Big Break

I haven’t written a blog post in AGES, but at the back end of last year an article in Exeunt magazine came to my attention and it really spoke to me. I wasn’t sure whether to post about it or not, but I found myself talking about it the other day so it’s obviously still on my mind.

Rebecca Atkinson-Lord wrote about the myth of the ‘Big Break’, looking specifically at the coverage of Katherine Soper winning the Bruntwood Prize. You can head to the full article HERE and I recommend you do because when I read it my main thought was ‘yaaaas!’.

Full disclosure, I had largely dodged the Bruntwood coverage and the only reason I read the article was because the RT didn’t make reference to what it was about – it just said ‘an interesting article about playwriting’. I like playwriting, I like interesting articles, so it had me. If I’d known I’d have scrolled past it because I had taken the headlines at face value (I know, I know) – that winner Katherine had swept to victory with her first play. What that says to me is ‘I’ve been in this game for years and yet here is this young woman, puts pen to paper once and wins one of the most coveted awards in playwriting. This means, therefore, that I am rubbish and talentless and I should probably just give up right now’.

I know how petulant this sounds but I – like many many others I’m sure – am constantly comparing myself to anyone and everyone, and rarely seem to measure up. I used to say that bitterness and envy were my main motivators, and maybe to a degree it’s still true, that fire to keep going, keep trying. But this isn’t healthy and has nearly stopped me writing altogether in the past, so these days I combat it with avoidance. I’m interested, I try to keep aware about who is doing what, but it’s about not getting obsessed, falling back into that black hole that stops me focusing on me and what I’m doing. Because that’s all I can do anything about, after all.

The article told me, however, that Katherine has an MA in Playwriting, and the winning play was her course dissertation. This is not to take anything at all away from her victory, but now I know she didn’t just come home one day and think ‘I fancy writing a play’ and whip up some masterpiece out of nowhere. She worked hard. I work hard. So maybe I don’t have to take to my bed and let my ambitions wither and die.

 

“Let’s start celebrating hard work and endeavour and let the ‘Big Break’ pass into mythology.”

 

I know full well that first plays are rarely first plays, but I think this is worth reiterating. Maybe some writers are able to birth a fully-realised, well-structured, well-plotted, two-hour drama first go but I’m pretty sure they’re in the minority. But it does sometimes feel like there’s shame attached to have been plugging away for years with shorts, scratch nights, one-acters – that I haven’t come bursting out of the gates all razzle-dazzle. I wish. Or do I? Because it’s taken me all these years to learn my craft, find my voice, get better – and it’s an ongoing process.

Iris is billed in the Live Theatre brochure as my ‘first full-length play for the main stage’. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as ‘debut play’ but my first crack at a full-lengther didn’t get beyond the Studio. And that’s ok, because I learnt as much from everything that didn’t work and was wrong with that play as what did. It fed into me being able to write Iris, as did Fat Alice, and Vera Shrimp and all of them right back to the first ever play I wrote for the Nottingham Uni theatre society.

Another area in the article that made me do a little cheer was talking about the fact that Katherine balances working in a shop with her writing. I have another job too, but it’s something I don’t really shout about because I worry that it suggests I’m not good enough or talented enough to support myself solely from my writing. I work part-time and am lucky enough to have a very supportive employer. My other job gives my day structure, it gives me a break from being in my own head, it means I can pay the rent every month.

I don’t have a pithy ending for this. No moral or message. Maybe just the fact that it’s ok to say ‘I work hard’.

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She’s ba-ack …

So, after a flurry of Vera Shrimp updates, posts and me generally yabbing on about it – it all went a bit quiet, didn’t it. But quiet doesn’t necessarily mean finished with, it just means … quiet.

Partly I was sick of talking about it. Just as I imagine everyone was sick of hearing me talking about it.

But mainly it was that talking isn’t what was needed. Rather time away to think and make big decisions. Which we have made.
And they are:
1. The play needs Vera Shrimp – she needs to be seen and heard, a character who is present and smack-bang in the middle of the action.
2. I will not be performing the play.

The first point is self-explanatory. Keeping Vera at arm’s length led many people to say it left them feeling alienated from her, that there was a Vera-shaped hole in the play. And the whole point of development time and previews is to put an idea/a show on its feet and say to audiences and fellow practitioners ‘here it is, what do you think?’ And they tell you.

