I’ve not written anything on here about theatre. I can tell because in creating this post, I’ve just had to add a “Theatre” category. And yet in the last few years I’ve been to more shows than I can remember, made friends of numerous lovely and talented actors, directors and writers, and had a number of short plays of my own staged. I’ve written enough now that I’ve added a list of it to a new page – partly because there is nothing I like more than making lists and partly because if I don’t write it down somewhere, I’ll forget myself.
I think I’ve almost reached the point where I don’t feel self-aggrandising to call myself “a writer”. Almost.
The latest project I’ve been involved in was quite a different beast. My first four short plays were submitted to various short play nights and staged because the producers liked them. The Pensive Federation’s Significant Other Festival works differently: they picked writers, directors and actors and tasked us with producing ten-minute plays from scratch in just ten days – five for writing and five for staging.
That’s exciting – but also much more daunting that I expected. To have someone say, after a pretty rigorous selection process, “We want you,” is a great feeling. They’re committing to put whatever you choose to write on stage – they’ve put their faith in you that you’ll turn out something good. One way to respond to that is to free yourself of all constraints, knowing you can finally write whatever you want and it will still make it into production; the other is to worry about whether what you come up with in a compressed period of time will live up to the expectations of the people who selected you. That was me – and add to that an expectant director and two talented actors, all of whom deserve a good script to work with, and the stress builds up…
Fortunately, it’s worked out brilliantly.
I had a few starting points from which to build the story. The plays would all be two-handers and the writers were asked to bear in mind Pensive’s ideas of “the magic in the mundane” and “the extraordinary in the everyday”. The theme of the festival is significant others so some kind of relationship should be at the heart of the play. I knew my actors were in their twenties, one male and one female. There were ten props I could use as I pleased: a fedora, an umbrella, a torch, an old book, an Action Man, a tin can, an iceberg lettuce, a length of electrical cable, a wrench and a wallet. And I was allocated one of the ten genres: noir.
The plays weren’t required to be set within their genres; rather, we could mine the genre for tropes, themes, and style. I took mine to heart, devouring the Wikipedia article on Film noir. I used the genre to dictate the structure of the play and also the behaviour of one of the protagonists. There was another concept I wanted to weave into the story (spoilers!) and from the two ideas, the characters and plot evolved.
Which makes it sound simple when it actually involved brain-racking, panic, self-doubt, and conversations with writer and director friends about whether my slightly risky idea was really viable for a play only ten minutes long. It’s difficult to get any distance from what you’re writing when there’s such a tight deadline so it was a massive relief to hear from the producers – the people who’d given me ten minutes of stage time on trust – that they were happy with the final script.
When I arrived uncharacteristically late for the first rehearsal on Saturday, director Cat was already drilling the cast in a climactic moment from the play – and they hadn’t even got inside the rehearsal room yet. It was fascinating watching the characters develop as actors Caitlin and Dom connected with them. What can be more fun than watching your play, barely dry on the paper, come to life over three hours? Especially when, as the writer, you can just sit and watch and don’t actually have to do anything. While I was able to explain my thinking behind parts of the script, at this point in the process it’s really down to the cast and director to bring their own interpretation, which is the beauty of collaboration. Unexpected things happen, different approaches are tried out and the characters come to life. It became our play, not mine.
The show opened at the new Park Theatre in Finsbury on Tuesday and I got to see it Wednesday night. I hadn’t known until then that our play was the first on. As the Significant Other Festival is the first show in the Park Theatre’s Morris Space, that means I wrote the first play ever performed in that space. Which is pretty cool.
More importantly, the play works really well. Cat, Caitlin and Dom have achieved everything with it that I wanted when I came up with the idea. I’d be very happy if it was a play I’d written months ago; as a piece produced from nothing in ten days, I’m delighted.
Ten plays. Ten minutes each. Ten pounds. You can see them for yourself until Saturday 25th.