Ladies Unleashed: Playwright Amanda Whittington on her Ladies Trilogy

Business portraits Marsden HuddersfieldWhen Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies’ Day premiered at Hull Truck Theatre in 2005, it introduced the world to Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda – four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day at the races. The play and its sequel, Ladies Down Under, have since been performed around the world, including thousands of performances by amateur and community theatre groups. Now there’s a third play in the sequence, Ladies Unleashed, just premiered at Hull Truck, which brings the story of the Ladies bang up to date. Here, the playwright reflects on the enduring popularity of her beloved Ladies, and why amateur performances of her work are so important to her…

It’s hard to believe it’s almost twenty years since Hull Truck asked me to write Ladies’ Day, a play inspired by Royal Ascot coming to York Racecourse for one year only. It was a huge event in the Yorkshire calendar and a pretty big deal for me, too. A youngish playwright, it was my first commission for a company I’d long admired.

Ladies’ Day opened in June 2005 and ran for three weeks to full houses. I was knocked out by the response but had no expectation it had a future beyond its first production. It was written for a specific place and time; that was part of its success, or so I thought. The characters had other ideas.

The play dramatises a day at the races with four friends who work side-by-side at a Hull fish plant. Swapping overalls for Sunday best, Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda set out for Royal Ascot and get lucky on the Tote. But what Ladies’ Day is truly about is friendship, relationships, hopes, dreams and disappointments. They’re ordinary women in the best sense of the word.

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Hull Truck production of Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, 2005 (Photograph by Adrian Gatie)

A year later, Hull Truck took Ladies’ Day on a UK tour. I’d hoped the Ladies would be recognisable to a Hull audience but we soon found they were just as relatable across the country. There was also a growing curiosity about the next chapter. The end of Ladies’ Day – a big win for the workmates on the horses – felt like a new beginning.

Ladies Down Under caught up with the gang a couple of years after the win. I hadn’t conceived the story as a sequel, but it was wonderful to write in response to the impact the Ladies had made. The much-loved Hull Truck cast reprised their roles on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Australia, which soon becomes a metaphorical journey of discovery.

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Hull Truck production of Ladies Down Under by Amanda Whittington, 2007 (Photograph by Louise Buckby)

In 2008, Ladies Down Under returned from a UK tour to join the final season at Hull Truck’s legendary Spring Street theatre. It felt like a fitting end to our four-year run. I imagined the characters would forever stay in that magical bubble of time. Not quite. Nick Hern Books had published Ladies’ Day and Ladies Down Under, and pretty soon, new productions were springing up in villages and towns across the country.

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Wolverhampton Grand production of Ladies’ Day by Amanda Whittington, 2018 (Photograph by Graeme Braidwood)

As a playwright, you learn to let go of your stories. At the end of a run, there’s no guarantee you’ll see your characters again. Yet thanks to amateur and community theatre, these ladies – and the gents in their world – are very much alive. Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda have been played by hundreds of actors in thousands of performances.

Words can’t express how grateful I am to each and every company that programmes my work. I read every licence that comes in, and note all the villages, towns and cities the Ladies are heading to next. I love to hear from you, see your photos and answer your questions on the plays. It’s always a joy to meet you and and talk Ladies. By programming new work, the amateur sector not only keeps plays alive but sustains careers. Every ticket sold in a local theatre, church hall or school is an investment in a writer’s future work, as well as our past

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Four out of the thousands of amateur productions of Amanda Whittington’s Ladies plays. Clockwise from top left: Hyde Heath Theatre Company; Tanat Theatre Club; Dudley Little Theatre; Nantwich Players

Which brings us to Ladies Unleashed.

I’d made up my mind not to do it. The first Ladies play achieved more than I’d dared hope. The sequel came hot on its heels. Fifteen years passed, but a question kept popping up from actors, producers and audiences: ‘When are you writing a third?’

It was a great compliment, but I really wasn’t sure. I think I was torn between love and fear: your love for the characters, and my fear of failure. Yet I was curious too, and self-doubt is a voice writers know very well. We learn to live with it, channel it and, ultimately, fly in the face of it. Which I finally did in 2018, onstage at Nick Hern Books’ Amateur Theatre Fest, announcing the trilogy so then, I couldn’t not do it.

At the same time, I was talking to Artistic Director Mark Babych about a new play for Hull Truck. We had various ideas but the conversation kept coming back to the Ladies. Mark loved the characters and was interested in the idea of ‘where are they now?’ In 2019, I wrote a first draft set in the present day on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland. Then along came Covid. We all know that story. When theatres reopened and I returned to the play – now programmed for Hull Truck’s 50th-Anniversary season – the world had changed, so I started afresh.

Ladies Unleashed is the third in a trilogy but, like the first, it stands alone as a play for today. I didn’t want to repeat whatever formula there might be in the first two. Pearl, Jan, Linda and Shelley are a generation older, and so am I; the 30-something writer of Ladies’ Day wouldn’t and couldn’t have written this play. I set out to push the boundaries the first two plays had set. Yet in draft after draft, the characters came back so strongly, I knew they’d never quite left. It’s like meeting old friends. I do hope you’ll feel the same.

Gemma Oaten in Ladies Unleashed

Gemma Oaten (foreground) and Fenella Norman, Sara Beharrell and Allison Saxton (background) in the Hull Truck production of Ladies Unleashed by Amanda Whittington, 2022 (Photograph by Ian Hodgson)

To mark the publication of the trilogy, I’ve set up a Facebook group for companies producing the Ladies plays. Share your thoughts, questions, photos, dilemmas and discoveries with us on Ladies’ Day, Down Under & Unleashed. I look forward to seeing you there!


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Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies Unleashed is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy a copy of the playscript with a 20% discount (£10.99 £8.79 plus p&p), visit our website.

The playscript is also available as part of an exclusive three-book bundle deal: buy all three plays in the Ladies TrilogyLadies’ Day, Ladies Down Under and Ladies Unleashed – at a time-limited discount: £32.97 £24 plus p&p. Only available on our website here.

Amateur performing rights are now available for all three plays. For more information, visit the relevant page on our Plays to Perform site: Ladies’ Day, Ladies Down Under or Ladies Unleashed. It’s important that you apply for performing requests before any commitment is made.

Author photo by Elizabeth Baker Photography

In dark times: Two Ukrainian playwrights on life in the midst of the conflict

It has been six months now since Russia invaded Ukraine, but as a double-bill of Ukrainian plays – published this week and currently showing at the Finborough Theatre in London – makes clear, the conflict really began much earlier than that, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. For the two leading Ukrainian playwrights whose work is being staged, and who both still live and work in Ukraine, the war there is as devastating as it was foreseeable. Here, Natal’ya Vorozhbit and Neda Nezhdana (together with their translators, Sasha Dugdale and John Farndon) write about the anger, dismay and horror that has fed into their work, as well as the extraordinary human resilience in the face of outrageous Russian aggression.

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Natal’ya Vorozhbit writes: ‘When I wrote Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in 2014, the war in Ukraine had already begun. It continued in the east of the country, and it was impossible to believe. I tried to wear this war, as did my family; I wrote about my fears and premonitions and hoped that they would never come true, that humanity would be horrified and stop the war at that stage. But humanity pretended that nothing was happening and bought gas from Russia. Eight years have passed and everything that I described in the play, only much worse, has happened to the whole of Ukraine, hit all of us and touched all of you.

For eight years, neither Ukraine nor the world has coped with the evil that came without hiding. It really hurts me that this text is only now so relevant. Can it change anything? It seems that art does not become a warning and does not change the world at all. And only the human ability not to lose hope moves us further, makes us write, fight, and believe that good and truth will win.’