The second point … I won’t lie, when it was first mooted I took it hard. To be ‘sacked’ from my own play – how humiliating. I was sure that I’d be a laughing-stock, couldn’t do it, wasn’t good enough. But maybe – deep down – I also felt a bit relieved. Writing, rehearsing and performing Vera Shrimp was hard. Not like curing cancer hard, but hard. I struggled with the rehearsals. And yes, it’s good to challenge yourself and challenge myself I did, but on the whole it made me uncomfortable, unconfident and – frankly – unhappy.

Looking back on it now, it is obvious that I was trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. Me being the peg and the play being the hole (keep up). I am proud of what I achieved with Vera and I am not saying I am abandoning my ambitions to write and perform a solo show, nor am I saying I should, but what I need to do is write the right solo show for me. Vera Shrimp isn’t that. ‘But you wrote the blasted thing in the first place’ I hear you cry, exasperated. I know I did. And only by doing it can I know that I am not the right person to do it.

So, Phase 2. We have been awarded a bursary from The Empty Space/Live Theatre to help us move forward in this next stage. We’ve got a week at Live culminating in a work-in-progress performance on Thursday 12 December … click [here] for the details. Following this, one of the 4 companies shortlisted will be awarded the full bursary to take their show further – watch this space (fingers crossed)

Much of this time will be spent finding Vera and her voice. And we are delighted to have actor Tessa Parr joining us to don the red raincoat. I’ve not worked with Tessa before but that fresh perspective is exactly what is needed for this bursary week and she sounds like a corker with experience working in the region and beyond.

Maybe Tessa is the Patrick Troughton to my William Hartnell. Although, Esther Smith is technically the original Vera Shrimp from my 2011 short When It Falls, so that makes her Hartnell, me Troughton and Tessa Jon Pertwee. Well, as long as none of us are Sylvester McCoy cos he was the worst. (I’ve been watching a lot of Doctor Who lately, can you tell) 

These have not been easy decisions to come to. There has been plenty of doubt and hesitation and upset along the way. But they are the decisions we have made and are going to pursue to see where they lead us. I look forward to re-joining Vera and her raindrops for this next exciting stage …

All this Doctor Who talk has reminded me how amazing the 50th Anniversary Special was. Well, how AMA-ZING the last ten minutes were and the incredible return of you-know-Who!

Vera Shrimp – what you said

SOME AUDIENCE FEEDBACK | from the July previews @ Live Theatre & ARC Stockton

Original and engaging. 

Terrific setting – loved it. Really set the scene. Felt swept – or washed away by the storyline. Great to use one person for the whole play. Very enigmatic character. Great writing, very powerful and genuine!

Amazing storytelling, lovely performance. Moving. Visual. 

Very interesting, touching, thought provoking, sad, wet!

Just seen the beautiful, magical & emotional #VeraShrimp @livetheatre Congratulations @missalicarr @rosiekellagher 

#VeraShrimp is poetic and poignant. And funny. And you get a wagon wheel. Go fish @arcstockton 

Didn’t know what to expect but really enjoyed it. Thought provoking. 

Saw a beautiful, life-affirming, and moving play tonight. ‘The soaking of Vera Shrimp’ by @missalicarr. And got a crispy cake at the end

Very emotional, moving and heart-warming / hopeful. Brilliant performance by Alison and really liked the use of the mic and different characters. Beautiful writing. Loved the water. 

Really enjoyed it. Post Its and water. I love rain so this show, story really appealed to me. Magical.

Excellent eve @arcstockton. #VeraShrimp has really got me thinking. Lovely stuff incl some tender & heart breaking moments by @missalicarr 

Strongly recommend going to see ‘The Soaking of Vera Shrimp’ at Live Theatre tonight … Alison Carr’s new play joyfully explores words and semantics whilst chronicling a touching tale full of beautifully-crafted characters and witty one-liners.

Saw Alison Carr’s “The Soaking of Vera Shrimp” last night & it was amazing. 

Vera Shrimp, brilliant. That’s it!!!

A big thank you to everyone who came along and supported us and for being so generous with your feedback. And thank you to Live Theatre, ARC Stockton and Northern Stage.

Vera gears up for ARC

We had a great week at Live Theatre last week, rehearsing Vera Shrimp and then showing it in full for the very first time ever (gulp!)

Thank you to everyone who came along – we were delighted with the turnout and really appreciate the support. Those who were kind enough to fill in a feedback form, your comments will be typed up and discussed after the ARC showing this week and used moving forward.

Speaking of the ARC performance (smooth, eh) it’s on Wednesday 17th @ 7pm. There are tickets available [click here for details & booking].

If you’re dithering about coming along, here’s a few comments from last week’s previews gleaned from Twitter … x

The final countdown – Day#1

This week we’re back rehearsing at Live Theatre for the first of three Vera Shrimp previews. These are script in hand, work in progress performances which kick off on Thursday.

So, this is The Final Countdown (well hopefully not final, but a countdown. ‘The Final Countdown’ sounds more dramatic though) …

Here’s a brief rundown of Day 1:

  • Walking down to the Quayside in the blazing sun it’s hard to imagine that last time we were at Live working on this show (R&D in March) it was snowing!
  • Designer Imogen can’t be with us today but she has left a box of new shiny props – picking out each item, it’s like Christmas
  • As we’re doing a table read through in the Writers Room, Michael brings us up a fan. We love Michael.
  • We set to work blocking it all out. The week spent at Northern Stage in May really pays dividends as we’re whipping through the first half.
  • We break for lunch and sit on the Quayside to eat it. It’s roasting out. Rosie comes back with sunburn stripes on her arms after just half an hour.
  • We decamp to the Rehearsal Room as it’s available and, mercifully, much cooler.
  • We put umbrellas up indoors which makes me slightly nervous but is unavoidable.
  • We go back upstairs to the Writers Room for the final couple of hours of the day and nearly do ourselves a damage trying to shift the massive table out of the way.
  • I have to eat a cornflake crispy cake in the play. In lieu of these, we use Wagon Wheels for now as there’s a packet with the props. I have four lines to eat it in. I don’t like Wagon Wheels, I consider them vile.
    Rosie: “You look like you’re going to be sick.”
    When we run it again, I have to eat another one. See, suffering for my craft here.
  • I do my Scottish accent in front of Rosie (who is Scottish). It’s a tense moment for all involved.
  • We pour water into the umbrellas to see if they can hold it. They can’t. We empty them out but when I put one up later the drops run down my back. I’m glad of it in the heat.
  • We finish blocking and have a rough shape of the whole thing.
  • Tomorrow we do character voices, mic work and details.
  • Tomorrow we are one day closer.
  • Tomorrow I go to Greggs and buy cornflake crispy cakes.

  

Vera Shrimp – week #3

Hello! I’ve been a bit quiet lately, haven’t I.

So, since my last:

I was rehearsing for, and performing in, Bombshells at The People’s Theatre. A collection of monologues by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. I got to work with a lovely and talented team and sport ‘librarian chic’.

I went to New York. I know, right, get me, swish swoo.

A Wondrous Place opened in Liverpool before heading to Sheffield. It’s had some great audience reaction and reviews so far, including  ★★★★  from  The Guardian. It pitches up in Newcastle on Tuesday. More info and to book [here]

I applied to, and have been shortlisted for, Northern Stage’s Title Pending Award – which is very thrilling. The judging weekend is imminent, gonna dig out my loose rehearsal slacks and soft jazz pumps.

I wrote draft #3 of Vera Shrimp, ready for our development week at Northern Stage last week. Now, when we left Vera things were all a bit gloomy. Rosie and I had just finished our week at ARC Stockton and I was really struggling.

Well, fortunately, last week things took a turn for the better. I made a concerted effort to shake off what had gone before and come into it with a fresh and positive attitude, not be my own worst enemy and harshest critic. (Rosie will confirm that it’s an ongoing effort, but I tried!)

We powered straight in to getting the show on its feet and the words in to my mouth, and made a huge amount of progress. We started thinking about its shape and its tone, finding the voices of the other characters and my voice as narrator. We welcomed award-winning designer Imogen Cloet to the fold, and starting to think about the visual elements was very exciting.

