The Aftermath

There is nothing quite like the let-down after a stage play, unless its the let-down after you've finished writing a book. But I think the let-down after a play is worse, for the very good reason that writing is essentially a lonely business. You sit in your room, with the radio and your own imagination for company, and write what you want to see. Then, for a few short weeks, you work with other people, people who are taking this piece of work seriously. You collaborate. You discuss, and watch and listen and marvel as your work takes on a life of its own. And you meet people. You meet them during rehearsals, and during the production. Friends come and see it. Colleagues come and see it. Complete strangers come up to you and tell you how much they enjoyed it. Let's face it, it gives you such a buzz and not just because it's nice to be appreciated (which it is) but simply because it's good to know that you are communicating with other human beings. And then all of a sudden, it's over, finished, and everyone has moved onto the next thing, and so must you. But there's a space, and suddenly everyday life seems a bit humdrum and a bit boring. You feel spaced out and slightly depressed.
The play was pretty much a success. The reviews were good, the people involved with the production seemed to like the play, and the audiences were appreciative. After the last performance, on saturday, there was one of those rare moments when the whole audience (and the place was packed) falls silent, and then gives a little collective sigh, before bursting into applause. THAT was good.
But now it's back to reality, which in my case means the desk, the endless pots of tea (made with real leaves of course) and the next big project.

Production Diary (5)

Which should be subtitled "I LOVE Neil Cooper." Because he liked it. Not only that but - writing in the Herald - he liked the actors, the music, the direction, the lot. He liked it and - more to the point - he "got" it. I have maligned the guy elsewhere in this blog by assuming that he might not like it. Now I find that he is a man of taste and sound judgement. He is a wonderful man, and a fine critic. (Why do we always tend to believe the bad reviews and disbelieve the good ones?) Right now, I'm happy, not just for myself, but for everyone involved because as the director pointed out at one point, it was also, in many ways a "joyful" experience and I think it shows in the finished product. Sending actors out onto a stage in your own play is a bit like sending a child to school for the first time. You can't go with them, you can't do anything to help, they've got to go through it, but my how you worry. You do more than that. You pray.
I won't see the play again till later in the week but, when I could stop worrying and concentrate, I too thought that they did a great job on monday. Working on a play is a very strange experience for the playwright. By the time the performance is happening, the play is already sliding away from you. I know that this week will pass by in a blurr, and it's touch and go whether the play will have another life beyond this time - except in the minds and memories of those who have seen it. I wonder.

Production Diary (4)

Couldn't believe just how much the play had "gelled" yesterday. There are two more days of rehearsals, friday and saturday, as well as a run through before the performance on monday, but I will be leaving them to it now. I think at this late stage the writer can be a hindrance rather than a help. I have answered every question I can possibly answer about Rab and his relationship with Jean. I've watched a couple of runs from beginning to end, and although I am now in that state of panic that all writers get into at this stage, it is all to do with my own insecurities about the play and nothing to do with this production. You get so close to something that you just can't see the wood for the trees. Then you start to see things you would have done differently. Or you start to notice all the things that the play doesn't address, rather than what it does address. Then you remember that this is a 50 minute show, so what else can you do? On the other hand, I love writing for this length and this space. It concentrates the mind wonderfully. And there is no reason at all why a shorter play shouldn't be as complex and emotive as a longer piece. More so in fact. The discipline involved in fitting it all into a restricted time slot, and a simple space means that you can't be over indulgent. Something has to happen. It has to happen soon. And it has to go somewhere pretty quickly.
The piece is potentially controversial for a number of reasons. There are scenes in there that - when I actually saw them on stage - brought me up short. There are interpretations of the poet and his life that might be deemed provocative. I haven't written any of this just to provoke a reaction however. It was simply that I wanted to explore some aspects of the relationship between Rab and Jean that are all too often glossed over. It helps enormously that the cast are so young. Their attitude to the poet is refreshingly down to earth. And because of that I hope that both Burns and Jean begins to emerge as a living, breathing people.

