lover home to meet your family for the first time. And yet its twenty-six pages are pregnant with vast and troubling themes. It is a play that seems to be about something different every time I read it: the corrosive effects of a climate of fear, our ability to mute the sound of horror happening beyond our shores, the atrocity that occurs when we are convinced we are on the right side of history.

The structure is consummate, the images searing and the language like knives. As two characters, Harper and Todd, make increasingly extravagant hats – that, we slowly learn, are to be worn by prisoners on the way to execution – Harper observes: ‘It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies’, and later she offers as good and as provocative a reflection on a life in the theatre as I can imagine, noting: ‘You make beauty and it disappears, I love that’.

Her formal invention has been on display again more recently in Love and Information, constructed from fragments that express with audacity the rhythm of how we live now, and in Here We Go, a play about death that uses abbreviations and repetitions to stare down the barrel of our decay with all the verve the title implies.

Nikki Amuka-Bird and Joshua James in Love and Information at the Royal Court (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

But I often feel in our eagerness to admire her cathedrals we overlook the exquisite craft of the individual bricks. Not only the dazzling indelible images her plays throw up: a dinner party of women from throughout history, a woman who’s just been murdered appearing in a doorway, a shape-shifter presiding over a feast of glamour, two peasants seeing themselves in a mirror for the first time in their lives.

But also in her dialogue. She’s not a writer with a house-style. The roots of her language are in the demotic, lifted from the playground, the office, the bus, the nursing home, the butchers, and given precise, sculpted form. But her language is poetic in its refusal of artificial elegance, and shot through with flashes of violence, sorrow and comedy, at once dense and digestible, like a Christmas cake that has been fed brandy since January. Next time I get a tattoo, I would happily get them to ink one of her extraordinary lines on my arm, maybe:

If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?

Or perhaps most appropriately for this particular evening:

The only judges I recognise are ones I’ve appointed myself.

She’s written versions of Seneca and Strindberg, opera librettos, worked with choreographers and composers, written for the radio, television and stage and been performed across the world. Her plays are studied at schools and universities and in 2013, Royal Holloway University named its new theatre after her.

Increasingly her work is notable for its economy, not because she has less to say but because her craft is such she can pack more into a line of dialogue than most of us can express in a whole scene. I watched her most recent full-length play Escaped Alone with exhilaration, but also despair, as I realised the play I was myself writing took two hours to say what Caryl Churchill had expressed in a single speech about cats.

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Escaped Alone at the Royal Court
(Photo by Alistair Muir)

Escaped Alone is a play about four women who have lived a long time, chatting in a garden, tempered with visions of apocalypse. It is a play that once again has a radical, questing form. It is surprising and alive and intelligent and very funny. It is a play that feels both absolutely clear and completely mysterious. And like so much of her work, it offers, unsentimentally, a suggestion that in an increasingly unstable world, humans retain a capacity for both joyful song, and terrible, terrible, terrible rage.

It is breathtaking to write a single play that has such qualities. It is, frankly, showing off to have written so many of them.

In the spirit of trying to sum up with her economy why this award is so deserved, I finally turn to the words of her friend and regular collaborator, [director] James Macdonald, who puts it simply like this: “She’s just doing the best writing, isn’t she? Why make it any more complicated?’

Caryl Churchill and Lucy Kirkwood at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards (photo by Matt Writtle)


This is an edited version of a speech written and given by Lucy Kirkwood at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards on Monday 15 January 2018.

We’re honoured to publish Caryl Churchill’s plays – visit our website to see the full selection.

Author photograph of Caryl Churchill by Stephen Cummiskey.

‘Let’s not forget how far we have come’: Mark Gatiss on remembering gay history in Queers

gatiss-mark.jpgJuly 2017 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. When the BBC approached writer, actor and director Mark Gatiss to curate Queers, a series of monologues to mark the anniversary, he got to work straight away. Here, he explains the inspirations behind the eight pieces, and reflects on where the LGBT+ community stands today.

When I was a child, Friday nights were sacrosanct because it was then – after the late sports report – that Tyne Tees Television showed horror films. I would sometimes watch them in company, but more often than not I was left by myself to sit up and watch. In the summer, the slot was occupied by more palatable fare but, used to my horrors, my family duly left me alone. One night – I think I was about twelve or thirteen – there was a film called if… I knew nothing about it except that the Northern Echo gave it five stars and a ‘don’t miss!’

