Well Hung Men

Well Hung Men

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If you went to a good university, you would have studied the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Pinter, Beckett and Churchill. If you went to a great university, you may have studied Martin McDonagh. To non-theatre goers, McDonagh is the man behind Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges which has become something of a cult classic. He wrote and directed both. I haven’t seen the films because I thought they might be on the violent side a tad. I’m feeling brave though. Maybe soon. Anyway, for me, McDonagh is the man that wrote The Pillowman. I’d give anything to go back in time and see the original cast. It starred David Tennant and Jim Broadbent! He’s also the man behind The Cripple of Inishmaan. I should probably crack on and review his latest play.

Hangmen is about a hangman, more hang … fellows come into it but let’s talk about that later. Harry is a pub landlord and the finest hangman in England. Pierrepoint may boost bigger numbers but he hung Nazis during the war and that’s not honest work. Also, his hair smells bad. As with most plays, we need an inciting incident. This has two. A reporter comes to question Harry on the day they’ve abolished hanging and a Londoner disrupts their set Northern ways. The lads drink in the presence of a hangman and Harry keeps his opinions to himself, he is just a mere servant to the crown. That attitude does not last very long.

This is McDonagh’s first play in more than ten years and as one of the finest Irish playwrights, many of theatre’s finest have jumped at the chance to star. The cast include: David Morrissey (the other doctor in that Christmas special of Doctor Who), Andy Nyman (I know him best from the underrated Campus and have seen him in Ayckbourn); the original run at The Royal Court had Ralph Ineson (remarkable actor but he will always be Chris ‘Finchy’ Finch from The Office) and Reece Shearsmith (better known for The League of Gentlemen but he’s my Leo Bloom). Such is the way with a dark comedy, our ‘villain’ stole the show.  Johnny Flynn is new to me and an instant new favourite to all that have seen Hangmen.

Matthew Dunster directs this fantastic new piece. The humour is perfectly timed and the tension can be cut with a knife, but we all know the rope is the most dignified way to kill something. I found myself laughing at the darkest times. I do adore theatre that reminds us that tragedy and comedy are different sides of the same coins rather than polar opposites. How does the old saying go? “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” We see the chair come out from behind the curtain and there is a pause. The next line is “Smell my hair.” What a riot! What an ending! I suppose you had to be there.

What I Learnt From Diane Samuels | #NaNoWriMo

What I Learnt From Diane Samuels | #NaNoWriMo

I’m thinking of writing a book about my experience in a playwright group, here’s a chapter. Please let me know what you think, is it something you would read?

 

It’s 27th October 2014 and Diane Samuels joins us. I couldn’t name any of her plays either and I still can’t. However, she is the writer that got me into freewriting. She made me see the light. It is something that must be done every day. Writing is a muscle that must be exercised. It also helps to walk every day. There are other muscles that need your attention too. Inspiration for freewriting can be found anywhere, Samuels askes herself every day: Who am I? what do I want? What am I grateful for? She thinks and writes for twenty minutes.

 

“Sit down with nothing and stand up with everything.”

 

The Process

First, answer this question: What is your writing life?

 

For me, it is the chance to eloquent. Say what I want, my opinions, my interpretations without the pressure of saying it myself. My writing process is bursts of anger and coffee.

 

This exercise was a lengthy one but you can’t argue with the results. We began with a group of random words. In the writing group, we contributed one each but you can think of your own. Here were ours: think, happy, sweat, black, theatre, light, help, brick, delicious, cardigan, banana, start, lightbulbs, tea, potato, feet, duality, ring, blue, bright, poem and forever.

