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.

Putting autism on the stage: Jody O’Neill on her innovative and myth-busting new play

Inspired by her own experiences with autism, actor and writer JODY O’NEILL set out to write a play that would celebrate autistic identity whilst engaging autistic and non-autistic audiences alike. The resulting play, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, has just finished a sell-out run at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on the Peacock stage. Here, she explains why she felt it was so necessary to write, and how the production was designed to make it accessible to people with autism…

The genesis of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism came in 2016, along with my son’s autism diagnosis.

We left the private clinic that had diagnosed him with two things:

  1. What we thought was solid advice.
  2. A sense of relief that our child was the same child we’d had before. We just had an answer now for why certain things were a struggle.

My own autism diagnosis followed three years later, in June 2019, and in the time in between these two major life events, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism came into being.

What happened was that the solid advice we thought we’d left the clinic with turned out to be not so solid after all. At first, we followed it blindly, not knowing any better.

  1. “Find an ABA tutor.”
  2. “Start intensive early intervention as quickly as possible.”
  3. “Normalise your child to give him the best possible chance of success.”

We couldn’t find an ABA tutor. I did an ABA course instead. ABA stands for Applied Behavioural Analysis, and it is a system of training based on receiving a reward for exhibiting a desirable behaviour. Think Pavlov’s Dogs. For example, a child with autism makes ‘good’ eye contact, they are given a sweet. It’s problematic for many reasons, and so I had mixed feelings about what I learned.

We couldn’t gain access to early intervention. All doors were closed.  The waiting list was three years, at least.

And we simply didn’t want to ‘normalise’ our child. We already loved him very much the way he was.

And so, we began to dig around online, to make connections to local support groups, to attend some courses, and lo and behold, we stumbled our way into the autism community.

With that discovery came the realisation that so much of the ‘expert’ information we had been given was the exact opposite of what autistic adults were saying would have helped them when they were children. Indeed, many autistic adults consider ABA to be, at best, ineffective. Just taking my previous example, ABA teaches a child with autism to make eye contact for a reward, not in order to communicate in a meaningful way. At worst, ABA is considered a form of abuse. Where the experts were talking of intervention and modification, autistic people pleaded for empathy and acceptance. Which sounds more humane to you?

The cast of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre (Peacock), Dublin, 2020: Paula McGlinchey, Eleanor Walsh, Shay Croke, Jayson Murray, Jody O’Neill & Matthew Ralli (photo Ros Kavanagh)

As a parent, I wanted to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could. I couldn’t understand why this information wasn’t getting out there. How easily we could have gone down a road that risked being so detrimental to our child.

As an artist, I wanted to find a way to get this subject matter into the public eye, because it was urgent, it was humane and it had all the ingredients for good art.

I set out to write a play with two aims: to promote autism acceptance and to celebrate autistic identity. And, at first, I had this burning idea for a play that would be set in a future world where babies are grown in labs to the genetic specifications their computer-love-matched parents have selected for them. Anomalies have been wiped out. Disorders are ancient history. But innovation is suddenly at a complete standstill. Something is missing, and that thing arrives in the form of the child of parents who decide to go about reproducing the old-fashioned way. An autistic child…

That’s what I meant to write, but something happened. I got completely sidetracked by my research, and I realised there was another play I needed to write first. A play that would act as a theatrical introduction to autism – from an autistic perspective. A play that would dispel damaging myths and reveal important truths. A play that could open up a little shaft in the mind of the viewer, through which acceptance might come pouring through.

And so, I wrote the twenty-six scenes that comprise What I (Don’t) Know About Autism. Some of those scenes connect narratively to each other, some thematically, and some of them stand alone, but all of them explore different aspects of autism. The play contains over thirty characters, who can be played by just six performers (more if required). At times, the performers appear to come out of character completely to speak to each other and the audience. Indeed, there are two scenes called ‘Question Time’ that are completely improvised each night, giving the audience the opportunity  to ask questions about the play. Another device that emerged during the writing process was that of the Interrupting Voice, a character who, to an extent, functions as the voice of the audience within the play, stopping the action to question, provoke or unpack what is happening onstage.