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Amanda Ryan and Alan Cox in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Dugdale, SashaSasha Dugdale writes: ‘I translated Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha in late 2014 for A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Òran Mór in Glasgow, directed by Nicola McCartney. The war in Donbas had begun earlier that same year, so by the time Natalka wrote her short play the initial shock of war and invasion had worn off. In her lithe, funny and poignant work, Natalka looks back to the Soviet period, and the confusion of the nineties, and shows how ideas of masculinity have shifted over a period of turbulent change. With her “sly writer’s heart” (a phrase she uses in her 2017 classic Bad Roads) and her abundant compassion and humour, she depicts a family operating under all sorts of strains: the burden of alcoholism, divorce, poor health, death, financial constraints, and the various toxins of a corrupt and venal late- or post-Soviet military system.

It is a surprise when war interrupts this mess of ordinary lives and their tensions – as much a surprise to the viewer as it appears to be for the characters. They are wrenched backwards into a time when masculinity counted for something – and yet paradoxically it is women now managing, holding the fort, buying the supplies: the men turn out to be absent, shadowy or supernatural.

I have translated Natalka’s work for many years and it has been a privilege and a responsibility. Over the period of our collaboration she has documented the emerging Ukraine and its process of self-definition, through protest and uprising, into the woeful period of Russian aggression which has dominated Ukraine’s recent history. I love and relish her deft, wry dialogue and its humour, and the power female protagonists have in her writing. Most of all I love her joy in humanity, in all its forms, and I take this into my translating, often laughing aloud at her sheer cleverness and wit as I strive to find English equivalents.’

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Issy Knowles and Amanda Ryan in Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha by Natal’ya Vorozhbit at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


Nezhdana, Neda_croppedNeda Nezhdana writes: ‘Since the Revolution of Dignity, I have “mobilised” my “literary soldiers”; all my texts have been related to the Maidan and the war. At the beginning of 2014, my native city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk region was occupied by Rashists (Russian fascists) for several months. My relatives managed to escape, and I wanted to write a play about it: what it is like to become a refugee. They had had their whole world stolen from them: home, work, friends, city… And the total lies of Russian propaganda – about the Maidan, Donbas, Ukraine in general – were outrageous. Nothing to do with reality. On the contrary, they called the Maidan’s international goal of association with the EU “Nazism”, and described their own aggression, terror and looting as “liberation”. Time has shown that their hybrid occupation brought only grief: tens of thousands killed, wounded, orphaned, millions of refugees, destroyed houses and destinies… And people, provoked by propaganda, became murderers, executioners and traitors…

I searched for a long time to find the right form for my play, Pussycat in Memory of Darkness. The impetus was the true story of Iryna Dovgan, a beauty-salon worker who was captured and tortured by the Russians. Her words suggested the title of the play: she saw “darkness” in the eyes of her executioner. This is what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to warn the world about this “darkness” – the impunity of criminals turning into a “tsunami” that can engulf all of us in a terrible nightmare of terror… Yet “in dark times, bright people are clearly visible,” as Erich Maria Remarque wrote. The second impetus for the play was photos of our retreating soldiers rescuing dogs, cats and parrots. Animals, whose owners had been killed or captured, sensed where they would be helped, and went to Ukrainian soldiers. I believe that humanity begins with our attitude towards animals. This is how the eventual image of a volunteer heroine who helps soldiers and saves kittens was born. White, grey and black are the three steps in the war of light and dark… Documentary stories from relatives and friends, my own memories and news, such as the shooting down of a passenger plane by the Russians in Donbas, were intertwined with fantasy. It was a cry for help: people, stop this horror before it’s too late… But millions of crimes in the Russian Federation remain unpunished, and unpunished evil is growing progressively.

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Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)

Since 24th February 2022, this “darkness” has spread over the whole of Ukraine. When I wrote this play, I didn’t know, like my character, how it was to be with children and animals under fire from rockets and bombs, what it meant to be a refugee. But now I know this from my own experience in the Kyiv region, and my relatives in Kramatorsk live next to the train station that was hit by Russian rockets on 8th April… Tens of millions of people are going through this now, dozens of countries around the world are helping displaced people and the wounded from Ukraine. More than two-thirds of Ukrainian children are refugees, others are under fire, in infiltration camps, deported, wounded, killed… Now refugees are a problem for the whole world. Rashists destroy entire cities and villages, especially schools, hospitals, museums, theatres, churches, burn books… And they also “denazify” animals: horses are burned in stables and cows are blasted by “hail”… They even attack plants – mining forests and burning grain fields… This is not only the most terrible war in terms of weapons, it is genocide, the attack of barbarism on civilisation, slavery on freedom. It is important to understand: leaving the occupied territories of Ukraine to the Russian Federation means condemning people to death and torture. Unfortunately, this play has only grown in relevance. I believe that such texts help those traumatised by the war and those who want to understand what is really happening. All over the Earth, which is becoming absorbed by the “darkness”. However, I remain in Ukraine and continue to write, because I believe in the victory of light. Thanks to all “warriors of light” in the world.’


Farndon, John_cropJohn Farndon writes: ‘The ongoing Russian attack on Ukraine is a horror which no one can ignore. What can theatremakers do? The very painful answer is not much. But since the beginning of March 2022, I’ve been working with the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings project, in collaboration with Theatre of Playwrights in Kyiv, to bring the words of Ukraine’s amazing and courageous playwrights to the world by translating dozens of their plays, many written almost from the frontline – raw, immediate and powerful.

For me, the most extraordinary discovery has been the writing of Neda Nezhdana, and it’s been a privilege to translate her work. She is something of a legend in Ukraine yet her work has never been staged in English until now. It should have been. Neda has an extraordinary ability to distil the most challenging aspects of Ukraine’s situation into bold, provocative, thrilling drama.

Pussycat in Memory of Darkness is set in 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and began its ongoing attempts to destabilise the Donbas, in revenge for Ukraine’s Maidan revolution to rid the country of Russian influence. It tells the story of the nightmare life that develops for one woman in the Donbas in the face of the insidious violence stirred up in her home town by the Russian-backed militia and propaganda. It is a beautifully crafted, yet uncompromising drama that takes us right into the heart of darkness that is Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yet the message is not just about Ukraine, but for us all.’

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Kristin Milward in Pussycat In Memory of Darkness by Neda Nezhdana at the Finborough Theatre, 2022 (Photograph by Charles Flint)


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This is an edited version of the introduction to Voices from Ukraine: Two Plays published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here. 10% of the proceeds from sales of the book will be donated to the Voices of Children Charitable Foundation, a Ukrainian charity providing urgently needed psychological and psychosocial support to children affected by the war in Ukraine.

The plays Take the Rubbish Out, Sasha and Pussycat in Memory of Darkness are in production at the Finborough Theatre, London, until 3 September. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the Finborough Theatre website.

‘Write with your heart as well as your head’: Jemma Kennedy on getting started as a playwright

JemmaKennedy_blogFor playwright and screenwriter Jemma Kennedy, plays are something of a paradox: carefully structured works of studied, practised craft, but also filled with unstudied, creative instinct. For a script to truly come to life, it must encapsulate both these qualities.

In this extract from Jemma’s book The Playwright’s Journey, she reflects on her own path as a writer, and how you, too, can embark on the voyage towards getting your play onto the page, and then to the stage.

Craft alone cannot make a good play.

Anyone can pick up Aristotle’s Poetics (the book every playwright is told to read) and teach themselves how three-act structure works, or take a course on the mechanics of theatrical dialogue, narrative and stagecraft. But the double bind of being a playwright is that once you’ve perfected your play on paper, its work is only just begun. A dramatist’s real apprenticeship only truly begins the moment their texts start to be performed, if not to a paying audience, then at least to a roomful of students or peers or theatre folk. Like a bungee-jumper, you leap off a platform into thin air and hope your cord holds.

For while plays are constructs, they are also made of organic matter. Thoughts and feelings, experiences, intuition, emotional intelligence. These are the things that make a play come alive, first on the page and then on the stage. You might call it spark, or voice, originality, energy – the unique DNA that is found in any individual playwright’s work, and which starts with their creative instincts. These instincts are, in a way, the direct opposite of craft, and they cannot be learned by rote. If you’re currently writing a play yourself, I’ll bet that you’re not staying up all night hunched over your keyboard or working through your lunch-break simply because you want to practise crafting a dramatic form. It’s because you have a burning desire to tell a story and communicate something about human behaviour.