 

There was a plan for these words but I set off with my own challenge. I had to write a story with the words in that order. Here’s what I wrote:

 

“I THINK I’m HAPPY. I can feel the SWEAT run down my back as the BLACK out draw closer on the THEATRE of my life. The LIGHTS are distant and are no longer a comfort or a HELP. I can’t see the breeze block BRICKS that build this hospital and my tomb. The irony tastes DELICIOUS. My life was here. It’s fitting I should die here. My CARDIGAN still holds my identification. Doctor. Doctor. My friends are now my carers. They bring me grapes and BANANAS in place of that Friday pint. Chasing tail. Staring at ladies in skirts that cover nothing. The LIGHTBULBS are hollow glass. The TEA is tasteless. The meals are ignored. I know the POTATOES are fake. My FEET must smell. When was the last time I washed or I was washed? I live in DUALITY, doctor and patient. I doubt every action; every pill I digest. Would I have done that? Probably. It’s rare, what happened. Green rings around my eyes. Cooper. Just one of my symptoms. My eyes are BLUE. Now they are framed with green. Just one of my symptoms. Not enough to find a cause. The lights in this ward used to feel BRIGHT, now they are dull. I used to write poetry you know, POEMS and such. Now they are lost in the great perhaps. The great maybe. The great if only. That seems FOREVER ago.”

 

I preferred that to what I wrote for the real task set. Using these words in inspire you, continue this sentence: ‘my adventure begins’. Samuels recommended interpreting yourself to add new words and take your adventure in new directions with ‘my adventure continues’ and ‘my adventure asks’. I’m a big believer of the opposite. Never stop yourself. Never try and take control of the story. Let it happen. I know I sound like a hippie but I swear by freewriting. I am now converted.

 

This is the story that came from the real exercise:

 

“My adventure begins at the start as I sweat in my chair. I think positive things. Cats! Cats on the internet. Haha! No, what did you read early, before you walked in? I was having breakfast, eating a banana, best cardigan and I was reading my cue cards. I’d done them in bright blue. That’s when I put my hand in and felt the notes in my cardigan pocket.

 

My adventure continues with a choice, like in the Oedipus at the cross roads outside … fuck, what was that city called? Thebes? Focus. This is media not theatre. What’s that gaze? The creepy one? I feel my bright blue notes in my pocket again. I can feel the comical lightbulb above my head. I could cheat. I wipe my hands on my skirt. The navy turns black with sweat. I calm myself. I count the bricks.

 

My adventure asks who I am? Am I one to cheat? Would that make me happy? An A would be delicious.”

 

See? Told you. The first one was better. However, my story Virginia Fears the Wolf came from the second part of that exercise. Share the story with your partner, if you’re on your own, read it outside to yourself. Get or give yourself feedback in the form of: a name, a colour and an animal. I got: Virginia, pink and rabbit. The rabbit and the pink part didn’t stick but the name did.

The Prime Minister’s Apology | #NaNoWriMo

The Prime Minister’s Apology | #NaNoWriMo

Prime Minister: I’m sorry. Thank you.

(Leaves)

Reporter2: Wait, Mr Prime Minister-

PM: Please, call me Steve.

Reporter1: Steve?

PM: Steve. Stephen. Just not Stevie.

R1: Why not Stevie?

PM: No more question from you.

R1: Stephen, please! One quick question.

PM: Go ahead.

R1: Daily Mail, thank you. I want –

PM: Oh god no, next!

R1: I had a question.

PM: And I don’t respect your paper. Next.

R2: Why so short?

PM: I’m sorry, who said that?

R2: Independent.

PM: No, what’s your name?

R2: Ashley.

PM: What’s your question Ashley?

R1: I have a question!

PM: Can someone remove the Daily Mail reporter please?

R1: We are –

PM: Smut. Sorry, Ashley wasn’t it? Please continue with your question.

R2: That was it really.

PM: What was it? Sorry, still new to the job.

R2: Why was your apology so short?

PM: Sincere apologies are short. I find long apologies are nothing more than excuses. And so publications like the Mail can’t manipulate my words.

Reporter3: Are you sorry?

PM: Of course I am. What’s was your name?

R3: Telegraph.

PM: I asked your name.

R3: Aaron.

PM: Yes, Aaron. I am sorry.

R3: Care to elaborate?

PM: You don’t want an apology. You want whys and lies. I am sorry for my actions on 31st December. Better?

R1: What happened?

PM: Have you not left yet?

R1: What happened that night?

PM: What do you think happened?

R1: You were drunk on tax payer’s money.

PM: And?

R1: And?

PM: Yes, and what happened next?

R1: You urinated on a post box.

R2: A gold Olympic post box.

PM: I thought we were friends Ashley.

R2: Is that what happened?

PM: Yes.