An English public school. Boys returning from the holidays. And, within minutes, a beautiful blond boy is being castigated by a prefect with the words ‘And you, Phillips, stop tarting.’ I felt my heart thud in my chest, my mouth go dry. As the film unfolded, I found myself more tense and gripped than by any horror film I’d ever seen. I became more and more afraid that someone would come downstairs and catch me watching, spoil it all, spoil the illicit thrill…

I’d known I was gay since before I could really understand what such a thing meant. And, just as I had pored over the men’s underwear section of the Brian Mills catalogue in search of titillation (it was slim pickings in those days), I had scoured the TV schedules for anything that might have even a glimmer of homosexual content. From my first crushes (Craig in The Champions and the dark one off Follyfoot, in case you’re wondering) to the first stirrings of something nameless and exciting whilst watching a particular adventure of The Tomorrow People. Jason Kemp, the actor in that episode, later turned up in the ITV drama Kids, playing a brilliantly acerbic Scouse queen. I think I responded both to his physical beauty and his blazing queerness which, like all the best things, felt both exciting and a little bit scary.

These fragments, then, these little moments of visible gayness were like diamonds in the TV schedules. To be savoured, hoarded up and remembered forever.

These days, of course, we do not have to scour the schedules in the same way. There are visible gay characters in many mainstream dramas. Nevertheless, the commitment of the BBC to their ‘Gay Britannia’ season is still a massive cause for celebration. So when I was approached with the idea of curating a series of monologues for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, I leapt at the chance.

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Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

But where to start? Well, with a qualification. Queers commemorates an Act of Parliament which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. It would not become law in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982. In curating this series I have not attempted to cover the entire history of LGBT+ representation in Britain over the past century. Rather, I wanted, predominantly, to examine the gay male experience, looking at the world leading up to the 1967 Act and the years which have followed, tracing the extraordinary progress that’s been made, but from a variety of unexpected angles.

Anti-gay legislation in the modern era really began with the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the so-called ‘Labouchere Amendment’, prohibiting ‘gross indecency between males’. This became known almost at once as ‘the blackmailer’s charter’ and was the law that ensnared Oscar Wilde. Wilde seemed an obvious place to start the monologues, but as I wanted to encompass the century, perhaps it could be from the perspective of someone with a memory of Oscar Wilde? Perhaps someone on the railway platform that infamous day he was taken to Reading Gaol? From this sprang the idea of Perce, a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of World War One and a love that almost spoke its name…

Though the series, as I’ve said, was to reflect mostly the gay male experience, I did want to include some female perspectives. I discovered the extraordinary story of Lillias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith – known as Colonel Barker – who had lived as a man, even going so far as to marry a woman. I thought this could be the basis of a fascinating story and from it, Jackie Clune wove The Perfect Gentleman and its unexpected take on the notion of masculinity.

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Kadiff Kirwan (Fredrick) on the set of Queers |© BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

What was it like to be a black gay man in the past? Although there was a thriving ‘queer’ demi-monde in America in the twenties and thirties, it only seems to have touched the fringes of the jazz scene in this country. It was astonishing, in fact, to discover how little is known about black gay sub-culture at that time. I re-read the biography of the artist Glyn Philpot and thought there might be something interesting in the notion of being an ‘exotic’ life model at that time. This, together with the story of Patrick Nelson – who was one of Duncan Grant’s lovers – provided Keith Jarrett with the inspiration for Safest Spot in Town.

In 1957 came the Wolfenden Report. This was the beginning of change, though it would take a further decade for the law to actually pass. But what aspect of this period to examine? Jon Bradfield pitched me Missing Alice – an idea with which I instantly fell in love. A woman happily married to a gay man who worries that increasing liberalisation might make him leave her. What a lovely, simple notion. A tiny Terence Rattigan play, as it were.

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Rebecca Front (Alice) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

When I first moved to London I remember being invited to what seemed to me quite a sophisticated gay party. What I’ll never forget is chatting to an elderly man, waspish, hilarious and who lapsed into Polari at the drop of a feather boa. ‘It was never the same, you know, dear, after it was legal,’ he said. ‘All the fun went out of it.’ I wanted to use this as a jumping-off point, to explore the notion that not everyone saw legalisation as a good thing. Matthew Baldwin, who had already co-written a fascinating play about ’67 called The Act, was the natural choice to write I Miss the War.

