From Plymouth to the Bush Theatre

Which way?

A meandering diary-entry-like account that includes a long bus journey, the tribulations of being an artist in Plymouth, ‘Encounters’ at the Bush Theatre and the post show discussion with Madani Younis and Omar Elerian, developing new writing, solo writers/performers, being a female solo writer/performer…There will be many tangents. I was on a bus all night and wrote this on that bus and haven’t had time to write less. And I also want to post this before something about the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and my new projects. I will probably write something more concise with similar ideas in it soon for the Capital Theatre Festival debate ‘New Writing Vs New Work’. So this is only for the committed procrastinator. I’ll put some headings and pictures in it. See, even the disclaimer was too long.

Encounters at The Bush

Opening emails from Sabrina Mafouz and from the Bush Theatre a few days ago: Look at this double bill at the Bush!  Sabrina Mahfouz and Caroline Horton are associate artists. This is quite something. And Friday was ‘writers’ night’ with a discussion about making innovative theatre and the challenges that female solo writers/performers face in the industry. I want to go.

Public Transport

I want to go. I won’t let this living-in-Plymouth thing get in my way. But I can’t afford the train – over £100 if you don’t book it ages in advance… but how about the bus? There and back in 24 hours for £35. £50 in total with the Encounters ticket. And that’s OK, that’s the price I pay for living here. My rent is cheaper.  And I’m going so that I don’t feel trapped by this geography, to be part of a conversation.

New Writing – for me or not for me

The last time I went to The Bush I saw The Kitchen Sink – which I enjoyed in the way I enjoy good TV drama. I sat in the new bar/library area for an hour afterwards, waiting to catch my night train back to Plymouth. And I felt so apart from that world. And seeing that play – I thought, it’s silly for me to feel bad about this theatre rejecting my plays – that is the work they put on and my work is in a completely different world. There’s no point sending my stuff to them. It’s like sending….I don’t know I’m too tired for analogies…like sending somebody something they haven’t asked for and have no idea what to do with….It’s like sending me one of those German ‘Herman’ bread things. I had the same realisation after seeing Bartlett’s Love love love (about my plays not Herman).

no thanks

But now, new directors, new directions…

So I booked tickets. I know Sabrina Mafouz through the spoken word world and I should have seen Dry Ice at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. But I didn’t because it was on late and the bones in my knees felt like they were rotting from the inside and it was all I could do to get through my flyering-performing-flyering schedule for two weeks. But I should have gone anyway and I’ve regretted it ever since. So this was my last chance.

On the bus

Mine twas not ‘rapide’ but this, my friends, is Plymouth

I was feeling quite chirpy. I suspected it wouldn’t last. But I was fine. Feeling quite inspired by my impressive reading material, left Marie Claire at home and took Caryl Churchill, Václav Havel and Jan Kott – never come across his writing before and it was a revelation, ideas that’ll keep me writing for life. It reminded me of what I want to write about, of what I really know about. (Love, by the way, the body, the erotic) That’ll keep the googlers busy.

But then an accident on the road, a diversion….and we were an hour delayed by the time we were at Heathrow, and then another 40 mins delayed in traffic from there to Victoria. And you know, we practically went past Shephard’s Bush and I asked the driver if he could let me out and he said no that wasn’t possible…I should have pretended to need to puke. By that point I was avoiding watching the clock in the bus. Wasn’t willing to accept that I was going to miss it.

I’d left a bit over an hour contingency. Optimistic. But earlier buses were more expensive. Last time I got the bus to see something at the National we were delayed and I missed the first half. This time it took seven and a half hours – Plymouth to London. I think it felt worse because I was half expecting it. I knew I’d be lucky to get there in time. But then, being let down when you are half expecting to be let down….it was worse. My optimism suddenly gone…because it had been proved to me again – I can’t live in Plymouth.

So I arrived at the Bush 15mins too late for Dry Ice. I had a pint at the bar.

Enter: Madani Younis and Omar Elerian

Madani Younis

Omar Elerian

Wrapped in their own integrity and Madani with a rucksack. I’ve always liked people with rucksacks –  carrying their homes on their backs. My first image of my husband was seeing this huge green rucksack, retreating down the stairs at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Short, stocky, dark – Mexican – a little pack horse, a snail. When we met he was a director. He would have walked up to those two men and introduced himself and impressed them. They probably would have wanted to produce his next production there and then. He had/has that knack. He went to Eugenio Barba in Denmark, went into his office, talked – and on the spot was invited to spend time with the Odin Teatret whenever he wanted. I don’t have that knack. Maybe I’m just socially awkward.

First impressions

I was at a networking meeting a while ago with an important person I know from a theatre. I introduced a female playwright to him. He also briefly met a young male director. After the meeting he joked that the female playwright probably wasn’t any good, and also mentioned the young male director in a positive light. It is often assumed that women don’t know what they are doing and that men do. Women have to overturn assumptions and men just have to not disprove them.

Anyway, that’s something I struggle with – a lack of confidence in talking to people on first meetings. A lack of confidence in presenting who I am when someone knows nothing about me. Too much of an awareness of all the other people in the same situation who in fact don’t know what they are doing. So I finished my pint.

You’re not like other girls Chrissy by Caroline Horton. Directed by Omar Elerian

Caroline Horton in ‘You’re not like other girls Chrissy’

Although I was gutted that I missed Sabrina’s I could still watch Caroline’s in the second half. This isn’t any kind of a review because that would involve structuring my ideas and perhaps mentioning what it is about. But just want to say a few things including – what a beautiful piece of work.

You know those annoying audiences who laugh at stuff that isn’t funny? Sometimes they do it because the work is so tedious they are so desperate for respite they laugh out of a need to laugh. Sometimes they do it because they suddenly have a collective shite sense of humour. I don’t know. Well normally I don’t laugh when the audience around me laughs. The last thing I saw was Ontroerend Goed’s A History of Everything. It really was the most soul-numbing bit of work I’ve seen for ages. The actors were just going through the motions, the theatre had buggered off leaving a bare idea of a performance struggling to survive in a dead space.

So this, Chrissy character – so full of life, so embodied, it was like soul food or something, to be laughing, naturally, spontaneously. And of course to be reminded of how simple it is, really, to engage an audience completely. How beautiful it is to be engaged, entertained, drawn in, by just one character and some suitcases. This was craft I was seeing – the acting and the writing coming together so that there was no distance between ‘actor’ and character. She was Chrissy. And whenever she was looking at the audience on the other side I was a bit jealous.

I loved the use of language – the use of English from a French woman’s perspective, ‘hot cat on a roof’. I love that, when the context is given for word play, I loved the way she was tasting these English words, revelling in the newness of them. That distance from the language, not taking it for granted…

Submission policies & You’re not like other girls Chrissy cont.

And one other thing. Well, Vicky Featherstone is at the Royal Court now, so maybe this will change. But the other day I came across the Royal Court submissions policy, or maybe it was via a High Tide Symposium tweet – saying they were looking for work that is about our times…contemporary, relevant…(London presumably)…? I think, what a silly thing fixate on. There’s the risk of just making work about things that are in the UK news. As if that is a good reflection of today anyway. And there’s the fact that if you are trying to make current work then by the time it’s on it’s not current anymore. You don’t want to be looking for work that is current and relevant Now – you want work that is current and relevant Always…surely? (And now and then putting on work that is ahead of its time wouldn’t hurt either)

Well on that note, a funny thing about this play (set in France in the forties so unlikely to have made it through the Royal Court’s submissions policy) – it opened with a little scene about queuing. ‘The English wouldn’t stand for this’ – in a queue at a train station for over an hour. It was hilarious of course because of the Heathrow debacle. But that couldn’t be planned. Serendipity aside, it was a timeless piece that will always be relevant. Don’t take history away from writers, we have a hard enough job as it is.

When I was a kid I used to love to replay films in my head, I could do it with strange accuracy and I used to write, in my head, different endings for novels. When the work is so real, it takes you over, involves you, lives within you. That happened with You’re not like other girls Chrissy. In my delirious state of tiredness on the delightful seven hour bus journey back to Plymouth I sometimes had Chrissy with me, I could hear her. I have that character now, to entertain me in my imagination. What a beautiful thing this theatre can be.

Theatre can do many things. My experience of Caroline’s piece is one of those things but I wouldn’t write an artistic policy based on that work. Caroline’s, for me was all about character and a voice.…another show might be about ideas, might be about what my imagination does while I’m watching……to search for work that does a particular thing…is homogenising…deadening…

Solo writers/performers

Sabrina Mafouz

When you perform your work as well as write it, there is no division between writer and performer. The process of writing takes place in a studio, the writer in you is involved in a strange kind of internal collaboration with the performer in you. It is still writing – and Sabrina and Caroline are fantastic writers. And (‘and’ not ‘but’) it is a different way of writing. It often doesn’t happen on the paper, alone, it happens in the studio, often with others. With recent plays I’ve seen – Shivered by Philip Ridley for instance, and I’m a huge fan of his writing….the actors were very good, but I could see them as actors….acting the characters….doing a job…. With a writer/performer, the really good ones that is, it’s not like that. Partly of course because the writer/performer is so invested in making their own work, they rehearse it for longer, develop it for longer, the responsibility of making it a success is entirely down to them. No pressure (shit loads of pressure).

Post show discussion

Madani Younis said he wants to engage with a new generation of writers…he might have said theatre makers….he might have said artists….I think he did say writers…different processes of writing…the point is…a new generation of ways of writing and making work.

This new-writing-London-centric-theatre-world has been closing its doors to the writers who write differently…and now there’s a possibility the doors will open. And these directors are coming from different trainings, theatrical backgrounds, approaches to making work, with different taste, different perspectives. I think it’s really exciting that Omar Elerian is there as associate director. His background in theatre outside of this country, training in Lecoq, and interest in visual story telling could prove…well just imagine it – Complicite with a decent script.

Neither Sabrina or Caroline were ‘found’ through script submissions…Sabrina said her script had been rejected many times as the readers/directors didn’t know what to do with it…so I asked whether a script submission policy still works? Will they have a different way of finding artists?

Watch this space was the answer I think. Or,  this one. And they will try to see lots of stuff.

I wonder about a different way of submitting…I wonder about submitting ideas, working methods, past work as evidence…more like putting together an application for a new project…I wonder if that’s a possibility. I really think the writer in their cave…the script meetings….the rehearsed readings….the three week rehearsal period….needs a re-think. Alex Chisholm on a similar topic.

Central female characters

Sarah Lund

Very interesting – Madani and Omar said they read many script submissions prior to programming their first season….they said there was a 50/50 male female split in the submissions. But none of the work they read had a female character at its centre.

I recently blogged about the brilliance of strong female characters in Scandinavian drama. I think we are really un-used to…un-programmed to seeing female central characters in British contemporary theatre and TV. Are writers emulating what they are watching?

Female writer/performer again

Hannah Silva in Opposition (photo Eileen Long)

On the topic of difficulties that face female solo performers/writers Sabrina and Caroline both seem to have found that they have not experienced challenges because of being women, and that being the writer and performer gives you control over the work. Sabrina said she has found it much harder in the other areas she has worked in – spoken word and scriptwriting….

Have I found it hard as a female solo writer/performer? First answer is yes. Don’t know how much it has to do with being female, how much it has to do with living in Plymouth, how much it has to do with writing non-naturalistic plays and making work that gets described as ‘avant-garde’ and how much it’s just that – no one ever said it was gonna be easy. Yes. It is bloody hard. I’m feeling quite good right now as I have two amazing opportunities and I’m going to survive from my writing for the next few months. But those are not South West things, I don’t even get shortlisted for the rare opportunities that come up here. It’s my location not my gender that’s the challenge. It’s the bloody transport system.

It was lovely to have a chat with Sabrina afterwards, and also to meet Caroline, both of them are very generous to other artists, male and female, which is part of it. I think some women feel that there are only a few slots available for us in the theatre world, and that we must compete for them. In fact a victory for one opens doors for others.

Taking Risks

Madani and Omar said they had a tricky time convincing whoever it was they had to convince, to programme this double bill. They weren’t expecting it to do so well. It was only programmed for a week but actually could have run for longer. That’s fascinating too. The unremitting timidity of programming. The relentless underestimating of audiences….A theatre like The Bush has a  developed core audience and a high profile; if the work is good, it is going to sell. If a theatre like that can’t take a chance with their programming, who can? The point is, there is an audience in London for this work. It’s good work. As the youngster with the cool t-shirt in the audience said – our mates would like it.

On the bus again

So my slumbering bus journey back to Plymouth was a pretty happy one. Things are changing. A few weeks ago I decided not to try anymore, decided that I need to build a home for my plays myself. Now, I have hope again, I think it’s worth trying. New writing might become ‘new’ again. There was a half moon. A man got trapped by his seatbelt. I had strange dreams of theatre. Got back at 5:40am. Had a little sleep.

Then wrote a crazy long blog. Has anyone actually read it? All of it? 



Filed under Playwriting, Poetry, Review, Theatre

4 responses to “From Plymouth to the Bush Theatre

  1. Pingback: What’s on in June | Capital Theatre Festival

  2. Dom

    i was at Encouters at Bush writers night… thr lengths one goes to to write

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