Development week -The Big Read (through)

This post relates to my debut play, Blue Lines, which has won the Hive Award 2019 and will be presented as part of Manchester Fringe.  Have a look here if you want to find out more about it:  

Wadda week.

World Book Day. International Women’s Day.  I got my mooncup in on first go.

It was a week of major wins.

It was also the week of the read through of my play, Blue Lines. The first time that I would hear it outside of my own head, read by other people.  In front of an audience of even more other people.

No wonder I’m still in my pyjamas today.

My play is super personal.  It’s based on my experiences of infertility – of being the woman who ‘is maybe leaving it a little bit late’.  People rarely see the feet pedalling frantically below the surface, do they?  I got sick of saying ‘we’re still trying’, which it would appear was the only acceptable response to enquiries about my lack of baby.  I digress – the play, yes the play – is an encounter between a teacher and student and the relationship that develops between them.  That’s all I’m saying.

Bearing in mind that it’s personal and it’s the first play that I’ve ever written, it’s a lot.  Oddly enough, I had no issue sending the piece off to my mentor, Tim Firth, to read and give me feedback.  He was reading it.  Somewhere else.  not loud enough for me to hear him.

Fate smiled on me though – the actors I worked with were intuitive and sensitive and despite having only a quick read through online the night before, did a great job of capturing the essence of both characters.  I obviously had to sit on my mouth (not a thing I know) to stop myself from interjecting, to ask them to try things out again, and over the course of the hour I produced the kind of fine, clinging sweat that I associate with wearing too many fine layers under an anorak.

But the feedback was what I wanted – it was positive but also constructively helpful, pointing me towards areas of plot and some dialogue that need clarifying, tightening, cutting or enhancing.

 

I just have to do it now.

Advertisements

Trying to sound professional

Just a quick link to a piece that I wrote in preparation for the development reading of my play.  If you’re out and about in Manchester on Tuesday and it’s pissing it down (which let’s face it, is likely) and you want to see some new writing in action, well, you know where to go.  This blog is also interesting because of my appalling grammar, something which only becomes apparent to me after a piece has been published.  Like a bad super-power.  Hum

 

Hope to see you there.  I’ll be the one cringing in the corner.

 

 

BookLearning: Orphans by Dennis Kelly

I can’t help it – I get horribly ‘retired middle-class’ at Christmas.  I buy the Radio Times, listen to the Archers.  I attempt quizzes of the year in newspapers. I invest time and interest in entire episodes of Midsomer Murders.  The patina of glossy adverts for stairlifts and cruise – ships holds my gaze.  I can’t help it, and I love it.

 

So I needed some acid to cut through this muzzy, smuggy love in, and it came in the form of Orphans by Dennis Kelly, which was recommended to me to read for a piece of writing that I’m working on.  It reminded me of one thing and taught me another; firstly – reading plays for pleasure can be exhilarating.  I used to work in the bookshop at the National Theatre – my best ever job in retrospect and one that I only appreciate now, at a sorry distance of nearly twenty years.  I used to read plays all the time – it was encouraged for you to be seen reading plays at the counter, on the shop floor, on your breaks.  People would ask for recommendations and I could be learned and suave and theatrical (life goals, basically).  And I could also swan around backstage and pretend to be in stuff.

 

Now I don’t want to be in stuff anymore, but reading Orphans reminded me that actually reading a play can be more emotionally powerful than seeing it performed, where there’s always the risk that it can be a bit shit or indulgent or forced.  But a well written play plays in my head just as I want it to – and it turns out that I am an incredible director.

 

No, it’s the play.  And this is the thing that reading Orphans made me realise.  I think that playwriting has changed more than other written form, in terms of what is permissible and how it is expressed.  I couldn’t stop reading Orphans, which I am not going to spoil for you because you should just read it.  But, in brief, it’s the story of a brother and sister and her partner and how they deal with something that the brother has done.  Wow, vague, cool.  But you should read it, because it bites.  It really fucking bites.  And I think back to the plays that I read, including the classics, and I think about how ‘unreal’ they seem in comparison.  They’re polished, but they take a lot of craft from the actor to sound truthful a lot of the time.  With Orphans, you feel as if you are experiencing the dilemma with them, the godawful messiness of the situation, which is not to say it is written ‘off the cuff’.  Because when you’ve got through it and are lying in a sweaty fever dream, you’ll realise that each character had an arc, had something to say. It takes a really brilliant writer to put it together so subtly and effortlessly, so that you don’t see his hand in the writing of it until after you’re done.

So my booklearning is this: reading Orphans has taught me to spend longer on my structure and planning and less time ‘perfecting’ the words.  More at the front end, if you like, as much as it pains me.

 

And it’s given me a beautiful New Year’s Resolution: Read. More. Plays.