During each ‘Question Time’ scene, the audience can ask any questions they like, while one cast member times the scene with a giant egg timer (photo Ros Kavanagh)

In terms of the production, I had a few requirements from the outset…

It was crucial that at least half of the cast members would be autistic. Embracing the disability maxim ‘Nothing about us without us’, I wanted autistic voices representing autism onstage at Ireland’s national theatre. Bear in mind, I was only starting to realise at this point that I might be one of the ‘us’. But it was imperative from the outset that autistic people would be part of every aspect of the creative process.

If we were going to be celebrating autism, then I wanted autistic people to be able to come to the party. Therefore, it was going to be a relaxed performance, where traditional theatre etiquette is set aside. The house lights would remain on throughout; ear defenders would be made available to audience members; loud noises onstage would be flagged in advance; noises from the audience would be welcomed; the audience would be free to move around; and if anyone had to leave the auditorium during the performance, they would always be readmitted. They’re simple accommodations, but for some adult autistic people it meant they could come to a play for the first time ever.

Flipcharts on either side of the stage display the titles of the scenes, which are crossed out as the play progresses (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Choreography would be central to the creative process. I trained as a dancer, and so my plays tend to have a lot of movement, but the choreography had another purpose here. Stimming (or self-stimulatory behaviour) is the repetitive movements, gestures and vocal tics that autistic people commonly have. Stims might range from small things like pen-tapping or humming, to bigger things like spinning, running in specific patterns, rocking, flapping. For autistic people, stimming has important functions – self-regulating, expressing emotions, communication. Historically, stimming has been repressed by parents and teachers because it makes a child stand out as atypical. This repression had sound roots way back when standing out was enough to get you institutionalised or worse, but these days it’s more down to the fact that stimming might be distracting or embarrassing for the autistic person’s carers or guardians. But early in my writing process, I remember being at a family fun day and watching a child who was on a bouncy castle with my son. She wasn’t bouncing. Her movement was beautiful. It was rhythmic. It was stimming. It was heartfelt. It was dancing. I knew then that stimming would be an essential part of what I was writing.

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre, with a cast of autistic and non-autistic actors (photo Ros Kavanagh)

Lastly, I knew that I wanted to represent female autism, partly because I felt it was so underrepresented in the media and in the arts, and because autism in females is generally so under-diagnosed. But also, maybe because somewhere in my unconscious was the seed of an idea of where my personal journey would lead to.

What I didn’t know was how the production would be received. I thought people might be angry. I thought people might be confused. I thought maybe nobody would come.

But in fact most of the performances sold out weeks in advance. And so, I found myself on 1 February 2020, the date of our first preview at the Abbey Theatre, with an impending sense of doom – wondering what on earth I’d been thinking, wishing we could give all the tickets back, and send all copies of the book to the great big shredder in the sky.

But it was too late for that. And what followed were two extraordinary weeks, meeting autistic people, parents, teachers, health workers and just plain regular theatre goers who told us that their outlooks, their lives, the lives of their children or students, would change as a result of what they had seen. Autistic people said they felt represented onstage for the first time; parents told us they will no longer stop their children from stimming in public; teachers said they had learned more during the performance than they had at all the autism training courses they had attended; a mother realised she could finally speak to her son about his diagnosis.

Having finished the first run of the show a few weeks ago, I’m only beginning to take stock. I’m hopeful that there’s demand for the production to have another outing in Ireland and internationally, and I also hope that other companies might consider taking on the show, so that it can have as wide a reach as possible.

In terms of the text, my strong sense is that for the play to be performed, at least half the cast needs to be autistic. The script itself is a flexible blueprint. The ‘Question Time’ scenes need careful preparation and training, so that they work in performance. Apart from that, everything is up for grabs.

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 2020 (photo Ros Kavanagh)


What I (Don’t) Know About Autism by Jody O’Neill was co-produced by Jody O’Neill and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in association with The Everyman, Cork, and Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre, Bray. It was first performed, on the Abbey’s Peacock Stage, in February 2020.

