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
Wednesday 19 August 1998
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
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