I never studied theatre formally myself. I learned to write, as most of us do, by trial and error. Watching plays. Reading plays. Studying their structure. Discussing productions with friends and colleagues. And slowly, tentatively, starting to write myself. It was hard. I had readings, I got commissions, I was invited to theatre-writing groups. More often than not, the plays didn’t make it on to the stage, beyond a rehearsed reading. It took ten years from writing that first play to having my first main stage production, and along the way I have learned some pretty good lessons. Incidentally, I never made it through the first chapter of Aristotle’s Poetics. But I have sat in the ruins of the Theatre of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, and looked at the stage where Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, among others, debuted their plays. Thousands of bottoms have worn the marble seats smooth.

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‘I learnt to write by trial and error’ – Jemma Kennedy in rehearsals for her play Genesis Inc., which premiered at Hampstead Theatre, London, in 2018 (Photograph by Manuel Harlan)

Over the last decade I’ve also taught many hours of playwriting. To BA and MA students; to adult learners; to young writers; for new-writing theatres, on residential courses, universities, up mountains and by the ocean. I’ve also run a long-running class for developing writers, which I went on to teach at the National Theatre in London – and it’s these classes which have formed the basis for my book on playwriting, The Playwright’s Journey.

The book guides you through the entire life-cycle of your play. Part 1 begins with the very first spark of a new idea, through getting that out of your head and onto the page (with guidance on technical aspects of the craft such as character, structure, constructing scenes, writing dialogue, and so on). Then, once you’ve written your play, Part 2 focuses on the practicalities of (hopefully) having your script turned into a show – including some practical advice about how to navigate this exciting but sometimes baffling process. I hope the book will encourage you to interrogate your creativity and explore your connection to your material, while finding ways to harness them to writing craft. In other words, to explore the process of playwriting via the heart as well as the head.

As a teacher, and now in The Playwright’s Journey, I offer no hard and fast rules for what a good play is, or should be, or how it should be written. Creativity is a fluid, mysterious thing, bubbling up from our unconscious minds. It can’t and shouldn’t be forced into formulaic shapes. You must allow yourself time to daydream, to feel your way through your writing process, as well as applying craft to those base materials. Then you can find and harness the patterns, rhythms and devices of theatrical narrative – and of language – in order to tell your story. Your play may be a ‘well-made play’ in the traditional sense; it may be a one-woman show or a devised piece of performance or an adaptation of a literary work or anything in between. Whatever it is, I hope to share some knowledge and experience that will help you to keep going and finish the draft that might one day make it on to the stage.

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This is an edited extract from The Playwright’s Journey by Jemma Kennedy – out now, published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% on your copy when you order direct from the Nick Hern Books website here.

Jemma Kennedy is a playwright and screenwriter. Her work has been seen internationally, including at Hampstead Theatre and the National Theatre, London, where she has been both playwright-in-residence and teacher of playwriting.

Theatre for the Climate Emergency: 100 Plays to Save the World

Fighting climate change is an urgent, universal endeavour – and theatre-makers and playwrights have a vital role to play, capturing the reality of an experience we’ve never faced before, and envisaging our responses to it.

Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare’s new book, 100 Plays to Save the World, is a guide to a hundred brilliant plays that address the climate crisis, from recent plays that tackle it directly, to classic texts in which ecological themes now ring out clearly.

Designed to start conversations, provoke debate and launch many future productions, 100 Plays to Save the World is a call to arms, a challenge to us all to unleash theatre’s power to imagine a better future into being.

Here, the authors explain why the great climate-change play already exists, and what theatre-makers can do to save the planet.


People often ask: where is the great climate-change play? The answer is it’s here, it has already been written, and quite possibly it was staring you in the face. Writers have for years been wrestling with the challenges the world now faces, but clarion calls from the past by visionary playwrights are only now being listened to. Extinction, extreme weather, resource shortages, failing political leadership, truth, denial – these things already exist in the playwriting culture. We just need a sharp new ear to tune into their resonances. In addition, new plays are being written every day dealing head-on with these topics.

We – artists, thinkers, creators – have a responsibility to communicate the truth of this emergency. The future we currently face is as uncertain as it is daunting. The world is shape-shifting and our culture must too.

‘The future we currently face is as uncertain as it is daunting’: there were mixed responses from activists to the COP26 summit that took place in Glasgow in Oct-Nov 2021.

The Anthropocene is the name given to the geological age we are in now. Named after the Greek ‘anthropos’, meaning ‘man’, it was chosen to emphasise the truth that humankind has now left a geological footprint on this planet: radioactive isotopes are found in glacial ice; the high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are detectable in tree rings and limestone; our plastic waste is forming a new sedimentary layer. But still large swathes of the population opt out of believing in these facts. Why? We have to consider that the stories we tell, the way in which we tell them, and on which stages they are told, might be part of the problem. We urge theatre-makers and programmers to become part of the Theatre of the Anthropocene, telling stories that anticipate our future, acknowledge our past and make our present liveable.

Climate-change plays don’t need to be either scientist plays, dystopias, or have a polar bear in them. Some of the works we can now view in this light were written long before such a thing as a climate crisis was known about. Plays by Aristophanes, Chekhov, Brecht and others now seem eerily prescient when read through environmental eyes, both predicting and speaking directly to this moment. Some were written more recently but without an explicitly stated intention that the play addresses environmental issues. Relationships to nature, geopolitical issues, social consequences of environmental impacts; all of these help tell the story of the most pressing issue facing us today. Their relevance is a useful reminder that staging environmental stories is not just the responsibility of playwrights. Theatre-makers of every discipline – casting, design, acting, directing, stage management – must reimagine and reinterpret these plays through the prism of the present. The climate crisis is not one problem. Turning down the global thermostat won’t solve habitat destruction or reconnect people to the natural world.

Fighting the climate crisis is a global endeavour. There are voices and places under-represented – and we urge translators and commissioners to enable more work from the Global South to be heard.  We need to acknowledge that the nature of our international theatre reveals our collective thinking, and that maybe our collective thinking is sleepily behind the curve. The world is reshaping itself violently in the physical realm and that is impacting on the reshaping of stories we need to tell, not just for now but for generations to come. This climate emergency will, in many ways, be the subject of all of our art for the foreseeable future, just as it ought to be the dominant discourse in our political, economic and social spheres.

Writers won’t just write plays about these issues for a short while, after a fashion, believing the crisis will then be over. This is our new reality. The shifts we make societally in the next decade will be with us forever, otherwise the undeniable truth is that the concept of forever will itself no longer exist.

The impact of the climate emergency is also altering the way that plays are written and for whom they are written. The movement of peoples has an impact on our stories, and the rise in the pitch of the voices that need to be heard has an impact on our listening.

We can no longer navel-gaze and clink our gins. We need to capture a reality that we have never experienced before. We need to unleash the power of a total theatre, an era of playwriting that embraces epic stories, and values playwrights’ intelligent, focused urgency and understanding. We need to exercise and stretch our thinking, widen our eyes, strengthen our neck muscles for the sustained looking up we now need to do. Theatre must imagine the future, and help us reach towards the bold, humane, quick thinking we are going to need.

Elizabeth Freestone (left) and Jeanie O’Hare (right), authors of 100 Plays to Save the World


This is an edited extract from 100 Plays to Save the World by Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O’Hare, out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £11.99 plus p&p (rrp £14.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Elizabeth Freestone is a theatre director, creative consultant and environmentalist. She has directed plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Citizens Theatre Glasgow, the Young Vic and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, amongst others. She is a former Artistic Director of Pentabus, a new work touring company. She offers strategic advice and creative and environmental consultancy in both a paid and volunteer capacity for various organisations, as well as teaching and mentoring young artists. She has a Masters degree in Environmental Humanities from Bath Spa University.

Jeanie O’Hare is a short-story writer, playwright and project consultant for theatre and film. She originally trained as a sculptor. She has worked for the Royal Court Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Druid Theatre, and was Chair of Playwriting at Yale School of Drama. Most recently she was the Director of New Work Development at the Public Theater in New York.

‘Unique visions, supported by common architecture’: David Edgar on the structures and rules of playwriting

Renowned playwright David Edgar pioneered the teaching of playwriting in the UK, founding the Playwriting Studies course at Birmingham University in 1989. In this extract from the new, revised and updated edition of his seminal book How Plays Work, he investigates the fundamental geometry of plays, and why playwrights need to know the ‘rules’ that govern audience expectations…

What am I describing?

1) A town is threatened by a malevolent force of nature. A leading citizen seeks to take the necessary action to protect the town from this danger, but finds that the economic interests of the town are ranged against him and he ends up in battle alone.

2) Two sisters are unjustly preferred over a third sister. Despite their efforts, the younger sister marries into royalty and her wicked sisters are confounded.

3) A young woman is pledged to a young man, but finds that a parent has plans for her to marry someone else. Calling on the assistance of a priest and a nurse, the young couple plot to evade the fate in store for them.

4) A married couple is at war. A younger influence enters their lives, providing a sexual temptation which threatens the marriage. But ultimately, the couple finds that although they find it hard to live together, they cannot live apart.

5) A man who has scaled many heights senses that his powers have deserted him. A woman from his past re‐enters his life, and provokes him to take one last, fatal climb.

6) With her father’s encouragement, a young woman allows herself to be wooed by a prince. Her brother moves a long way away. The prince behaves increasingly peculiarly and abusively, and, shortly after the death of the woman’s father, leaves on board a ship. The woman goes mad, alarms the Royal Family, gives everybody flowers, escapes from her minders, and dies in a suspicious accident. The brother returns, angry, at the head of a popular army. There is a contest over the funeral arrangements between family, church and state. The prince returns and he and the woman’s brother end up fighting over the coffin.

Regular theatre and cinema audiences will recognise some of these summaries, and people who enjoy parlour games might have spotted that all of them describe more than one play, film, or story. The first is the story of Jaws, but also Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People (and The Pied Piper of Hamelin). The second outlines the situation at the beginning of both King Lear and Cinderella. The first sentence of the third summary is the action of most comedies written between the fifth century BC and the end of the nineteenth century; with the second sentence, it describes Romeo and Juliet, and the subplot of John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse. In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, both Jack and Algernon seek to fulfil their romantic ambitions with the aid of a priest and a governess.

The fourth description applies to a host of nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century marriage plays: obviously to August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; but also to Noël Coward’s Private Lives, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Peter Nichols’ Passion Play. The fifth outlines the common action of three of Ibsen’s last four plays (The Master Builder, John Gabriel Borkman and When We Dead Awaken), in all of which old men are confronted by women from their past, and end up climbing towers or mountains, to their doom.

On the last one, I’m not the first to spot the parallels between the tragedy of Hamlet and that of Diana, Princess of Wales.

‘A town is threatened by a malevolent force of nature…’: Jaws (1975) and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in a version by Arthur Miller (1950)

There is a danger of taking this idea too far. In the mid‐1950s, London audiences probably didn’t notice that two groundbreaking new plays both had five characters and one set, and included long speeches, a crucial offstage character, music‐hall turns, people taking off their trousers, elements of the first half being echoed in the second, nothing much happening, and the two protagonists spending the play trying to leave and ending up agreeing to stay. The reason why playgoers are unlikely to have spotted these similarities between Waiting for Godot and Look Back in Anger is because they employ completely opposite strategies to dramatise the conditions of their time.

Nonetheless, audiences do recognise that plays, which are on the surface as different as can be, can share an underlying architecture. I’m aware how unpopular this idea is for playwrights beginning their careers. Properly, playwrights insist that their voice is unique, and they don’t want to start a new project with an audit of how many other people have been here before. But without the kind of common architecture which I’ve identified, the uniqueness of their vision will be invisible. In that sense, plays are like the human body. What’s distinctive and unique about us is on the surface, the skin, including the most particular thing of all, the human face. Although they differ a bit, in shape and proportion, our skeletons are much less distinctive. But without our skeletons holding them up, what’s unique about us would consist of indistinguishable heaps of blubber on the floor. So plays that no one else could possibly write (as no one else could look exactly like us) can nonetheless share an underlying structure. You could argue that one of the least interesting things about King Lear is that it shares a basic action with a fairy tale. But without that fundamental geometry in place (there’s two nasty sisters and one nice one, and their father judges them wrongly), the whole thing collapses.

Like all other artists, playwrights choose, arrange, and above all concentrate events and behaviours they observe in the real world in such a way that gives them meaning. George Bernard Shaw argues that ‘It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible’, because the writer ‘rescues them from the unintelligible chaos of their actual occurrence and arranges them into works of art’.

How playwrights do that has been the focus of my teaching for over thirty years, and is also the subject of my book, How Plays Work.

Do plays have rules?

The idea of plays having shared structures is also suspect because it implies that there are rules.  Many people – including many playwrights – remain attached to the romantic ideal of the uniquely expressive artist. The idea of playwriting as a craft with rules that apply over time is resisted theoretically by postmodern literary critics who believe that nothing cultural applies over time. Those playwrights who read historical criticism are understandably put off by the iron determinism of the French neoclassicist critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their iron laws about how many characters can be on the stage at any one time (in Vauquelin’s L’Art Poétique it’s no more than three), how long a dramatic action may be permitted to last without flouting Aristotle’s unity of time (generally held to be no more than twenty‐four hours), and how far distant from another a location might be without flouting Aristotle’s unity of place (another room in the same house occasionally permitted, another house in the same town frowned upon, another house in another town beyond the pale).

Similarly, playwrights are alarmed by the contemporary equivalent of the French rules, those prescriptions handed out by American screenwriting experts. The founder of this school is Syd Field, who famously divided film screenplays into three acts of thirty, sixty and thirty pages, with a significant propelling plot point occurring between pages twenty‐five and twenty‐seven (this may sound absurd, but I am assured that p. 26 of I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder’s script for Some Like It Hot includes Marilyn Monroe’s character undulating unforgettably along the station platform).

Marilyn Monroe makes an entrance in Some Like It Hot (1959), written by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder

More liberal – and critical of Field over such matters as the admissibility of flashbacks – is Robert McKee, whose weekend courses did so much to homogenise the vocabulary of BBC script editors in the 1980s (he then committed the cardinal error of writing it all down). But while McKee accepts what he calls open and closed endings, multiple protagonists, nonlinear time and even inconsistent realities, his definitions of ‘protagonist’, ‘inciting incident’ and ‘act design’ still seem schematic. And the idea that screenwriting gurus might have become less prescriptive in the new millennium is countered by Blake Snyder’s 2005 how‐to movie‐writing guide Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, with its six things that always need fixing, its nine immutable laws of movie physics, its ten genres of any movie ever made and its fifteen essential beats: from the ‘Opening Image’ and ‘Theme Stated’ via ‘Fun and Games’, ‘Bad Guys Close In’ and ‘All Is Lost’ to the ‘Finale’ and ‘Final Image’.

And writers who’ve read any twentieth‐century literary theory are understandably irked by the arithmetical reductionism of so much thinking in this field, with its mechanical lists, symbols, charts and graphs.

I share some of these prejudices. But I think that the neo‐classicists, Hollywood gurus and structuralist thinkers all remind us of a basic reality of playwriting, which is that, however much playwrights may choose to ignore them, audiences have certain expectations of what they’re going to see in the theatre and they cannot be required to check those expectations in with their coats.

In this sense, the ‘rules’ are a sedimentation of all of the expectations of all the plays (and, to an extent, all the stories) which we have ever encountered. This is why the argument that one should know the rules in order to break them is only half the story. Playwrights should know the rules because they are the possession of the audience, their essential partner in the endeavour. They won’t be thanked for sticking so closely to the rules that the play is predictable from start to finish. But nor will audiences readily accept their expectations being wilfully ignored.


How Plays Work cover image

This is an extract from the revised and updated edition of How Plays Work by David Edgar, published in 2021 by Nick Hern Books. See more about the book and order your copy here.

David Edgar is the author of many original plays and adaptations, including Maydays (1983), The Shape of the Table (1990), Pentecost (1994), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1996), The Prisoner’s Dilemma (2001), Continental Divide (2003) and Playing With Fire (2005). Most recently, he performed his own solo show, Trying It On, which toured the UK in 2018 and 2019. All are available from Nick Hern Books.

‘Sometimes we all need to colour outside of the lines’: Paul Kalburgi on The Writer’s Toolkit

Whilst it can be hugely freeing, empowering and rewarding, every writer knows that writing can also sometimes be a tough and frustrating process. Whether you’re trying to crack a problem on a script, come up with a new idea or find the inspiration to start anything at all, sometimes writers need something to kickstart their creativity – and this is where standalone exercises can be invaluable.

Here, writer and producer Paul Kalburgi explains how giving yourself permission to forget about the end product, and just write, can give you exactly the kickstart you need – and how his new book, The Writer’s Toolkit, can help that process. 

American playwright James Thurber once said, ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ A productive motto, which I try to keep in mind whenever I sit down to write, and something I always share with fellow writers in my classes and workshops. Just as an Olympic athlete must push through the pain barrier to achieve success on the track, writers must push past ‘writer’s block’ to achieve success on the page – especially when inspiration is fleeting. Sometimes, this is easier said than done, of course. Writing is a creative process, which I believe can’t be forced, so how do we keep writing and remain productive, when we are in a slump?

If a script is beginning to feel forced or sluggish, or you find yourself unable to write through or around a roadblock for lack of motivation or ideas, I suggest stepping back from ‘scriptwriting’ and refocus your creativity by simply ‘writing’. Remove the confines of structure, story beats, and the pressure to produce work that needs to be ‘good enough’ to one day share with others (hopefully an audience), and allow yourself to indulge in the craft of writing. Discover how writing exercises and prompts can free you of expectation, judgement and the need to deliver. Sometimes we all need to throw a little sand outside of the sandbox, colour outside of the lines, and give ourselves permission to make a mess, in order to inspire real creativity.

‘Only you know the best way to tell your story.’ – Paul Kalburgi on set

If you are on a roll, however, and just need a little help to shape, improve or invigorate a scene, then a related writing exercise can help to highlight any sticking points and may suggest a new way forward. In my new book, The Writer’s Toolkit, I share specific activities for the critical elements of scriptwriting, which will allow you to fine-tune your script and inspire new ideas. Perhaps you are looking for inspiration for a new piece of writing? I have included 101 quick-fire writing prompts, so set a timer and get to it. There are no rules, just read the scenario, pick up a pen or open your laptop – and start writing. It’s amazing how satisfying it can be to create a series of short, complete scenes in a brief amount of time, and this can provide a positive start to your writing session.

Inside The Writer’s Toolkit, you’ll find a bounty of original writing exercises and activities, as well as my riffs on some classics. Also included is an introduction to immersive writing and meditative writing. The latter is something that I have found hugely beneficial for the heart, mind and soul at the start and end of a writing session. Included are three mindful meditation exercises to try before your writing sessions, and a relaxing Savasana to finish your practice. I encourage you to explore the creative and spiritual benefits of meditative writing, which can be a productive and enriching addition to your process.

All of the exercises in the book are designed to be done solo; however, many would be great to try out whilst working alongside fellow writers. I would encourage all writers to consider joining a local writers’ group (if one doesn’t exist, why not start one up?), where you can meet regularly to chat about your latest project, share tips and tricks, circulate news of writing opportunities, and find supportive and encouraging readers for your early drafts. If groups aren’t your thing, consider finding a writing buddy. Just like having a friend to go to the gym with, find someone to check in with once a week, keeping each other focused and on track towards achieving your writing goals and deadlines. If you can’t meet regularly in person (especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic), this could even be a weekly phone call.

Only you know the best way to tell your story. Go write it!


This is an edited extract from The Writer’s Toolkit: Exercises, Techniques and Ideas for Playwrights and Screenwriters by Paul Kalburgi, published by Nick Hern Books. Save 20% to your copy when you order direct from the NHB website here.

Paul Kalburgi is a British playwright, screenwriter and television producer. His plays have been produced in the UK, USA and Ireland. He has written for and produced programmes for a host of networks in the UK and USA since 2007, working across a variety of genres. Alongside his writing projects, Paul continues to facilitate writing courses and workshops in the USA, UK and New Zealand. Paul is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

All the way from America – great new drama to discover and enjoy

For over thirty years, we’ve been proud to partner with Theatre Communications Group, North America’s largest independent trade publisher of dramatic literature, to distribute their books throughout the UK and Europe.

To celebrate the arrival of another batch of fantastic American drama – all now available to order – we’re taking this opportunity to introduce you to the plays and the wonderful writers behind them.


Evening Plays by Richard Maxwell

Three new dramas written by award-winning playwright Richard Maxwell – described by the New York Times as ‘perhaps the greatest American experimental theater auteur of his generation’ – as a response to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Evening centers around three archetypal barflies who together form an elegy of universal loss. The loss of a loved one seeps poignantly into his illustration of the stark reality and emotional tumult of coping with death.

Samara is a mythic tale of redemption that follows a messenger through a bleak frontier in his quest to collect a debt, though the human cost of the journey may be more than he bargained for.

And Paradiso, which takes place in the not-too distant future, describes three great loves: family, country and God.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Exquisite Agony by Nilo Cruz

First seen at Repertorio Español in New York, this acclaimed drama by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Nilo Cruz is a play about the heart—its passions, its failures, and its ability to connect.

After Millie’s husband, Lorenzo, dies in a car crash, his heart is used to save a young man’s life. Unable to let go of this final living piece of her husband, Millie reaches out to the transplant recipient, Amér, with the hope that some part of the heart still carries Lorenzo’s memories.

As Amér ponders the ways in which this new heart is transforming him, he becomes entangled in the lives of Millie and her family, trapped by longings and obsessions that are not his own.

We love this review from the New Yorker, which really sums up the play: ‘Cruz’s feminist view is one of the liberating aspects of his writing, as is a kind of magical realism that is not cloying but true to his characters, and to the fact of dispossession: sometimes we don’t know who we are because we don’t know where life has landed on our bodies, let alone in our hearts.’

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Illyria by Richard Nelson

It is 1958. In the midst of a building boom in New York City, Joe Papp and his colleagues are facing pressure from the city’s elite as they continue their free Shakespeare in Central Park.

From Richard Nelson, the Tony and Olivier Award-winning playwright and creator of the most celebrated family plays of the last decade, comes a drama about a different kind of family—one held together by the belief that the theatre, and the city, belong to all New Yorkers. It premiered at the Public Theater, New York.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Kilroys List: Volume Two – 67 Monologues and Scenes by Women and Nonbinary Playwrights

The Kilroys are a gang of playwrights and producers who came together in Los Angeles in 2013 to stop talking about gender parity in theatre and start taking action. In 2014, they released their first annual List: a vetted collection of plays written by women, trans, and nonbinary writers, nominated by hundreds of professional artistic directors, literary managers, professors, directors, and dramaturgs.

This collection includes a monologue or scene from each play from the 2016 and 2017 editions of The List.

‘When I look at the list of women and nonbinary writers included in this volume, many of whom I have mentored or taught, it is a beautiful reminder that we are a community to be reckoned with, and that there is an abundance of vital narratives awaiting a larger audience. While there remains a great deal of work to be done to reach racial and gender equity in the theater, the powerful and provocative writing presented here is part of the inciting incident that will no doubt shake up the status quo.’ Lynn Nottage, from her Foreword

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Language Archive and Other Plays by Julia Cho

A new collection of plays by one of the most versatile dramatists in contemporary American theatre.

In The Language Archive, a documenter of dying languages of far-flung cultures finds himself unable to recognise and respond to the words and feelings of those closest to him. (‘Very stimulating and haunting’ – Chicago Tribune)

Durango is a ‘finely wrought drama’ (Los Angeles Times) about families and the secrets that lie just beneath the surface. When two seemingly perfect young men embark on a road trip with their widowed father, it doesn’t take long for the carefully constructed facades of all three to crack, and old wounds to re-open.

