‘Generosity of the ferocious kind’: Simon Stephens on the late Stephen Jeffreys and his contribution to playwriting

STEPHEN JEFFREYS was an acclaimed playwright and a hugely respected mentor to an entire generation of playwrights who emerged through the Royal Court Theatre while he was Literary Associate there. Amongst them SIMON STEPHENS, who spoke at an event at the Royal Court last weekend to celebrate Stephen’s life and work. Here, in a longer version of the speech he gave, Simon pays tribute to his friend and colleague, and the fearsome intelligence he brought to his work.

A lot has been said about the energy that Stephen brought to his commitment to developing playwriting and working with playwrights. I want to speak briefly on behalf of the playwrights he worked with.

It strikes me that there may be the perception that Stephen’s reading and work and thinking was born out of a beautiful gentleness. I very much want to disillusion anybody who thinks there may have been anything gentle about the way Stephen worked with us.

Simon Stephens

In 2000, I was Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court. At the time, Stephen was Literary Associate. The bulk of our work involved advising Ian Rickson, who was Artistic Director,  about the plays he might choose to produce, at the semi-legendary Friday morning script meetings. I am not somebody who would ever be comfortable describing myself as an intellectual, though neither have there been many occasions in my life when I would describe myself as being quite simply thick. But in those meetings, that is precisely how I felt. And the kernel of that feeling was the ferocious, not gentle, brain of Stephen Jeffreys.

He read like a laser, and spoke with a force and eloquence that left me utterly terrified. Most of my contributions to those meetings very quickly became a timid mutter of ‘Yeah, I think what Stephen thinks’. To be honest, it started making me miserable. The opportunity to be at these meetings was something I had wanted all my life, and the experience was becoming an unhappy one. Until Graham Whybrow, who was Literary Manager, suggested that Stephen might take me for lunch.

I was terrified. It was magnificent. It changed my life.

We spoke for three hours. In those three hours, he talked of my work and the work of this place and his own writing, all with the same intelligence and articulacy and insight. It was during that lunch that I realised that the ferocity I had dreaded in the script meetings was born, not out of cruelty, but out of a faith in the importance of our work.

Stephen Jeffreys could annihilate plays and playwrights with his reading, but he only ever did that when he thought that the playwright wasn’t working properly, or wasn’t taking their art or this place seriously. When he perceived that they were, that ferocity became a ferocious loyalty and faith.

Stephen taught me more about playwriting than anybody I have ever met. He infected me with a sense of the importance of this theatre. He taught and infected not only me, but an entire generation of writers.

Stephen Jeffreys, Masterclass

He wasn’t gentle or frivolous with his wisdom, because he had a deep and serious faith in the importance of theatre as a forum for empathy and humanity, and as a space for the interrogation of the complexity of the human animal. At a time when our national discourse seems shorn of that empathy and humanity, I value his wisdom and teaching more than ever.

He took this art form seriously. He took the work of the playwright seriously. He took this theatre seriously. He taught me that this room, the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs, is the most important room in the world.

There is a great deal I miss about Stephen. Oddly, I miss his hair! Not many men could rock that haircut, but he did. I miss his sparkling smile. Our sons are the same age, and I miss comparing notes on their progression and the love and respect with which he spoke of his family. And I also miss comparing notes on the decline and pathos of our crumbling football teams. I think he would have enjoyed the total collapse of Manchester United, and I secretly miss not having to endure that from him.

But I don’t miss his intelligence or his ferocious, not gentle, generosity. Because I remember it every time I come into this theatre. I remember it every time I write. Generosity of the ferocious kind, intelligence of that force – when it comes, as it always did with Stephen, from grace and love – inevitably survives us. I am honoured to be asked to celebrate it today.


The above is a longer version of a speech delivered by Simon Stephens at a Celebration of Stephen Jeffreys at the Royal Court Theatre on Sunday 29 September 2019. Our thanks to Simon Stephens for his permission to reproduce it here.

Stephen Jeffreys’ book Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write is published by Nick Hern Books, extracted on our blog here. Click here to buy your copy at a 20% discount.

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

Steve Waters on putting Idi Amin on the stage

Playwright Steve Waters has adapted Giles Foden’s acclaimed novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, for the stage, now premiering at Sheffield Theatres. Here, he reflects on the process of adapting the novel, and reveals that it wasn’t until he went to Uganda himself that he realised the true extent of Amin’s legacy, and the instinct of a brutalised nation to forget the horrors inflicted on them by the ‘Butcher of Uganda’…

What is the responsibility of one writer adapting the novel of another, to the reality behind the work? When I first started to shape The Last King of Scotland for the stage, I was content to trust Giles Foden’s account of the world of 1970s Uganda; after all, he had spent many years in the country and his book bristles with evidence of serious research. Part of the power of his novel lies in its detail about that country’s history, landscape, and the shocking yet fascinating facts of Idi Amin’s eight-year reign. Surely my job was just to extract the dialogue and turn the rich prose into spare stage directions?

Yet as I got deeper into the project, I realised this wasn’t good enough. I had to have some skin in the game. After all, as the play took shape, it travelled away from its source and became its own reality. As the thrilling possibility of a production with Sheffield Theatres approached, I realised I couldn’t sit in rehearsals batting away questions by glibly saying, ‘read the book’. This play needed to come from within me as much as from its source.

Tobi Bamtefa and Joyce Omotola in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

So last summer I found myself on a flight to Entebbe. Let’s be clear, I’m under no illusion that a week in a distant nation by a white traveller confers on them any real expertise or authority. Whilst my plays are grounded in research, they are also made out of haphazard experiences, conversations, books and hours of browsing YouTube. Now, armed with a Bradt guidebook, a copy of the novel, numerous inoculations and an intermittent phone signal, I tried to track some of the places and events in the book.

I didn’t make it to the Murchison Falls. I didn’t trek up to see the gorillas in the Rwenzori Mountains, or kayak the headwaters of the Nile. My trip was a relatively tame one, but revealing in other ways. The first shock was the invisibility of Amin’s regime after more than thirty years of Yoweri Museveni’s rule. Yes, there are the torture chambers beneath the Twekobe Palace (these I did visit, with the uncomfortable thrill of being a sensation seeker as I made the descent); yes, there is Paradise Island, where Amin was rumoured to have fed his victims to the waiting crocodiles; or the huge avenue named after his loyal supporter Muammar Gaddafi, leading to the vast Kampala Mosque. But no museums, no reckoning, little visual evidence of what occurred here under Amin.

Tobi Bamtefa in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

And when I mentioned to Ugandans that I was working on a play about Amin, there was a distinct sense that I was raking over ancient history. After all, for the youthful population, Amin’s rule preceded their birth by decades. They’re more interested in the current President’s critic, the singer and philanthropist Bobi Wine; or in protesting at a Government tax on social media. The swanky new malls that rise from streets choked with traffic, the impoverished fishermen emptying Lake Victoria of its fish with mosquito nets, the commuters with their legs wrapped round the rider of a boda boda bike – they all have their faces set on a difficult future as citizens of one of the poorest nations in Africa. No wonder the then-imminent visit of Narendra Modi or the unfinished pothole-free highway from Entebbe Airport held more interest to them than the mayhem of Amin’s rule.

Yet for all that, I came home feeling closer to Amin’s tenure. One astonishing outcome of the visit was a read-through of the play on Bulago Island in the great space of Lake Victoria. A company was hastily assembled, with one paper copy of the script, two laptops running out of battery, and various shared phones. The part of Idi was read by the Island’s policeman (like Amin, a member of the Kakwa people); the Ambassador was read by a retired British judge, sidelined by the current Government for exposing its corruption; Idi’s wife Kay was played by a cook who, it quickly became apparent, was barely literate. The waters of the lake lapped against the shore, kingfishers flashed past and golden-orbed spiders hung from the trees. The day passed, we broke for lunch, we continued.

Afterwards, we talked. The policeman, his voice soft and kind, felt Idi Amin was a ‘great man’, misunderstood, badly advised. A lawyer spoke of his fear of Amin as a child, his family’s sufferings. The white ex-pats seemed a little uncomfortable with this discussion, and I felt their loneliness too – it is reflected in the fate of Marina, one of the characters in the play. Then, without warning, the sun fell below the horizon and the equatorial night began.

Where is all that in the play? A line here, a line there. But for me, my brief time in that wonderful country transformed a technical task into a labour of love, closing down the distance between play, novel and the reality behind them both, as vast and intangible as the waters of that great African lake.


The above is an edited version of an article by Steve Waters, first published in the theatre programme for the Sheffield Theatres’ production of The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, adapted by Steve Waters. The play has its world premiere at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 27 September–19 October 2019. To book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.

The script of The Last King of Scotland is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99) visit the Nick Hern Books website.

In Memoriam Peter Nichols

Playwright Peter Nichols, whose plays include A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, The National Health and Privates on Parade, died on 7 September at the age of 92. Here, in an extract from his published Diaries, he describes meeting Laurence Olivier in January 1969 to discuss the National Theatre’s forthcoming production of his play The National Health – a meeting that didn’t quite go according to plan…

Michael Blakemore [director of the National Theatre production ofThe National Health], having been asked to meet Olivier [Laurence Olivier, then Director of the National Theatre] fifteen minutes before I was due, arranged to see me fifteen minutes before that. All his life is like this – a farce of concealments and intricate deceptions. Having left him at Waterloo Bridge, I walked about for fifteen minutes before turning up at Aquinas Street where the offices of the National Theatre are crammed into government-issue prefabs among terraces of two storey artisan housing. Olivier had outflanked Mike’s intrigue by not arriving at all, leaving Ken [Kenneth Tynan, Literary Manager of the National Theatre] to keep us happy. Ken gave me whisky and apologised for Larry, said to be at a wig-fitting. We all talked of the new theatre to be built to Denys Lasdun’s design near the Festival Hall. Is it likely or just another mirage? The Queen Mother had already unveiled several foundation-stones in various places. Ken was hopeful.

After half an hour and a good deal of Scotch, Ken lost patience and said it must be quite some wig. At which moment, a Rolls was manoeuvred through the narrow opening and parked in the yard.

There was a flutter of myrmidons and a little man bustled in, holding out his hand.

‘I’ve never been more sorry in my life.’

For some minutes he alternated apology with disposing of the business accrued in his absence, mostly arrangements to bring a film producer from LA, requiring subtraction sums for the lost hours.

‘I apologise abjectly for being late then attend to anything but your play!’ he exclaimed, took off the pinstripe suit-jacket, sat at the table and drank some of the Scotch we’d left.

We went through the cast of twenty-two characters, matching them to the available actors. His opinions of his company were unimpressed, even brutal.

‘No, he can’t play Foster because he’s not staying.’ This was evidently news to Tynan. ‘No. Boring man. Drinks too much and is always slapping me on the back and asking me to supper with his family. No.’

Poster for the 1973 film of The National Health, directed by Jack Gold

The advantage a famous actor has is the history he carries with him. I, now fairly far gone on subsidised whisky, saw not only a sixty-year-old man with toothbrush moustache, bank-manager glasses, suit and club tie, but Maxim de Winter confessing he hadn’t loved Rebecca, Heathcliff on the moor, Darcy, Henry V, Richard III, Hamlet, Archie Rice, Astrov, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Antony, The Duke of Altair, the waiter in Carrie, etc., so I’d been watching him much of my life in the flesh or on film.

‘Well, I don’t know what else we have to discuss.’ As he poured another glass, this seemed to be our exit-cue, but Tynan asked where I stood on euthanasia and this began a further hour’s discussion. I put my own confused and watery arguments for allowing the helplessly defective to die, based on our own firstborn [Nichols’ daughter Abigail, whose severe disabilities were reflected in the character of Josephine in his 1967 play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg]. Tynan argued the liberal case against this and Olivier got the best of both worlds by saying we shouldn’t be so squeamish about life itself and in a few years we’d all be standing on each other’s heads and then it would be too late for such sentiments, people who were no use should be helped out, then at once told us that when the doctors warned him his daughter may not survive, she had only a five-per-cent chance, he’d said, ‘Save her! Save her!’ I hope he didn’t do this with quite the panache he used in telling us or the doctors’ hands must have shaken with fear. ‘You see? I wanted to save my child, though I knew she might not be whole.’ His eyes were burning bright as he roared: ‘I was a female tiger.’

As we walked away later, Michael pointed out that Tynan, for all his egalitarian posturing, has lived a life devoted to excelling and becoming élite, whereas Olivier exemplifies in his vigorous person and his willingness to face the crowd again and again, a reason for living.

Peter Nichols in Bristol 1968 with his daughter Louise and (background) daughter Abigail, wife Thelma and son Dan


The above is an edited extract from Peter Nichols’ Diaries 1969–1977, published by Nick Hern Books.

Also published by Nick Hern Books are Nichols’ plays Passion Play and So Long Life.

The ordinary made extraordinary: Robert Holman on writing plays

Robert Holman is the playwright most admired by other playwrights. Championed by writers such as Simon Stephens and David Eldridge, his plays – including Making Noise Quietly, Jonah and Otto and A Breakfast of Eels – combine close observation of the way people behave with a thrilling and often fiercely uncompromising mastery of dramatic form. His work is now set to find new audiences, with the film adaptation of Making Noise Quietly showing on cinema screens from this week. Here, alongside the publication of a collection of his early plays, Robert Holman Plays: One, he reflects on his own approach to playwriting, and how each of his plays has been shaped by his own personal circumstances.

Mud is the first play I wrote that had an interval. I was twenty-one. I left Yorkshire when I was nineteen and stayed with a school friend in Camden Town. I slept on an air bed. One night a bullet came through the window, made a little hole in the glass, and passed over my head. A prostitute lived below, but I never found out what the bullet was about. In the kitchen in Camden Town, in a notepad and then on the portable typewriter my parents bought me, I wrote a play which a few months later went on in a lunchtime theatre in Edinburgh. It lasted nearly an hour and was my first professional production. The play was a sort of fantasy about an old man visiting a graveyard at night, and the critic of the Scotsman newspaper said it was clearly written by a bitter old man. I was still only nineteen. I have wondered if I might one day write about the bullet in Camden Town, but a play has not come along.

Mud was written in Belsize Park. I had got there by way of Westbourne Park, where I had found a room overlooking the railway to Paddington. There were more very small spiders living around the window than I had seen before or since, as well as untroubled mice running across the floor. There was an old, broken wardrobe. The window was opaque with dirt. I put down my case, sat on the bed and looked about, got depressed, and stayed two hours. Back in Camden Town in desperation I rang my mother, wondering if I should go home to Yorkshire, but she had heard, from a distant relative, about a family in Belsize Park who sometimes had a room they let out. I went to Belsize Park for a week and stayed seven years. All the early plays were written there, in a bright room at the top of the house overlooking the garden, with Hampstead Heath nearby to walk across and the space to think. Sometimes in life we are most grateful for ordinary things, if giving someone a room to live in is ordinary. The room set the course for the rest of my life. The rent was a few pounds a week, and very often I did not pay it. I have struggled with money ever since, and it started then.

Mud was written in the evenings and in the early hours of the mornings, because I worked during the day on Paddington Station, selling newspapers and magazines. I was not a clever boy, but sometimes I had a good instinct about the best thing to do, and I was learning to trust myself. Intuition had told me to get an easy job, one where I did not have to think too deeply. If that sounds rude about the bookstall or the other people working there, I do not mean it to be. It’s the only ‘proper’ job I have ever had, and to begin with I did not tell them I was also trying to write. The first draft of Mud was written in longhand using the fountain pen I had sat my school exams with. I made it up as I went along, with no idea of where it might end up. I put down the things I saw in my imagination and wrote what I heard people say. The dialogue was character-driven and the people in the play led me. If there were days when they said nothing it was a nuisance, and I would do my best to look at the empty page for half an hour before putting away the pen. If too many days like this came one after the other, it would be frustrating and then I would get depressed. I longed for the skills of a proper writer. My writing was in charge of me, rather than me being in charge of it.

Mud was written when writing was a hobby of mine. There were two drafts of the play written in ink, the second one bearing very little resemblance to the first, because all I was trying to do was to get a sense of who the characters were, and this was changing as I wrote them. Men were becoming women, women men, someone of nineteen was becoming sixty and vice versa. At some point a consistency emerged, as much decided by them as decided by me. It was as if I knew these people as well as I knew anybody who was actually alive. By now I was typing the play. It was still changing as I went on, still surprising me. I would sometimes look at my watch and it would be past three o’clock in the morning. One day Mrs Bradshaw, who owned the house, came up the stairs with a felt pad to put underneath the typewriter because their bedroom was below, and the clatter of the typewriter keys was keeping them awake.

Other Worlds by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1983, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

On Paddington Station we used to give rude customers as many small coins in their change as we possibly could. We wore badges with our names on. One day a stranger asked to speak to me. I expected to be told off or even sacked, but it was a theatre director, who asked if I might be free to write a play for him. He had wanted Howard Brenton, but Howard Brenton was busy and had told him about me. Still standing on the platform of the station, the director explained he had a slot. The play would need to be written in six weeks. Mud had taken me over a year to write and I was usually very slow. But who would say no to this? So, I said yes. I would be given money for writing, which I was not used to. When could I start? I said I could start straight away.