The week culminated in a showback on Friday afternoon during which I performed a 30 minute extract from the play. It’s amazing what you can achieve in four days, and I am really proud of what we were able to show of our work-in-progress. I won’t lie, I was nervous. My performance wasn’t perfect but, you know, that’s ok. I got out there and I did it, which feels like a real personal victory. We were able to give a flavour of some early design ideas, Northern Stage’s Kev and Mareike provided us with lighting and sound to support and create atmosphere and mood … all in all, we have a show. Or the beginnings of one. And it, and I, can only get better.

Some audience feedback:

Lovely work. Well done missus!
Really really enjoyed being taken into Vera’s world.
Excellent and can’t wait to see more!
You have a really good face (!) 

So, we’re looking ahead now to the previews in July at Live Theatre and ARC. They’re work-in-progress preview performances but of the whole show – so those who were asking about how it starts, and how it turns out, come along and find out! 

    

Big thank you to Northern Stage for hosting us and for their support. Equally big thank you to those who came along to see it – your encouragement, comments and questions are hugely appreciated … x

Vera Shrimp – week #1

At last! After all the talk and form filling in we finally got to some fun stuff – our first official week working on Vera Shrimp.

I packed my trusty notebook, pencil case and a shed load of Post-Its and headed off to Live Theatre where we’d be spending the next four days ensconced in the Benfield Writers Room. I also, importantly, had the first draft of the script as we’d decided to focus our efforts while at Live on the text. I may be writing and performing this piece, but before we even start thinking about getting it up on its feet we need a story and a script that is up to scratch.

The first order of the day was to read it out loud. This might sound like the most basic of the basics, but it all has to start somewhere. And as I hadn’t really looked at the script since finishing the first draft in January, it was a good way to get my head back in to the story and its ideas. Some distance can prove to be a good thing – you can get so wrapped up in something that you sicken yourself – so to have some time away clears the head. Rosie and I took it in turns reading and listening, and almost immediately queries and gaps became apparent. Along with the fact that I had scrimped massively on commas!

 

And so we set about questioning and exploring the story and its characters. I’m not going to detail every moment, but we did lots of talking and asking and made lots of notes. We talked about Vera. We talked about Vera’s Dad and how he is a key player who needs to be brought more to the fore. We talked about Vera’s Mam and her friends and their neighbours, and Wendy and Aunty Karen and all the other voices who we might come to hear. We looked up cremations and spoke to a former police officer about procedure following a sudden death. I was assigned homework. We navigated timelines. And at last – hurrah! – we broke out the Post-Its and mapped out the story.

To sum up, we did a lot. And I think we both came away pretty knackered but pleased with what we had achieved. Not to mention wise to the fact that two people shouldn’t, really, try to eat a whole box of Tesco flapjack in one afternoon.

We now have a week before we head to ARC where we are going to concentrate on performance. No time for slacking, though, as I have to take all of the notes and the ideas and the questions and the Post-Its and start shaping them in to a second draft. I won’t lie, my head’s spinning a little – but it’s better than it lying dormant and trying to kick it in to gear.

All in all, we’re out of the starting blocks and on our way. And there’s no stopping. Not now. Plans are afoot – exciting announcements to follow …  

Goodbye 2012. Close the door on your way out.

If you’d asked me, even as recently as a month ago, how I felt about 2012 (not sure why you would, but bear with me) then you’d have probably been met with a barrage of swearing.

Maybe it was always going to struggle in the face of 2011. Of course, rose-tinted glasses do come in to play somewhat so I won’t pretend there weren’t wobbles along the way that year. My eczema recurred in a big way (too much information?) and I suffered rather frightening anxiety dreams as I tried to balance everything. But even with all that, two words – Dolly Would– made 2011 the hard act it was to follow. It dominated my whole year and its early January broadcast saw me start 2012 on the highest high imaginable.

And the rules of the universe dictate that highest high must be followed by the lowest low.

The pressure I felt to keep up the momentum was huge. And projects did come along, I strengthened some existing relationships, started new ones and tried new things like my first stab at dramaturgy (never again, but that’s another story for another day!)

I failed, however, to win the Culture Award for Writer of the Year. I failed to get this commission, or that project, or the other scheme. Things were slowing down, not speeding up. I was slowing down. It’s hard to keep going in the face of, what seems like, a wall of rejections. I had spurts of productivity, creativity, but doubts – never too far from the surface anyway – creep in, the whispers of “what’s the point?” get louder.

