Tuesday, 6 September 2011

today I am...

1. Sitting in a cafe in Budapest, which is the city I flew to late last night to spend a few months and hang out/do freelance work/write a masterpiece. Well, to write something, at any rate...

2. Feeling delighted to find a site-specific/immersive theatre festival in the offing, and hoping some of the stuff is in English.

3. Feeling slightly embarrassed to be the kind of person who publicly declares excitement about site-specific/immersive theatre.

4. Relieved that the letting agents have finally got round to sending round a cleaner/plumber, although wondering why they couldn't have done it before we moved in, since they had two months notice.

5. Wondering if I will ever be rich enough to buy a house and not have to deal with letting agents. Although not letting it bother me too much...

6. Wondering how long it will take to learn basic Hungarian. (And deciding, er, quite long, probably. It's flipping hard!)

7. Feeling glad to be here. And reminding myself it's all an adventure...

Thursday, 25 August 2011

time management (or lack of)

random clock picture
I bought a time management book a couple of years ago. 

It had been packaged to look all modern, but inside the advice basically consisted of 'get your secretary to do it'. Presumably it was written in ye olden days when you could smoke in offices and people used typewriters and all managers had secretaries to brighten up the place and do a bit of light shorthand.

In the brave new world of doing everything for yourself, it was entirely flipping useless.

I'm not sure whether time management techniques really work for creative writing. I can go for ages without writing (see: the last few months), and then be inspired be a random conversation and plunge straight back into it (see: last night).

I should add that it's different, I think, with a commission and a deadline. But for me, ongoing creative writing happens when it happens.

Having said all this, I do find the following things help:

1. Don't be afraid of writing rubbish: the longer I leave it, the harder it can seem to get back into it. It becomes more of a big deal. So I think there's definitely an argument for writing a scene or two even if you're pretty sure it's crap because it's still writing and it counts for something and it can be edited.

2. Using scraps of time: I've never sat down and devoted a day to writing. Not even an afternoon. It doesn't work for me. I feel under pressure. I procrastinate. Instead I write in the gaps between all my other work. Half an hour seems like an optimum time for the creative stuff. I can do longer in an editing phase, because it doesn't require the same amount of raw energy. Editing is more of a reflective, biscuits and cups of tea phase.

3. Um, that's it. Those are the things I do.

I'm not exactly filled with hints and tips today. But always interested in hearing other people's techniques...

Friday, 12 August 2011

me vs not knowing what I'm doing

There's a myth, I think, that emotional turmoil is good for creativity. As if creativity only comes from heartbreak and absinthe and living in garrets with questionable bathroom facilities.

Maybe it's true, to an extent? Big emotional experiences can certainly feed your work. There's a reason why every second rate indie band and their cousin has a break-up album, all snivelling ballads and 'eff-you' declarations of moving on to better things.

Of course, it doesn't always make it good.

Right now, I'm finding emotional turmoil is getting in the way of getting on with stuff. Because all the time I spend angsting about and staring moodily into the middle distance is time I'm not spending getting on with actual writing. All the mental energy I'm expending on little questions - like what am I going to do with the rest of my life - leaves me much much less to spare for being creative in any way. Thinking of a mildly intelligent facebook status update is a challenge right now.

Hoping for a bit of stability soon. Not so much as to make life boring, but enough that I can happily sit typing up the latest script (there is one, I have ideas, hell, I have notes) for a few hours without stressing wildly over job applications, preparing to move country, wondering what I'm doing with my life/career/everything else...

Thursday, 28 July 2011

let the bloggers in

The Wheel (image by Gottfried Helnwein)
Oh, I like this. The National Theatre of Scotland have issued a social media call. for their latest production: The Wheel, by Zinnie Harris. This, presumably, in addition to the more standard press call.

They've set the barriers for involvement pretty low - anyone with a blog, facebook account or twitter feed can go along and take some pictures and find out more. So a self-selecting group of interested parties can go along and promote the play.

I don't know if many theatres have already gone down this route. But I'd like to see it happening more. Not just because I have a blog and like the theatre (send me free tickets, people, obviously). But because it reflects the way that most people hear about new stuff and get interested in it.