The Natural Cause was the play that began to turn my hobby into a job. I set the play in London not in Yorkshire, though when the characters said something I still heard my own accent. As with Mud I made it up as I went on. Some evenings I would write three or four pages and other evenings three or four lines, and then cross out most of it. I had to be taken in by what I was writing and get lost in it. Sometimes it would be like bashing my head against a brick wall. At the end of two weeks it dawned on me that there would not be a play if I was still selling newspapers because I needed every minute of the day to try to write. I spoke to the manager of the bookstall and told him what I was doing. He said to come back when I was finished, and if he had not managed to replace me, there would still be a job.

The Natural Cause was a worrying play to write. If writing is a hobby it matters little if there are days when you cannot do it very well. I had four weeks left to finish a play, and a day with nothing done is a day empty forever. I spent all one Monday walking up and down across the Heath, all the time wondering how I was going to lie my way out of writing the play. If I told the director I was ill that was better than saying I could not do it. Or I could just disappear. The rain started. It came down in heavy sheets and was soon penetrating the leaves and branches of trees, so standing under them was pointless. On Parliament Hill it looked as if London was drowning. As it got towards evening and lights came on, the city was resplendent. For less than a minute, in the hardest of the rain, London went turquoise, a colour I had not seen it go before or seen since. I stood on one of the wooden benches to get a clearer view, and decided it was better to write rubbish than to write nothing at all, and to work out the lies I would tell another time.

I am mostly a private writer, which means my plays mean different things to different people, even though the theatre is a public place. My plays are not driven by a single ideology or an idea, there is no right or wrong in them, or one easy explanation. They are about what you want them to be about, and this changes.

Royal Shakespeare Company poster for 1985 Barbican season, including Robert Holman’s Today

All plays are pieces of energy, and how they come about, the places they are written and in what circumstances, always says something about them. Today was written quickly. I did not have much time to think, and sometimes this is the best way to write, because thinking is inhibiting, if you are me. I still want to write a play where I do not think at all. Today was written in the moment, line by line, wherever the dialogue led me, rather than me leading it. It is a history play, but not one with an overarching idea or ideology. It is a play driven by the needs of its characters. I am simply not clever enough to write about history in an original way. If I might generalise for a moment, there is always at least one person somewhere in the world who is cleverer than we are. These are the people who come up with new thoughts about history – or anything else for that matter. On the other hand, our emotions, our feelings, are always slightly different and special to each of us. You might fall in love in a different way to me or be scared by very different things. Sometimes living is easy, but often it is painful. There are times when we feel alone even with friends about us. I was learning to try to write about all this and to know it is the stuff of life. If I have anything special as a writer, and you will decide if I have or not, it is writing characters who stay in the mind for an hour or two when the play is over; and they stay in the mind because the people in the plays are like you with your fears. They are my fears, too.

All my plays are a mixture of memory and imagination, and they have mostly used landscapes that I know well. I was born and brought up on a farm on the moors in north Yorkshire. Middlesbrough and the Tees Estuary, with the chemical and steel industry close by, were twenty miles away.

The Overgrown Path by Robert Holman, Royal Court Theatre, 1985, included in Robert Holman Plays: One

The way my plays are written in the moment means that they will not be perfect. They can be strong because of the moment but also weak because of it. If I write a scene one morning it might be slightly different if I write it the next morning. It is down to luck, but I have learned more about the world from writing plays in this way than I have from anything else in life. I have surprised myself, and now and again I hope I have surprised an audience. If an audience does not know what is coming next, it is because I also did not know what was coming next. My writing involves a lot of trust. I have to trust myself that something interesting will come out of me next morning  and know that I can put it down using words. Words are everything. To trust oneself to find the right word is sometimes a challenge. The thing that matters most to me is the English language and how it can be used to tell a story.

A writer has no responsibilities whatsoever, other than to themselves, their integrity and intelligence. My plays are not about the world as it is, but about the world as I would like it to be and wish it was. In this way my plays are romances.


The above is an edited extract from the introduction to Robert Holman Plays: One, out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £15.19 (20% off the RRP), click here.

Robert Holman Plays: One includes the plays The Natural Cause, Mud, Other Worlds, Today and The Overgrown Path. Other plays by Robert Holman published by Nick Hern Books are available here.

Author photo by Dan Wooller, 2018.

 

‘As a playwright, you must have something that you want to say’: Stephen Jeffreys on the craft of playwriting

In addition to his success as a highly respected writer and teacher, Stephen Jeffreys also spent many years working on a guide to the craft of playwriting, to share his wisdom and experience. That book, Playwriting, is out now, published posthumously following Stephen’s sad and untimely death in September 2018.

Here, in an extract from Playwriting, he reflects on ‘learning things the hard way’, how writers should always be seeking to improve, and the opportunities of live performance.  

As a teacher of writing, my starting point has always been that nothing that I can say or teach you will turn you into a playwright: you must have something that you want to say. You have to have the urge to say something onstage, and that is something I can’t give you. Most people have learned fascinating things from their life or lived through extraordinary experiences, had brilliant ideas or imagined great things. What I can try to do is to save you years of work by transmitting certain techniques, tools and tricks that can help you to translate your experiences or ideas into your play.

Aristotle’s assessment of playwriting in the Poetics remains to this day the greatest attempt to explain this mysterious craft. I have read many later books on playwriting, some going back to the nineteenth century, and most of them are not very helpful to the aspiring playwright. Either they tend to view plays in an overly academic manner or they tend to be too simple. What I think playwrights need is a practical guide to writing plays, including techniques, approaches, and story ideas, providing them with the tools that they can apply to their own work.

