The evolution of a play

I have always been fascinated by structure. Plays, books, and films which have a non-linear structure are the ones which appeal most to me.

I had been dreadfully into drama as a teenager and wrote an award-winning play, but after a couple of unkind rejections of my teenage angsty writing, I went to London to university, and then fell into journalism via the student paper. It wasn’t until about 2003 when I found I was drawn back to writing for the theatre, after seeing two key productions at the National Theatre, which in different ways were game changers for me.

The plays were David Mamet’s ‘Edmond’ with Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’. Both of these plays made me reassess what theatre could do.

So I went back home and wrote a play. I seem to remember I wrote ‘Pretty boy’ very quickly, in about a week, but the idea had been brewing in my head for a little while. The play had two endings, and at first my idea was that the audience would somehow vote for which ending they would see. ‘Pretty boy’ told the story of an ageing action hero who meets a millionaire milk carton heiress in rehab. The play was produced at the White Bear theatre in Kennington. After this play I was inspired to write another play; ‘Games Nation’. This play was inspired by a picture of two boys playing on a games console in a room, not looking each other, not talking to each other, drawn in by the screen.

And of course I wanted to do something complicated. I wanted to tell an inter-generational story about Britain and families today, and of course my love of structure meant that I wasn’t going to make it a linear play. The creation of this play however was not as easy as ‘Pretty boy’. There are three box-files of copies of different versions of the play, which have moved from London to Kent with me, not having been touched since about 2006.

I must have sent it to some theatres when I finished the different versions in 2003 or 2005, as I have script reports from the Oldham Coliseum (of version 2) and the Soho Theatre (of version 1), which are both generally positive and particularly praised the alternative structure. There is also one standard rejection letter from a company saying ‘thanks but no thanks, and we cannot provide any comments due to the number of submissions received’. But this was in 2006 – I’ve jumped in time. I also remember sending the play to a north London company who work with children but never received a response. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt though, as I moved house and maybe the response went to the old address and wasn’t forwarded.

Back in 2004, I also joined the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers’ (pilot over-26) Programme, and during this time I developed ‘Games Nation’ into a two-part play telling the story of the family over two timeframes; one play was from the children’s point of view; the other from the parents’ point of view. I received generally positive feedback from the mentor on the programme Jane Bodie, particularly on my dialogue.

Picture of files

Some of the printouts

But something still didn’t feel right about the play – I just couldn’t get it to ‘come right’. I started working on another play which used a split-screen technique in a couple of scenes, but no time travel or complicated structure. ‘He said, she said’, was a rom-com inspired by screwball movies. It was produced at the Landor Theatre in 2005, after I had previewed some scenes with my directing class and one of my fellow students decided he wanted to take it on and bring it to life.Not long after ‘He said, she said’, I moved home. An MA in Creative Writing started. Then 17Percent came about. And other writing projects. Poor little ‘Games Nation’ and its three files sat on the shelf, with several other half-finished plays, all getting dusty.

But that play and all the other unfinished plays still have little voices calling out to me to be finished, niggling away at me, and occasionally I think of them and wonder how and if they could be developed.

The riots in 2011 have somehow made a link in my mind with my long untouched play and it’s time for the play to come out to play. When I was at school in Bristol I remember a time of rioting. I think the links between then and now are fairly clear. So now some aspects of ‘Games Nation’, particularly the family relationships, and the non-linear structure will meet up and see if they would get on. The play will also have a historical element charting Britain’s long history of civic unrest.

I previewed a short rewritten scene from ‘Games Nation’ at the last ‘She Writes’, and it seemed to go down well. Perhaps it is time for a fairly drastic re-write and re-structure.

I think there are lessons to learn from this long process; firstly that I was too easily put off when I was younger when I received criticism of my writing (this is an area some people suggest might be a contributing factor to why it takes women longer to get ahead in most industries, they react to criticism more badly,); secondly, that if you feel that your writing is not ready, it probably is not ready; but thirdly, if there is a good idea in it, it will keep at you, until it finds the right way out.

I am really excited about the new play, and its potential, and looking forward to getting down to writing it!

About 17Percent

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