Caterpillar 2018

A question I’ve been asked a lot lately is ‘so what is Caterpillar about?’.
It’s a fair question, and one I have difficulty answering.
Vaguely, I’ve been saying “family, motherhood, identity”.
In one interview I said “the lies we tell ourselves and each other”. I was quite proud of that.

But the nitty-gritty, what is it actually ABOUT?

It’s about a woman grappling with a social taboo.
Still pretty vague. But I didn’t want to spoiler it. Who do I think I am eh, the extended series finale of Bodyguard? Which, by the way, I enjoyed but did find it a bit of an anti-climax when the car didn’t explode.

I digress.

It’s about the expectations of motherhood and the language of parenthood. Father’s ‘mind’ the kids, they ‘babysit’? Erm, no.
It’s about idealised relationships versus real ones.
It’s about jumping off a pier in a novelty flying competition.
It’s about a woman struggling to decide if she should leave her husband and young son.

I was inspired by radio podcast I listened to about women who lived apart from their dependent children. Some by choice. Some not.

The women had to be interviewed anonymously due to the backlash they’d face.

The episode was posted on Facebook and the comments section was A LOT.

I did more research around the subject and it fascinated me.
This article from 2011 estimated that 200,000 British women were living apart from their children.

The reasons, of course, vary from case to case.

But with the NHS unable to support women with mental health problems caused by pregnancy and giving birth, is it any wonder many mothers are in crisis.
“Between 10% and 20% of women who give birth develop some form of mental illness, ranging from anxiety and depression to more complex conditions such as PTSD and psychosis. With about 665,000 births a year in England, this means 66,500-133,000 women a year develop problems.”

Caterpillar is not the definitive look at this topic and there is always more to say and other perspectives to explore, but I have been so pleased that many of the reviews have been so positive. Michael Davis for Break the Fourth Wall highlighted it “raises a subject that’s seldom explored on stage and one of society’s taboos.”

The Younger Theatre said “what is most important about this show are the issues it touches on, especially the mental health of mothers and their daughters. This attempt at coping with the pains of life and how families often fail to do so, is heart-breaking.”

On Twitter @livmace posted “So rarely do I see a play about ‘motherhood’ that doesn’t make me roll my eyes. This is so much more. And it’s funny.”

Oh yeah, cos there are jokes.

Please don’t think it’s a po-faced exploration of maternal mental illness. Experience has taught me that if you want your audience to come somewhere dark with you, have to pepper the path with gags.

So what’s the point of this post? To set out my stall?

To say this is a really interesting, emotive topic (I think it is, or I wouldn’t have written about it) that needs to be pulled out of the shadows.

Are you going to learn all about it, facts and figures? No. But Claire is a woman going through something that is considered by many to be unnatural. Her own mother Maeve calls it  “obscene”. And that’s another thing – central characters who are a) women b) a woman over 30 (gasp) c) a woman over 60 (GASP!). I know right, I’m changing the world.

There’s a male character too. Simon. He’s an amateur aviator and a real sweetheart. Or is he?

And these three are not always right or likable or honest. They’re sometimes funny, they’re sometimes loving, they’re sometimes deplorable.

And nothing is tied up with a bow at the end cos, you know, life. Come along and decide for yourselves what you think happens next and what becomes of them.

“both fun and darkly funny” – The Guardian 

CATERPILLAR is on at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, 27th-29th September

Victoria Wood

When my Mam texted me yesterday to ask if I’d “heard about Victoria Wood” I headed straight online and there it was. I gasped, actually gasped. I felt sick. And then I cried.

Mine is, of course, a fan’s grief. Like so many others. I did not know Victoria Wood, I never met her, and any sadness of mine is nothing compared to what her friends and family are feeling. I would never claim to understand, or be on par with, their grief.

But as a fan, Victoria Wood was part of my life. She shaped it, in a way.

I first saw her live in 1997 at Newcastle’s City Hall. My Mam took me along. She was a fan and she wanted to share her with me. I remember us laughing so so hard. I remember a joke about brushing past a computer with a large bottom and accidentally writing a Mr Man book. I remember the audience starting to clap along to Barry and Freda, and Wood advising us to save our strength as it’s a very long song.