The playtext of What I (Don’t) Know About Autism is out now, published in paperback and ebook formats by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (RRP £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

For further information about performing the play, and the availability of amateur performing rights, contact the Nick Hern Books Performing Rights Manager.

Author photo by Viktor Cibulka. Production shots by Ros Kavanagh.

VAULT 2020: the best new work at London’s VAULT festival

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in Waterloo, where it runs until 22 March. With hundreds of events taking place throughout the eight weeks of the festival, including theatre, comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, family shows, late-night parties, pop-up events and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 5, an exciting collection of five of the best plays from the festival, we asked the authors whose work is featured in the anthology to tell us a bit about their play, and what VAULT means to them – plus, at the bottom, a few handy tips on what to see at this year’s festival…

Tatty Hennessy on her play Something Awful, 28 Jan–2 Feb:

In 2014 in a small town in Wisconsin, three teenage girls went on a walk in the woods. Only two of them were meant to come back. Those two had lured their friend to the forest with the intention of murder – a sacrifice to appease the Slenderman, a fictional online horror story these girls had come to believe with a powerful and devastating conviction. The girl survived her ordeal. The story of her attack went viral. Sony made a blockbuster movie about the Slenderman. It tanked.

I was enthralled and disturbed by this story, of a viral online horror meme – the sort I remembered vividly from my own teenage years – seeming to reach out beyond the screen and become real, really real, firstly in those girls’ minds and then in their actions. It seemed to me a story of the peculiar intensity of female teenage friendship and enmity, of the increasingly fine line between stories and facts, of how our online worlds change our offline selves. And of women and violence – as consumers and perpetrators. Why are so many women drawn to stories of the worst things that can happen to us? How do young women adapt and cope in a world that is legitimately threatening?

I didn’t really know what to do with those questions, or with the unease they gave me, so I wrote a play about them.  Something Awful is not a story about those sad, shocking events in Wisconsin six years ago. It’s a complete fiction, but one that owes something to facts.

It also felt like an opportunity to do something we rarely do on stage, and about which I’m passionate: to take the lives of teenage girls as serious subjects for artistic examination. And I hope it’s also funny, because I don’t think I’ve ever met a teenage girl who wasn’t funny. Hopefully it will scare you, and make you think again about what we should be scared of.


Charlotte Chimuanya on her play Second Home, 26–28 Feb:

Second Home is about a crisis of identity, even in a place of solace. It’s the story of a mixed-race girl at age ten, fifteen and twenty, spending her summers in Ireland.

The plot is based on my own experiences growing up; I’m half Nigerian and half Irish. This isn’t a complete biography, but I have given away some of my most embarrassing stories of unrequited love. 

We follow the protagonist, Naomi, through her formative years. Dealing with the usual: boys, insecurities and underage drinking. However she has a dark cloud hanging over her, which we watch her tackle as it expands.

It is extremely important to me that I produce work that highlights black women and lifts them up, because we live in a society that treats black women with the least integrity.

I’m delighted to have my debut play showcased at VAULT this year. It’s a hub of fresh and unique talent, so I’m in great company and there’s always a sparkle in the air.


Rosa Hesmondhalgh on her play Madame Ovary, 18–23 Feb:

Madame Ovary is a one-person monologue following a 23 year old as she attempts to reboot her life at the start of the new year. She makes resolutions about taking care of her body, finding love and creating art that will dent the world. But before January’s even over, she’s diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and her three resolutions take on a bit of a different meaning.

This play is about my own experience with ovarian cancer. I had to give up acting during chemotherapy, which had been my one and only THING for so long. I’d always privately written, but to give my brain something to do from my sick bed I decided to write a blog – called Madame Ovary – about what was happening to me, with the hope to raise some awareness about cancer in young adults (34 are diagnosed every day). Once I got the all clear (and finished celebrating), I wanted to turn that blog into a show. Which was dead hard. I met Adam Small, AD of Wildchild Productions, who agreed to direct and produce it, and helped me get it to Edinburgh. He was the human version of a cup of tea – he calmed me down but lifted me up, and helped make Madame Ovary what it is now.