Production Diary (3)

Second week of a two week rehearsal period and the play is shaping up nicely. Actually that sounds glib. Two weeks is a horribly short length of time for what - from a purely practical point of view - is a "big learn." Lots of words. Also, this is a very physical and very visual play, which has to be carefully choreographed if it's going to make sense, and both actors and director are doing a great job. I wanted it to have something of the quality of a country dance about it - and I think that's what it will have. Whether the audience will appreciate it or not is another matter. I predict right now that the Herald's Neil Cooper won't like it - may as well acknowledge that and get on with it! (Not his sort of play I think. He may damn it with faint praise though...)The musician, an astounding young woman from Glasgow called Celine Donoghue, is proving to be such an asset. The music is an integral part of this play, interwoven with action and dialogue, but it takes a special sort of skill to improvise around this and she is amazing - quite magical in fact. (Working with a fiddle from the early 1700s, as well.) Besides that, I think Burns is charismatic, deeply sympathetic and exasperating all at once - as he should be - while Jean is poignant, perceptive - and with a singing voice to die for - again, as she should.

Production Diary (2)

The first read-through is invariably nerve racking for the playwright. Mainly because it's where you spot all the shortcomings in your script - the things that you thought you had fixed, the infelicities, the words that you hadn't realised were so bloody hard to pronounce, and the ideas that you thought were as clear as day, but now you are not so sure.
I love my cast, I love my director, I love my designer, and - glory be - they've found me a professional fiddler. I'm happy with all of them. Right now though, I'm not sure about the play. But then, I think that's pretty much condition normal, for any writer. You find that you expose so much of yourself in writing. You work away at something, and see it and hear it in your head in a very definite way, but at the point were it begins to go public, you always get cold feet.
The thing to remember at this stage, though, is that there is a long long way to go.For the actors, and director, it must be the equivalent of somebody looking at a writer's very first draft, and judging it. Can't be done. All you can say is - yes, it feels right, it's heading the right way, and then let them get on with it for a bit. There is, too, something of the feeling of sending your child to school on the first day. That nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach!
I hadn't realised how much I knew about Robert Burns: anecdotes, stories, opinions, relationships. And places. And the language of the time. My task was to communicate that time and place to the cast as clearly and vividly as I could. You can read books till they are coming out of your ears, but they are no substitute for a human enthusiast, and that was my role. The informed enthusiast.
More later.

Production Diary (1)

Whenever I talk to a writers' group, or do a workshop, I am usually asked about the process of writing for the stage. What is involved with a production? How do these things work?
So - without going into many personal details - I thought it might be interesting to follow a small production through from beginning to end, from the point of view of the writer.
I have already touched on the process of writing, and submitting plays in previous posts, but now, here I am on the eve of rehearsals for Burns on the Solway, with a director, a cast and a musician in place. I've re-read the script, and spotted the typos (two of them, biggies, that I should have noticed several drafts ago. ) I've gone through the usual angst. What will the actors and the director - professional, sympathetic and inspirational - make of it? How will the play evolve? We'll see.
The production process varies, which is why it is so hard to be exact, when explaining it to people. Some directors like the writer to be there all the time. Some would prefer it if the writer never showed at all. (Best avoided, in my experience!) Some like the writer to "dip in and out" giving the actors time to experiment, make mistakes, thrash things out in the intervening periods without a looming writer. On the whole, I think this is probably best, although I have had at least one production where the director simply downed tools if I couldn't be there. I learned a vast amount in the course of that production, but it also involved a huge commitment in terms of time - and it was quite stressful. Good though. I'm glad I did it. I think on this occasion, and by mutual agreement, I will be "dipping in and out."
We have two weeks of rehearsal, and the play is approximately 45 minutes long. That's a lot to fit into a couple of weeks. The work will be intense.
There's one piece of advice which I always give to aspiring playwrights - if you don't like collaboration, then theatre isn't for you. Quite probably drama isn't for you. A play begins in the mind of the writer, but by the time it hits the stage it has gone through this magical process involving the talents of many other people, and what emerges, if you are lucky, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, is something you could barely even imagine. That's the reason you do it though. When it works, it's wonderful.
What's my main worry, at this point? That's easy. Doubts about my own writing.
Burns on the Solway is a play about Robert Burns. The sacred bard of Scottish imagination. There have been so many plays about Burns. And films. And books. Books upon books. How could I dare to do it? I have loved this poet and his work since - as a teenager with a romantic imagination - I traced his footsteps around Ayrshire, and then beyond. But the years have deepened my understanding until the urge to write about the poet and his wife became an ache inside - something I went back to again and again.
What have I written though? And have I even begun to say what I set out to say?
More later.....