Maybe I’d peaked, maybe that was me done. And when I got screwed over financially for the first time (that I know of) in my career, maybe that was the last nail in the coffin – not cut out for this business after all?

I spent much of 2012 frowning. Frowning while Googling my contemporaries to see how successful and happy and funny they were. I cried in public at least twice (mortifying). And there were the darkest few weeks about 3/4 through when I refused to leave the house.

But you don’t take up this profession to be able to walk away from it easily. It’s not a hobby, not a sideline. Something inside me still had fight – something that was still getting me up in the mornings even if the rest of me wanted to pull the sheets over my head.

I submitted my application for the Traverse 50 at 3am on the deadline day. I didn’t write it then – I’d prepared it way in advance during one of the spurts – but I hadn’t sent it. The “what’s the point?” voices thought they had triumphed when I went to bed that night. But when I woke up in the early hours it felt like do-or-die. Was I in this or not? Well I am, as it goes, cos I got up, turned the computer on and a month later I was listed alongside 49 other writers for the year-long attachment to Scotland’s Traverse theatre.

So the back end of the year has seen things looking up. As well as The Traverse 50 I’ve been commissioned for A Wondrous Place, a production that aims to challenge the negative ‘grim up north’ stereotypes and will tour to Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle and Manchester in May/June. It’s a fantastic opportunity and concept that I hope I can rise to. December saw me perform my first solo show, and the whole writer slash performer path is one I’d be keen to walk down further (fingers crossed, touch wood, etc).

Who knows what the New Year will bring. Promises and predictions seem futile. All I want is to keep writing and write better. And to shop more in Next.

So then 2012. You’ve had your moments, but I won’t be sorry to see the back of you. Although well done on the Olympics, I did enjoy that very much.

Big thank you to all my family and friends who have supported me this year (and the rest). I know it’s sometimes not easy and I can be a right pain to know, but sometimes I’m quite funny too, and occasionally bring sweets, so hopfully that balances it out somewhat … xx

You wait for ages, then 3 come along at once

I haven’t updated my blog in a while. The reason is very simple – I haven’t had anything to say (some might say that doesn’t usually stop me).

Last year saw lots of activity as various plays and projects came to fruition. The problem is, however, that plays don’t write themselves and sometimes you’ve just got to knuckle down and get on with it. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Getting on with writing. And sometimes not writing but thinking about writing. And sometimes not writing and not thinking about writing, but the latter not very often.

I’ve got a few things coming up that I’d like to share with you, if that’s ok. If it’s not ok, stop reading now.

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Saturday 4 & Sunday 5 August (various times daily)

TEN TINY TYNESIDE PLAYS, part of Live Theatre’s ‘Mega Bites’ Youth Theatre Festival

The audience will tour in and around Live Theatre, seeing shorts written by myself and four other writers in various and unusual spaces. Apparently these spaces are a surprise. I know where they are, but I’m not allowed to say. They were fun to write. You’d think the brief “write a 7 minute play for 2 young actors” would be a doddle, but it isn’t. My two tiny plays are called ‘Make A Wish’ and ‘Flapjack’. One involves flapjack – I’ll leave it up to you to guess which.

Tickets are available now – click [here] for the details

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Sunday 5 August (it’s a busy weekend)

Forward Theatre Project’s SCRATCH MY CITY @ Soho Theatre

I really enjoyed the last SMC I did with the Company last year, so I signed up to do another one. For this one the inspiration for the writers is provided by puppet company Colossal Crumbs. We’ve each been assigned a puppet character as our inspiration. Mine is called Cuthbert. He is a lonely fish. He breaks my heart.

I’m writing the play right now. Well, not RIGHT NOW but let’s not get pedantic. It includes a magic library book and a packet of Polos. Unfortunately I can’t say much more than that for the moment.

Again, tickets are available now – click [here] for the details

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Thursday 2 – Monday 27 August (7.10pm daily)

TOBACCO DOUBLE-BILL @ Edinburgh Festival Fringe

I am reliably informed that Esra Taf’s rehearsals are going well and I am very much looking forward to seeing their production of Tobacco/Can Cause Death at the Fringe next month.

So, that’s about the size of it.

For now, at least … x