I’m so excited to be at VAULT 2020. My first time at VAULT was seeing my best friend Rebecca Tebbett in James Huntrods’ incredible play about climate change activism, Cause, in 2018. I’d just finished my second round of chemo and was shedding my hair, full of mouth ulcers and not really allowed to leave the house – but getting to see my best pal in such a brilliant play as part of such a fantastic festival was a really nice reminder that theatre was still there, and I hadn’t left that bit behind despite being ill. Being part of it, two years later, amongst artists I admire so much, feels really special.


Zoë Templeman-Young and Sam McLaughlin from Écoute Theatre, on their play Take Care, 10–15 Mar:

SAM: Take Care is inspired by – and comes straight from the mouths of – the many unheard voices of carers for older people. It’s an explosive piece of documentary theatre, and also pretty funny. In a dark way.

ZOE: Yeah, we try and make people feel like it’s okay to laugh, from the beginning. When you’re a carer, your sense of humour becomes pretty sharp.

SAM: In terms of the plot, the play follows Pam as she campaigns to move her mother to a care home that’s closer to her. Along the way, the audience meets many other characters involved in the care system in some way.

ZOE: There might be some familiar voices in there too, some politicians who weren’t as famous a few years ago as they are now…

SAM: Zoë and I have both worked as carers for members of our family – and we saw that there were a whole range of issues not being addressed for carers. We also didn’t fancy doing a 10, 000 word dissertation at University and so we began creating Take Care and interviewing carers. Six years ago now! When we heard we’d be performing it at VAULT 2020, we were over the moon. I think Ross Kemp captured the feeling pretty well when he said: ‘You will never know what that means to me. That is everything. EVERY. THING.’ To sum up – we were delighted. Not least because, through VAULT Festival, we have the opportunity to reach so many more people with these amazing real-life stories of carers.

ZOE: It’s also incredible to be able to contact the carers we interviewed over the years and tell them that not only will their stories be performed at such a prestigious and exciting festival, they’ll also now be appearing in print, in the Nick Hern Books anthology. That was the cherry on top.


Isabel Dixon on her play Heroes, 18–20 Feb:

Heroes is the story of a secret which blows a family apart. It’s also about our heroes (no surprises there) and what we do when the people we idolise do something we feel we can’t forgive.

It’s set in two time frames: 1991, on a night when David Bowie plays a gig in Brixton, and 2016, on the morning of his death. The two timeframes intertwine throughout the play – sometimes both of them playing out onstage at the same time.

I’m a huge Bowie fan – I grew up with his music, it’s a massive part of the fabric of my life – and his death was the first celebrity death that felt genuinely emotional for me. I’m also fascinated by the fact that a lot of those big rock ‘n’ roll stars who shaped the musical landscape got away with doing things which are shocking and taboo. In particular, I remember feeling really conflicted when, just after Bowie’s death, Lori Maddox stated in interviews that she’d had a sexual relationship with him when she was just fourteen.

Since I wrote the play (in 2016/17) the entire #MeToo movement has happened, and many of these issues have come into focus. Can you separate an artist’s life, and some of the terrible things they did, from the art they’ve created?

But at its heart, Heroes is a family story. Sometimes, our idols are people we’re close to. How do you respond when someone you love does something unforgiveable?

I genuinely can’t wait to be at VAULT. It’s such a special place – it’s unlike any other festival you’ll go to, and the fact that it’s in a railway tunnel makes it feel like you’ve stumbled into Wonderland. It’s also genuinely game-changing for artists and audiences alike. It’s magical.


What to see at VAULT Festival 2020…

With this year’s festival about to open on 28 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks:

Tatty Hennessy: Aside from all the excellent plays included in the Nick Hern Books anthology… I’m a huge fan of Barry McStay. His play Vespertilio at VAULT 2019, about lonely bats and lonely men, was beautiful and funny and heartbreaking; it took a story about science and looked at it from a unique and human angle, and I think he’s going to do it again for Mars and space exploration with The First (11–16 Feb). I’m always excited to see PECS (1 Feb) because anything that manages to be both an insightful full-body take down of the rigidity of societal gender norms and a full-on dance party riot at the same time is a winner in my book. And I can’t wait to see Patricia Gets Ready (For a Date With the Man Who Used to Hit Her) (5–9 Feb) because it has probably the best title of the festival and because Martha Watson Allpress is a really exciting writer and I can’t wait to see more from her.

Charlotte Chimuanya: Some of the shows I’m excited to see are: She Is A Place Called Home (3–8 Mar), a collision of culture and religion, with some traditional Nigerian dancing; Pyneapple (17–19 Mar), which looks spicy – I missed its earlier run at The Bunker Theatre, so I’m glad it’s back; and The Cocoa Butter Club (20 Mar) – with a tagline like ‘Decolonise and Re-moisturise’, how could I resist this voguing cabaret act!

Rosa Hesmondhalgh: I’m so excited to see all the other plays published in the Plays from VAULT 5 anthology, particularly Something Awful (28 Jan2 Feb). Also, First Time (28 Jan2 Feb) by Nathaniel Hall. I can’t wait to see my Ed Fringe faves again, LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) by Izzy Kabban/SpeakUp Theatre, and Since U Been Gone (49 Feb) by Teddy Lamb who are both making theatre that makes me so excited. I also have a huge performer’s crush on Katie Arnstein’s work, so very excited to see Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Zoë Templeman-Young & Sam McLaughlin: We’re really looking forward to seeing Imogené: The Improvised Pop Concert (2628 Feb), which is an amazing clowning/pop concert performance by the incredible Delight Creative. Also we’re definitely going to catch On Arriving (49 Feb) by Ivan Faute, directed by Cat Robey and performed by Sophia Eleni. It’s a one-woman show about a young refugee fighting for survival. To be honest, there’s so much exciting work to see we can’t wait to catch as much as possible.

Isabel Dixon: I’m really excited for all the rest of the plays in the Nick Hern Books anthology, it’s an honour to be in the midst of such a great bunch. I also can’t wait for Catherine Kolubayev’s Bin Juice (1015 Mar) (I saw a short version last year and loved it); LOVE (Watching Madness) (1416 Feb) and Mustard Doesn’t Go With Girls (1422 Mar), which were two of my Edinburgh 2019 highlights; The Thelmas’ new shows, Santi & Naz (28 Jan2 Feb) and Notch (1923 Feb); and all three shows from the brilliant Katie Arnstein: Bicycles and Fish (16 Feb), Sexy Lamp (16 Feb) and Sticky Door (1116 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 5, containing five of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99), visit our website now.

Collections from previous VAULT Festivals are also available on our website here.

VAULT Festival 2020 runs from 28 January – 22 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

‘Starting sombre, ending wild’: John O’Donovan on a generation afflicted by austerity, in his new play Flights

JOHN O’DONOVAN is a London-based playwright from Co. Clare, Ireland. His new play Flights – which opens in Dublin this week after a short run in his home-town of Ennis, and transfers to the Omnibus Theatre, Clapham, in February – looks at a generation that has been shaped by austerity. Here, he discusses the inspiration for the play, and argues that the common view of a crisis in masculinity overlooks what’s really going on…

Flights is a play that’s very close to my heart. I’ve been writing it on and off for about five years now, using characters that are kind of like grown-up versions of characters I wrote about in my first ever full-length play. It is set very specifically in the here and now (the here being the west of Ireland) while at the same time being about generational memory and the inescapability of histories – both personal and public.

Initially Flights was not much more than a fairly funny short play about someone throwing his own going-away party (that almost no one shows up to); but while I was sketching out that early draft, I got some bad news that a guy from back home had died by suicide.

A few of us living over in England got together once we heard the news – we weren’t going home for the funeral so we went to a pub in London instead, aiming to share stories we had of him, and all the other people we’d known who’ve died prematurely over the years since school, whether through suicide, car accidents, drink or terminal illnesses.