In the poignant and lyrical Aubergine, snapshots of different lives and characters show how the making of a perfect meal can be an expression more precise than language, and the medium through which life gradually reveals itself.  (‘A moving meditation on love, loss, and the emotional power of food’ – Hollywood Reporter)

The Piano Teacher is ‘a cozy, effective little chiller’ (New York Times) about an elderly widow in a small suburban town who finds herself compelled to call one of her old piano students – but is it out of loneliness or some other, darker need?

Finally, Office Hour is an ‘undeniably topical’ (Los Angeles Times) play about our public and private selves, and what we choose to project to the world. Teacher Gina instructs her eighteen-year-old problem student, Dennis, to attend her office hours – but soon discovers that her impression of him may be very wrong indeed.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris

This acclaimed, much-talked-about drama – described by the Chicago Tribune as ‘the most radical Broadway play in years’ – rips apart history to shed new light on the nexus of race, gender, and sexuality in twenty-first-century America.

The Old South lives on at the MacGregor Plantation – in the breeze, in the cotton fields… and in the crack of the whip.

Nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems.

Slave Play was premiered by New York Theatre Workshop, before transferring to Broadway. It was nominated for Best Play in the 2019 Lucille Lortel Awards.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


The Sound Inside by Adam Rapp

Brimming with suspense, this riveting play by novelist, filmmaker and OBIE Award-winning writer and director Adam Rapp (‘the closest thing that the American theater currently has to a David Foster Wallace’ – Chicago Tribune) explores the limits of what one person can ask of another.

When Bella Baird, an isolated creative writing professor at Yale, begins to mentor a brilliant but enigmatic student, Christopher, the two form an unexpectedly intense bond. As their lives and the stories they tell about themselves become intertwined in unpredictable ways, Bella makes a surprising request of Christopher.

An ‘astonishing play’ (New York Times) that ‘will take your breath away’ (Variety), The Sound Inside was first seen at Williamstown Theater Festival,  Williamstown, Massachusetts, before transferring to Broadway.

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Straight White Men / Untitled Feminist Show: Two Plays by Young Jean Lee

Two plays by award-winning dramatist Young Jean Lee, the first female Asian-American playwright to be produced on Broadway.

In Straight White Men, it’s Christmas Eve, and Ed has gathered his three adult sons to celebrate with matching pajamas, trash-talking, and Chinese takeout. But when a question they can’t answer interrupts their holiday cheer, they are forced to confront their own identities.

In Untitled Feminist Show, six charismatic stars of the downtown theatre, dance, cabaret, and burlesque worlds come together to invite the audience on an exhilaratingly irreverent, nearly-wordless celebration of a fluid and limitless sense of identity.

‘Young Jean Lee is, hands down, the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation’ New York Times

SEE MORE AND GET YOUR COPY HERE


Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, translated from the Russian by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

After their father’s death, Olga, Masha, and Irina find life in their small Russian town stifling and hopeless. They long to return to Moscow, the bustling metropolis they left eleven years ago, but their brother Andrei’s gambling habits have trapped them in their small provincial lives.

As the seventh play in Theatre Communication Group’s Classic Russian Drama Series, playwright Richard Nelson and translators of Russian literature Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky continue their collaboration with a masterful new translation of Chekhov’s exploration of yearning and disillusionment.

‘Pevear and Volokhonsky are at once scrupulous translators and vivid stylists of English.’ – James Wood, New Yorker


We’re proud to distribute these and dozens of other titles by our American partners, Theatre Communications Group. See our full range of TCG publications here.

‘The show we needed to make’ – The Wardrobe Ensemble on The Last of the Pelican Daughters

Formed in a rehearsal room at the Bristol Old Vic in 2011, The Wardrobe Ensemble are, in their own words, ‘a group of theatre artists working together to make new plays that dissect the twenty-first century experience’. In the near-decade since their founding, they’ve earned success and critical acclaim – performing around the UK, winning awards and staging one of their plays in London’s West End. 

Their latest show, The Last of the Pelican Daughters, premiered at Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019, and was due to embark on a UK-wide tour before it was sadly shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, in an extract from the introduction to the published playscript shared to mark the play’s publication, the play’s co-directors Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones reflect on its development, what that showed them about the evolution of the company, and how the current crisis in UK theatre has made them reflect on their own choices.

When we met with Judith Dimant of Complicité (and now Wayward Productions) in 2016, she said that we reminded her of a young Complicité (which is always exactly what an emerging theatre company wants to hear). As much as this was to do with theatrical style, it was perhaps more to do with the non-hierarchical form of our company, and the intensity of the relationships between company members. We’re a tight-knit group with our own traditions, secrets and mythologies, crafted over the decade we’ve spent working together. In that meeting, she asked us if there was a show that we wanted to make, but were too terrified and felt too inexperienced to do so.

We’d been speaking about making The Wardrobe Ensemble’s version of a ‘family drama’ for some years. As much as we loved watching stories about families, from Greek tragedy to The Simpsons, it felt like so much of what we associated with ‘family drama’ was formally stuck within a kind of naturalism that didn’t reflect our tastes or theatrical sensibilities. On top of this, the most famous works of family drama explored the particular quirks and traumas of a singular playwright. Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory’ play The Glass Menagerie, for example, reads like a therapy session for the writer. Would it be possible for a group rather than a single writer, or more importantly our group, with our particular quirks and differences of experience to embark on such a therapy/creation experience? How would we excavate and interrogate our collective familial demons? Is there anything to be revealed about our time and generation? Importantly in those early conversations, we were sure that our show would look nothing like a family drama that you’ve seen before. It would mess with the conventions of the genre and reflect our own world-view and style. Judith liked this idea the best.

Somewhat ironically, but perhaps tellingly, what emerged is the most naturalistic play that we’ve ever made, one that adheres to many narrative and stylistic conventions of ‘traditional’ or ‘straight’ plays of the past. It’s got plenty more silence, subtext and emotional performance than any of our other work. Similarly, the themes and characters look and sound like plays of the past: it begins with a death, it’s about a house, someone is having a baby. There’s more than a hint of The Cherry Orchard’s Varya in Storm, or the ghost of King Hamlet in Rosemary Pelican. And it’s important to say that all of this convention felt terrifying for us. Making a ‘proper’ play felt extremely difficult. Naturalism felt unnatural.

So much of devising lies in an ability to give up certain aspects of control and let a show emerge. The work that comes out of us collectively is not driven by a singular voice, but emerges through the collective character of the company. And so, it’s weird that we made this. This isn’t the show that any one of us wanted to make. But despite our best efforts, it’s the show that the company needed to make.

‘Our work emerges through the collective character of the company’ – The Wardrobe Ensemble’s award-winning show Education Education Education (photo by Graeme Braidwood)

We understood that to deconstruct a family drama we needed to make one. But by the time we built one that functioned – designed the family, found their stories and struggles, built the pink house, etc. – deconstructing them all felt like a disingenuous act. Though we often felt embarrassed by their behaviour and the interpersonal issues that were emerging in the play, we did care about the Pelicans. We had to, because to varying degrees, their stories are our stories. And that isn’t to say that we have undying love and affection for these characters. Ask any member of the company about how much irony is in the play, and it will differ. Some will say ‘This is my family’, some will say ‘I fucking hate these privileged arseholes’, and some will acknowledge what is maybe closest to the truth: ‘This is a version of The Wardrobe Ensemble.’

We tried to make the show flashier, cooler and more energetic. We tried to make the characters address their political context more directly, as we might have done in previous work. But these attempts felt dishonest. Perhaps because we were all in a process of grappling with an ugly truth, that we were starting to care about so-called ‘grown-up things’. Our work used to explore the world in hypothetical or nostalgic terms, but what do we actually worry about now? What keeps us up at night are often the same questions that are affecting the Pelican children: What do I want my life to look like? What do I need to get there? How long can I exist in this chaotic ensemble? Do I always have to share? What kind of an adult do I want to be?