The first time I went to a playwriting workshop, I was running it, and so when I became Writer-in-Residence at Paines Plough, a new-writing theatre company, I sought to remedy this lack of teaching. I set up a group of playwrights called ‘The Wild Bunch’ whose intention was to teach each other everything we knew. We took it in turns to teach sessions, and we learned a great deal. I carried on learning about playwriting through working with writers over many years, including spending twelve years at the Royal Court Theatre in London, reading five plays a week, and running playwriting masterclasses. But more than anything else, I have learned about playwriting from working on my own plays. Writing plays is difficult. It’s rather different from writing poetry or novels or songs. It’s a very particular type of writing with its own set of skills. What I try to share are mostly things that I’ve learned myself the hard way.

Stephen Jeffreys delivering a masterclass on ‘Writing History Plays’ at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London, in October 2016

Writers tend to fall into two groups. There are those who are terribly good at things like structure, organisation, getting the characters on- and offstage, and making sure that the plot is watertight; the tendency of writers like these is that they may be a little unimaginative and possibly lack that sense of poetry, metaphor, and the unexpected. Whereas the other type of writer tends to be brilliant at coming up with great visual images, understanding the psychology of the characters, or finding beautifully poetic moments or metaphors, but they seem incapable of getting the actors on and off the stage in the right order, or finding an overall shape for the play. I rather crudely refer to this as left-brained and right-brained writing: the left-brain being responsible for our organisational, rational and cognitive capabilities, and the right-brain being more poetic and spontaneous. There’s been some recent work on the theory that the left-brain and right-brain are fundamentally different, which of course concludes that it’s a bit more complicated than that, so I enter a disclaimer here that I’m using those terms in inverted commas. When I say ‘left-brain’ and ‘right-brain’, I don’t mean that I have any real grasp of neuroscience, but rather as a convenient way of labelling and thinking about these different types of approach to writing plays.

What I’d encourage writers to do is recognise and improve upon the part of playwriting that you’re not good at. While reading the last paragraph, you may already have instinctively identified with one of the approaches to playwriting; if so, that’s a good start! Because the key to playwriting, in contrast to other forms of writing, is that you do need to develop both these sets of skills. You can just about get away with being a novelist who doesn’t have a great grasp of structure, for instance, but it’s very hard to do that in theatre; conversely, a play that is beautifully organised but has no driving metaphor, no inner life, will be received by audiences as being very efficient but very dead. Another way of looking at it is to think of the difference between a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of playwriting, where you look down and see the whole map of a play spread out before you, and a ‘worm’s-eye view’ of playwriting, where you’re peering up from a muddy field, you have no idea what’s going on, but you are richly in the moment – which I imagine worms to be. Try to look into yourself, and to woo those skills that you feel you don’t have.

If you think about the way an audience receives a play, it’s very different from other art forms. If you are reading a novel, maybe you’ll read forty pages on the first day; the next day you have a domestic crisis so you won’t read anything; the day after that you may read a hundred pages; the day after that you read about five pages before falling asleep; and the next day you’ll get completely gripped and finish the book. Essentially, you choose when it all happens. Or imagine you’re in an art gallery, and you see a sculpture: you can generally choose how much time you spend looking at that sculpture – you can spend half an hour, you can spend ten seconds, but it’s your choice. In the theatre, however, as an audience member, if you’ve lost attention and dropped out at some point, then the show has gone on without you: there’s no rewind button; you can’t go back. A play happens live, in real time – that is the basic condition of writing for theatre – and as a playwright you have to learn to deal with that.

The 2016 revival of The Libertine by Stephen Jeffreys, starring Dominic Cooper as the Earl of Rochester (photo by Alastair Muir)

It’s always frightening when you see audiences tune out at the same time. If I have a play on at the Royal Court, during the first preview I will generally watch the play and take notes; but for the second preview, I will sit in one of the seats at the side of the stage in the gallery and watch the audience. I watch to see at which points they start, literally, to lose the plot. Audiences tend to switch off all together, and when they do that, it’s probably your fault as a writer: there’s something wrong with the play; this is the bit where it’s not interesting. A novelist can get away with writing a self-indulgent description of the countryside, say, because the reader can always think, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just skip that bit.’ But you can’t do that when writing a play. If you lose the audience, even for a minute, it’s very hard to get them back, because they are holding on to a continuous piece of wire, they are following the story second by second. Our responsibility as playwrights is to make every single second interesting. This is our great problem, and also our great opportunity.

This is an edited extract from Playwriting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write by Stephen Jeffreys, out now and published by Nick Hern Books. Click here to buy your copy at a 20% discount.

Stephen Jeffreys was a playwright and teacher, whose plays include The Libertine. His Masterclasses – delivered at the Royal Court Theatre, London – attracted writers from all over the world and shaped the ideas of many of today’s leading playwrights and theatre-makers. 

Author photo by Annabel Arden.

Vaulting ambition: the best new plays from VAULT Festival 2019

VAULT Festival, London’s biggest arts and entertainment festival, is now underway in the Vaults in Waterloo, where it runs until 17 March.  With over 400 shows from more than 2,000 artists, featuring the best new writing in theatre and comedy, cabaret, immersive experiences, late night parties and more, there’s something for everyone. And to celebrate the publication of Plays from VAULT 4, an exciting collection of seven 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…

Maud Dromgoole on her play 3 Billion Seconds, 6–10 March:

3 Billion Seconds is about two hardcore population activists who advocate having no children until (obviously) they get pregnant themselves. We watch them going to greater and greater extremes, struggling to ‘offset’ keeping the baby.

It comes really from being a member of a fair few zero-waste groups, and observing the sporadic militantism and absolute hypocrisy of trying to be a good person in a confusing world. It’s been a complete nightmare play for me in interrogating my own choices. It’s made me vegetarian which is, you know, good for the cows, but sad for me.

The text isn’t particularly prescriptive and I’m very lucky to have a director I trust implicitly. I’m really excited to see what Beth [Bethany Pitts] makes with it, and I hope people will come see it at VAULT.


