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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps most appropriately for this particular evening:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Author photograph of Caryl Churchill by Stephen Cummiskey.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Everything That Went Into Writing My New Book (But Were Too Polite to Ask, Dear)

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the West End…

The masked man of Theatreland has returned. West End Producer’s new book is the ultimate guide to theatregoing, full of the hilarious advice and insight he’s become known for. Here, WEP reveals the blood, sweat and Dom Pérignon that went into writing his must-have theatrical masterpiece, and why the perils of going to the theatre means it’s a vital addition to your library…

Back in 2013, the lovely people at Nick Hern Books published my definitive guide to acting – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Acting (But Were Afraid to Ask, Dear) – filled with invaluable information about training, performing, bowing correctly, and how to get ahead in showbusiness. It was a marvellous success, which made me feel all warm and bubbly inside – the same feeling I get after a particularly tasty bottle of Dom.

But then came the inevitable question: what next? Having conquered the literary world, I knew I wanted to write another essential theatrical tome – but how to overcome the ‘difficult second book syndrome’, and avoid penning a Love Never Dies to my Phantom of the Opera?

West End Producer, struggling for inspiration in his surprisingly smoky study 
(Photograph © Matt Crockett)

Then, one evening, towards the end of a particularly lengthy walk on Hampstead Heath listening to Elaine Paige warbling on my pocket gramophone (the iGram), I suddenly felt inspiration begin to stir and swell deep within me. And so I rushed home, drew the curtains in my mahogany-clad study, and started fingering my keyboard with vigour.

For a long time, I’d wanted to write a book about how to get theatregoing just right (a Goldilocks guide to the West End, if you will). It would be a practical manual covering absolutely everything – how to see the hits and not the shits, how to avoid neck pain and deep vein thrombosis in the balcony, and how to save precious pennies on tickets, so you can afford the overpriced interval drinks and souvenir programmes instead.

After all, going to the theatre is a richly rewarding but potentially perilous activity that can take months of planning to get right. The consequences of being ill-prepared can make even the most confident theatregoer feel like a floppy theatre virgin. There are just so many things to consider: how do you choose what to see? How do you avoid getting lost and ending up at Buckingham Palace instead of the Palace Theatre? How do you find your way to your seat without treading on an unsuspecting OAP? What’s the correct level of applause if you only mildly enjoyed the show? These questions, and many more besides, finally needed answering.

This is not Buckingham Palace, dear. (Photograph © Nigel Howard)

The result is my new book: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear) – which, reading it back now, really is a bloody long title. It’s taken a full four years to get it finished, but this couldn’t be helped. It’s hard to find the time to write in between going to press nights, disciplining actors, producing shows, and cuddling up with my Miss Saigon blow-up doll.

I also found this book a little more challenging to write than my first book, as it required extra research. I had to brush up on my knowledge of theatrical terms (dozens of which are explained in the book). I also attempted to use lots of words that contained eight or more letters – for example: proscenium, cyclorama, and shinging (shit singing) – and learn the names of every single theatre in the West End and beyond. Which takes rather a long time, especially as they keep insisting on building more of the bloody things.

As well as the wide-ranging West End knowledge and advice outlined above, I also wanted to have a little look at some of the greatest shows to have ever hit Theatreland – so scattered throughout the book, like used show-pants in Soho, are potted histories of some our most legendary musicals, plus suggested future casting and details of songs that didn’t quite make the cut (such a shame audiences at Cats were denied the pleasures of ‘God, I Have Another Furball’).

Elaine Page as Grizabella in Cats – other rejected songs included ‘Anyone Got Some Tuna?’ and
‘If I Can’t Find the Litter Tray (I’m Going to Pee in the Stalls)’

It also contains some of my most deliciously naughty-but-true tweets  – because over sixty thousand Twitter followers can’t be wrong….

When reading my book you will learn how to become one of my Theatre Prefects: protecting theatres from phone-users, snorers, and persistent latecomers. With you, my dear readers, forming an army of Prefects parading around theatres up and down the country, we may together finally be able to ‘Make Theatre Great Again’!

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy my new book. It will entertain, enlighten and excite even the most novice theatre spectator – and put the spice back into the theatregoing relationship of the most jaded regular. It’s the perfect present for anyone in your life (Father Christmas himself said so, dear).

So sit back, get yourself into something comfy, and prepare to find out everything you always wanted to know about going to the theatre.


Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going to the Theatre (But Were Too Sloshed to Ask, Dear) by West End Producer is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

Buy your copy for just £8.79 (20% discount) from the Nick Hern Books website. All customers who purchase their book directly from NHB will also receive a free ‘Theatre Prefect’ badge.

Author photograph by Matt Crockett.

Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

Stage fright afflicts many actors, and has the power to drive you away from the stage for months, years, or even a lifetime. In her new book, Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, performer, author and teacher Bella Merlin shows you how to meet the challenge – or simply how to prepare yourself in case that day should ever come. Here she recalls her own experience of stage fright, and what it taught her about how to deal with it.

In 2004, I was smitten with an overwhelming bout of stage fright. It was very near the end of a five-month run of David Hare’s powerful verbatim play The Permanent Way, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his company Out of Joint in collaboration with the National Theatre. I’ll let my production journal reveal the pride and fall:

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

The last night at the National and the end of something very special. I’ve never before felt so strongly that performing a play could be so important. The audiences have been incredible, with all kinds of eulogies – from critics, public, theatre professionals, stage-door staff and ushers. It has been extraordinary.

It’ll be good to get out of London, though. Not that I’ve been nervous, not that it’s ever worried me who’s in and what they might think. But who knows? – There might be a sense of ‘pressure off’ among us all, so that we can finish this long run with some playful fun.

May 5th: First night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Studio Theatre

What a nightmare!

Tonight I had every actor’s worst possible scenario. I get midway through a sentence – and my brain shuts down. All those thoughts I’d had about being out of London – the pressure off and the fun on – couldn’t have been further from the truth. Earlier in the day during the tech rehearsal, my fellow actor Matthew Dunster looked out into the auditorium of the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where the front row is barely a foot from the stage. ‘God, they’re close!’ he said. ‘This is scary!’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, apart from being surprised that any of us should find anything scary so far into the run.

Then – during the show – I walk to the front of the stage in the role of the Investment Banker and, as always during this moment, I address a member of the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I can only work when I feel the hot breath of a competitor down my neck.’ Well, that’s what I’m supposed to say…

Instead, I manage to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about you…’ but then, as I look at this man on the fourth row, I can see the whites of his eyes. ‘Wow!’ I think. ‘You really are close, aren’t you?’ And at that moment, any connection to the play is cut in my brain. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say next.

Strangely, I don’t get the mad pumping of adrenalin that I’ve had in the past when I’ve momentarily tripped over a word. No heart pounding, no instant sense of fight or flight. Just a feeling of floating away… Into oblivion… As if I’m in a dream and nothing really matters… In this fleeting moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m eyeballing a total stranger and saying whatever nonsensical words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter that Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Brown (Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) are watching, and his casting director, and a full house of audience from Leeds. It’s just me and this kind of floating-away feeling.

The moment maybe lasts a split second, yet it seems like a thousand years. Somehow I retrieve the next line and manage to get to the end of the scene seemingly in control. But all the time, I just want to slip into this strange kind of fainting place. I get off stage feeling totally, utterly spaced out.

And then it hits. The shakes and the palpitations kick in. It’s as if my legs from pelvis to knee don’t exist – it’s just thin air. My peripheries have vanished. I can’t feel my hands. Maybe I’d experienced some kind of ‘connection overload’ out there. What I mean is that in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, I hadn’t really been able to see the eyes of the person whom I’d picked out in the audience for the Investment Banker’s ‘hot breath of a competitor’ line. Here, however, the guy on the fourth row was as clear as daylight. And he was looking straight back at me. There was a true connection, and maybe the electrical currents of that connection overloaded my brain, giving me a moment of meltdown. Who knows? Whatever…

 Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

I’m just so glad to be back in a bigger space. You’d think this verbatim play would be perfectly designed for intimate studio spaces, but I’m so much happier now that we’re back in the big theatre of the Oxford Playhouse. Apart from anything else, I can’t see the audience!

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

It’s the last time Sir David Hare is going to see the play and I do it again! I fuck up! I’m shocked and appalled at myself. This time it was a stupid fluff, and again as the Investment Banker. What is it with that character? She’s supposed to be calm and confident. Instead of saying, ‘In fact, you can hardly get out of the country without using something I’ve had my finger in,’ I say, ‘In fact, you can hardly get your finger… out of… something I’ve had my finger in…!’ In that split second, my brain does a million somersaults as I strain to bring everything back to the present tense. But what a load of bollocks came out of my mouth! And I know what Sir David is like! I know he won’t let me off the hook!

Sure enough, he’s backstage after the show in the middle of a conversation – and suddenly he sees me. ‘And as for you!’ he booms down the corridor. ‘Oh, no – could you tell?’ I wince. ‘Of course I could tell! It was a load of rubbish!…’ And off we all troop into the Yorkshire night. And the knight goes off to the station to catch the last train back to London. And yes, yes – I’ll never work in British theatre again…!

My stage fright grew worse in the final two weeks of the run. I came down with chronic laryngitis and could barely be heard. It was as if my body didn’t want me to go out onto the stage and into the spotlight any more, but, with no understudies, I had no choice.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in feeling performance anxiety so very late in this long run, and little by little some of the other actors spoke of how uneasy they were feeling. It was then I began to realise that sharing our fear-based stories brings with it a kind of talking cure.

The talking cure

It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even greater courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative. Describing the actor as An Acrobat of the Heart, the writer, director and acting teacher Stephen Wangh writes, ‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”, so in the act of naming it you are already converting the fear into usable energy.’ Certainly sharing my ‘shameful’ secret with some of my fellow actors was an important part of dealing with the situation. That said, not all of them wanted to talk about their experiences. And it’s true that the small amount of literature that exists about stage fright tends to stem from psychologists and theatre scholars, rather than the actors themselves. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence. Which isn’t surprising. We all know that stage fright is an irrational fear. After all, the audience and the performance situation can’t (usually) harm us. So the damaging force has to be our own inner messages. In fact, all too easily stage fright can feel like some sort of mental illness, or what German scholar Adolph Kielblock (back in the 1890s) called, ‘the result of a morbid state of the imagination’. That’s almost the scariest part of the fear: we’re doing it to ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we start perpetuating our own downfall. Our morbid imagination conjures up all sorts of catastrophic conclusions that wholly outweigh any rational assessment of the situation – like ‘I’ll never work in British theatre again…!’

Facing-the-Fear-big-700x455

‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”’ – Stephen Wangh

The thing is that, whether we realise it or not, we’re going to talk about our stage fright anyway. If we’re not going to talk about it out loud to others, we’re going to find ourselves talking about it over and over and over in our heads. In fact, there aren’t many healthy options when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. Sometimes we pretend they don’t bother us. Sometimes we try to avoid them. Yet both of these strategies (according to writer Taylor Clark) ‘are destined to fail’. Clark suggests that if we try to control our emotions or we try to avoid the stressful situation, we actually keep our fears alive – because then a significant part of our thoughts is taken up with worrying about how we’re going to avoid it. It’s a downward spiral. Worrying may have the short-term pay-off of making us less afraid, but in the long term it traps us in a cycle of anxiety. This cycle of anxiety is perpetuated by the fact that the voice in our head (‘the Fear Voice,’ as sports psychologist Don Green calls it) doesn’t just talk – it literally poisons us. It leads our brain to create more stress chemicals such as cortisol. And these stress chemicals increase our physical state of alarm – and so the situation simply grows worse. Our inner Fear Voice is chemically – as well as psychologically – unhealthy. So we might as well talk about our stage fright out loud!

Yes, indeed, talking about our anxieties has been scientifically proven to help. It’s known in psychology as ‘flooding therapy’. Every time we confront, describe and relive our thoughts about a negative experience, we find that ‘the very act of disclosure lessens these thoughts’. So by putting our feelings into words, we actually change how our brain deals with the stressful information. (Not least because we’re producing less cortisol.) It’s also known as ‘mindful noting’. And the very act of translating our stressful feelings into words (or mindfully noting them) is almost more therapeutic than understanding them. As we try to put the chaos of our feelings into logical sentences, we find ourselves unpicking that chaos, like knots in a string. And then we can be more objective about what we’re feeling, whether or not we actually understand it. (‘I feel afraid – though I’ve no idea why – but at least I feel better for naming it “fear”.’)

Of course, it’s very difficult for us as actors to confess that we’re experiencing anything that might in any way impede our work as professionals. Jobs are hard enough to come by without directors or casting directors getting a whiff that we might be afraid of what we do. Yet if we don’t talk about it, our Fear Voice keeps us alone with our fear, and coping with a fear alone can be difficult and distressing. As biophysicist Stefan Klein puts it: ‘Loneliness is a burden for spirit and body. Getting support is normally one of the best ways of dealing with stress.’ So rather than churning our anxieties over in our heads, we should share our fears out loud. That way, we can change our damaging inner monologue and, thus, reduce our stress hormones. This is pretty important for us as actors, as stress hormones do two unhelpful things. They undermine our immune system (and no actor can afford to be ill) and they affect our memory (and absolutely no actor can afford to lose their memory!). As I explore in my book, Facing the Fear, loss of memory and stage fright are intricately interwoven. So talking about our fear might actually improve our memory, which in turn will reduce our stage fright. Seems like a no-brainer to me!

It’s important to remember that many actors never suffer bad stage fright. Most of us experience a lively adrenalin buzz – and that’s perfectly normal, if not actually rather helpful. The point of Facing the Fear is to dispel the unhelpful nerves. If you’ve never suffered from stage fright, reading the book is a chance for you to get to know what your fellow actors might be going through. And there’s no need to worry that by knowing all the ins and outs of stage fright, you’re somehow going to provoke it. In fact, the opposite is true. A certain performance buzz can be a benefit to any actor. Not only that, but, if you read my book, you’ll see that any unnecessary stage fright can ultimately be overcome. In fact, the monster is rather funny when you look it in the eye. It need be no more frightening than Shrek!


FormattedThe above is an edited extract from Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin, published by Nick Hern Books

To buy your copy for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) plus P&P, visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Bella Merlin discusses her book in a National Theatre Platform on 7 June 2016 at 5.30pm. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website here.

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.

Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting: the first ten years

The Bruntwood Prize is the biggest national competition for playwriting. With prize money totalling £40,000, plus the chance of a production on a major stage, as well as publication by Nick Hern Books, it’s a fabulous opportunity for writers. Since its inception in 2005, over 11,000 scripts have been entered, more than £200,000 has been awarded to 22 prize-winning writers and 16 winning productions have been staged. Here publisher and NHB founder Nick Hern reflects on what makes the Bruntwood Prize so special, while below we introduce this year’s winners and catch up on the Bruntwood Story with Exeunt Magazine’s podcast…

HernNICK HERN: Memory is an unreliable friend, but it tells me that the first thing I did ten years ago on hearing the announcement of the brand new Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting was to write suggesting that part of the prize might be to guarantee publication of the winning play by Nick Hern Books. I was very taken with the essential premise of the award: that no entry should have been performed or published before and that all entries were to be submitted anonymously, the identity of the winning author only to be revealed after the judges had arrived at their verdict. In other words the work was to be judged on its merits alone and not according to the expectations aroused by the author’s other work – or lack of it. This seemed to go a long way to fulfilling every writer’s desire to know whether what they’ve written is really, intrinsically, even existentially any good!

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Pretend You Have Big Buildings by Ben Musgrave, winner of the 2005 Bruntwood Prize

Anyway, my offer to act as ‘publisher by appointment’ was accepted, and so I found myself at the ceremony awarding the first ever Bruntwood Prize to Ben Musgrave’s Pretend You Have Big Buildings. True to our word, we had the pleasure of publishing it when the Royal Exchange, also honouring their commitment to stage the winning play, premiered it on their main stage.

I’m not going to pretend to remember the chronology of subsequent winners, but together they amount to a seriously impressive collection of brand new plays, each of which might have remained in their author’s bottom drawer had it not been for the Bruntwood. Indeed, in at least one case, the play would not even have got as far as that drawer: it would probably never have been written. Vivienne Franzmann tells the story that, as a career schoolteacher, she had been saying for some time that she was going to ‘write a play’ – but never had. Then, hearing of the Bruntwood, and realising the deadline was only a couple of weeks away (alert: unreliable memory at work), she set to it. The result, Mogadishu, opened to loud acclaim in Manchester and proceeded to transfer to London, thereby launching Viv on a new career as a full-time writer.

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

Mogadishu by Vivienne Franzmann, winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Prize

I am as proud of each of the playwrights we have published thanks to their winning the Bruntwood as if I had discovered them myself: as well as Musgrave and Franzmann, there’s been Matt Hartley, Fiona Peek, Andrew Sheridan, Janice Okoh, Nayla Ahmed, Louise Monaghan, Katherine Chandler, Anna Jordan, Gareth Farr and Luke Norris. In the same way, we ‘take on’ each of our writers in the fullest sense, publishing not only the winning play but also standing by to publish their subsequent work as well, as has been gratifyingly the case already with Janice Okoh (who won with Three Birds and went on to write Egusi Soup) and Anna Jordan (who won with Yen, but whose Freak and Chicken Shop have been published subsequently).

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

So Here We Are by Luke Norris, winner of a 2013 Judges Award

As the Bruntwood has grown in reputation and renown – and, it has to be said, in the generosity of the prize money on offer – my sense is that more established writers are submitting their work. In the early days we used to joke about a situation where Tom Stoppard, say, submitted a play – anonymously of course – and failed to win… Now, it seems, something like that really could happen, though, to the writer’s relief, only the administrator of the prize would ever know! Our latest winner, in fact, has already broken the mould in some respects: Luke Norris was already a performed and published playwright when he submitted – and won with – So Here We Are.

In its ten years, the Bruntwood Prize has already gifted a rich panoply of new plays to the world. So here’s to its next decade – and to ten more years of splendid if unreliable memories.


KatherineSoper

Katherine Soper, winner of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize (photo by Joel C Fildes)

Congratulations to Katherine Soper on winning this year’s Bruntwood Prize with her play Wish List.

Katherine, who currently works in a perfumery on Regent Street in London, was announced as the winner of the 10th anniversary Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2015 on 17 November.

Wish List is Katherine’s first play. She said: ‘This is the best boost of writerly confidence I could imagine.’

Congratulations also to the recipients of the four Judges’ Awards: Chloe Todd Fordham, James Fritz, Alan Harris and Kendall Feaver.

Find out more about the Bruntwood Prize at www.writeaplay.co.uk.


PODCAST: The Bruntwood Story

In this episode of Exeunt Magazine’s podcast Pursued by a Bear, produced in association with Nick Hern Books, Tim Bano takes an in-depth look at the Bruntwood Prize, following the progress of scripts from submission to shortlisting by speaking to judges, readers and writers.

Featuring interviews with: Michael Oglesby, Anna Jordan, Sarah Frankcom, Suzanne Bell, Andrew Haydon, Megan Vaughan and David Mercatali.

Podcast presented by Tim Bano. Produced by Tim Bano and Annegret Marten.

Nick Hern on his conversations with Arthur Miller

HernToday, 17 October 2015, marks one hundred years since the birth of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest playwrights: Arthur Miller. In this extract from Mel Gussow’s book Conversations with Miller, which is published in a new Centenary Edition to celebrate the occasion, publisher and NHB founder Nick Hern shares his own memories of Miller – of his fierce intellect, but also of tennis matches, a shared love of cars, and helping to keep his reputation alive…

‘But you can’t call it Timebends, Arthur. That makes it sound like a science-fiction novel!’ It was 1985 and we were, of course, discussing Miller’s autobiography, which, as drama editor at Methuen, I had commissioned him to write.

‘Listen, Nick,’ he answered in his implacable drawl. ‘No one much liked Death of a Salesman as a title either. They said nobody would come to a play with death in the title, and who was interested in salesmen anyway?’

Well, there was no answer to that, and the autobiography was duly published – as Timebends – on 5 November 1987. Arthur liked hearing that this was – appropriately – Fireworks Day, just as he liked other quirky British-isms. Once when he and Inge [Morath, Miller’s third wife] and I were playing hooky from a conference in his honour at the University of East Anglia, we came across a signpost to the Norfolk village of Great Snoring – which provoked Much Grinning. And he would insist on referring to my own place of residence as Chiss-wick, always accompanied by a twinkle in the eye and that grin that would split his face in half. The last time I saw him alive – in November 2003 at the 92nd Street ‘Y’ in New York, where he had just given a public interview to a packed and (for him) overly reverential audience – the first thing he said to me was, ‘Hey, Nick, do you still live in that funny place, what was it?’ ‘Chiss-wick, Arthur?’ ‘Yeah, that’s it, Chiss-wick!’ And that grin again, totally belying his eighty-eight years.

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From left: Nick Hern, Arthur Miller, Christopher Bigsby

I first met Arthur Miller in the winter of 1983. Chris Bigsby [Miller’s biographer] had alerted me to the fact that there were some unpublished plays that pre-dated All My Sons, which he, Bigsby, was seeking to persuade Arthur to allow to be published. I put it to the powers that be at Methuen that if they stumped up for Chris and me to go on a transatlantic fishing trip, the catch might be some unpublished Arthur Miller. To their credit, they duly stumped up – and eventually they got their money back. But it wasn’t as simple a decision as it must now seem.

The general perception throughout the seventies was that Miller had gone off the boil, had not written anything much since After the Fall, and that even that play was badly flawed, being a self-seeking justification of his treatment of Marilyn Monroe. Americans, I think, actually blamed him somehow for her death, however much that ran counter to the facts. In Britain he was admired – and endlessly prescribed on O and A level syllabuses – as the author of The Crucible and Salesman, but otherwise he was pretty much a blank, past his best, possibly even dead. Far from it, of course.

As I got to know Arthur better, it emerged that not only were there the forgotten plays from the thirties, there were also much more recent plays which had had largely unregarded premieres in the States in what we would call the provinces ­– and then slipped from sight. So, back in London and with Arthur’s very active co-operation, I was able to publish in 1984 – for the first time anywhere in the world – The Archbishop’s Ceiling, and a double-bill of one-act plays, Two-Way Mirror, which brought the Arthur Miller canon up to date and which led eventually to the British premieres of these plays at the Bristol Old Vic (1986), and the Young Vic (1989) respectively. The covers, at Chris Bigsby’s suggestion, were adorned with arresting Escher drawings, another of which appeared two years later on the cover of a second double-bill, Danger: Memory!, published in advance of its world premiere at the Lincoln Center. It is now difficult to credit a situation where the recent work of a writer of the stature of Arthur Miller could as it were be lying around unpublished and unperformed. But such was the slump in his reputation.

The money Methuen initially lost on these publications ­– as I’ve indicated, they weren’t exactly snapped up by an eager public – was partly offset by two paperback collections of his work, Miller Plays: One and Two. Miller’s London agent, Elaine Greene, who I think was having a bit of a spat with Penguin at the time, alerted me to the fact that paperback anthologies were not specifically covered in Penguin’s publication contracts for Miller’s plays. It was a loophole I was glad to exploit. Arthur and I discussed what to put on the covers. The series that the volumes were destined for had made a point of finding a correspondence between the writer and a particular painter. The covers of Pinter’s plays, for instance, all featured Magritte. For Arthur’s work, I suggested Van Gogh, whose Potato Eaters in particular seemed to capture some of the implicitly campaigning sympathy for ordinary people to be found also in Arthur’s plays. ‘Too gloomy,’ he pronounced. Somewhat floored, I suggested instead the painter he was most close to: his and Inge’s daughter, then barely in her twenties. And so it is that these editions carried original artwork by the now distinguished novelist and filmmaker, Rebecca Miller ­– probably her first ever professional commission.

I saw a lot of Arthur throughout the eighties. He would come over to London quite frequently – with or without Inge – to see various productions of his plays. I particularly remember driving him down to Bristol for the British premiere of his 1944 play, The Man Who Had All the Luck. It was a lovely day (we had the roof off the car), and we were ahead of schedule, so I turned off the M4 to show him one of my favourite spots, the stone circle at Avebury. Entranced by its magic, we lost track of time. With the result that we found ourselves careening down the motorway well in excess of the speed limit so as not to miss curtain up. Arthur loved it. He was a man’s man when it came to cars and had been emphatic in his approval of my upgrade from a Ford Orion to this BMW convertible. Whenever I turned up at his house in Roxbury, Connecticut, one of his first questions was always: ‘What car are you driving now?’

My trips to Roxbury became even more frequent than his to London. He and Inge (and Inge’s mother) were generous but unfussy hosts, and I would always stay over, sometimes for more than one night. Often there were dinner parties gathered round the huge oval cherry-wood table that Arthur had fashioned himself from trees grown on his own land. I never quite got used to finding Richard Widmark or Volker Schlöndorf or Martha Clarke also at the table. But informality was the keynote. Inge and her mother did all the cooking themselves, much of it again from produce grown in their garden – though ‘garden’ doesn’t really cover it. The only grandiloquence of which Arthur could ever be accused was his evident pride in the fact that he had gradually bought more and more acreage surrounding his home until he could say, standing on the hill on whose summit sat the rangy timber-built house, that he owned all the land he could see. As a boy from Brooklyn, whose parents had been devastated by the Depression, this provided an enduring sense of security.

Just down the hill was a pool: not the bright-blue, purpose-built job of American suburbia, but a natural depression in the hillside filled from an underground spring. It was the freshest water I’ve ever swum in, and I’m sure that regular immersion in it contributed to Arthur’s healthful longevity.

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Arthur Miller and his wife, Inge Morath, at their Roxbury, Connecticut house. Photograph: Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

He also played a mean game of tennis well into his seventies. An enthusiastic but not very practised latecomer to the game myself, I remember facing up to his serve in a doubles game which happened to feature another playwright, A.R. (Pete) Gurney, as Miller’s partner. With his racket an improbable – and surely unfair? – nine feet in the air at the point of impact, Arthur would send the ball across the net at a frankly unreturnable angle and velocity. I wasn’t invited to play again.

But my most treasured memory is of the visits made during the writing of the autobiography. We fell into a routine. I would drive up from the city arriving in time for lunch, after which Arthur would produce the pages he’d written since my last trip. I would then retire to his study – which was a log cabin away from the house – and sit on its porch in the sunshine luxuriating in Arthur’s rich and multi-layered life story. After I’d finished I’d make my way back to the house and join in with whatever the family and that evening’s guests were doing until dinner time. Because the book was to be co-published with Harper and Row in New York and because they were going to employ an editor to work with Arthur on the detail, my role was the blissfully simple one of providing support and encouragement during the actual writing – and discussing the occasional ‘big question’ of structure or tone. But there was never anything I found problematic: the book seemed to flow from him fully formed. My memory is that what I read, episode by episode on the porch in Roxbury, was, apart from the odd correction of a date or a name, the book that was published as Timebends.

My lasting impression of Arthur Miller is of a man of impressive intellect and wisdom who was at the same time a ‘regular guy’. A conversation with Arthur was one of the most stimulating experiences life could offer. Because of his droll matter-of-factness combined with wide-ranging erudition, I constantly felt a step or two behind, but the effort to keep up made me a better, wittier, more articulate conversational partner. Or so it seemed at the time. Arthur ‘turned me on’ more than than anyone else I’ve met. Plus there was always his only slightly world-weary sense of the ridiculous. His accounts of his and Harold Pinter’s trip to Turkey to protest at the torturing of writers or of his ironic jousting in Lithuania with Tankred Golenpolksy (whom he suspected of working for the KGB and whom I had also encountered in Moscow the previous winter) were as full of laughter as of outrage. Everyone knows how seriously he took politics and world affairs, but he enjoyed pricking pomposity and nailing vanity. He had a good joke about Norman Mailer, who was apparently renowned for looking himself up in the indexes of other people’s books. Arthur told of one book where, anticipating Mailer’s attentions, the relevant entry read simply: ‘Mailer, Norman – Hi Norm!’

Though famous, Arthur was not so well-known that he was unable to move around without being recognised. He would and could take public transport when he wanted. He told a story of waiting for the scheduled bus to take him from the airport in New York to upstate Connecticut. He asked the young man at the desk to be sure to tell him when the next bus was ready to depart. The young man went back to his book. Time passed. It became clear the young man had become so engrossed in his book that the bus had come and gone without his noticing. Arthur went to remonstrate and saw the title of the engrossing book: The Crucible. ‘Isn’t that something?’ Arthur would say as he came to the punchline. And his face would fall in half with that infectious grin.

FormattedThe above is an extract from Conversations with Miller by Mel Gussow. The new Centenary edition, also featuring a Foreword by Richard Eyre, is out now.

Read a further extract from Conversations with Miller on the Guardian website.

This essay was first published in Remembering Arthur Miller, edited by Christopher Bigsby (Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2005).

Drama Online: the Netflix of Theatre

DO_On BlackThis week saw the launch of the Nick Hern Books Collection on Drama Online, a groundbreaking new educational resource for reading and studying drama. Here, NHB’s Digital Editor Tim Digby-Bell explains how it works, and how it sheds new light on familiar plays.

Finally, it’s launch week. We’ve been working hard preparing a selection of our plays for Drama Online, the amazing new platform for anyone studying drama. For more than twelve months we’ve been planning, editing, revising, checking, drinking cups of strong coffee, fretting, and then doing some more editing. It’s all been worth it, though. It’s a thing of wonder, and it’s open for business.

Drama Online is a joint venture with other leading theatre publishers including Bloomsbury, Faber and Faber and L.A. Theatre Works, and incorporates archival material from the Victoria and Albert Museum and The American Shakespeare Center. As the name suggests, its focus is very much drama, and the place very much online. It’s essentially a subscription service aimed at schools, universities and libraries, giving instant online access to the best of world drama alongside a range of scholarly works for criticism and context. There is also a range of tools for exploring and analysing plays in new and extremely useful ways (more about those later).

Because it’s all online, students can access the plays they’re studying at any time of the day and night, without having to wait for a copy to become available. Think of it as a theatre-based Netflix. ‘Want to come round to my place for some Drama Online and chill?’ is now an actual thing.

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Drama Online – The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

There are some 1,900 plays already available, with more being added all the time. You’ll find everything from Aeschylus to the present day, with a full range of classic drama, the complete Arden Shakespeare Series, modern classics and the latest work from contemporary playwrights. The Nick Hern Books Collection comprises 400 titles, including classic plays by writers such as Molière, Gogol, Strindberg and Alfred Jarry, the works of Terence Rattigan, modern classics by Caryl Churchill, Conor McPherson, David Edgar and Howard Brenton, and some of the most exciting new writing from the likes of debbie tucker green, Lucy Kirkwood, Jack Thorne, Steve Waters and Enda Walsh. With a Drama Online subscription, you have the whole pantheon of drama in English at your fingertips.

And, as if that’s not enough, you also get some really impressive tools to work with. At a keystroke you can call up Character Grids, Words and Speech graphs and Part Books for any play. For instance, if you want to compare the number of words spoken by different characters in a play, act by act, or even scene by scene, you can quickly and easily generate a table that lays it all out for you. If you’re performing a play, you can call up a Part Book showing just the lines spoken by your character. If you want to see plays set in London, or in nineteenth-century Paris, or written during the Belle Époque or the Spanish Golden Age, you can call up a list, and cross-refer to your heart’s content.

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Character Grid for Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

WordsTable

Words and Speeches table for Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, from the Nick Hern Books Collection

The platform is designed to give you a simple but powerful set of tools to break down any play, making them easier to study. It might all sound a bit Orwellian at first, but start using it and you find it both incredibly useful and really quite addictive. The plays in the collections are all interconnected: every play is connected to other plays via their themes, characters, settings and genres, allowing faster analysis and deeper insights into the works themselves.

Beyond that, the site provides you with every bit of information you could possibly need about each title – including insightful introductions and expert analysis, production history, performing rights information to enquire about staging the plays, and even links to places where you can buy the good old-fashioned print editions (remember them?).

So if you’re studying plays at school, college, drama school or university, you absolutely must have Drama Online. Ask your librarian or resources manager to get a subscription immediately. If they say no, then stage a non-violent protest citing the fact that the first thing any totalitarian regime does when it comes to power is to ban access to the theatre. But do check if you already have a subscription before you do any of that – it could save you some embarrassment.

Having worked on preparing Drama Online for many months I can genuinely say that it’s an exciting new way to read and study plays. It’s the future, right here.


For more information about subscriptions, trials and pricing, visit: www.dramaonlinelibrary.com/pages/how-to-subscribe.

‘It’s not so much about the gift, but the graft’ – Lyndsey Winship on Being a Dancer

Winship, LyndseyIn her new book Being a Dancer, dance critic and arts journalist Lyndsey Winship shares invaluable advice and insight taken from exclusive interviews with twenty-five leading dancers and choreographers, including Carlos Acosta, Matthew Bourne, Darcey Bussell and Tamara Rojo. Here she reflects on her own personal love affair with dance, and what compiling the book has taught her…

As a kid, I loved to dance. I did it everywhere, all the time, in public, in private. I went to classes every week without fail, for over a decade: ballet, tap and modern.

Previously, if you’d asked me why I didn’t become a professional dancer, I’d probably have said: “I didn’t have the right body.” Ballet, in particular, is notoriously prescriptive about the necessary physique for success and I wouldn’t be the only one who found they didn’t have the genetic inheritance for the job.

But since putting together my book, Being a Dancer, my answer to that question has changed. Sure, I didn’t have the natural turnout or flexibility or proportions of a Darcey Bussell or a Sylvie Guillem. But the real reason I didn’t become a dancer is because I didn’t want it enough. I wasn’t willing to put dance ahead of everything else.

Darcey Bussell

Darcey Bussell, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer
Credit: Johan Persson / ArenaPAL

In the course of interviewing twenty-five successful dancers and choreographers for the book, and quizzing them about the ins and outs of their profession, from training to auditions to first nights, the abiding wisdom is that you’ll only make it as a dancer if you’re willing to dedicate yourself entirely to it. If you have to do it. If you can’t live without it. “It has to be like breathing,” Arlene Phillips told me. “I need to dance to breathe.”

Many of the dancers I spoke to were told at some point that they didn’t have the chops to make it professionally. But instead of meekly bowing their heads and hanging up their shoes, rejection only spurred them on further. Ballerina Melissa Hamilton, for example, when not accepted to the Royal Ballet School, took herself off to Greece for a year to train privately, then stormed her way to a gold medal at a major international ballet competition and straight into the Royal Ballet company. It’s that kind of single-minded tenacity that gets you on stage at the Opera House, not the fact of having beautifully arched feet.

I realise now that the real reason I didn’t become a professional dancer was because I didn’t work hard enough. I did my classes, yes, took my exams, but as Cassa Pancho, director of Ballet Black says, that’s not enough, because the physical demands of dance are so high and the competition so great. “If your leg doesn’t go high enough you need to do something about it,” she says. “Don’t wait for it to get up there – it’s not going to do that.” She recommends “floor barre, pilates, strength training, fitness training, endurance training, every day…” Say goodbye to your social life.

The discipline to work on the things you’re not good at is what marks out those who’ve made it to the top. Like West End choreographer Stephen Mear, a champion tap dancer as a teenager who turned up at dance school in London only to find he was bottom of the class at ballet and made himself do fourteen ballet classes a week until he was at the top. Fourteen classes a week! That’s a commitment most people don’t have.

Kenrick 'H20' Sandy, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer Credit: Francis Loney/ArenaPAL

Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy, one of the contributors to Being a Dancer
Credit: Francis Loney/ArenaPAL

So I didn’t become a dancer (although I still dance all the time in private, less frequently in public these days), but as a journalist and critic I now have a front row view on the professional dance world. I speak to dancers and choreographers often and it seemed like a good idea to ask some of them to share their experiences and advice for the next generation, hence Being a Dancer. There are scores of books of advice for actors, on training, technique and auditions, but hardly anything for dancers. So it seemed like it was time to rectify that.

The book was put together relatively quickly. I did the interviews over the course of  four months, grabbing people between rehearsals, sometimes for an hour over coffee, sometimes for a quick chat on the phone, grilling them about the big things – ambition, stardom, injury – and the little things – what snacks they eat, how they do their make-up, how they tie their ballet shoes, what time they go to bed. It was a huge transcribing job (every journalist hates transcription) but it was fascinating to listen back to everybody’s stories, all their very different paths to the stage, and their often differing views on the best route to success.

Dancers aren’t always asked for their opinions – that’s the result of it being a mute art form, I think – but the dancers and choreographers I spoke to for Being a Dancer were thoughtful, curious, driven people. Being a dancer at the highest level requires a unique combination of elite athleticism, military discipline, star charisma and artistic soul. But the main thing I learnt from compiling this book is that while some people might be born with talent, turning it into success is not so much about the gift, but the graft. Even if I’m too late for my own dancing career, that’s actually quite an inspirational idea.


Being a Dancer Being a Dancer: Advice from Dancers and Choreographers by Lyndsey Winship, featuring advice and insight from twenty-five leading dance professionals, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘Fascinating, insightful and highly readable, this is a book to add to your collection’ – Dancing Times

Read extracts from the book on the Guardian website.

Girls centre stage: Lucy Kerbel on building a new canon of writing for young actors

Good roles for young female actors are in short supply, so Tonic Theatre set out to change that by commissioning a series of new plays with mainly or entirely female casts for schools and youth theatre groups to perform. As the first three plays in the Platform series are published by Nick Hern Books and made available for performance, Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel explains why things have to change, and how you can get involved…

Commissioning and publishing a range of new plays for young actors which put girls and their stories centre stage is something I have wanted to do for a long time and, since Tonic Theatre was formed in 2011, it is an idea I have been looking to get off the ground. Tonic exists to support UK theatre to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and its repertoires; essentially our mission is to catalyse a culture-shift in how theatre thinks and works, so that talented women are given the same levels of support and opportunity as talented men.

While it has pretty big aspirations, Tonic is a tiny organisation; we have one-and-a-bit members of staff, no core funding, and a very modest financial turnover. Because we have such limited funds and capacity, we have to use these wisely and consequently are extremely strategic about where we target our efforts. I spend much time looking to identify ‘pressure points’ – places where, with a bit of work, a far bigger ripple effect can be achieved. For this reason, much of our work to date has been focused on partnerships with some of the largest organisations in the country, because if they change, others will follow. But youth drama has always been clear to me as one of the greatest pressure points of all. It is the engine room of the theatre industry; tomorrow’s theatre-makers (not to mention audience members) are to be found today in youth-theatre groups, university drama societies and school drama clubs all over the country.

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

If we can challenge their assumptions about the role of women’s stories, voices, and ideas in drama, then change in the profession – in time – will be immeasurably easier to achieve.

Beyond this strategic interest in youth drama, I was convinced that girls were getting a raw deal and I found that troubling. Having worked previously as a youth-theatre director, I was familiar with the regular challenge of trying to find scripts that had adequate numbers of female roles for all the committed and talented girls that wanted to take part. In nearly all the various youth-drama groups I worked in across a five-year period, there were significantly more girls than boys. However, when it came to finding big-cast, age-appropriate plays for them to work on, I was constantly frustrated by how few there seemed to be that provided enough opportunity for the girls, its most loyal and committed participants. When looking at contemporary new writing for young actors to perform, one could be mistaken for thinking that youth drama was a predominantly male pursuit, rather than the other way round.

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy

Aside from the practicalities of matching the number of roles to the number of girls in any one drama group, the nature of writing for female characters was something I struggled to get excited about. While there were some notable examples, often the writing for female characters seemed somewhat lacklustre. They tended to be characters at the periphery of the action rather than its heart, with far less to say and do than their male counterparts, and with a tendency towards being one‑dimensional, rather than complex or vibrant, funny or surprising. Why was it that in the twenty-first century the quality as well as the quantity of roles being written for girls still seemed to lag behind those for boys so demonstrably?

Keen to check I wasn’t just imagining this imbalance, Tonic conducted a nationwide research study looking into opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. The research was written up into a report, Swimming in the shallow end, and is published on the Tonic Theatre website. Not only did the research confirm my worst fears – more depressingly, it exceeded them. While many of the research participants were vocal about the social, artistic and emotional benefits that participation in youth-drama productions can have on a young person’s life, so too were they – to quote the report – on ‘the erosion to self-esteem, confidence and aspiration when these opportunities are repeatedly held out of reach… [and] for too many girls, this is the case’.

But despite the doom and gloom of the research findings, there remained an exciting proposition; to write stories that weren’t currently being put on stage, and to foreground – rather than ignore – the experiences, achievements and world-view of young women, perhaps the group above all others in British society whose situation has altered so dramatically and excitingly over the past hundred or so years. Tonic commissioned writers I was most fascinated to see respond to the brief set to them: a large-cast play written specifically for performance by young actors, with mainly or entirely female casts and in which the female characters should be no less complex or challenging than the male characters. I asked them to write in such a way that these plays could be performed by young people anywhere in the country, and that there should be scope for every school, college and youth-theatre group performing the play to make a production their own.

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood

At Tonic our hope is that the first Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – will be just the beginning of a longer trajectory of work for us. Although it entails further fundraising mountains to climb, we plan to commission and publish more plays over future years. Our aspiration is that over time Platform will become a new canon of writing for young actors and one that puts girls and their lives centre stage. I dearly hope that they will be taken up by groups all over the country and performed for many years to come.

‘Drama is an important tool for building confidence and empowering young people. Platform will give girls opportunity to access these benefits as much as their male counterparts.’ – Moira Buffini

A few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Tamara von Werthern

We’re incredibly proud and excited to be supporting Tonic Theatre’s important work in addressing gender inequality in the theatre. I’m sure these plays will be picked up and performed by youth theatres, schools and drama clubs across the country, as they really do address an urgent need for more good parts for young women. I’ve been asked so many times to recommend plays that offer young women strong roles, and it’s wonderful that now we can start licensing three new plays that fit the bill exactly. I urge everyone who works with youth theatre or teaches drama at a school to pick up these plays and give them a go!”


All three Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – are published on 11 June 2015 by Nick Hern Books.

Buying from an educational institution or youth group? You can get all three Platform plays at a special discount price – head to the Platform website for more information.

The plays are all available immediately for amateur performance. To apply for performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Department.

For more information about Tonic Theatre, visit www.tonictheatre.co.uk.

Lucy Kerbel photograph by Slav Kirichok

With a little help from my friends: Amelia Bullmore on her play Di and Viv and Rose

Actress and playwright Amelia Bullmore had a West End hit earlier this year with Di and Viv and Rose, a warm and funny play about three women and their enduring friendship. As the play is made available for amateur performance, she recalls the moment that inspired her to write it, and explains why, for her, it’s a story that can only work on stage.

I decided to write Di and Viv and Rose in 2009 when I saw a woman’s calves that were just like the calves of a friend, Anne, who I hadn’t seen for months. The lurch of longing to see her (prompted by the calves) was so strong that, later, I thought: I’d like to try and catch that in a play.

I was acting in a production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests that transferred from London to Broadway. I’d agonised about going (could I possibly abandon ship for four months?) and made a hash of deciding – telling my family that I definitely wouldn’t go and then realising I definitely had to. I made a calendar showing when they could visit me, in half terms and holidays, and when I’d visit home (all the actors in the production had young children so the performances were cannily scheduled to allow us two mini-trips back). It was an unforgettably good adventure.

Tamzin Outhwaite, Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell in the West End production of Di and Viv and Rose, 2015

Tamzin Outhwaite, Samantha Spiro and Jenna Russell in the West End production of Di and Viv and Rose, 2015

The calves I saw that were like Anne’s were in New York. They didn’t even belong to a stranger. Their owner was a woman I was working with and had arranged to meet. Regardless of this, my brain dream-ishly converted her into Anne and my chest duly lurched. I’d been braced for missing my family while I was away but hadn’t bargained on just how powerfully I’d miss friends.

I began to think about trying to catch the ardour of female friendship and also to wonder how I might catch the quality of enduring friendship. Thirty-odd years in two hours. When the thing you want to say is so obvious – Friendship is a Good Idea – you’d better say it entertainingly. The good news is, entertainment sits naturally in every friendship worth its salt.

I went to visit a friend in Liverpool not long ago. She said she’d meet me off the train at Lime Street station but I couldn’t see her in the crowd on the concourse. I skated my eyes past a couple locked in a passionate embrace – give the lovers some privacy – but then stole another look and realised it was my friend hungrily kissing a life-sized statue of Ken Dodd. For a joke. For my delight. I laughed my head off. I laugh now when I think about it. Sometimes, on my way to see a friend, I’m close to laughing in anticipation of the laughing I know we’re going to do. (Before I go on I want to say that I sometimes recognise the person I’ve arranged to meet more or less instantly. I should also say that my eyesight’s not great).

Gina McKee, Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Gina McKee, Tamzin Outhwaite and Anna Maxwell Martin in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013 (Tristram Kenton)

Delight isn’t the only thing friends exchange, of course: anguish, doubts, bulletins and beefs are traded too. There are some gloriously talkative men about but my hunch is that women are more likely to have grown up being told stories, often by women, about other peoples’ lives – neighbours, relatives, friends of friends – and are more likely to thrive on the continued collecting and sharing of these stories. Given that we’re all cruising or hurtling towards our doom (and we don’t know which) it’s a source of comfort and diversion to be tuned into hundreds of other peoples’ trips, past and present. Small stories, but in aggregate, a vast database of how life can be lived. I know stories about my friends’ cousins. People I’ll never meet. I find that entirely worthwhile.

The recruiting of a friend – that period of enchantment and first exchanging of stories – needed to be in the play I wanted to write, I decided. As did the particular potency of friendships made when you first leave home: ‘second family’ friendships. The first time you rely on people you’ve chosen, rather than people you’ve been dealt and who’ve been dealt you. These intense young friendships are ones in which almost every kind of loving impulse can be played out – worship, protection, guidance and encouragement as well as the darker impulses to quash and control.

Anna Maxwell Martin, Gina McKee and Tamzin Outhwaite in the Hampstead Theatre production

Anna Maxwell Martin, Gina McKee and Tamzin Outhwaite in the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Although the play begins with the characters, aged eighteen, at university, sharing a house, I didn’t want the actresses playing them to be eighteen. The actresses are the age their characters are at the end of their story. They report back from middle age to be their young selves. I’ve been asked if I’d like to adapt Di and Viv and Rose for television or to write it as a film but in my mind it’s a play, and a play only, because of this conceit. Not just because in a theatre an audience is likelier to make the leap of belief – that these women are girls – but also because my experience of growing older is that you are the same but different. You are the girl and the woman. You don’t so much shed as keep on adding. If you age at roughly the same rate as your friends, you don’t only feel largely the same, but also (almost) appear to each other as largely the same. The other reason why it’s a play and a play only for me is that what the audience witnesses, live – the feat of joint endeavour – is what it’s about.

Since its original run at Hampstead Theatre, Di and Viv and Rose has since been picked up by A-level drama students – real 18-year-olds – who have to think themselves older as the play unfolds. There’s no time for wigs or latex. Everyone’s too busy running around backstage fetching bicycles and tearing costumes on and off.

Publicity image for the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

Publicity image for the Hampstead Theatre production, 2013

I couldn’t have written this play without my female friends. I don’t mean that I consulted them. I mean that they run through it. Things they’ve said. Things they’ve shown and taught me. No particular real friend is portrayed in the play. Even if I’d wanted to plug in a real person (which I emphatically didn’t), real people are no use. You have to fashion characters who’ll give you the specific kinks and tussles you need in order to write the story that says what you want to say. It’s the same with real events, although a crumb of partial knowledge (one of those stories heard, maybe) can be what you choose to invent around, according to your design. I don’t mean don’t research facts, by the way. Definitely research facts.

The continuum of mutual, intimate knowledge is a valuable thing. When you ask after an old friend’s mum or dad – a mum or a dad who, long ago, made you up a bed on the family sofa or chatted with you or ran you to the station – that’s an informed enquiry. It has weight for both the asker and the asked because it has context. In mid-life, this continuum’s especially consoling because, glancing either forwards or back, you’re likely to notice people you love heading towards departures of one kind or another. And if you were ever in any doubt about the commonplace brutality of luck and lack of it, enduring friendship lays that bare, too. I’ve got a friend I used to be put in a cot with, fifty years ago. I’ve got friends who didn’t make it to fifty. I’ve got friends who go from strength to strength. I’ve got friends who are terribly ill. That’s life. All I’m saying is, don’t attempt it alone.

Tamara von Werthern

Here are a few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

Di and Viv and Rose is a gift for any theatre company looking for a play with substantial roles for women. It’s such a wonderful, heart-warming tale of friendship lasting throughout three women’s lives, great fun to perform and great fun to watch. If you have previously enjoyed performing Ladies’ Day, Be My Baby or Little Gem, then Di and Viv and Rose will be for you. And if there are three wonderful women in their mid-thirties to late forties who happen to be part of your theatre company, they’ll thank you for giving them these wonderful characters to play.”


This article was originally published in The Independent. Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore is published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.

To apply for amateur performing rights, visit the Nick Hern Books Plays to Perform website or contact our Performing Rights Manager.

 

John Hollingworth on writing – and rewriting – his first play, Multitudes

John HollingworthWhen actor John Hollingworth started writing his first full-length play, he had little idea it would take so long to reach the stage. No bad thing, though, when the result is Multitudes, currently at the Tricycle Theatre – and ‘as urgent and immediate as the morning headlines’ (Guardian). How did he do it? In this interview, first published by IdeasTap, he explains how plays can benefit from the development process without losing any of their impact or relevance…

How did the commissioning process work with Multitudes?

I’ve been lucky. The process started at the National Theatre Studio in 2010 when the ever-generous Purni Morell [then head of the NT Studio, now Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre] offered me some space. I fashioned a very early draft from this writing time, tried it out on some friends and was rewarded by Purni with a two-day workshop slot. I approached Indhu Rubasingham [theatre director, now Artistic Theatre of the Tricycle Theatre] to direct it, having worked with her as an actor on Women, Power and Politics [a season of short plays staged at the Tricycle in 2010].

The script turned out to be mortifyingly underwritten and she released the actors for the first afternoon while she and I talked through the structure and what wasn’t working. I went home, drank a silly amount of coffee and stayed up until I had two new opening scenes.

When Indhu later took over at the Tricycle she said she wanted to support the project. A seed commission – where a few hundred pounds is paid to a writer as gesture of professional interest – led to a full commission – where an amount you can live off for a few months is advanced – and then confirmation of full production. All in all I’d say that the process took four years.

Do you have any advice for writers on getting their first full-length play commissioned?

Get your writing out there. I was fortunate: some of my short plays were performed at Miniaturists at the Arcola, a shorts night at Soho Theatre and at a Midnight Matinee at The Tristan Bates Theatre. None of these experiences led directly to a commission but the experience of testing and improving work through rehearsal and performance improved my writing. I sent plays to the Bush and the Royal Court and received rejections that spurred me on to better my work.

Multitudes is a play about a clash of values in multicultural Britain, focussing on a Muslim family in Bradford. How did you research the play?

Multitudes

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was working with David Hare when I started writing the play. I was inspired by his wrought verbatim method of taking things people have said and bending, hammering and bettering them into a sculpture that was definitively his.

I went back to Bradford, where I was at school, toting my dictaphone and door-stopped people. I had some interesting conversations but I was mostly just daunted and cold. Hunting down real things that people say was great ear-tuning for characters but I realised that I wanted to write a piece of fiction.

I began interviewing friends who are Muslim. The first person I sat down with was Asif Khan who has ended up being in the show. I got all my stupid questions out of the way and graduated from this to speaking to a couple of imams on increasingly-frequent trips back to Bradford.

I then went on to the tricky process of tracking down women who had accepted Islam. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this proved difficult. I met with two women in person and spoke with a third on the phone but many women were suspicious of my motives – what I might say about them and their personal, private decision.

Perhaps the best resource was Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives [a report published by the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge in May 2013]. It’s brilliantly readable and can be downloaded for free. That and other books – the Qur’an most obviously – helped me to further understand the journey these female converts had been on. This understanding was deepened further by spending a day with new Muslims at the Islamic Cultural Centre at London Central Mosque.

Were you ever worried about writing about a non-white family?

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre

Multitudes at the Tricycle Theatre – photo by Mark Douet

I was anxious to begin with and I think that is entirely appropriate – if you’re putting words in people’s mouths then you have a duty of care that they are believable. The long development time on the play has allowed five workshops with different sets of actors – six including the cast – and each one provided a frank and invaluable forum to interrogate the play and identify what wasn’t credible or accurate. I’m grateful to the British Asian actors in those workshops – they corrected what was wrong and shared personal stories that went on to influence the play.

If writers like me – pink-white, middle class, university educated – write about pink-white people doing pink-white things then the dominant discourse of the last few hundred years inches inexorably onwards. It’s time to change that discourse.

Multitudes is set on the eve of a Tory Party Conference. Why?

The conference gives high stakes and a short, defined timeframe, which is useful. My brother-in-law has been a political advisor to various Conservative MPs for the past few years and that has afforded me a valuable insight into that world. Given that the Tories are the Establishment party and the play looks at notions of Britishness, there was a natural fit there too and I wanted to make Natalie – the female convert at the heart of the play – the daughter of the local Tory party chairman.

What was the hardest scene in the play to write? Why? And how did you overcome those challenges?

Technically the hardest scene to write has been the one right before the interval. It’s long and involved and combative and riddled with interruption points and I feel spoilt to have a fantastically-capable cast who have reacted so enthusiastically to my changes. There were a lot of rewrites, late nights and cold coffee at midnight, but to see the play come to life in the hands of such a great bunch of actors has been a gift well worth losing sleep for.


MultitudesThis interview was first published by IdeasTap.

Multitudes by John Hollingworth is out now from Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

The play is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, until 21 March.

Author photo by Mark Douet.