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.

Spotlight: LONDON ROAD at the National Theatre

London Road jacketPlaywright Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork have scored a tremendous success with their bold, innovative verbatim musical London Road, which opened at the National Theatre last week. But what was the genesis of this ‘startling, magically original’ (Evening Standard) new work?

Alecky Blythe: I work using a technique originally created by Anna Deavere Smith, who combined the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of reproducing their words accurately in performance. The technique involves going into a community of some sort and recording conversations with people, which are then edited to become the script of the play. However, the actors do not see the text. The edited recordings are played live to the actors through earphones during the rehearsal process, and onstage in performance. The actors listen to the audio and repeat what they hear. They copy not just the words but exactly the way in which they were first spoken. Every cough, stutter and hesitation is reproduced. Up till now for my previous shows, the actors have not learnt the lines at any point. By listening to the audio during performances the actors are helped to remain accurate to the original recordings, rather than slipping into their own patterns of speech or embellishment.

London Road production shot

Howard Ward, Nicola Sloane, Duncan Wisbey, Michael Shaeffer, Claire Moore, Clare Burt, Paul Thornley, Hal Fowler, Kate Fleetwood, Rosalie Craig, Nick Holder (all as reporters). Photo by Helen Warner

My first interviews from Ipswich were collected on 15th December 2006; five bodies had been found but no arrests had been made. The town was at the height of its fear. I had been gripped and appalled by the spiralling tragedies that were unravelling in Ipswich during that dark time. It would of course be a shocking experience for any community, but the fact that it took place in this otherwise peaceful rural town, never before associated with high levels of crime or soliciting, made it all the more upsetting for the people who lived there. It was not what was mainly being reported in the media about the victims or the possible suspects that drew me to Ipswich, but the ripples it created in the wider community in the lives of those on the periphery. Events of this proportion take hold in all sorts of areas outside the lead story, and that is what I wanted to explore. What Adam and I discovered with the music was that it succeeded in binding together shared sentiments that were being echoed throughout the town during those worrying times. I was excited to have a new tool at my disposal with the songwriting. By creating verses and choruses I could shape the material for narrative and dramatic effect further than I had ever been able to do before.

It was not until six months later, when I returned to Ipswich to gauge the temperature of the town after the arrests but before the trial, that I stumbled upon what was to me the most interesting development so far. A Neighbourhood Watch that had been set up at the time of the murders had organised a ‘London Road in Bloom’ competition and the street could not have looked more different from when it had been besieged by the media the winter before. Hanging baskets lined the roads and front gardens were bursting with floral displays. Such was the impact of the terrible happenings in that area that the community had come together and set up a series of events, from gardening competitions to quiz nights, in order to try to heal itself. Although this had some coverage in the local press, the national media had not reported this final and important chapter of the story. Over the course of the next two years, I regularly revisited the residents of London Road to chart their full recovery.

London Road production shot

Rosalie Craig (Helen), Duncan Wisbey (Gordon) and members of the company. Photo by Helen Warner

Adam Cork: When I first met Alecky at the National Theatre Studio almost four years ago, as part of an experimental week which brought together composers and playwrights, I had no idea that I’d be working with a ‘verbatim’ practitioner. And when Alecky explained the concept and methods of this documentary form to me, I have to admit my very first thought was ‘How on earth can I turn this into music?’ But when we started listening to her interviews, I began to feel that this could be an inspiring new approach to songwriting, or, more accurately, an exciting development of an existing way of composing songs. Whenever I’ve set conventional texts to music, I’ve always spoken the words to myself, and transcribed the rhythms and the melodic rise and fall of my own voice, to try and arrive at the most truthful and direct expression of the text. And here was an opportunity to refine that to a much purer process, without any authorial or poetic interpretation (not to mention my own bad acting) polluting the connection between the actual subject and his or her representation in music.

My initial aim was that the music should be as articulated as possible, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing justice to the reality and the uniqueness of the depicted people. I also wanted to seize the challenge of taking an experimental idea and developing it into something which could be interesting as both music and drama. I didn’t want to reference any overall musical style, but rather, discover responses suggested by the material on a moment-by-moment basis. For that reason I didn’t foresee much cross-pollination of musical motifs from one song to another, although I did want the identity of each individual song to be clear; I felt this was the only way I could create musical meaning from this un-versified, spontaneously spoken text. I also hoped that, in the spirit of the documentary concept, the musical score would be like a time capsule inside which the speech rhythms would be captured and contained, frozen and fossilised in music just as they have a fixed existence on Alecky’s recordings. And I wanted to find a way of singing with the quality of speech, which is altogether different from either an operatic or a conventional musical-theatre vocal style.

London Road production shot

Nick Holder, Hal Fowler, Howard Ward, Paul Thornley, Rosalie Craig, Nicola Sloane and Claire Moore. Photo by Helen Warner

Making spontaneously spoken words formal, through musical accompaniment and repetition, has the potential to explode the thought of a moment into slow motion, and can allow us more deeply to contemplate what’s being expressed. This seems particularly interesting when many different people speak about the same thought or feeling. The choral presentation of this story seems to underline the ritual aspect of human communal experience. The experiences captured on this stage are not new to our species, whether it’s the healing process after a tragedy, the gathering of forces within a community to find and punish a dangerous individual, or the telling of all these events to the wider community. This is deeply ancient, shared human experience in all its facets, no matter how much professionalism and the division of labour distance us from each other today. The people of Ipswich, the residents of London Road, and the news media, play their part in this ritual, and so do we, in presenting this piece of choric theatre.

London Road plays at the National Theatre, booking until 18th June. Today’s piece is an extract from Alecky and Adam’s introductions to the published text of the play. To buy the full text – with every hesitation, stumble, stutter and tic carefully recorded – with a special 20% discount (and free p&p for UK customers), click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout and your discount will be applied when your order is processed.