The Director from Hell

Last week, in Glasgow's Oran Mor, I met one of Scotland's most distinguished actors, who greeted me with tremendous enthusiasm, and the words 'Oh God, that awful play....' He was talking about an early stage play of mine, called Heroes and Others, written for the then Scottish Theatre Company, a play in which he was unfortunate enough to be cast. I could see my lovely young director blench at the words, but both of us hastened to reassure her that neither of us (because I had been nodding in vigorous agreement) meant the actual script. Nor did we mean the performances, because the production in question had involved a number of equally talented actors. No, we meant that the play had been comprehensively mauled, as had writer, and actors, by the Director from Hell. The man is dead now. I can't help but be rather glad about that, I'm ashamed to say! He was an actor of some talent. But he was a really crap director. I was young and inexperienced and he rewrote my script.
Day after day, I would try to reinstate my dialogue, and he would compromise a bit, and then go away and rewrite my script again. It was the single most hideous theatrical experience of my life. Added to that, we were rehearsing in a derelict theatre, ice cold and dusty, and what with the dust and the stress, I had the worst asthma attack of my life. Looking back on it, I realise, queasily, that I could have died. Killed by my own play.
I was simply too young, and too inexperienced to fight him, and the person who should have been on my side - the artistic director of the company - was far too chicken to back me up. I remember bursting into tears on a number of occasions. I also remember encountering other weeping cast members in the loo. They too had been humiliated by the director. Now, whenever I meet anyone who was remotely involved with Heroes and Others, they say 'Dear God, that play!' It has become the benchmark for horror, for all of them.
It put me off writing for theatre for years. In fact it wasn't till I got the chance to work with Philip Howard, at the Traverse, that I tried again. I couldn't bear to look at the reviews of Heroes and Others, and indeed, filed them away. A few years ago, I read them properly, and realised that they weren't half bad. Well, not as far as I was concerned. What they were all saying was 'This is a good play, struggling to get out of a terrible production.' And they were right.
It wasn't until earlier this week, though, meeting that splendid actor, that I realised the full extent of the damage done to me by the Director from Hell. Somewhere inside me, all these years, had been the sneaking suspicion that the play was not a very good play. Or not good enough. It was about Solidarity in its early days, and was a subject that was very close to my heart. So it was doubly hard to see it so utterly changed. But I still had the sneaking suspicion that he might have been right and I might have been wrong.
'We all knew' said the actor 'that this was a wonderful, warm, thoughtful, family drama. What he turned it into was crass political polemic. He ruined it.'
I've been thinking about it ever since. And I'm sure the actor is right. It has - I suppose -given me what they call 'closure'! One thing I do remember, about the whole experience, is that I was under immense pressure from the company NOT TO TALK TO THE PRESS. I still don't know why I didn't talk to the press. I was, I seem to remember, interviewed very kindly by Joyce MacMillan. I'm sure she knew that it was not a happy production. Word gets about and she couldn't help but see the stress on my face. But I didn't break ranks, didn't tell her the full story. And I should have done. I was young, and inexperienced, and I didn't know any better. So I kept quiet.
Of course, when you are involved with a production, your first loyalty is always to your fellow performers, your director, actors, the people with whom you are working, and about whom you care. But this was different. Nobody was happy on that production. Not me, not the actors, not anybody who was struggling to cope behind the scenes. What was going on amounted, I now realise, to serious bullying. It should have been outed. I should have taken my script and walked. But I didn't. And it has taken me all these years to realise that - back then - I had written what might have been a perfectly good first professional play. If I had been brave enough to speak out. Which perhaps explains why I now tend to stick my head above the parapet rather too often for my own good.


Bill Kirton said…
Yes, the trouble is it's easy to say that now that you know you write good plays - but as a young writer in a profession where egos clump around, self-importance flourishes and fragility is endemic, it takes a while to learn the rules, and spot the frauds and bullies. Dreadful, though, that it had such a lasting impact on you.