One writer in search of a stage

So you want to write a play and get it performed? Follow your instincts and read on. By Beverley d'Silva

HOW DO you get a play mounted? I can tell you. But first heed my curious tale. I was watching a performance of The Glass Menagerie when the leading lady, Zoe Wanamaker, walked upstage and was suddenly suffused with a strange, sepulchral light. I stared hard, and felt the right side of my brain throb and a voice say: "You will do it! You will write a play!" Then I passed out. Only later did I realise I had been "brain-napped" by theatre goths.

Some years later and my first play is on at the King's Head, Islington. A rehearsed reading, to be precise. Meanwhile, I've gone through 15 rewrites, countless bust-ups and reunions with friends and lovers, several stress- induced diseases and near bankruptcy. The goths want a big return on their investment.

If you still want to mount a play, great. Join the queue and start writing. The competition is fierce and the quality of work is currently very high from a new breed of hot young writers such as Yasmina Reza, Martin McDonagh, Jez Butterworth, Patrick Marber and Sharman MacDonald. I'm inspired by them all but it was Sam Shepard who featured most in my fantasies of writing drama which people could not stop watching. People need stories to live. And which story form speaks more directly to them than a play?

I was sometimes beset by the Creeping Horrors. Why did I imagine I could write a play? After all, hadn't I skipped off to interview Steven Berkoff, who was in a play by Oscar Wilde, and enquired, "Mr Berkoff, how are you enjoying your performances of Shalom?" Berkoff was almost sick with laughter, and then, curiously, asked me how often I slept with my boyfriend.

I regained confidence after meeting the retired principal of Rada, Hugh Cruttwell, on the set of Hamlet. After Ken Branagh's "to be or not to be" speech, Hugh asked me which of the eight takes I preferred, and I said number eight because of its passion and timing. "But," I concluded, "what would I know?" "As much as anyone, dear," he replied. I have taken that line with me ever since.

You can start your play at any point - an image, a line of dialogue, a grand idea. I began writing Black Tigers after returning to Sri Lanka, where I was born. I'd been haunted by a piece of cinema-verite, Grey Gardens, about a mother and daughter related to Jacqueline Onassis, living in a crumbling mansion on Martha's Vineyard. I set my play in post-colonial Colombo, amongst burgher women whose lives have been ignited by nationalism and civil war, and which are finally detonated by the entrance of a handsome young Irishman.

I don't believe great writing can be taught. It must come from you, working from the inside out, like therapy. As Arthur Miller said, "the writer should speak from the genuine centre of his soul". In other words, you have to go down into the body and dredge up all the internal rot and slime which makes for fascinating drama. A good teacher can encourage and suggest helpful techniques, however. It was the playwright, Bernard Kops, who taught me in his workshops about "illustrative action" and how "drama comes from the choices characters make under pressure", and whose encouragement is beyond price.

Thereafter, it's a case, as Cracker writer Jimmy McGovern says, of "just keeping at it". No teacher can stand over you with a stick until the play is in a workable shape. Each rewrite is difficult. Writing is always painful. Happy people, as Chekhov noted, have no story - and nothing to prove. In 18 months, I did 10 rewrites, and the title changed almost as many times. It started off as Last Express to Dungeness (my Ealing Comedy period). Then Roasted (Royal Court period). Metafemale (Greek holiday). Burgher Queens (a trashy joke, I agree). And eventually, Black Tigers, which it remains to this day.

At some point, to progress the play, you must stop writing and hear it read. I coralled a group of actors, including Fenella Fielding, whose voice has lost none of its sexual depth-charge since her Carry on Screaming days. The reading went well but my audience's main critique was "it finished way too soon".

I saw that the resolution was not satisfactory. I realised the story was wobbly, too, when I attended a seminar on story structure by Robert McKee, an old-school classics man. His guidance helped, and draft number 15 seemed more solid somehow, and more, well... satisfactory.

I sent Black Tigers to theatres, hoping to get a bite. The Royal Court said they liked the dialogue and setting but felt the political angle could be "further explored". The Orange Tree in Richmond said it may fit in with their season of "mixed cast" plays. Then a friend and fellow playwright, Bettina Gracias, tipped me off that the King's Head was seeking work on "loss of identity and dislocation", a bill which Black Tigers fits nicely.

One bleak Sunday night, I get a call from Poonam Brah, one of the literary managers at the King's Head. She asks whether I'm interested in having a reading of my play at the King's Head? Am I just. Bettina's play, Singh Tangos, has also been chosen, along with Invisible by Michael McMillan and Billy the Joat by Deepak Verma. I go to auditions, chaired by Poonam and Dan Hughes, the other literary manager at the King's Head. It's fascinating to watch the actors take these characters, who I have carried around in my head for so long, and then build them in their minds from their own associations.

Our final cast - Rosalind Stockwell, Satara Lester, Gary Pillai, Mark Bonnar and Oona Kirsch - are a talented and nice bunch. We begin rehearsals in a room off Goswell Road, and as we work together, the scenes become richer, the emphasis sharper. Some lines even get a laugh - and where they were meant to.

I know our luck is in as the play begins to live. This is the best bit, where the rationale for writing drama instead of prose enters. The collaborative process prises me out of my writer's garret, and into a place of shared experience.

With one reading down, and three to go, I'm sometimes gripped by a creeping fear. Then I recall Harold Pinter's story. After a performance of The Caretaker in Dusseldorf in 1960, he went to take a bow and, was, he says, "booed violently by the finest collection of booers in the world. I thought they were using megaphones but it was pure mouth".

Will Islington be my Dusseldorf? I'd urge you to come to the King's Head to see some "cutting-edge theatre" in the "Dislocated" season - but to leave your megaphones and mouths out the front, in the pub.

The `Dislocated' season runs until 22 August (0171-226 1916). For information on Bernard Kops' playwriting course, call: 0171-624 2940



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss