Spotlight: HUNDREDS AND THOUSANDS at Soho Theatre

Lou Ramsden - author of Hundreds and ThousandsThis month NHB publishes Lou Ramsden’s Hundreds and Thousands, the follow-up play to her critically acclaimed debut Breed (2010), for which she was shortlisted for the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award. Here, exclusively for the NHB blog, Lou spills the beans on what it’s like for a playwright in those final days leading up to opening night, and answers the big question – when is a play actually ‘finished’?

Last year I wrote a play called Breed, staged at Theatre503 in September. It was a story about parenting, and sometime during late-night redrafting I changed my Facebook status to :

I’m writing a play about a baby, and starting to get a tiny hint of what it might be like to have one : sleepless nights… endless changes… and general anguish at the thought of handing it over to someone else…’.

Cue lots of annoyed remarks from my friends with babies (sorry, friends with babies). And of course they’re right – writing a play is nothing like having a kid. But now, preparing for my second production – Hundreds and Thousands at Soho Theatre Upstairs – I’m starting to remember why I made the comment. As one mate pointed out, your play is never going to vomit fish pie down you in the middle of playgroup. But still, some of the thoughts and emotions it throws up have got to be similar: trepidation; excitement; pride. And a big question mark over when and how it’ll finally come of age. Because – when is a play actually finished?

On the first day of rehearsals, maybe? We started rehearsing Hundreds and Thousands at the end of May, under the guiding hand of director Lisa Spirling. Our initial read-through was very nerve-wracking but exciting, and in the following days we began to pick apart the play, discussing every scene in detail. And….I discovered that it wasn’t actually finished, quite yet. Actors’ questions highlighted moments that need clarifying. Hearing it aloud made me realise that some bits could be slimmed down. So I made changes; felt good about them; felt almost finished, but then…

Stuart Laing (Allan), Sukie Smith (Lorna) and Robert Wilfort (Jonathan) in Hundreds and Thousands

Stuart Laing (Allan), Sukie Smith (Lorna) and Robert Wilfort (Jonathan). Photo by Graham Michael

The actors got on their feet. The space was marked out in the rehearsal room, and Lisa began blocking the action. And that’s when you really start to understand the physicality of the piece. How many lines characters will need to travel from A to B. Why that character can’t be locking that door at that point. Some of the stage directions I’d written disappeared, new ones were added for clarity. Got to be nearly finished now. But then…

We get into the space. Tech it, dress it, and previews start. As I write this, we’re in our first few nights of a preview week, and I’m watching as the play takes baby steps in front of its first proper audiences. We’ll see what people will laugh at. Where the action flies and where it needs to speed up. I’m making cuts, honing, and talking to Lisa about aspects of the performances.

And it’s just about now that I really realise – perhaps a play never, totally, comes of age. Because it’s an audience that ‘finishes’ it, isn’t it? Their presence, and reactions. And they’re different every night, so the play changes every night, so…

Perhaps ‘finished’ is the wrong word, then. The wrong feeling to be aiming at. What writers should really hope for is that, as their play grows up, it keeps good company – it finds people who understand it and care about it. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to get that with Hundreds and Thousands. I’m part of a creative team who are all amazing at what they do, have got a real passion for the play, and are just as excited about seeing it in print as I am.

Nadine Lewington (Tiggy) in Hundreds & Thousands

Nadine Lewington (Tiggy). Photo by Graham Michael

Ironically, Hundreds and Thousands’ central character, Lorna, craves children. After a rocky childhood herself, she longs for the chance to build something better in the future, and she pursues her dream ruthlessly. It’s a play about the dark-hearted selfishness which I think we’re all, sometimes, in danger of giving in to. But in the rehearsal room we’ve discovered lots of humour too, and realised that it’s also a story about the things that are best in people – determination, devotion, and love. I’m working with a team who have all those – and that’s the best cure that I’ve found for playwrighting’s sleepless nights.