With the eighties, the shadow of AIDS, of course, looms, as monolithic as those tombstone TV ads we grew so used to. This was the time in which I grew up as a gay man. But how to approach this period and this subject which might feel like it’s prey to cliché? Happily, Brian Fillis came up with More Anger about a young gay actor who finds the health crisis affecting him in unexpected ways.

By 1994, change was in the air and the House of Commons voted to lower the homosexual age of consent. I was there that night as big crowds gathered to hear the – as it turned out, disappointing – result. Michael Dennis was also there – though we didn’t know each other at the time. His memories of that experience and of being a young man enjoying the big city for the first time became A Grand Day Out.

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Russell Tovey (Phil) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

Finally, Something Borrowed brings us – almost – to the present day and the preparations for a wedding. I wanted to celebrate this amazing state of affairs, unthinkable just a short time ago, but also to explore what might have got lost along the way. The notion of being different, an outsider, other; that illicit thrill I felt watching if… all those years ago. Gareth McLean’s monologue asks some tough questions without providing easy answers.

As we see every day, hard-won victories can be undone with the stroke of a presidential pen. Homosexuality remains illegal in seventy-four countries. In thirteen of them, it is punishable by death. But let’s not forget how far we have come. And that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Curating and directing Queers has been a wonderful journey, and I’d like to thank everyone involved – from the BBC to the writers, the actors, the crew and the publishers – for making it an unforgettable experience.


FormattedThis is taken from the introduction to Queers: Eight Monologues, published by Nick Hern Books in partnership with the BBC.

Curated by Mark Gatiss, and written by Mark and seven other authors – Jackie Clune, Keith Jarrett, Jon Bradfield, Matthew Baldwin, Brian Fillis, Michael Dennis and Gareth McLean – these eight monologues for male and female performers celebrate a century of evolving social attitudes and political milestones in British gay history, through deeply affecting and personal rites-of-passage stories.

The monologues will be performed at Old Vic Theatre, London, and broadcast on BBC Four

To get your copy at a special 25% discount – so just £7.49 – use code QUEERSBLOG when ordering here.

‘One of the great artistic privileges of my life’: Conor McPherson on writing and directing Girl from the North Country

Fresh from his acclaimed TV debut Paula on BBC Two, award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest project sees him weave the masterful songs of Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan into a poetic, haunting tale of love, loss and obligation set in Minnesota during the Great Depression. As Girl from the North Country premieres at the Old Vic Theatre, London, McPherson reflects on how he found the inspiration for the show, and his deep respect for Bob Dylan’s skills as a musician and writer…

Maybe five years ago I was asked if I might consider writing a play to feature Bob Dylan’s songs. I initially didn’t feel this was something I could do and I had cast it out of my mind when, one day, walking along, I saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s.

I had been in Minnesota twice in the years leading up to this – both times in the dead of winter. The friendliness of the people, the dry frozen wind, the vast distance from home, these things had stayed with me. And I saw a way Mr Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play.

I was invited to write down the idea I had seen and send it to Bob Dylan. A few days later I heard back that Mr Dylan liked the idea and was happy for me to proceed. Just like that.

Ron Cook rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

And then I received forty albums in the post, covering Mr Dylan’s career. While I owned Dylan albums already, like Desire and Blood on the Tracks, and loved many of his songs (often without knowing he’d written them) performed by hundreds of artists from The Byrds to Fairport Convention, I had no idea of the real search he had been on his whole life.

It strikes me that many of Mr Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time. When you realise this you can no longer have any doubt you are in the presence of a truly great, unique artist.

Working on our production of Girl from the North Country, sometimes I would wake in the night with a Bob Dylan song going round in my head. The next day I would come into rehearsals and we’d learn the song and put it in the show. Did it fit? Did it matter? It always fit somehow.

Many books have been written in an attempt to explore this universal power. Even though Mr Dylan will say he’s often not sure what his songs mean, he always sings them like he means them. Because he does mean them. Whatever they mean.

Sheila Atim rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Every time I hear these songs I see a picture like I’m watching a movie. Sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s different, but you always see something.