Sending Stuff Out

In the days when I was tutor to a Writers' Group, I was forever going on at the members about sending out their work. They would invariably have poems, stories and articles, languishing in drawers and folders. "Send it off" I would say. "You can't hope to win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket" - and similar terms of encouragement.
Now, some years later, here I sit with drawers full of the stuff, and although certain manuscripts are, in fact, "out there" with my agent, so much of it is languishing still.
Perhaps most frustrating among the "languishees"though, is a full length stage play called The Locker Room. So much of what sits in drawers is there because you know, deep in your heart, that it is garbage. The Locker Room is different. I think that the Locker Room is a good play. I first drafted it out some years ago, but have done many rewrites and revisions since then, pushing the dialogue as far as I could, experimenting with it, paring it and pruning it until it reflected exactly what I wanted to say. It is a hard hitting play, not a bundle of laughs for sure, in that it tackles the thorny subject of abuse in sports coaching within the ever-so-masculine sport of ice hockey.
For the past ten years - as well as writing novels - I have written drama for radio and for the stage. My play Wormwood, about the Chernobyl disaster, was lovingly nurtured by the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and produced to excellent reviews. The play was published in an anthology called "Scotland Plays" and is now a set text for the Scottish "Higher Still" drama exam. A further play for the Traverse, Quartz, about themes of magic and religion, was also beautifully produced and well reviewed. Then I sent them The Locker Room, but they didn't like it. Actually, that's not strictly true. One of their readers loved it. That's what the artistic director told me on the phone. But for various reasons which I won't go into here, he himself didn't really want to do it. And no, he didn't think it needed workshopping, because it didn't need rewriting. There was nothing wrong with it as a play. He just didn't like what I was saying and the angle I was taking.
Fair enough. There's no reason why he should. These things are very personal and we simply agreed to differ.
Since then, though, I have sent the play to every theatre in Scotland that I can think of that accepts new writing. Sometimes I have emailed beforehand to ask about submissions and have received encouraging noises. I know I'm the woman with the funny foreign name - but it should be a reasonably familiar foreign name in Scottish theatre. After my new short play The Price of a Fish Supper was produced in Glasgow last spring, I wondered if I should try to do something with the Locker Room - again. And the result? As before, as always, complete, utter, dead silence. I don't mean that the play was turned down. The only theatre to have turned it down was the Traverse. I mean nothing, zilch, nada. Not an email, not a phonecall, not an acknowledgement, nothing. The script has just disappeared into this great, silent, black hole.
Actually, I suspect I know all too well what the problem is. In theatre, you have to polish your profile. You have to go to events, and opening nights and previews and workshops. You have to sit in the bar and be seen. You have to chat to people and remind them of your very existence. You have to be part of the "in-crowd". And, woe is me, I live in deepest rural Scotland, and spend most of my week struggling to earn a living, which kind of limits my networking possibilities.
But it gnaws away at me, it really does.
Increasingly now, I think that more time in Glasgow, which I love, is probably the answer. I have to be bold and elbow my way in, somehow. I'm working on it.
Meanwhile, if anyone out there is interested in a full length well polished and "provocative" (buzz word) play with believable characters, written in a taut, almost poetic, but ultimately realistic style.... well, just let me know, would you?