It seemed like a lot – a dozen maybe? – definitely too many. But it also seemed kind of old hat, like we’d been here before. We already knew what to do: gather, tell stories, find out who to contact, ask if they wanted flowers or a donation, then get in touch with whoever we thought might need to be gotten in touch with and make sure again that we were all alright.

Rhys Dunlop and Colin Campbell in rehearsal for Flights by John O’Donovan, 2020 (photo by Ste Murray)

I’ve had a lot of conversations like that over the years. A lot of nights out on the beer in remembrance. Getting rounds in and sharing stories. Starting sombre, ending wild. Making sure to recall the funny stuff as well as the tragic bits. The anger and the pure silliness.

It becomes habitual, ritualistic. Something we remember when the anniversaries roll around. Something to keep in mind whenever we get the unwelcome phone call with the news.

That was the early impulse of Flights – a kind of tribute not just to all the friends who have died, but also to the friends that have gathered in their wake, who look out for each other, look after each other and remember to get in touch when the bad news spreads.

But the more I wrote, the more I realised that the story was not just about personal tragedy, but was also about the economic context in which these tragedies take place. As much as my characters’ lives were stalled by their friend’s death when they were teenagers, they they were equally paralysed in adulthood by the global recession; they made cautious choices, enforced by a lack of opportunities in front of them. And instinctively they learned that their lives were only useful insofar as they were put to work.

This is a punishing and limiting way to live, to be victims of an economy you are obliged to serve. Your creativity, your expression, even your physicality means nothing unless it’s being used to earn and spend money. This ideology produces such a reckless attitude to body and mind, it is no wonder people turn in on themselves, heedless of their safety and capacity, assaulting their physical and mental health while struggling to imagine another way to live.

Conor Madden in rehearsal for Flights by John O’Donovan, 2020 (photo by Ste Murray)

There’s this patronising, anachronistic idea about men, that they don’t know what they’re feeling – that if they just expressed themselves they wouldn’t be so fucked up. But some of the things they feel – rage, weakness, fatigue, apathy – aren’t the kinds of things that people want to hear about. It’s all well and good telling fellas they need to talk, but when there’s no one – trained or otherwise – prepared to listen, many will know it’s easier to keep their mouths shut.

And these feelings are not peculiar: rage, weakness, fatigue and apathy are sensible responses to living under austerity capitalism.

So I don’t think it’s a crisis of masculinity alone; more that there’s a crisis in health services, in housing, in employment and work-life balance – in other words, the same crises that have been devastating Ireland for more than a decade. Young men, like all young people, have been part of a generation disproportionately punished by austerity economics; the idea that their problems would disappear if they weren’t too proud or macho to talk their way out of it is at best naive, and at worst an invidious piece of victim blaming that ignores economic causality and favours individual recrimination over systemic improvement.

To me, Flights is not a play about men not being able to articulate themselves; it’s not filled with brooding, unsaid feelings. Silence is not their problem; if anything they have too many words. It’s not the inability to speak, but the fact that they are speaking to a world that has no interest in listening that’s troubling them. It’s not unsayable truths but unavoidable facts that finally do for them: that not seeing a place for themselves in their country, or in the world, it should come as no surprise that they might want to take themselves out of it.

Flights starts and ends as an act of remembrance: three fellas come together in a world that’s changing around them; old before their time, they’re fading out of their own lives. Consumed with the history of their grief – and bereft of their own potential – they are more adept at remembering the past than they are at seeing clearly what’s happening to them now.

If I could wish anything for them, it is that they never forgive the economics that has left them behind, stewing, with their best days far behind them, lying stalled and stagnating, finished before they ever got started.


The above is an edited version of the author’s note in the playscript of Flights, published by Nick Hern Books in an edition that also includes John O’Donovan’s 2019 play, Sink.

Flights & Sink: Two Plays is out now. To buy your copy for just £8.79 (RRP £10.99) plus postage and packing, visit the Nick Hern Books website now.

Flights was premiered by One Duck Theatre at glór in Ennis, Co. Clare, 15–17 January 2020, and transfers to the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 21 January–8 February 2020 and Clapham Omnibus Theatre, London, 11–29 February 2020.