Like Philip Larkin, like James Joyce, Mr Dylan has the rare power of literary compression. Images and conceits are held in unstable relations, forcing an atomic reaction of some kind, creating a new inner world.

But let’s talk about his musicality. Spending time with his music has taught me a few things: Firstly, writing something that sounds original is rare, but writing something that sounds original and simple at the same time is the mark of genius. Anyone can keep making things more complicated, but to keep a song simple, like it somehow always existed and would have surely been written by someone, someday… try writing that one.

Secondly, Mr Dylan always goes through the right musical door. Listening to a Bob Dylan song is like being in a room you’ve never been in before. It’s full of characters and images and tons of musical atmosphere. But then Bob changes the chords, moving through a bridge or a chorus, and a door opens up in that room, so you go through that door into another room – but it’s always the right door.

Thirdly, Mr Dylan sings about God a lot. Sometimes God appears as an impossible reflection of yourself. Sometimes as someone you could never know. But however God appears, however Mr Dylan begs for mercy, you understand that cry.

The company rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Anyway, I write this on the eve of moving from the rehearsal room to the theatre. Whatever happens next I have no idea. All I can say with any certainty is that having had Mr Dylan’s trust to create a piece of work using his songs has been one of the great artistic privileges of my life.


This introduction is taken from the published script to Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, which includes the full text of the play plus the lyrics to all of the Bob Dylan songs featured in the production.

Get your copy via our website at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – here.

Girl from the North Country is at the Old Vic, London, until 7 October 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Mel Melcon.

‘There is so much left to discover’: Jason Warren on creating immersive theatre

As a director, Jason Warren has staged immersive theatre productions in a variety of styles and settings – from relocating Shakespeare to a seedy nightclub, to turning school buildings into a quarantine facility for survivors of a widespread plague. Here, he shares his own passion for the form, his hopes for his new book Creating Worlds, aimed at those looking to make this type of work, and reflects on what the term ‘immersive theatre’ actually means…

Immersive theatre has been my obsession for a long, long time. My belief in its potential comes from my background. I didn’t grow up reciting Shakespeare, I didn’t go to theatre school straight after completing A levels and I certainly never had teenage aspirations of directing at the National. As an artist, my influences have often come from outside the theatrical canon. I believe theatre can make us feel how I did when I first listened to my favourite album as a teenager. I believe it can draw us in like the most choice-laden role-playing video game. I’m convinced it can rouse passions and make the audience express them like the fiercest political argument after too many beers.

If you ask five artists what immersive theatre is, you might get five different answers, but something that most people would agree on is that it’s a form that gives the audience greater access to the performance. Whether through roaming freely around the space or talking directly with the characters, these productions invite the audience to take a greater role, to be more involved, to become part of the artistry rather than just spectators. Despite that common purpose, however, if you’ve been to a few immersive theatre shows you’ll know that they often have very few similarities to each other.

I’ve been to interactive stories where I was locked in a room with twenty-five other people forced to make a moral decision that would change the story; controlled a small island as I struggled to remain independent against the superpowers trying to coerce me into giving up my uranium; been chased by shadowy creatures in the dark underneath London; and watched my mythological parents descend into a murderous feud. All of them were heralded as immersive productions, and none of them bore any resemblance to each other. There was no one type of space unifying the productions. In some the audience were confined to one room, in some they were free to roam. Sometimes we could affect the story, at others we were purely spectators. All of them, however, are immersive.

MSND photo

Photograph from Jason Warren’s production of #MSND, adapted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare – CLF Arts Cafe, London, 2013

There are common threads I see in all productions that we call immersive. All are (or try to be) innovative in two areas: the role of the audience and how they use the theatre space. Within these threads there’s endless variations in both intention and success, but we can make certain general assumptions. It’s unlikely that the audience will be sat down in rows facing a stage. We probably don’t expect the audience to stay silent throughout then applaud at the end. The actors are not, in all likelihood, separated from the audience by an invisible ‘fourth wall’ at the edge of the stage. The problem is that we can point at endless examples of productions that are not immersive, and sometimes it seems like the form is defined by negatives; that by identifying everything that isn’t immersive, we can use what’s left behind as our definition.