Buckle For Dust theatre company in association with English Touring Theatre present Hundreds and Thousands – premiering this month at Soho Theatre, London (21 June – 16 July 2011). Special Ticket Offer: tickets only £10 (usually £12.50 -£15), valid for all performances (subject to availability). To book call the Soho Theatre Box Office – Tel: 020 7478 0100 and quote ‘HOT TICKETS’, or visit http://www.sohotheatre.com and enter promo code ‘HOTTICKETS’ at checkout.Hundreds and Thousands programme text

Nick Hern Books proudly publish the playscript alongside the debut production at Soho Theatre. To purchase your copy with a 10% discount and free P&P (RRP £9.99, UK customers only) click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout.

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Spotlight: CHARGED at Soho Theatre

Charged (jacket)For over thirty years, Clean Break have used theatre for personal and political change, working with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system. Last year, the company commissioned six of the most exciting female voices in British theatre to write about these women, and presented the plays at Soho Theatre under the title Charged. The six – ‘blisteringly powerful‘ (Guardian) – short plays were presented over one evening, and published by NHB in a single volume. This week, three of the plays were brought back for another season at Soho Theatre, and here, the playwrights Sam Holcroft, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Chloë Moss introduce them…

Sam Holcroft on Dancing Bears
Clean Break asked me to write a short play as part of a collective of plays exploring different themes under the umbrella of ‘women affected by the criminal justice system’. I was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with Clean Break. They are an outstanding company and have created some fantastic theatre. Lucy Kirkwood’s It Felt Empty… and Chloë Moss’s This Wide Night are two of the most brilliant plays about women I’ve seen. So how to follow on, and what to write? I have always enjoyed writing about young people (among other things, I’m guilty of piggy-backing on their energy for dramatic effect). And so I proposed to write about young girls’ experiences of gang-life, and the crimes they are both victim of and perpetrate. I began researching several months before putting pen to paper. You don’t have to dig deep to find many extraordinary stories of suffering, triumph and gut-twisting injustice. Clean Break put me in touch with women who had experience of gang culture and they kindly shared their stories with me. I also attended the 2010 Nacro Youth Justice Conference and spoke with social workers, police, teachers and health professionals who helped to shed light on the psychology behind gang-related behaviour. And slowly but surely a structure began to emerge. Clean Break logo

It seemed that all-female gangs often evolved as offshoots from mixed-gender gangs. Girls were choosing to set up on their own to avoid the misogyny, violence and lower social status afforded them in mixed-gender gangs. But, sadly, sooner or later these new all-female gangs would begin to mirror the hierarchies of the mixed-gender gangs they’d left behind. And these hierarchies would be daily reinforced by threats and violence against girls at the bottom of the chain from girls higher up. So it seemed impossible to write a play without both male and female characters in order to explore this mirroring of behaviour. Clean Break has a policy of working with only women and so all characters in the play, whether male or female, are played by women. But I soon realised that this would work in favour of the drama. Boys could morph into girls before our eyes: their machismo give way to femininity; their hunched shoulders drop; they would arch their backs – like a ripple effect, a stage of boys would become a stage of girls. However as we continue to watch, unintentionally, they would begin to mimic the boys they were fleeing from, and this time instead of knives they would wield guns.

Audiences seemed to respond well to the play in its first production at Soho Theatre in 2010 and extremely well to the event as a whole. It was full of such joy despite the sadness and suffering inherent in the stories. The challenge given to us by Clean Break was not to write a presentation of grim statistics, or a catalogue of suffering, but to package the information in a compelling format and to entertain as well as awaken.  Hopefully you walk away from the night both inspired and shell-shocked, and asking questions of our justice system and how we can begin to ask for change.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz on That Almost Unnameable Lust
I had done a few sessions teaching male prisoners in Brixton prison. I’d found it very challenging. It seemed to me that there were severe mental health issues that weren’t being addressed. The men were paid £1 to come along and do a writing class and a couple of them were in a catatonic state, listening and patiently scribbling for two hours to get their valuable pocket money. Others were passionate about the class and made me feel there was far too little on offer for them in terms of expressing themselves. So when Clean Break asked me to write about women in prison I was keen to do it.

That Almost Unnameable Lust by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, production shot

That Almost Unnameable Lust: Beatie Edney (Liz) and Janet Henfrey (Katherine)

I went to Peterborough prison and met a group of nine older women. All were over fifty, but some of them looked far older than their years; they had what was termed ‘prison skin’ because they had been exposed to so little natural light. All of the women were fascinating. One had been a drug mule; vehement in her innocence, I suspected she was guilty but needed to believe her own story just to get by. Another woman seemed very much away from this world and obviously enraged the others with her paranoia and egomania – she needed help and was getting none. The sturdiest of them had killed her husband after decades of beatings. I liked her very much, and respected her quiet strength and intelligence. They were all deeply articulate and funny. And yet you could read the damage in their faces. Those who were bereft at the separation from their children. Those who could not fit in socially and so were living a completely insular life. And then there were those who made of prison life an art form of friendships and talk and relationships. Nobody could think about the long term of it. One day at a time was all they could do.  A few were ‘lifers’. Others were there for a few years for fraud. The energy that they had was amazing and I felt very alive to their predicaments and sorrows. And yet when I left I looked back at this huge ugly edifice and realised they were at least temporarily invisible. I admired the prison supporters who went in every week to hear their needs and requests and to help them with forms and procedures which left them at sea. Their main fear was of being invisible.

The woman who had murdered her husband said to me at one point, ‘I smile, and I talk to you, but inside I’m screaming. Every minute. I’m screaming.’ And she was the one who laughed most and seemed to support the group and the lame ducks. There was incredible strength there but also this fragility of simply being inside. Leaving them, I felt only one certain fact, that incarceration as we have it now is a thoroughly deadening process. Economically unviable, and spiritually facile. I didn’t know how best to summarise or dramatise their stories. I wanted to give them a voice. So I simply built on what I’d seen and felt, and ended up with part fact, mostly fiction, but hopefully embodying the spirit of those I had met.

Chloë Moss on Fatal Light
Fatal Light tells the story of Jay, a vulnerable young single mother who’s simply trying her best to bring her daughter up and is eventually sent to prison.

At the beginning of the research process, Clean Break put me in touch with Inquest – a charity concerned with the treatment and care of people in custody leading up to and around their death and then the care of the bereaved families afterwards.

All the bereaved family members that I either met or read about agreed that Inquest was an absolute lifeline for them; they would have been very much in the dark if it wasn’t for the support, and most importantly, information they received through the charity.

The first scene in Fatal Light is based loosely on one family’s experience of being visited by a young police officer who got the name of their sister wrong and then couldn’t even confirm whether she was still alive, just that there had been ‘a serious incident’. The officer had been sent from a local police station and had been given scant, incorrect information. Unfortunately this is a common occurrence.

Fatal Light production shot

Fatal Light: Rebecca Scroggs (Jay) and Isabella Mason (Aine)

Another thing that came up a lot during the research process was that, although prison sentences are often utterly devastating to the families of women in prison, there was an assumption that at the very least, their loved ones would be safe inside. Even though prison was the last place that their sister, mother, daughter should be, they trusted that they couldn’t come to any harm. That’s clearly not the case at all. The vulnerable are constantly being criminalised for having mental health problems.

One woman tried to commit suicide in her flat by setting fire to her couch, then realised that she was putting other people in the building in danger. She tried unsuccessfully to put it out herself, and phoned the fire brigade, but still got a hefty sentence for arson. Tragically, though perhaps inevitably, she killed herself in prison.

The Corston report (a review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system) was published in March 2007, following the deaths of six women at HMP Styal in just over twelve months. Four years later, there has been slow progress in implementing its recommendations for the sentencing and treatment of female prisoners. There are still so many cases of women who’ve spent their lives dealing with mental health problems and abuse, who are then incarcerated miles from families, support networks… their kids. Prison is the final straw for them.

The subject matter of Fatal Light is bleak of course, but that’s because the reality of the situation is bleak and therefore it’s hugely important to tell these stories and to question why deaths in custody keep happening.

I actually think the play itself is, strangely, quite hopeful. Lucy Morrison’s brilliant direction injects lots of warmth and humour and shows the immense amount of love between the three characters. The piece plays backwards in time and ends with Jay in a positive situation. Starting with her death and working backwards serves to highlight how avoidable these tragedies really are.

RE-CHARGED logoRe-Charged continues its run at Soho Theatre until 9th April. If you can’t get to see it, then you can buy the fantastic value playtext featuring all of the six plays by E V Crowe, Sam Holcroft, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Chloë Moss, Winsome Pinnock and Rebecca Prichard for just £9.99 with free P&P (UK customers only). Click here, and quote ‘BLOGOFFER’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also save £5 off full-price tickets (£3 off concessions) if you quote ‘PLAYTEXT’ when booking through the venue’s box office, Tel: 020 7478 0100.

PART 5: Bruntwood Playwriting Competition 2011

image of Andrew Sheridan

Andrew Sheridan receiving his award

Andrew Sheridan is a joint-winner of the 2008 Bruntwood Playwriting Competition for his play Winterlong – ‘a dazzling debutGuardian. Set in Manchester, the play explores what happens when a baby is discarded a few nights before Christmas. Sheridan is also an actor, and has appeared in award-winning TV, film and theatre.

How would you describe your play, Winterlong?

It’s a play that wears its heart on its sleeve. There’s no bullshit with it. It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s direct. It’s like Mancunian people. We’re direct. There’s no flannel.

So a sense of place, of belonging in Manchester is important to you as a writer?

I’m Mancunian. I write with a Mancunian voice. It’s important. It always has been. It comes from a tradition, a history of having to search for beauty in the ugly. It has to be shiny and bold and revolutionary. Full of vibrancy and expectation. It has to speak louder than other voices not because it wants to but because it has to. It doesn’t have a choice.

How have you found the experience of working with the director, Sarah Frankcom, on your play?

Sarah Frankcom is without doubt one of the most important directors working in British theatre. She has such an understanding of me as a writer. She has always believed in my play and the characters that populate it. She has never wavered in her support and vigour to direct my play with truth and honesty and daring. I would trust her with my life.

It must be strange – as an actor – to be watching other actors do the job for a change?

Going from actor to writer is slightly weird – almost like trying to walk again or learning to ride a bike. It really hit me when we started casting really. I suddenly realised that I was on the wrong side of the table, and I was so used to walking into the room and seeing these three people, the casting director, the writer and the director.

And the cast?

Every one of the actors in Winterlong is the best there is. They are quality. End of. They all bring an amazing amount individually and collectively to it. I’m so lucky. They’ve all clicked into that Manchester vibe of thinking regarding the play and how they feel about it. “We’re all doing this and we don’t care if you like it or not. We’re doing it.”

jacket image of WINTERLONG

Winterlong by Andrew Sheridan

How does it feel to have your play staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre?

The Exchange is where I saw my first play. The Exchange is where I got my first acting job. The Exchange is the theatre that will premiere my first play. I can’t say how much this building means to me. It creates some of this country’s strongest and most daring theatre and all the people who work there are the best there is. They are all totally sound.

How important has the Bruntwood Playwriting Competition been to you?

I think the Bruntwood is the most important new playwriting competition in this country! You can enter the competition completely anonymously. No one knows who you are. It could be your first play, it could be your fifth play, it doesn’t matter, you will be judged on the merit of what you write and that is what’s so good about the competition.

Bruntwood are doing such a good job really considering the hard times that we’re going through economically in this country and the cuts to the arts. They’re  really maintaining what’s important for new writing theatre. It’s just so important at this time that this competition continues… Well done to Bruntwood for doing it and the Royal Exchange for hosting it!

Winterlong received its world premiere at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, February 2011. It will later transfer to Soho Theatre, London, opening on 23 February 2011.

Next week: Bruce Norris on his multi-award-winning hit Clybourne Park – now playing in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre until May 2011 after a sell-out run at the Royal Court.