BookLearning – Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Tuesdays are my amazing days, my days when I shoot off the charts of Pinterest-esque productivity in the six child-free hours given to me.  It’s the day when I do yoga! Bake bread!  Tidy house!  Write! Write! Write!  Especially write write write!  At least this is how it plays out in my head , on the other side of my eyelids, just before I wake up.  It never really goes like this.  And especially so today.

 

As we’re approaching the winter solstice, I’m feeling the need to slow down and to genuinely immerse myself in the things that I so often do just to tick off the list (sorry, yoga and meditation – we really need to sort out our relationship in the new year).  And the same goes for writing; sometimes I’ll just write any old thing so that I can stand in front of the invisible gods who sit in judgement of me every day and say “see? I did some writing – I’m a good girl”  Who are these judges? And what’s the prize for my virtue?  What’s on the other side of that velvet curtain? In truth, my writing has been a bit thin recently.  I think that’s largely because I’m using the time to write while not doing enough to give me things to write about.  I need some fuel.  And so I did just that, or as much of that as I could do on a rainy day in Manchester.

 

I sat in the big grey chair  with the yellow throw next to the fire.  I raised the blinds so I could see the garden from where I sat.  And I finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

 

This book came out a few years ago, but I am only just reading it now because I have recently become aware (and subsequently very ashamed) of my blanket attitudes to racism.  I speak from a position of white privilege when I say that I have coasted on the very general, liberal opinion of  ‘all racism is bad’, which is kind of a pass on the issue itself, because if i just assume that general position, then I don’t have to think about it any further.  I’ve already chosen the right answer, so why keep learning?    Of course racism is bad, but I have, and still have very little understanding of the nuances of racism.  So, amongst other things I’m choosing books that can help me to understand, and gain a bit more clarity and insight on issues of race and oppression.  I’m a work in progress on this, so I’m not going to embarrass myself by drawing some nebulous conclusions here.   What I do feel more qualified to speak about is her words – and as a fundamentally selfish person, what did I learn from her writing style? What is my takeaway (to use nasty corporatespeak) for any writing I may get round to in future?

I think Americanah is incredible; it taught me things about the subtleties of racism that I wouldn’t have understood if they were presented to me in an essay or documentary, largely because Adichie’s characters felt real and the experiences that she describes were lived; they had unexpected detail, they contradicted themselves, they didn’t go where i expected them to.  Ifemelu’s inability to communicate with her lover was frustrating and irritating, yet her cojones in other situations was inspiring.  The description of the hair salon at the start of the novel was specific, unique and real, as was the moment when Ifemelu realises how much she missed the layer of oil on top of her mother’s stew (evocative and truthful).  The writer has incredible instinct and dwells on the ‘scenes’ that you want to know more about; like the hair salon, again, or the atmosphere in the magazine office, back in Nigeria.  I think this takes great confidence – some of these scenes are secondary to the straight surface plot of the novel (although they do reveal further insight into racial stereotyping and the experience of an African woman in America) but we want to see them, hear them – I’d love to know how much of the novel she cut, or whether she knew exactly what she wanted to include from the get go. (does anyone know that, when writing a novel?)   It’s a compelling read, one which covers so many different cultures and societal set ups without feeling didactic or preachy.  It’s bitter, heartfelt, romantic and grim.  It is also sensitively plotted and alive with texture and detail,  ‘takeaways’ (barf) for my next piece of writing, which I will write should I ever take leave of the grey chair next to the fire.

Tell me if THIS is weird

Do you have images from films or books that stick in your head? For years afterwards?  I don’t mean the collective, iconic ‘you’ll find me on the back wall of a Planet Hollywood restaurant’ kind of image – but the weird little private ones, that maybe only you will remember.  One image that I always have lodged in a mind-crevice is that of Danni Minogue tossing a salad from a Smash Hits annual, circa 1992 (this must have been a receptive time for me – I also recall Annie Lennox’s advice to always wear rubber gloves when doing housework from the same edition).  Going back further, I retain ‘up there’ *gestures at brain* a cartoon from a pictorial version of Robin Hood, of a squirrel, dressed in Lincoln Green, holding a log aloft like a muscle man.  I think I was  in love with this squirrel (call me if you’re reading this, k?) Anyone else do this?

 

Just me, then.

 

A less idiosyncratic moment that I come back to again and again is a scene in Network by Sidney Lumet.  Which, if you haven’t seen, you should.  In fact, stop reading this and do it now.  It’s on Netflix.  I’ll wait.

 

Good.

 

So now you know that it’s about an embattled news anchor who loses his shit.  you probably also know the moment that lodges in my head (thought maybe not, if you were looking for squirrels with logs) which is when Peter Finch as Howard Beale the news anchor yells ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’

 

I feel this moment so hard.  Especially today.  For I too am mad as hell and not going to take it anymore and I have demonstrated this in the strongest of ways.

 

Firstly, I whispered ‘Dickhead’ at a car that nearly ran me over.  Secondly, I enquired in a very nice text (which ended with a ‘x’) as to why I hadn’t been paid for some work that I’d done.

 

And these milky reasons make me want to do an even bigger Peter Finch as Howard Beale the new anchor out of the window.  Because I’m mad as hell at myself.

I know – I’m laidback, but I’m laidback for the wrong reasons – not because I’m easygoing – but because I will literally punch myself in the head before I confront a situation with deeds or words.  As a freelancer, I know I need to rep myself much much better than this – but I have, for years, erred on the side of self deprecation.  I do not take myself seriously.  May I add that in the second case, where I’m waiting for payment, that I have had my hours cut without consultation? So I have gone from earning peanuts to earning the bits of peanuts that fall off in the bottom of the bag – and not even that, if the current situation persists.

 

I need another image to put in my head, one that sticks.  I’ve tried Ripley (too tall), Michael Douglas in Falling Down (too aggro), Furiousa from Mad Max (too much and I’m a terrible driver).  I don’t want to be Howard Beale yelling at the world.  I need a better fit and I’m open to suggestions.

 

 

 

On a Man, Very Cross to Find that Prestwich Library is Closed Despite Being Advertised as Open on the Website

Huntsman, past Budget Saver, faster than my eyes blink

Hands not aloft, but grasping,

Clasping the smooth white of ‘documentation’

An impossible authority of forms –

His coat is unstitched, the quilting leaks from patch to patch

Like a field bereft of harvest.

 

Pramhanded,  I thrill when I sense his directionandintentionandmomentum

Towards me, in front of the library’s sealed lips.

I want the moment of a shared disappointment

I have the power of saying ‘It’s shut.  It didn’t say it would be on the website but it is’.

 

Sidelong still, the man tries the door.

Shadethrower.  Prick, just trust me.

‘But I needed to – bugger them – they’ll moan when they’re late

But I won’t bother then’.

He’s off now, because it’s half past ten and nothing tastes as good as a Tetley’s in the Orange Tree in the certainty that your forms will be late and it isn’t your fault.

 

Like Busses

I have a strange approach to memory.  I mean, I don’t know because I don’t really know how anyone else’s memory works, even when they say ‘oh my memory is terrible’.  It’s all approximation, baby.  But I’m going to go ahead and presume that mine is neither orthodox or particularly good.

 

I can’t remember dates, years, locations, events or even humans very well, but if I try to remember a very particular thing, like, when did I first hear the phrase, ‘Like busses, there’ll be two along at the same time’, what I see in my head is a wind swept playground in front of a low red brick primary school.  I don’t know if there’s any correlation between this phrase and the place, but it’s what I see in my head.

 

I am envious, in awe and suspicious of people who can recall moments with ease.  How the fuck does anyone write an autobriography?  ‘I first met Joaquin at a drinks party given by Sooki.  We were at a bar in Mayfair, The Chiselled Chimp’.  He was wearing a blue cashmere rollneck and initiated conversation by enquiring after my Chagalls.  We drank ‘Noisy Williams’ till dawn ..’  (Yes, this is my idea of glamour. No apologies.)

 

How do people remember to remember this detail? Or do people who write autobiographies have the self belief to think ‘I should probably note all this down because I’m the kind of important person who will have to write an autobiography one day’? Which is how and why they end up writing an autobiography.

 

So this is why I can pin down (or think I can pin down, in some way) the phrase, ‘Like Busses’ but not where I spent Christmas two years ago.  Oh and if you’re not familiar with the phrase, “Like Busses’, it basically refers to the idea that nothing will come along for ages and then two will come along at the same time and can refer to anything; job interviews, lottery wins, unsolicited travelling salespeople.  It’s kind of rueful and carries that sort of pissy British way of downplaying the hand of fate with it.  I recall hearing it a few times in it’s full form ‘Like Busses, you want it for ages and then two come along at once’) until finally I must have given off the air of being someone who understood the phrase at which point it was shortened to ‘Like Busses, isn’t it?’  With whom I shared this landmark moment remains a mystery of course, but when I think of this particular ‘Like Busses’ I see the shop front of a butchers in my hometown.  Memory, huh.

 

And I also wonder if the phrase ‘like busses’ is in itself, a bit ‘like busses’, because, after a long drought, I heard it twice yesterday in entirely separate contexts; I said it at exactly the same time as another woman in the post office queue and then we’d laughed at the very ‘like bussiness’ of it.  The second time was later, and with thanks, in my own head, when I opened my email to see that two piece of flash fiction had been accepted after a long and stomach churning silence.   Like Busses, I tell you.