R3: Anything you’d like to add?

PM: When you elected me, you elected a human. You elected a 50 something year old white man because that’s what you like. That’s who best represents this country. Yes, I am a 49-year-old white man. My education wasn’t Eton but it was good. My upbringing wasn’t poor but it wasn’t wealthy. When you elected me, you elected a human being. A slightly overweight greying man that’s not perfect. I will make mistakes but I will own up to those mistakes and apologise for those mistakes. On the evening of 31st December or rather the morning of 1st January I was not the Prime Minister. I was human. I was a drunk man at a friend’s party finding a taxi ride home. And before you ask Daily Mail, the tax payer did not pay for my taxi home. It paid for the police car that took me to the station. It paid for the hard working men and women of the police force that protect us and our property and our country. That stop humans like me being an idiot and urinating on something that is a symbol of national pride. If you want a robot, you can bring back Cameron when I’m done. If you want a fellow human being, I’m right here. And if you’ll let me, I’ll be here a little bit longer. I won’t be sober all that time and I will make mistakes. I certainly will not piss on any thing again. At least, I promise to try but I do turn 50 next month. That okay, Mail?

R2: One more.

PM: No, I asked is that okay?

R2: Yes but –

PM: Thank you for your time. Again, I am sorry.

The Secret Life of Plays | #NaNoWriMo

The Secret Life of Plays | #NaNoWriMo

There is a secret life to plays. There are secrets that few know that can’t be explained. So many books about the rules of playwriting state that are no rules to playwriting. It’s extremely frustrating and still I buy these books in the hope of one making sense. I recently finished ‘The Secret Life of Plays’ by Steve Waters. You have to plough through over two hundred pages of nonsense for the gems of truth. For example: “Scenes, then, are units of dramatic energy, the muscles that drive the play forward.” If a scene does not propel, it does not matter.

Unfortunately, before you read ‘The Secret Life of Plays’, there’s a lot of homework. It assumes you’ve read the plays used as examples. And if like me you’re not familiar with every single word of Shakespeare, you may struggle. I was lost in a lot of places but I still highlighted a lot of it for future use. Maybe I’ll try again when I’ve read all the plays; it’ll probably make more sense.

There are better books about playwriting that I always refer back to. My favourite isn’t actually available anymore and that’s ‘Arguments for a Theatre’ by Howard Barker. I don’t actually like many of Barker plays, even after studying them excessively. But this little 90-page book and contains one of my favourite quotes:

“An honoured audience will quarrel with what it has seen, it will go home in a state of anger, not because it disapproves, but because it has been taken where it was reluctant to go. Thus morality is created in art, by exposure to pain and the illegitimate thought.”

This book is fetching £25 on Amazon and my copy has £4.99 printed on the back. I wish this was still true because every playwright should own this book.

One that is still available is ‘The Three Uses of the Knife’ by David Mamet. “I used to say that a good writer throws out the stuff that everybody else keeps. But an even better test occurs to me: perhaps a good writer keeps the stuff everybody else throws away.” Mamet talks about writing without fear but still maintaining structure and purpose. If there is a gun in the first act, it must go off in the third act. Advise I still use, everything in my plays is placed with purpose. It will cause a bang.

There are some more obvious books that every playwright has picked up in their time like ‘Brecht on Theatre’ and ‘Story’ by Robert McKee but I think these two are lesser known gems. Both of these books are covered in scribbles and highlights from my younger self and are books I shall be using for a very long time. I’ve also been given great advice from one of my lectures at university. Liz Kuti told me if I wanted to be better at writing plays, I had to read more plays. I watch many but haven’t seen how they look in black and white. Time to do more of that.

Force It

Force It

“Paines Plough is the UK’s national theatre of new plays.” They were at Latitude Festival with ‘With A Little Bit of Luck’. Their Joint Artistic Director James Grieve was asked to speak in the Literary Arena. It was described as a Director’s Session, label it what you like, every discussion about the arts descents into the same questions: how do we get our work seen? How do we pay for it?

The three members of the panel introduced themselves and how they got to be where they are. It sounded simple: starting their own companies and getting that work seen. James started nabokov, a company that strived to do the opposite of how James’ friends perceived theatre. nabokov wanted to be short, cheap, accessible and relevant. Isn’t that what we all want? So why is it so hard?