In March this year (2020), we remounted this show in Northampton ready for our UK tour. After a few rewrites and additions, and a partial re-cast (the wonderful Sally Cheng, Laurie Jamieson and Bea Scirocchi joined the team), the show was ready to hit the road. We were struck by how much more comfortable we had become with The Last of the Pelican Daughters. We were able to lean into the naturalism, pace and emotion of it with far more confidence. It seemed we had finally accepted the strange thing we had collectively given birth to. Had we become what we sought to reject? Had we actually become adults? And then, of course, COVID-19. We were at the Nuffield in Southampton (NST) when it was announced the government strongly advised the public not to go to theatres any more. The tour was cancelled and all the professional stability that we had tried so hard to build over the past ten years had disappeared overnight. We dismantled the set and packed it away. NST has since gone into administration. And so, as we write this (in early July), we find ourselves reflecting on the show in vastly different ways.

Preparations for The Last of the Pelican Daughters at Nuffield Southampton Theatres, before the production was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Tom Crosley-Thorne)

If this play is our first reckoning with the proper realities of being grown-ups, there are two diametrically opposing messages that the show seems to reflect back at us.

Firstly, that our mission of collective theatre-making and non-hierarchical structures was naive and hypocritical. Instead, we should have cared about real ‘adult things’. The Pelican children lose their house and their inheritance at the end of the play, because at some level, they just weren’t paying attention. From one perspective, we as a company have buried our heads in the sand for the last ten years. We’ve been making financially unsustainable choices since day one. So perhaps it’s time to kill the dream and start making responsible choices. Maybe the Tories are right. Maybe we should wake up to the reality that we live in a capitalist society before we lose everything we hold dear.

But secondly, that dramatic changes to our reality can come out of nowhere, whether you’ve behaved like an ‘adult’ or not. Susie Stephens of Stephen Stephens and Sons Solicitors will always interrupt breakfast. And so, now more than ever, it feels vital that we hold onto the families that we find ourselves in. The idealism of Rosemary Pelican and indeed The Wardrobe Ensemble is unrealistic, but at the moment we’re not sure what isn’t. As the coronavirus leaves our world’s safety, economy and future on shaky ground, we need communities, rituals, traditions, secrets and mythologies to hold onto more than ever. And if we really are the grown-ups now, it’s our responsibility to define the culture of the families in which we exist. It’s up to us to choose what to bring forward into the future and what to abandon. It’s our responsibility to start building a house in which we actually want to live.


The members of The Wardrobe Ensemble meeting on Zoom during lockdown (photo by Tom Brennan)

We’re very proud to publish The Last of the Pelican Daughters, which is out now in paperback and ebook. In addition to the full script of the play, the published edition includes an extensive oral history of The Wardrobe Ensemble by its members, and a workshop plan for two people of different generations to communicate and collaborate in person or online.

As one the dozens of NHB-published shows affected by the COVID-19 shutdown, we’re currently offering 30% off The Last of the Pelican Daughters in our Still on the Page celebration – see more here.

Check out more of The Wardrobe Ensemble’s NHB-published work here.

Nicholas Wright on writing his plays

Today, 27 June 2020, marks the 80th birthday of playwright Nicholas Wright. Born in South Africa in 1940, over the course of his long and illustrious career he has established himself as one of the UK’s most-respected dramatists. His plays have been staged at leading venues including at the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal & Derngate in Northampton, Almeida Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and in London’s West End, as well as internationally. He has also won numerous awards, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play for Vincent in Brixton in 2003.

Here, to mark the occasion, Nicholas reflects on five of his many notable plays, how many of them draw on his own life and experiences, and pays tribute to the many people who’ve helped make his remarkable career possible.


Mrs Klein

Zoe Waites, Nicola Walker and Clare Higgins in the 2009 revival of Mrs Klein at the Almeida Theatre, London (photo by Tristram Kenton)

I first heard of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein when I was very young. A friend at drama school invited me around to her house one Sunday: she was Harriet, the daughter of George Devine, the director of the Royal Court Theatre. Her father was living elsewhere and the house – a romantic old place on the bank of the Thames – now revolved around his wife Sophie, a much-respected stage designer who had made it a regular Sunday home for impecunious young people. I went there often. It was my first encounter with English middle-class, semi-bohemian life, and a great education for a young and raw South African.

The presence of the Royal Court was felt throughout the house. Its star director, Tony Richardson, lived on the top floor in a flat containing an aviary peopled by exotic birds including a real toucan. Richardson’s partner was a social worker named George Goetschius: a big bear-like, bearded American, twinkly-eyed, who was said to have formed the Royal Court policy of being ‘a writers’ theatre’. Like all real intellectuals, he had the gift of making everything he talked about sound interesting. He spoke about religion, ethics, social change, always with a dry American wit and, in his hands, psychoanalysis became a labyrinth of infinite fascination. Surprisingly, while working in New York, he had met and got to know Melanie Klein’s estranged daughter, Melitta Schmideberg.

It’s Goetschius’s angle on analysis that I drew on when, many years later, I wrote Mrs Klein. I read Klein’s books and papers and found her thinking difficult but rewarding. It’s more dynamic than the conventional analytic notion of emotions being displaced from one place to another, like water being poured in and out of buckets. With Klein, the relations between us are in a state of flux, transformed this way and that by our perceptions, with the mother always centre-stage in the psychic drama.


Cressida

The cover to the playscript of Cressida, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the Albery Theatre (now Noël Coward Theatre), London, in 2000, starring Michael Gambon

Cressida is based on my life as a child actor. During the war, while my father was away, I was taught to read by my grandmother and became precociously fluent, so when the local broadcasting company needed a little boy who could sight-read, I was a shoo-in. I made my radio debut at the age of six, after which I was on the air most weeks. At twelve, I gave what I’m told was a chilling performance as the corrupted schoolboy in a stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, and by then I knew all there is to know about the joys and pains of pre-pubescent acting, not to mention the cut-throat rivalry that rages between one child-actor and another.

My acting career dwindled away as I got older. Child actors aren’t really acting anyway: they’re simply trying to win approval and, once you reach adolescence, that doesn’t work for you or anyone else. There’s something melancholy about the ephemeral nature of childhood talent and one could say the same thing about theatre in general. Nothing about it lasts, except in memory.

While I was writing Cressida I did a lot of what people call research, though I don’t think of it like that. It’s more like rummaging around until I feel comfortable in the world of the play. That’s how I learned about John Shank’s dodgy practices and Stephen Hammerton’s rise to stardom. I became fascinated by the phenomenon of gender-crossing acting by boys and I wondered what the attraction of it was. Was it their brilliance at impersonating women? Or was something weirder going on: was the cross-dressing in itself an attraction? I also wondered what would happen if a girlish boy, such as I was at that age, were to play women’s roles. Would he be better or worse at the job? That’s one of the things that Cressida is about.


Vincent in Brixton

Peter McGovern and Janine Birkett in the 2013 revival of Vincent in Brixton at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick (photo by Keith Pattison)

When I was writing Vincent in Brixton, I had in my mind the painterly contrast between the foggy streets of Victorian London and the incandescent blaze of colour that we associate with van Gogh. I thought back to my Sunday afternoons in the house of Sophie Devine: her artist’s appreciation of homely things, not least the large and weathered kitchen table that she used to scrub with Vim and that I placed, unchanged, at the heart of the action.

Van Gogh turned out to be the most remarkable man I’d ever studied. I read his marvellous letters to his brother. I discovered his omnivorous reading – all Shakespeare, all Dickens, all George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell – his soaring ambition and his reckless commitment to his art. I learned how the radicalism of nineteenth-century London illuminated his thinking and his work, and I discovered the manic depression that would torment him throughout his life.


The Reporter

The cover to the playscript of The Reporter, published by Nick Hern Books alongside its premiere at the National Theatre, London, in 2007

Depression is a theme in all five of these plays. The Reporter is the story of a man who ended his life because of it. The insidious thing about this illness is that it disguises itself as a perfectly sane appraisal of an unbearable world, rather than the distorted view that it really is. Thus, while Mossman, as I’ve written him, knows that something is badly wrong, he doesn’t know what it is and we, the audience, discover the truth only obliquely.

The play is set in and around the BBC of the 1960s, where I worked as a floor assistant, i.e. glorified callboy. I was present in the early scene of the play where the irascible interviewer Robin Day takes over at short notice from the ailing Richard Dimbleby. I knew Mossman very slightly from his august and elegant backstage presence in discussion programmes. Louis I knew better: I’d met him when I was twenty-one, when his brilliant mind and his charisma bowled me over.


8 Hotels

Tory Kittles and Emma Paetz in the premiere production of 8 Hotels at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2019 (photo by Manuel Harlan)

Finally, 8 Hotels. When Mrs Klein was produced in New York, the title role was played by the great American actress Uta Hagen. Once it had finished its off-Broadway run, the production set off on a national tour and it was at the opening date, San Francisco, that I had the idea for the play.

Uta, the director William Carden and I were having dinner after the show in a once-grand but somewhat down-at-heel hotel. It was Uta who had chosen the place, and I wondered why. Then I noticed her mood of elation. ‘Oh, I am so happy!’ she rasped, and I understood. During World War II, she and her lover – the singer and activist Paul Robeson – had toured the country in Othello, with her husband José Ferrer as Iago. One of their dates was San Francisco, and this hotel was surely where all three of them had stayed. Had Robeson been allowed through the front door, I wondered? Or, like other people of colour, was he sent round to the goods entrance?

Both he and Uta were larger-than-life figures, hugely talented and politically aware. The difference is that, for Robeson, acting and singing were necessary tools in his political work: they gave him profile, they got him heard, they enabled him to get his message across to the world. His art was useful but subordinate. For Uta, it was the whole purpose of her life. 8 Hotels is about these two contrasting paths, with rewards and penalties lying in wait whichever one chooses.


‘I’ve been luckier than I deserve’

Nicholas Wright (r) with regular collaborator Richard Eyre (l) (photo by Bruce Glikas)

A few sources: I couldn’t have written Mrs Klein without the help of Phyllis Grosskurth’s classic biography. Martin Bailey’s book Van Gogh in England was indispensable, Stephen Orgel’s Impersonations opened my eyes to the ambiguities of Jacobean theatrical cross-dressing, and I’m grateful to Professor Martin Dubermann for access to his unpublished interviews with Uta Hagen.

Anyone who has a play produced knows how much is owed to everyone else who touches it. These five plays were directed by three superb directors (Richard Eyre, Peter Gill and Nicholas Hytner) and I’m grateful to them all, as I am to the actors and designers I’ve been lucky enough to work with. Looking back over a long-ish life, I feel that I’ve been luckier than I deserve.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Nicholas Wright’s plays – you can browse his work, available to purchase at a 20% discount, here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller.

‘A hero, a leader, a true warrior’ – a tribute to Larry Kramer

We’re saddened to hear the news of writer and activist Larry Kramer, who sadly died on 27 May 2020 at the age of 84. Nick Hern Books is proud to publish his passionate, vital play The Normal Heart, set during the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York in the 1980s. Here, we celebrate Larry Kramer and his work – read the text of a letter given out to audiences at performances of The Normal Heart, the story of his first play, and a personal tribute from NHB’s Managing Director, Matt Applewhite

A copy of this letter was given to every member of the audience – often by Larry in person – as they left the theatre after the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart.

A Letter from Larry Kramer

PLEASE KNOW

Thank you for coming to see our play.

Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could. Several more have died since, including Bruce, whose name was Paul Popham, and Tommy, whose name was Rodger McFarlane and who became my best friend, and Emma, whose name was Dr Linda Laubenstein of New York University Medical Center. She died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung. Rodger, after building three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up, committed suicide in despair. On his deathbed at Memorial, Paul called me (we’d not spoken since our last fight in this play) and told me to never stop fighting.

(Left-right) Paul Popham, Rodger McFarlane and Linda Laubenstein, who are all depicted in The Normal Heart

Four members of the original cast died as well, including my dear sweet friend Brad Davis, the original Ned, whom I knew from practically the moment he got off the bus from Florida, a shy kid intent on becoming a fine actor, which he did.

Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.

Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.

Please know that there is no cure.

Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated.

Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the world, like Russia, India, South-east Asia, and in Africa, the numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.

Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure.

Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?

Please know that beginning with Ronald Reagan (who would not say the word ‘AIDS’ publicly for seven years), every single president has said nothing and done nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn’t do them.

Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.

Please know that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What ‘research’ they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, God forbid, cured.

Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.

Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some seventy-five million infections and thirty-five million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were forty-one.

I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.

Larry Kramer, New York, 2011

Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks (left) and John Benjamin Hickey as Felix Turner (right), in the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart (Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)


A piece by Larry Kramer from 2013 anthology My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings.

I sat in my short pants at a makeshift card table in our front yard on a lovely afternoon in spring in suburban Maryland and wrote in longhand about baseball players. I hated baseball and I hated my father (who called me a sissy) so I guess I was trying to please him and I ran out of steam after but a few pages. I guess I was eight or nine, maybe ten. The next ‘first’ play was a pageant I wrote for the Cub Scouts about I can’t even imagine what and remember only that it was a hit, particularly with my mother who said some- thing to the tune of, ‘I didn’t know you could write, dear.’ I was however old Cub Scouts are, twelve maybe.

My first real ‘first play’ was something called Sissies’ Scrapbook, which I wrote when I was in my early thirties (after my Women in Love film adaptation), serious stuff, following four Yale roommates through the years. It was done in a workshop at the old and first Playwrights Horizons, where it seemed to go down very well (people actually cried, which is what I wanted, and I fully remember the power of that feeling: I wrote something that made people cry).

However, upon its transfer to off-Broadway under the title of Four Friends, Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote, ‘With friends like these you don’t need enemies,’ and we closed on opening night. So wounded did I allow myself to be that I didn’t write another play for many many years. I was to learn much later that Barnes not only arrived a half-hour late but was drunk, now a matter of public record. Imagine that: the chief drama critic of The New York Times was a drunk. I wonder how many other playwrights never wrote another play because of this. Now I look back and see how much time I wasted, that the playwright who just won a Tony at age seventy- seven had many more plays within him that he should have written had he not been such a sissy.

My First Play: An Anthology of Theatrical Beginnings, compiled by Nick Hern, 2013


Matt Applewhite, Managing Director of Nick Hern Books, shares a personal tribute to Larry Kramer, whom he recounts meeting in 2011.

The 2011 revival of The Normal Heart did not strike me as a history play (even though it chronicles a dark period some three decades earlier) nor just a masterpiece of dramatic writing (even though it is) – but one of the most vital, important and relevant plays of our time, crystal clear in its insight, its humanity, its righteous anger. A clarion call to action.

Stumbling out of a matinee performance onto West 45th Street, with tears still hot on my cheeks, I called its author, whose work we already published but I’d never yet met. ‘Let’s meet for coffee,’ he rasped, and thirty minutes later I was in Larry’s book-lined apartment at the bottom of Fifth Avenue, overlooking the Washington Square Arch.

For several hours I was entranced by his staggering mind, more engaged and alive than that of a man half his seventy-five years. He hadn’t softened or mellowed over the decades. And why should he? For a true warrior, the fight is never over. A better day is always worth fighting for – and Larry was unfaltering in that aim, through his art, his activism, with uncompromising ferocity, sincerity and courage.

Over the subsequent years he asked me to send him new British plays and books about the theatre. His apartment may not have had space for more books – but his mind did. It was as boundless as the Great Plains. He was a hero, a leader, a champion – not just for LGBTQ+ people, but for anyone who cares about our world. We are lucky to have had him.


Nick Hern Books is proud to publish Larry Kramer’s passionate, polemical drama The Normal Heart.

Author photo courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival.