Rebecca Peyton’s journey from actor to playwright – guest post

In February 2005, Rebecca Peyton’s sister Kate was murdered in Mogadishu, while on assignment for the BBC. In January 2012 Rebecca’s first play, Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister, co-written by Martin M. Bartelt, was published by Oberon books.

In this brief series of blogs, Rebecca describes some of this journey, from actor to actor-playwright, and ponders, ultimately, what the future holds and if one published play really makes you a playwright…

It is Christmastime 2009. I am sitting in Martin’s favourite restaurant in Lugano, Switzerland: it is our first night party.  Tonight has been the culmination of two years’ work on our show about my sister’s murder, and it has gone down really well with the 25-or-so people in the audience… but it’s a pretty quiet affair, this party. Not because we have some editing to do and a second performance tomorrow, though we have, and not because, as my director, Martin’s given my performance 7/10, though he has, and not because we are a creative and production team of two, though we are. I can’t speak for Martin,  in fact, I can barely speak for myself: what have we done tonight, what have I done? What was I thinking? And how on earth am I feeling now? Other than profoundly moved by some extraordinary and unfamiliar maelstrom of emotion.

On February 9 2005 BBC Senior Producer Kate Peyton, with responsibility for Southern Africa, was shot once in the back in Mogadishu, Somalia. She was operated on, her spleen removed, and she later died of blood loss without recovering post-operative consciousness.

When she died I was dumbstruck: Kate, my better half, was gone. I was still dressing, sneezing, showering like me.. but I was no longer there. And yet, through this… vanishing, this scattering, this utter lack of will, I knew that because my future was gone, if I continued to live, it would have to be… something. And that something could be audacious because, well, what on earth did it matter?

And so, within days of my sister’s murder, I was pretty sure it’d be good for my acting career. There was an element of exhilaration that my best friend, my future, my incomparable sister, was gone, a very small feeling, but it was there nonetheless, sometimes breaking the surface of my shock and disorientation.

My first idea for a show had the working title of  101 Uses For A Murdered Sister. During the months after Kate died I was working in the company where I had worked as a light entertainment agent before becoming an actor. I kept trying to get a plumber to meet me at a property in east London – an hour’s journey from my home and three-quarters of an hour from work. I had been there to meet him twice before being at work for 9.30 and he’d not shown up. So, in earshot of my colleagues, I left him a message which went roughly like this “Hi, it’s Rebecca. I waited half an hour for you again this morning. I… the thing is it’s okay if you don’t want the work, but I’d be really grateful if you’d tell me if that’s the case as my sister was murdered recently and I just don’t have the time to keep travelling all over London for you not to show up. Thanks so much. Talk later.” I put the phone down and felt the astonished gaze of the whole office upon me. I shrugged. “101 uses for a murdered sister,” said I. And I was right. He called back within half an hour, we made a plan and carried it out within days. I genuinely did not intend to make him feel bad, but I had so much on, things were so tough, and I had neither the time nor the emotional balance to deal with a plumber not turning up. Others might say this was a cruel or manipulative thing to do. Maybe, but I say it was honest.

Despite writing a further 105 uses for a murdered sister on the way home on the bus that night, I struggled with the show. Since giving up my proper job to act I’d struggled with the idea of writing – of being a writer – and I’d been looking to work with someone, to write, but never quite finding the right person. In fact, my having represented brilliant writers as an agent made it abundantly clear to me that what the world did not need was yet another not-even-average writer. As a childhood friend had said to me when I told him I was stopping being an agent and working towards acting: “Ah! Just what the world needs – another actress!” I felt that, at least as an actor I would be helping deliver other people’s work and ideas, not suggesting that anyone should listen to mine.

Then, at a loose end in August 2007, I went on a devising course at the Actors Centre where this strange, German ex-dancer was teaching. This was Martin. We knew we wanted to work together and we began. The show started as The Intransigence Of Gas Engineers: A Comedy About My Sister’s Murder, but Martin was never happy with that title, so it became Sometimes I Laugh Like My Sister – because sometimes I do, and to hear it sounds odd. We established an intimate working relationship and between making a living, my family’s fight with the BBC over Kate’s inquest, Martin having his heart valve replaced, and various other minor distractions, we had made our show: our show about trauma, loss, taboos… how my sister’s murder had affected me. Our hope was that by dealing with the specific detail of my experience others might… identify? Be able to discuss death at dinner parties? Not feel so alone and so helpless in the face of theirs and others’ trauma. So, modest, little intentions.

And here we are at our first night party: Martin having a pizza, me a salad and a glass of wine each. And yet I am filled with…. horror, surprise maybe, at what it is that I have just done on stage. Who on earth do I think I am to talk about my experience, to dramatise the story, to expect people to stay in the room for all these words, words, words of mine. Martin is very relaxed and happy, a state  I will go on to discover, he rarely attains in real life. But here, post-show, with our work finally out in the open he is at ease. I look at him, I should learn a lesson from he who has made, produced and performed in so many pieces of his own creation, but I do not feel as if I should be writing. Well, this feeling will be too much to carry into the future of this show, I think, but how on earth to shake it, that is the question.

Rebecca Peyton Pontlevoy in Pink Anton Coimbra

Rebecca Peyton by Anton Coimbra

*There will be more about Rebecca’s journey in a future post.

About 17Percent

A campaign to get more plays by women playwrights onto UK stages.
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