There is a lack of producers, the people who know how to make something cheap and accessible. They know how to force it into existence. That was the panel’s favourite go to response. The shortness and relevance, that up to the people that make the content. If it’s relevant then you must force it into existence. Give each piece of work a mission statement. “If it didn’t exist you’d have to invent it…” Their energy and urgency was inspiring.

I asked a question as a playwright: where am I safest? Would I be better off in company or sending my work off to companies?  Yes I know I’m using a lot of questions marks. Just shh for a minute. Honestly, yes. You are probably better off as a producer of your own work. James made a bold statement. Drama schools should take a hiatus. Those who want to enter the arts should learn to be a producer instead. When I was a theatre technician and I was having a rough day, I remember was a seasoned techie told me: “Without us, you’d have naked, cold actors on stage in the dark.”

We got to the subject of money eventually. It was inevitable. Stef O’Driscoll, Associate Director at Paines Plough, spoke of trying to produce a play ‘When Women Wee’. There was a lightbulb moment of getting money though product placement. They managed to take the show to Edinburgh and every audience member left with a Shewee: The Original Female Urination Device since 1999. Genius. Yes, the only way to get money is to ask. Remember, you’re asking for the work not yourself. If you believe in the work, that it’s relevant and needs to be force into existence, then there’s nothing that can stop you.

Heist

Heist

A: This is going to be difficult to shift. Who actually spends £50 notes? Why do they bother printing them?

B: Save paper.

C: It ain’t paper.

B: What is it then?

C: Linen, I think.

A: ‘cause we’ll have to spend it in shops, won’t we?

C: Shut up.

A: ‘cause the bank track the numbers so I can’t deposit it in my bank.

B: Are you saying you can’t spend 50 million quid?

C: A third of that.

A: I’m saying who actually uses cash these days? You go anywhere with a fifty and they always ask if you have anything smaller.

C: Shut up!

A: I can’t walk into a dealership and say ‘One Bentley please’ and pay in full in cash.

B: They do in the movies.

A: No, they always cut away. I think we should take the twenties.

C: No. That’s stupid idea.

B: It’s less money.

A: But spendable money. I can do all my Christmas shopping without questions.

B: Is that all you’re thinking about?

A: It is November. Can’t leave these things until the last minute.

Prose Versus Play

Prose Versus Play

After a slightly average playwriting group, I decided to follow the one piece of advice recommended by the visiting playwright: freewriting. She had a more ‘creative’ approach, she would write about how she felt that day. An example she gave was what animal she’s felt like that day and what that animal wanted from life. That’s a bit hippy for me. I interpreted it as exercising a muscle. I would do at least 10 minutes of writing a day to keep writing fit. Get it, I said writing instead of fighting. They practically rhyme.

I brought a book called Writer’s Block; a perfect cube of starting points, situations and advise from writers. This block is aimed at fiction writers but it fits my needs. Yes, for ten minutes I will write about a heist, thank you Writer’s Block. Sometimes I find myself writing a script, A said, B said, dialogue dialogue dialogue. Sometimes I find myself writing fiction, story shorts and a stream of consciousness. I’ve posted many example in this blog if you want to see what can be achieved in just ten minutes.

I never plan it, I let it happen as is the way with freewriting. Recently I find myself wondering if I’m also a prose writer. Script writing is what I’d learnt at university and the stage has always been the aim but occasionally I write a short story that can’t be a play. I like it, it’s a break from dialogue dialogue dialogue. Are these couple of hundred words the start of 400 page novel or a collection of short stories? Where should I take them? Are they good enough to be taken further?

As I reflect now, I feel my strength is dialogue. Not to brag, but it’s what I’ve always been complimented on. I don’t feel I have the vocabulary and the temperament that one needs to be a prose writer. I’m not going to think of a hundred words to describe complex emotions. I want to swear, there’s nothing better than screaming ‘Fuck!’ rather than articulating what angsts the protagonist. In the words of Stephen Fry: “The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.” So I’ll write what I want and swear as much as I like but I’m going to start calling myself a writer rather than a playwright.