Nathan Lucky Wood on his play Alcatraz, 27 Feb–3 March:

Alcatraz is the story of a little girl who breaks into a nursing home to bust her Granny out for Christmas. It’s about finding room for love in big institutions, and the meaning of Christmas, and the meaning of Clint Eastwood.

It started life as a short play for The Miniaturists. I had an idea for a sort of gender-swapped Don Quixote set in modern London. I thought I could write a play where a woman with dementia wanders through London misinterpreting everything she sees, and her granddaughter goes with her, not realising she has dementia. Don Quixote became Donna Quexis and Sancho became Sandy, which I thought was quite clever. Then I sat down to write the play and by the time I had finished, something very different had emerged, and it had nothing to do with Don Quixote except the names. At the time I’d been stuck on a very serious, important play about whistleblowing in the NHS, and Alcatraz seemed to absorb all those themes and ideas. But at heart it’s about a child trying to repair a broken family. Which seems to end up being the subject of every play I write, whether I want it to or not.

It’s a huge privilege to come back to VAULT Festival. It’s an incredible place with an incredible atmosphere, and a fantastic, supportive team behind it. And the venues have so much atmosphere. I’m really excited to see Alcatraz in the Cavern – it’s been my favourite venue here for years and it’s just perfect for the play.


Margaret Perry on her play Collapsible, 13–17 February:

Collapsible is a play set inside the brain of an unemployed and isolated woman who increasingly feels she is not a person who exists. Interviewing for job after job, she starts to run out of ways to describe herself, and so she decides to make a list, crowd-sourced from the people who know her. Or used to know her. But as the list grows, she soon finds that words on a page aren’t enough to cling to. It’s a monologue about work, self, and trying to wade out of the dark.

The play came from a few different places. When I first moved to London almost five years ago, I was unemployed for three horrible months. Collapsible is partly an exorcism of that time in my life and an interrogation of the damaging way in which our neoliberal capitalist society has intrinsically linked who we are to what we do. I also wanted to explore the tunnel-vision solipsism of depression and anxiety – the ways we push people away just when we need them the most. And I wanted to write a play from the perspective of a complex, compelling bisexual woman.

I’m SO excited to be at VAULT 2019 making this play with the best collaborators I could ask for. VAULT 2017 and 2018 filled my heart and emptied my pockets and I knew I had to be part of it any chance I got!


Nabilah Said on her play Inside Voices, 23–27 January:

Inside Voices is a dark comedy about Muslim women from Singapore. It blends humour with magical realism to confront audiences with a community they rarely see, or think about. The play is highly energetic and playful – with mythology and monsters thrown in – to really reflect the atmosphere and rich cultural diversity of Southeast Asia. The show is presented by an all-Asian and all-female team.

I wrote Inside Voices because I saw nothing in London that reflected my sensibilities as a Southeast Asian. Growing up in Singapore, which is a super-modern country and a former British colony, I have a natural (and sometimes confusing) affinity for British culture, but that love isn’t necessarily reciprocated. A lot of people still wonder why I speak good English. The movie Crazy Rich Asians didn’t help either – it put Singapore on people’s radar but it didn’t portray brown people like me who are also Singaporean.

I am so thrilled to be showing Inside Voices at VAULT 2019. Last year I was a festival assistant and I remember thinking, “Man, I wish I could be part of this”. The festival has a real buzz to it. I value the opportunity to share a little bit of Southeast Asia with London – I honestly don’t think people have seen anything like it here. I suppose it’s a bit of a provocation as well: would you watch a show about a community you probably have never cared about?

Inside Voices by Nabilah Said (publicity shot and author photo by Erfendi Dhahlan)


Christopher Adams and Timothy Allsop on their play Open, 23–27 January:

We initially conceived of Open after we’d worked together on another play about a nineteenth-century book collector. Chris had been working with an archive to write the play, and we realised we had an archive of our relationship. All our emails, Facebook posts and Guardian Soulmates messages had formed part of material we had handed to the Home Office when Chris was processing his Leave to Remain. This is what began our discussion about doing a show about our relationship, the focus on the ‘open’ aspect came afterwards.

It was an exciting but also complex process of engaging with the timeline of our relationship and working out a narrative structure through which to explore a modern-day romance. When researching we found amazing statistics about how many gay men are in open relationships (40–50%) and yet how few people talk about it openly. There were also lots of different rules that worked for different couples. We found this a useful focus point for the show.

We also interviewed some of our former lovers and friends and used that material in the show. The result was a moving patchwork of voices and experiences which helped to people the stage alongside our own story.

The responses from the audiences have been overwhelmingly positive, with most people connecting with its humour and honesty. We were also amazed by the diversity of the audience and felt the play spoke to all kinds of people. We hope there will be a future life for the piece and fully enjoyed our time at VAULT. It’s also been wonderful to be published in the Nick Hern Books collection.

Timothy Allsop and Christopher Adams in their play Open


Dylan Coburn Gray and Claire O’Reilly of MALAPROP Theatre on their play JERICHO, 6–10 February:

Dylan Coburn Gray: JERICHO is a play about the world right now. It’s about a young journalist struggling to get by, writing about things she doesn’t care about and worrying whether writing about things she cared about would be any more meaningful. It’s about professional wrestling, and how it’s like contemporary politics in more ways than you might think. It’s about plausibility, the danger of myths, Roland Barthes and RuPaul, and whether there’s any point even trying to get a pension as well as paying rent if the world’s just going to go on fire before any of us get old.

Jericho is the oldest city. It has a protective wall around it. Chris Jericho’s signature move is named after that wall. Wrestling has always been more about what feels true, rather than what is true. From that little constellation of ideas, the show grew. Its heart is interrogating our sentimentalities about the past and how they lead us to interpret the present.