I think this is unhelpful. To me, immersive theatre is about the certain spirit with which we make a performance. A production becomes immersive when it is made by a company who will experiment with the theatrical format in ways that are designed to drag the audience further in. So if you’re thinking about creating your own immersive work, let us agree to drop the debate about definitions and genres. Your production will be immersive, because you have decided it will be. All being well, it will be unlike any immersive theatre we’ve yet seen.

So yes: immersive theatre is a vast and diverse field, taking in work of many kinds. My new book Creating Worlds, however, is not a dry analysis of this form, nor a rundown of performances that have happened in the past. It’s written for theatre-makers, artists and students who want to create this kind of work. It’s also for those who are interested in the guts and ideas that fuel the performances they love. If it inspires you to create your own performances and is enjoyable to read, then I will have achieved my aim.

The joy of working in immersive theatre is that there is so much left to discover. Creating Worlds is the fruit of my experiments and projects over the last few years, but I’m also truly excited about the discoveries yet to be made. It’s a privilege to be working in a field that’s so uncharted, where every project is an opportunity to do something truly innovative. Through monumental mistakes and totally unexpected successes, I’ve ended up with a philosophy on what makes good immersive theatre. My aim with the book is to help you craft your own beliefs – and to create responsive and rich worlds of your own.

CreatingWorlds.jpgThis is an edited extract from Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren, out now.

To buy your own copy for just £10 (rrp £12.99), use code WORLDSBLOG when ordering at http://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/creatingworlds (offer valid until 31 December 2017).

‘One of the greatest ever collaborators’: Enda Walsh on working with David Bowie

Enda Walsh Now playing in London following its premiere in New York last year, new musical Lazarus marks a unique collaboration between the playwright Enda Walsh and legendary singer and songwriter David Bowie – featuring many of the latter’s most famous songs. Though nobody realised at the time, the production turned out to be one of Bowie’s final projects, opening just weeks before his death in January 2016. Here, Walsh recalls what it was like to work with Bowie, and pays tribute to the unending genius of this singularly visionary artist…

David Bowie had passed me a four-page document to read so we could begin our discussions on writing a new story with his songs – and based upon the character of Thomas Newton from the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth – which David had famously played in the Nicolas Roeg film. In the room was the theatre and film producer Robert Fox and David’s right hand, Coco Schwab. As I started to read those four pages, the room was very quiet.

Earlier, I had been feeling very calm and detached as I walked towards David’s building with Robert – as we stood in the elevator, as that ridiculously wide office door opened, and Mr David Bowie was standing there. He hugged me and the first thing he said to me was ‘You’ve been in my head for three weeks.’ We sat and we chatted about my work (he had read everything) and why I was writing the way I was – and what themes kept returning into my plays like a nasty itch. I spent that whole morning and now this first hour of our first meeting in a state of serene self-confidence.

David Bowie

‘David Fucking Bowie’
(Photo: Frank W Ockenfels 3)

It was only at the moment when he said, ‘This is where I’d like to start’, when he pushed those four pages towards me, that I was hit with the realisation that I was sitting opposite this cultural icon – this man who had created so much and influenced so many. This bloody genius. David Fucking Bowie. I felt like a child – and at that point of silently ‘reading’ – a child who had once the ability to read words but had forgotten how to read. I scanned the first page and all I heard was interference – my own insecurities screaming at me.

I stopped reading, took a deep breath and read from the first line again.

David had written three new characters around Thomas Newton (the stranded alien, seemingly immortal and definitely stuck). There was a Girl who may or may not be real; a ‘mass murderer’ called Valentine; and a character of a woman who thought she might be Emma Lazarus (the American poet whose poem ‘The New Colossus’ is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty) – a woman in this case who would help and fall in love with this most travelled of immigrants – Thomas Newton.

At the centre of these four pages was a simple, powerful image: Thomas Newton would build a rocket from debris. His mind, having further deteriorated, would torture and tease him with the dream of escape; and in his imprisonment – in his room in this big tower – Newton would try one last time to leave.

So this is where we started.

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Michael C Hall (Newton), Sophia Anne Caruso (Girl) in Lazarus | Photo: Johan Persson

We talked around the characters and the themes of the book. On isolation and madness and drug abuse and alcoholism and the torment of immortality. And there was a lot of talk about the beauty of unconditional love and goodness. We talked about characters finding themselves out of control – about the story sliding into a murky sadness and quick violence – about characters having drab conversations about television snacks – the everyday bending quickly and becoming Greek tragedy. The celestial and the shitty pavement.