I often look at reviews in the press, but I'm just as likely to be swayed by a trusted friend talking about a play on their blog, or mentioning it on Facebook.Perhaps even more so. And of course, it all helps to generate a buzz, which takes interested theatre-goers from 'maybe I'll get round to seeing this' to 'must book now'.

Oh, and here's a video about the play: 

Friday, 22 July 2011

getting ATTENTION as a writer

Harry Potter and the tenous connection picture opportunity
I had a short play on in Camden recently. Afterwards, one of the actors told me that his next job was to wander around in a cloak pretending to be a deatheater, at the red carpet premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2.

Which is a pretty cool gig!  And of course, it left me wondering if I can inject some kind of Harry Potter angle into my writing CV. I can't. Obviously I can't.

Writing is the main thing. OF COURSE. But a neat marketing angle doesn't do any harm either. My first ever script that got produced was part of the Sitcom Trials - a comedy competition. One of the other writers sent out a press release, based on the fact that one of the actors was the niece of the bloke who used to play Mike in Coronation Street. Clutching at straws? Hell, if it gets bums on seats, it has to be worth a try...

Failing spurious celebrity connections, I also like this approach - the website for Redundancy: the musical.  Writer Naomi Lowde has created the site for her musical before it's even been staged.

She's also set up a Facebook page to start gathering followers. I think this is a great idea. You have to market your work to a theatre, company, or producer to get it on. And if you can prove that you already have a fanbase in place, well, all to the good. And especially with a strong concept like this.

My next play isn't quite at this stage sadly. I don't thing the world is ready for www.playaboutsomestuffnotsurequitewhatyetbutabitpoliticalyeah?andreallyfunny.com

It is the world's loss, obviously.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

the ideas phase

And so it transpires I am now in the ideas phase. I've finished a short piece, there are some rewrites to be getting on with, but there's a gap in my writing schedule for the main event. The thing I have to write. The one that gets under my skin right the way until completion.

The ideas phase is a dangerous place to be.

The best plays you (n)ever write are those ghostly, fantasy plays that get written entirely in your head, and never make it to the page. You can spend hours on them - imagining dialogue that is heartbreaking in its poignancy, side-splitting in its comedy. They will bring a profundity to the British stage never seen before or since. You are dazzled with the brillance of your ideas.

Almost without exception, these plays don't work. I don't know quite what happens, but when it comes to putting them down on paper, everything is lost. The dialogue, that was so brilliant in your head comes out stilted and unconvincing. The plot doesn't make sense. That character, that amazing character that was going to have Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart fighting to play the part? Yeah, turns out he's a total wally, and dull to boot.

The solution - the only solution I've come up with to all this - is to write it down first. When the first inklings of a work of genius arise, I get me straight to my notebook. And I know, pretty quickly, whether it will work or not. But honestly, some of these plays I've written in my head.... It is no exaggeration to say they could have been literally better than Shakespeare.

Friday, 15 July 2011

today I was distracted by shopping

Short floral culottes. Why?
...I say shopping, I mean wandering round the summer sales in a daze and being too overwhelmed to actually buy anything.

I am rubbish at shopping in lots of ways.

I pick stuff up and then I make the mistake of asking myself whether I need it, and whether it goes with anything, and is there honestly a gap in my wardrobe for short floral culottes or whatever the item in consideration. And the answers are usually no and no and no.

(There are a lot of short floral culottes around at the moment. I would like to embrace fashion, but fashion is not making it easy for me. Dammit. )

When I go out on a mission for something I really need: summer dresses, say, or work trousers - I invariably can't find anything, and come back with a black top that cost in the region of £12 to £18 instead.

I have this sense that by now I'm supposed to have a capsule wardrobe, which is to say a set of clothes which can be combined endless clever ways and made into new outfits with the addition of a belt, or a scarf.

Instead, I have lots of tops that go with one or less pairs of trousers that I own. There is no coherence in my personal style. I don't have a look. I just have a load of clothes stuffed in a wardrobe and if I get out of the house wearing stuff that is clean, and kind of matches, that counts as a successful day.

So this is why I wander in a trance-like state around high street shops, and don't quite manage to buy anything.

And this is why the Next Big Project didn't get started this afternoon. The only advantage of being in the, ahem, ideas phase, is that everything is research. OK? All this pottering about is research. Shush over there.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

write what you know

I started writing plays because I did an Arvon course - something I would highly recommend. Douglas Maxwell was one of the tutors and he had lots of very wise things to say about bring a playwright. This included being an expert on what you were writing on. Not just on the facts though, on the emotions.

It was a real breakthrough for me, this idea that you had to have an emotional connection to your work. That it's the only thing that gets you writing, and keeps you writing, and makes you write well, or at least as well as you're able to.

Lots of my writing is about hurt, disappointment and anger. The thing is, I'm not relentlessly miserable. (Except when I listen to the Today programme and shout at the Tories.) But these emotions are all in there, and they're really good places to write from. Even comedy. Especially comedy.

I thought of all this because I was browsing the t'internet in my perpetual quest to waste time and I came across some more of Douglas's advice, and it's all pretty brilliant, and worth a read. So do.

Friday, 8 July 2011


When I was a teenager I had a brief foray into amateur dramatics. In the heady days of fearless youth, I got up on a stage, and acted. (Badly, but enthusiastically.)

I even sang a bit. (In musicals. Because I was supposed to. Not just randomly, in the middle of Pinter of something.)

My trick, as I recall, was to leave my glasses off, so I couldn't see the audience. And yes, yes, I occasionally bumped into a table, or went off the wrong way, but that was basically the only way I could do it.

I'm giving a presentation tomorrow, as part of a postgraduate course. I'm incredibly nervous. It's not as bad as acting. I don't have to ask what my motivation is, or remember any lines. But it's still a but scary.

Unfortunately tomorrow I do have to wear my glasses or I won't be able to see the Powerpoint slides. So cross fingers for a sympathetic audience...

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Chicken Soup with Barley

Samantha Spiro and Danny Webb in the Royal Court production.
Does plot or character drive theatre?

In Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley, the answer, regrettably, is neither.

The play presents the disintegration of a family - the Kahns - in line with the disintegration of an ideology - communism. It's neatly structured in three acts, set in 1936, 1946 and 1956. The last year coincides with the violent repression of the Hungary by the Soviet Union, and the certainty that even post-Stalin, communism is a nasty, repressive regime.

But still, Sarah Kahn, matriarch as misguided hero, or something, stubbornly clings to the ideology of her youth, as all others abandon it.

It all has the potential to be fascinating. The mix of the personal and political. The strong female character at the heart of the action. But it just doesn't work.

The lack of action is a real problem. This is a political play that seemingly aspires to be a kitchen sink drama. Most of the first act consists of people sitting around a table talking about all the exciting things that are happening offstage (the battle of Cable St, an event which should be ripe for drama if ever there was one...)

Heck, I don't know if I've just been spoilt by the likes of Rupert Goold, who throw everything at the audience to create a frenzy of sound and action and entertainment. But honestly, in the protracted silence where the main character clears the table for 5 minutes for NO DRAMATIC REASON whatsover, I just felt aggrieved. That's my precious bloody time the director is wasting with this attempt to, um, um no - I can't even speculate what the director is attempting.

The characters are under-developed and unbelievable. It's almost impossible to like or care about them. Not through any fault of the actors I should add. Samatha Spiro does a great job in the central role of Sarah Kahn, but she's good despite the production, not because of it.

I get the sense that this is what (bad) theatre was like in the olden days. Solid, indigestible, with a vague promise of being good for you in some way that it doesn't really deliver on.

I should point out that my two theatre going companions were almost entirely in agreement. But none of us are remotely in tune with the critical consensus is that it's brilliant. I don't know why the critics think this. But they're wrong.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

hello again

This is what I did: I resigned from my job and went to India. And I sort of thought about writing a big serious play about Important Things while I was there. But instead what I mainly did was to see lots of places and do lots of interesting things. And every day I woke up and gave thanks that I had escaped sitting in an office all day, burning through my confidence reserves at a dangerous rate and quietly going mad.

India was often challenging but endlessly fascinating. And out of it I wrote something new. I wonder if you can guess whether it was

a) a hard-hitting piece about poverty and globalisation
b) an experimental piece based around slums
c) a ludicrous comedy based around a Mills and Boon romantic novel.

Yeah. It was the Mills and Boon one. No discernable India references whatsoever. No political agenda. Just some funny stuff about romantic heroes wearing ruffles. Inspiration at its randomest...