I think we started off knowing we wanted to make something that would approach the present obliquely. The news cycle right now is such that we spend all our time in our political fury refractory period; you can only get so angry about so many things, and beyond that current events just hurt us with no change in motivation or insight. We didn’t want to just tell people more horrible stuff, we wanted to encourage a reappraisal of the horrible stuff we all already know. Or something like that.

Claire O’Reilly: Having had a blast in Edinburgh for the last two years, bringing work to the UK [MALAPROP is a Dublin-based collective] has so far been a pleasant experience for us (one I’m probably jinxing as I type, go me). It’s exciting to open the conversation out beyond our regular audience, particularly now that we’re no longer complete strangers to the British landscape. That said, being part of VAULT 2019 feels particularly special due to the high volume of Irish work on offer. This is owed in no small part to fellow Irishwoman Gill Greer, Head of Theatre and Performance at Vaults, who really put VAULT Festival on the radar of Irish practitioners.

JERICHO by MALAPROP Theatre (photo by Molly O’Cathain)


Jodi Gray on her play Thrown, 6–10 March:

Jill Rutland and Ross Drury from Living Record approached me a while ago with (what I naively thought was) quite a simple, but beautiful, stimulus for a show: When was the moment you knew you were no longer a child? This is what we referred to as the ‘Thrown’ moment (something to do with the impenetrable philosopher Heidegger) – the point at which we’re hurled unceremoniously into adulthood. We all of us have one, though the levels of drama and sometimes trauma vary hugely; everyone I spoke to could pinpoint theirs immediately.

Along with this simple question, they explained that in performance we would be using binaural technology – an on-stage microphone shaped like a human head with a pick-up in each ‘ear’ – and the audience would listen in via wireless headphones. So, the performer breathes into the left ear of the mic, and each audience member can almost feel their own left ear warming up. (Yes, it is eerie – and has ended up feeling a bit like we have direct access to your brain…)

Part of the development of the play involved us collecting testimony from older people (how better to understand how the end of childhood affects a life?), and I was overwhelmed by the stories we heard, the detail and the joy and the pain. Every one was a privilege to hear, and I’m only sorry I couldn’t include all of them*.

So, this simple idea had somehow become The Stuff of Life – much too much to squeeze into the running-time of a show designed to be performed at a festival. I decided to wrangle it through the character of Dr Constance Ellis – a child psychologist searching through her life story for her own, lost, thrown moment amongst those of her former patients.

Jill is a bewitching performer, and she understood Constance immediately, intuitively. (She also makes everything I wrote magical in ways I could never have dared dream for.) With Ross’s profound direction, and Chris Drohan’s otherworldly sound design, Thrown is not an ‘easy’ watch – but we’ve made something that feels exactly like a memory: strange, enigmatic, bittersweet.

It surprised me in the end that this play, developed so collaboratively, should end up being one of the most personal I’ve ever written. In fact, after one of the previews a close friend turned to me, shaking her head but laughing, and said, ‘No wonder you’re like this.’ I still don’t know what the fuck she means.

We’re so chuffed to be bringing Thrown to VAULT Festival after a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, and ahead of our UK tour – it’s such a beacon of awesomeness in the depths of winter and I love the timelessness of being underground. It’s like a lovely nourishing fugue for all us creative folks.

* These interviews are available to watch on the company’s YouTube Channel as part of Living Record’s ongoing online archive of collected testimony called ‘The Record of Living’ – true stories from the end of childhood retold and relived from people all over the country.

Thrown by Jodi Gray


What to see at VAULT Festival 2019

Just before the festival opened on 23 January, we asked our authors which shows from this year’s programme they were most excited to see. Check out their picks below…

Maud Dromgoole: I’m really looking forward to so many shows at the festival. All the other shows in the Nick Hern Books anthology look brilliant. I also can’t wait to see Hear Me Howl (30 Jan–3 Feb), Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), Fatty Fat Fat (30 Jan–3 Feb), 10 (13–17 Mar), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar),The Last Nine Months (of the rest of our lives) (20–24 Feb), Lola and Jo (8 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Essex Girl (30–31 Jan), Lucy Light (13–17 Mar), WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar) and Cabaret Sauvignon and a Single VAULT Whiskey (24 Jan–8 Mar), which I think has won VAULT on title alone.

Nathan Lucky Wood: There’s so much great stuff on this year it’s hard to know what to recommend, But I’m hugely excited for WOOD by Adam Foster, directed by Grace Duggan (27 Feb–3 Mar). I saw a very early sharing of it last year and it was absolutely astonishing. I’m really excited to see the full-length play.

Margaret Perry: I’m very excited to see all the other plays in the anthology – particularly 3 Billion Seconds (6–10 Mar), Inside Voices (23–27 Jan) and JERICHO (6–10 Feb). I also can’t wait for Dangerous Lenses (23–27 Jan), 17, (23–27 Jan), i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) (27–28 Feb), Juniper and Jules (23–27 Jan), Pufferfish (6–10 Mar), Landscape (1989), (13–14 Feb), bottled. (13–17 Feb),WORK BITCH (27 Feb–3 Mar), Finding Fassbender (15–16 Mar), and The New Writers’ Showcase (17 Mar).

Nabilah Said: I’m excited for Silently Hoping by Ellandar (20–24 Feb) and SALAAM by Sara Aniqah Malik (30 Jan–3 Feb). Both deal with Muslim-related issues in different ways – Silently Hoping tackles being half-Asian and half-British, while SALAAM is a lyrical take on Islamophobia in Britain. I love that there can be three really different plays at the festival talking about being Muslim. It just shows you that there isn’t one way to be Muslim, and it isn’t mutually exclusive with being human, either.

Maeve O’Mahony of MALAPROP Theatre: I can’t wait to see Queens of Sheba (30 Jan–3 Feb), having missed it at Edinburgh Fringe (actually, note to self, book tickets now). There’s also a plethora of Irish work on offer this year. I’m particularly excited about Sickle Moon Production’s Tryst (13–17 Feb), Sunday’s Child’s Get RREEL (6–10 Feb), Joanne McNally’s Bite Me (13–17 Mar), and Nessa Matthews and Eoghan Carrick’s Infinity (6–10 Feb). I’m also REALLY tempted to extend my stay and crash on a couch so I can catch Oisin McKenna’s ADMIN (27–28 Feb) and Margaret Perry’s new play Collapsible (13–17 Feb)!

Jodi Gray: I’m especially looking forward to all the plays in Nick Hern Books’ VAULT collection, particularly 3 Billion Seconds by Maud Dromgoole (6–10 Mar) and Collapsible by Margaret Perry (13–17 Feb), and then BOAR by Lewis Doherty (6 Mar) (you’d be an absolute idiot to miss this, and it’s on for one night only), 10 by Snatchback (13–17 Mar), Vespertilio by Fight and Hope (20–24 Feb), and Tacenda by RedBellyBlack (20–24 Feb).

Plays from VAULT 4, containing seven of the best plays from this year’s festival, is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £13.59 (RRP £16.99), visit our website now.

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

VAULT Festival 2019 runs from 23 January – 17 March at the Vaults, Waterloo, London. Visit the festival website here.

‘We all live within shouting distance of someone in crisis’: Lynn Nottage on her play Sweat

As her latest play Sweat opens at the Donmar Warehouse in London, the double-Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage reveals the painful personal encounter that led her to write it, and how her intensive research uncovered truths overlooked by mainstream media…

Several years ago I received a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write a play about an American Revolution; it was part of an ambitious initiative to encourage playwrights to wrestle with large questions about American history.

I struggled for a couple years, resisting the obvious temptations to write about the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement, and then late one night, I received an email in the form of a plea from a dear friend in dire financial straits. She was a single mother of two who had no motive, other than the need to share her predicament with close friends. It was a difficult task, but her raw honesty about her financial reality shattered me. For months, she’d been hiding her circumstances from friends and family. I read her email and felt ashamed. She was my next-door neighbor, yet my eyes had been closed to her painful situation. My friend was someone who had an easy smile, which unbeknownst to me hid a hard reality familiar to too many Americans. She had worked for years, signed the American social contract and yet had, like many middle-class folx, found herself broke, desperate and on the verge of despair. Her emotional email forced me to reckon with the reality that we all live within shouting distance of someone who is in crisis and experiencing real economic insecurity. I was awakened from my complacency, and my response was to ask hard questions about how and why this was happening in a country as wealthy as the United States.

Leanne Best in rehearsals for Sweat by Lynn Nottage at the Donmar Warehouse, 2018 (photo by Johan Persson)

The next day, my friend and I went to Occupy Wall Street (which was beginning that week). We marched around Zuccotti Park, and chanted until we were hoarse. At the end of the day she felt better, and less alone, but I had more questions. As a result, I ended up going back to Occupy Wall Street multiple times and speaking loudly at the people’s mic. Around this time I decided to write about the American de-industrial revolution for the Oregon Shakespeare commission. My curiosity led me to Reading, Pennsylvania, a post-industrial city at the tail end of the Rust Belt. At the time, 2011, it was the poorest city of its size in America, and a microcosm of what was happening to small cities across the United States. Reading was once an industrial powerhouse: home to textile and steel factories, home to the first outlet malls in America, and the nexus of the Reading railroad.

In Reading, I spent two-and-a-half years interviewing people, from the city’s first African American Mayor to members of a homeless community squatting in the woods. Too often, I found that folx spoke of their city in the past tense; they’d respond to my questions with a simple rejoinder: ‘Reading was’. I recognized in hearing this over and over that a city that couldn’t imagine itself in the present or the future was a city that had lost its narrative. To me this was heartbreaking.

Wil Johnson and Osy Ikhile in rehearsals for Sweat by Lynn Nottage at the Donmar Warehouse, 2018 (photo by Johan Persson)

Still, I didn’t really find my play until I sat in a circle with a group of middle-aged white steel workers who’d been locked out of their factory for ninety-three weeks. They’d worked for more than half of their lives in one place, and yet were forced out of their jobs by corporate greed and left with nothing. Their stories broke my heart and invited me to see the world from another’s perspective; to be moved by people who I would not ordinarily encounter. In that moment, I replaced judgment with curiosity and allowed myself to really listen and to hear what they had to say. Some of it was difficult, and as a Black woman from Brooklyn I hadn’t expected that I would be so profoundly moved by their predicament. But they were not only willing to share their stories, they were open and brave enough to cry in front of me. I felt a responsibility to write a play that would capture the honesty and contradictions of this conversation; sustain the complexity of our multicultural country in crisis, and reveal the ugly truths and ask the uncomfortable questions. I also recognized that there was a larger story about America that wasn’t being told in the mainstream media in 2014; a story that would reveal the level of disaffection, anger, shame, despair, racism and invisibility that I encountered in Reading, PA.

So, I wrote my play Sweat, which is about a close-knit group of steel workers who find themselves forced out of the steel factory where many of them have worked for over twenty-five years. Sweat examines how their economic hardships dangerously rupture their friendships along racial lines, destroying their community in the process. I was surprised that the play, which was written a couple of years before the 2016 Election, really struck a nerve and seemed to anticipate the unfortunate election of Donald Trump. When the New York Times asked how I foresaw with this play the rise of divisive, reactionary politics in America – a story that took most journalists in this country by surprise – my answer was simple: I showed up and listened.

Jack Willis, Carlo Albán and K. T. Vogt in Sweat by Lynn Nottage, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2015 (photo by Jenny Graham)


Sweat by Lynn Nottage is out now, published in the UK and Ireland by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), click here.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, until 26 January 2019.