For the first few meetings Coco stayed silent and listened to us (until she couldn’t listen to us any more maybe!), and then she asked, ‘Yeah, but what happens?’ It was a fair question and one that we would return to – but we weren’t there yet. We needed to get a sense of the themes of it and its atmosphere and its world. The narrative trajectory of a man wanting to leave Earth and being helped by some and stopped by others – this was there in David’s four pages and would remain in our story, but the events of the story would emerge later.

And then there were the songs.

David handed me a folder of lyrics and CDs he had put together. ‘Some of these you’ll know.’ It was a bloody funny thing to say. We would hammer out the story together, but initially he wanted me to choose the songs we would use. I guess he had lived with some of them for years and there must have been unshakable associations – maybe it would be easier for me to listen to them coldly from a purely narrative perspective.

His lyrics often arrive cut-up and opaque – so it was rarely about listening to the words and sticking it into the story. It was about the emotion, rhythm and atmosphere of those songs – and having the characters riding that wave and accessing their souls, where they could lyrically go to those strange places.

Lazarus

Michael C Hall (Newton) in Lazarus | Photo: Jan Versweyveld

We talked about the form – the shape of the story arriving broken and a little shattered. We talked about a person dying and the moments before death and what might happen in their mind and how that would be constructed on stage. We started talking about escape, but we ended up talking about a person trying to find rest. About dying in an easier way.

Newton would spend his last moments trying to stop a bullying mind that kept him living. Physically it didn’t matter to us whether he was on Earth or in the stars at the very end. We wanted Newton – in his terms – to feel at rest.

No matter how plays come out, you always end up talking about yourself. David was certainly the most superb shapeshifter – one of the greatest ever collaborators too – someone who could walk his colleagues in directions they’d yet seen. But for me he remained personal in his work and spoke about where he was at that moment in really truthful terms.

Lazarus arrived at both of us with its own swagger and shape and emotion. It’s a strange, difficult and sometimes sad dream Newton must live through – but in its conclusion, he wins his peace.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-47-15This is taken from the Introduction to Lazarus: The Complete Book and Lyrics by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, out now.

The book contains the full script, including the lyrics to the seventeen songs featured in the musical – among them iconic Bowie numbers such as ‘Changes’, ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Heroes’, plus three new original compositions.

To get your copy for just £7.99, click here.

Lazarus is playing at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 22 January. See more about the show here.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 1: Final preparations

Getting ready for The Fringe? Our Edinburgh Fringe Report is back (you can still read last year’s Report here) with six more amateur theatre companies – all of them performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books – revealing the state of their play as they get ready to launch themselves on The Fringe…

Holes by Tom Basden
Lyons Productions
C South Main Theatre, 14–20 August

Holes is an absurd, hilarious and fast-paced comedy by Tom Basden, the writer of some of Britain’s most acclaimed TV comedies (Fresh Meat, Plebs). Flight BA043 has crashed on an island. Stranded, four survivors wait. Surely somebody will find them. Planes don’t just disappear, do they? And, if no one’s coming… what do they do now?

We are Lyons Productions, a theatre company made up of University of Exeter students and graduates. Last year we performed our highly successful debut show, Party by Tom Basden, across Devon and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where we achieved a five-star sell-out run. Our choice to return to the Fringe with another Basden play was a very simple one – we feel that Basden’s writing is perfect for Fringe audiences, delivering big laughs whilst being subtly balanced with politics and poignancy, often making his work scarily relevant to our world today.

Rehearsals have been in full swing this week (in between the odd graduation and fundraising event!) which has propelled the company to the next level of the rehearsal process. The blocking is becoming more fluid and layered as the actors develop their confidence and understanding of the script. We have also thrown every prop imaginable at them in order to create the chaos of the plane crash on an island. Although the scale of the show is challenging, the group is in high spirits and we are eager to get Holes to Edinburgh!

– Talia Winn, Producer

In rehearsal for Holes by Tom Basden, Lyons Productions

In rehearsal for Holes by Tom Basden, Lyons Productions


BullBull by Mike Bartlett
The Rude Mechanicals Amateur Dramatics
SpaceTriplex, 23–27 August

‘Don’t hunch. Stand up to him, stand up straight, smile a bit, you never know, you might win.
I mean you won’t.
But you might.’

Bull by Mike Bartlett is a dark comedy about the brutality of workplace politics and the pleasures of being mean. As Isobel, Tony and Thomas compete to keep their jobs, nothing is off limits. Mind games and dirty tricks abound as each character negotiates the brutal, Darwinist world they are trapped in.

So we’re half way through rehearsals for Bull, and it’s still making us laugh. We chose the play because it’s an impactful, dialogue-driven comedy with a healthy streak of menace. Having been up to the Fringe with plays in the past, Bull seemed perfect for what we wanted to do this year – its minimal set allows for an unwavering focus on the complex characters Bartlett has created.

The good thing about doing a play with meaty characters is that it always feels like everyone’s fully engaged in each rehearsal. Nick and I (co-directing the play) have chosen to take a more collaborative approach to the project, so before each rehearsal we all sit down to discuss and debate the scene before us. This has really helped our actors to identify with the characters they are playing, and their interactions on stage already feel very natural.

We still have lots of work ahead of us; a play such as Bull, driven as it is by sharp and precise dialogue, needs careful choreographing and creative direction to constantly challenge ourselves and our actors to look at the play from different angles. With just a few weeks left now before we head up to Edinburgh, we’re all very excited to put the finishing touches on our production of an amazing play!

– Priya Manwaring, Co-Director


BURYING_YOUR_BROTHER_EHSBurying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne
Eagle House School
SpaceTriplex, 8–13 August

Wow – this is a great play! We’re performing Burying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne, a play written specifically for young people to perform, by the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

We have all learnt lots as a company and rehearsals have been quite an adventure as we tell the story of Tom, who decides he wants to bury his brother, Luke, in the pavement, on the exact spot where he died rather horrifically.  Tom, unable to cope at home, camps out on the pavement where his brother died and begins to meet all sorts of people who inhabit the Tunstall Estate.

It is both funny, sad and gripping as we watch a boy deal with his grief in the most unexpected way. For young people this has all the ingredients for a great show: music, drama, emotion, joy and our audiences are in for a real treat. A vibrant soundtrack, including some pieces we have written for the show, pulses through the narrative. The young cast, aged 12–15, are current and former pupils of Eagle House and are thrilled to be showcasing both the play and their talents in Edinburgh.

Jack Thorne, one of the UK’s brightest playwrights, has written a mesmerising piece of youth theatre and we are delighted to be performing it at this year’s Fringe.  Come and see us!

– Matthew Edwards, Head of Drama, Eagle House School

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In rehearsal for Burying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne, Eagle House School


HANG A5 Flyerhang by debbie tucker green
Yellow Jacket Productions
C Venues, C Nova, 3–27 August

‘When they’ve seen their dad damaged, their mother motionless, our marriage disfigured our family f***ed…You tell me what to do then.’

Today is the day that Three (the character I’m playing in hang by debbie tucker green) must finally decide how her attacker is to be executed for his crimes against her and her family.  This is a new Britain, a Britain where the death penalty exists. And state officials One (Kim Christie) and Two (Jessica Flood) must see that she comes to a decision.  hang has the capacity to send a thrilling chill down the spine, for it takes place in a world that could exist, is not far from existing and, in some parts of the world, actually does exist.

Having been lucky enough to watch Marianne Jean Baptiste’s powerful performance in hang at the Royal Court Theatre in 2015, I was left clutching the script and feeling inspired. I was keen to tackle the text with an all-female cast, so I recruited Kim and Jessica, fellow graduates from The Poor School, and together we formed an exciting new company, Yellow Jacket Productions.

Tiannah

Tiannah Viechweg in rehearsal for hang by debbie tucker green, Yellow Jacket Productions

We started rehearsals in June and it didn’t take long before we realized that the text we were working with had a powerful simplicity paired with a structural complexity that was going to be an exciting challenge. The writing is truly superb and we discover new things and levels of meaning in each rehearsal.  This is an extremely clever text.

Our director Kevin Russell, founder of New Dreams Theatre, brings a playful energy to each rehearsal.  Kevin has a unique ability to find the humour in the darkest of moments, the perfect balance for a dark comedy like hang.  There are moments in the play when even we, the actors, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s genius.

Amusingly, there have been moments when we’ve seen ourselves in the characters – their habits, phrases, gestures. Some uncanny resemblances have left us often wondering if the play was actually written with us three in mind.

Now in the final few weeks of rehearsals, it’s all coming together. We’ve had the privilege to work with some extremely talented creatives along the way. Complete with an original score, purpose-designed costumes and a vivacious cast, we are proud to bring a fresh new version of a great play to the audiences of the Edinburgh Fringe.

– Tiannah Viechweg, cast member


HowieHowie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe
Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society
Paradise in the Vault, 15–28 August

We are a group of four students from the University of Cambridge working with the Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society in order to bring a stellar performance to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.

The play we’ve selected for this year’s Fringe is Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie. O’Rowe’s 1999 verse play is a drama of two halves, featuring The Howie Lee and The Rookie Lee, two men with nothing in common except a last name and one ill-fated day.

Set in the suburbs of Dublin, Howie the Rookie takes a nightmarish dive into the darkest turns of human behaviour, littering the descent with moments of comedy and intensely lyrical verse. The play consists of two monologues, delivered by each of the two characters consecutively, giving their story of the day’s twists and turns. The actors speak directly to the audience, and the play becomes a fascinating exhibition of the importance of point of view, and how it shapes the experience of the audience. Furthermore, it becomes a masterful example of the importance of story-telling in theatre, which we have spent a lot of time focusing on in rehearsals.

We’ve spent a lot of rehearsal time on researching the environment in which Howie and Rookie live, which has been truly enlightening for bringing the performance to life. We’ve mapped out our precise vision of Tallaght, the suburb of Dublin in which the play takes place; we’ve drawn up the pubs and bars where fights take place, the houses our characters and our characters’ friends live in; we’ve even been learning how to box so we can really visualise the fights themselves. This is more important than just a backstory, though; it’s a way to really do justice to the nature of the play. Each monologue is essentially its own story, and with no set, no other actors and no props, our job is to take the audience through the town of Tallaght and the, at times, terrifying detail of the action: purely with the words of O’Rowe.

When we ourselves know how everything looks, sounds, smells and feels in our heads, only then can we hope to create this environment, flavoured by the characters’ emotions, in the audience’s heads too.

We think this is going to be a truly exciting show, and we cannot wait to get it to Edinburgh!

– Rebecca Vaa, Producer

Howie the Rookie by Mark O'Rowe

Howie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe, Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society: director Eleanor Warr with actors Thomas Taplin (left) and Ed Limb (right)


Immaculate_poster_FinalImmaculate by Oliver Lansley
Harpoon
C Venues, C Nova, 3–9 August

Finding a way to balance rehearsals for Immaculate with revising for A-Levels was much easier said than done. Despite this, the comical nature of the play has certainly helped inspire the cast to get the balance just right.

After performing Immaculate in front of a school audience for three days, and receiving a very positive response, we were spurred on to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe. I think it’s fair to say that as a cast of young, keen actors, we underestimated just how tough this would be. However, the drive of our two directors/producers turned ideas into reality and have opened the door for an incredible opportunity.

The play itself is fast moving and funny, and the situation that the characters find themselves in is very relatable to a contemporary audience. Oliver Lansley manages to make the Second Coming a modern-day comedy drama as opposed to a biblical prophecy. Mia is the mother of either Christ reborn or the spawn of the devil. This problem is further complicated by the arrival of her needy ex-boyfriend and a friend from school with whom, it turns out, she’d had a one-night stand.

The nature of the plot and the way in which we, as a cast, have decided to dramatise the script has created a very amusing production which was well received by members of staff, parents and students alike when performed at school, and so we hope that it will be enjoyed by everyone, whatever their age, when we bring it to the Fringe!

– William Ellis Hancock, cast member

Immaculate by Oliver Lansley

Immaculate by Oliver Lansley, Harpoon (pre-Edinburgh production)


1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]Look out for Part II of our Edinburgh Fringe Report next month, when we find out how our companies fared on the Fringe.

And don’t forget to check out the exciting new plays we’re publishing alongside their Edinburgh premieres this year. Click here for all the details, plus a special discount code you can use to buy any of the playtexts.

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See you in Edinburgh!