I ate up everything Victoria Wood related after that, starting with the stand-up show VHS (which I could probably recite to you now, and subsequently wore out). In a school talent show I chose to put on one of her sketches. When I saw Acorn Antiques: The Musical! I was so excited I made myself ill. I even watched The One Show once cos she was on. That’s commitment.

She showed me that it was ok to be funny. I was an awkward teenager, I never quite fit in, and she was a sanctuary – she was front and centre, telling jokes, being silly, being clever, with her wonderful turn of phrase and observations of our quirks and eccentricities. She wasn’t glamorous, she wasn’t preened within an inch of her life, she was normal and relatable.

I wrote my first play at University and it was basically me trying to be Victoria Wood. I was eighteen trying to write about middle aged women, capture that minute, those jokes. It didn’t particularly work, of course it didn’t, but that motivation to sit down at my desk and even try came from me wanting to be like her.

My second play was much the same, but by the third I was moving away and finding my own voice, my own style, my own preoccupations. And that’s ok. Part of the joy of Victoria Wood is the strength of her voice – her choice of words, the rhythm of a joke, the structure of the line.

“Yes I do look rather startled, don’t I. It was taken in a photo booth and somebody had just poked an éclair through the curtains”. THAT is a Victoria Wood line. It’s human, it’s odd, it’s bloody funny. In my own writing, I long for people to say THAT is an Alison Carr line and they have, and that makes me happy.

So no, I don’t write like Victoria Wood, but she inspired me to try. And times when I’ve been struggling at my desk or wanted to pack it all in, I think ‘well Victoria Wood didn’t’. If I want to achieve even an iota of what she did, I have to keep going. And I do. Because she worked hard. Talent is talent and she had it in spades, but hard work is something else. You don’t do what she did across so many different mediums by not putting the work in. She wrote stage plays and screenplays (not the same discipline), original music and songs; she performed stand-up, acted for the screen in comic and serious roles; and she directed.

And in all of this she never apologised for her talent or success. It seemed like she was in charge from early on. She had a voice, calling out BBC execs when they demoted a special from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve. She showed me you can be shy in real life, but let your work roar for you. And hers roared loud, and will continue to do so. She is gone too soon of course, and it’s a tragedy, but what a legacy she has left behind.

I sat in the Live Theatre bar last night while my play was on stage, and raised a glass to Victoria Wood. It’s been a long road from the City Hall that night nearly twenty years ago, with lots of bumps and influences along the way, but I genuinely don’t think I’d be in the career I am now if it wasn’t for her.

She made me want to try. She made me think it was ok to want to try. She made me put the work in. She made me laugh.

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’.

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

So we’re coming up to the end of the year, a time to reflect and look ahead to what’s next. I spend a huge amount of time looking ahead to what’s next. Too much time some might argue, so I tend not to enjoy the present. Maybe this is a symptom of my profession – being a self-employed playwright, I rarely know what’s coming up and there’s always the fear that this job will be the last job.

Every year around this time I resolve to try harder to appreciate my achievements. But I never do. I just plough on, worrying about all the things I didn’t do, opportunities I missed and jobs I didn’t get.

So this year I’m going to try something new. Out with the resolutions (I never keep them anyway, so they just become another black mark) and in with the Rememberulations Jar.

I read about it on Buzzfeed. Yeah, yeah, don’t judge me. We’ve all done it, you start off with a quiz about which Disney villain you are (Maleficent, btw), then you’re looking at the Top 34 Pictures Of Cats In Snoods, and before you know it you’re reading some ‘DIY lifestyle’ page.

But this one caught my attention. In a nutshell, you get an empty jar and throughout the year fill it with notes of your achievements. Then at the end of the twelve months you look through it, thus allowing yourself a moment to celebrate what you have done, not what you haven’t.

Buzzfeed staffers decorated theirs with googly eyes and grass skirts. Of course they did, their office probably has beanbags instead of chairs. I am going to wrap a ribbon round mine so I can’t see through the glass – that might be discouraging if it’s not looking very full. I am also going to add in a couple things from the back end of this year – like when you do a To-Do list and include things you have already To-Done for some all-important, morale-boosting ticks.

I shall also not be calling it a Rememberulations Jar. Cos I’m not a tit. It is The Good Stuff I’ve Done jar. And it’ll be big and small stuff going in there – from ‘got a nice haircut’ (cos my God, I need a haircut) or ‘took calming breaths, did not lose temper’, to ‘got X commission’, ‘met Y deadline’. I hope.

So there you go. I’m not advocating coming to a standstill basking in some smug, overblown sense of glory, but surely we can all allow ourselves a quick pat on the back once in a while.

Maybe it’s stupid. Maybe it won’t last past February. Maybe my TGSID jar will be soul-crushingly empty come this time next year, but then I’ll just smash it up and that’ll probably be quite satisfying in itself.

 

Vera Shrimp – first night

Well now. The Soaking of Vera Shrimp opened last night at Live Theatre. I think there have been times when each of us has doubted that we’d ever get here, but here we are. In the thick of it, no less.

We did two performances yesterday. The first was a dress rehearsal to an audience of Graphic Design and Illustration students from Northumbria University who have been looking at the play as part of one of their current modules. Their brief includes designing a poster for the show. They have read the script, but now it was time to see it in action.

It was very useful for Tessa to have an audience given the amount of interaction there is in the play, so it was a mutually beneficial arrangement!

Then it was on to the first performance proper.

Below are some of the nice things our equally nice audiences said about yesterdays performances …

There are three performances left – we hope you might consider coming along x

Vera Shrimp designer Emily James about the set

Vera-Shrimp-Model-2

 

One of the best things about being a theatre designer is that you never stop growing – for each new production you find yourself researching something completely different. For The Soaking of Vera Shrimp I found myself immersed in the world of atmospheric sciences.

The starting point for my design was a visit to my old High School – my old stomping ground at the same age as Vera.  I rifled through the chemistry store cupboards looking for inspiration and snapped endless photos, trying to piece together what a teenage girl might use for a presentation about the Water Cycle. Rather like Vera and her raindrops, I wandered the classrooms absorbing everything. The dusty chalkboards and more hi-tech smart boards, the endless stream of information – posters, diagrams and maps on every wall.

Alison Carr’s beautiful script requires the audience to forget they are in a theatre and actually believe from the moment they enter the room that here is Vera, waiting to address them, with everything she has gathered together to help with her presentation. From the forgotten old suitcase found lurking in a dusty attic corner to the crude model banged together with bits of discarded wood and nails found in a neglected corner of the garage. A borrowed school chair, an anglepoise lamp from her dad’s study, her mother’s beloved watering can…a scientific equation of objects that create a visual snapshot to function as a backdrop to the play.

– Emily James

(published on the Live Theatre blog, 6.10.14)

Vera Shrimp – rehearsals

“Hello. My name is Vera Shrimp. I am going to talk to you tonight about my project.”

 

So, here we are, one month to go until Vera Shrimp takes to the stage.

And it is very much Vera taking to the stage, because this is her telling her own story in her own unique way.

You might be wondering why I’m so keen to stress that, but for anyone who saw the work-in-progress previews last year then this Vera Shrimp is a very different beast. 

For a start, she’s got a new face! Tessa Parr takes over the role from … well … me. I’m not going to go into the whys and wherefores (you can read my blog about it here if you want) but it’s absolutely the right thing for the character and the show. Vera is feisty, funny, resourceful, determined. She doesn’t need a detached narrator to tell her story for her.

This of course means a new script. Because not only are we changing the perspective, but also the way the story is told.

Vera is a girl who likes her facts, her statistics. Her ability to read the raindrops is not some mystical, airy-fairy metaphor. For her this is deadly serious; her future, her family are at stake. So she’s prepared you a presentation. There’ll be science, there’ll be things about Vera, and the science will help you understand the things about Vera and vice versa. So you might want to bring a pen and paper!

The set design by Emily James couldn’t be better and has everything Vera needs (plus a few surprises). We’re so excited for you to see it.

 

  

 

This has been a much more collaborative process than I have done in the past.

Rosie (Kellagher, director), Tessa and I have been in the room together discussing and devising. It took various forms. Sometimes drawing pictures of the characters and attaching character traits, or maybe devising experiments for each other to express what ‘grief’ or ‘heartbreak’ might feel or taste or sound like.

(And yes, I’d dismiss that as wanky, time-wasting bollocks too if I hadn’t been part of it and know how much it has informed finding the characters and the story!)

I then took the notes and ideas away and crafted them into a section or scene which we would return to and discus, try out and edit some more, until we had a script.

The process hasn’t been without its challenges, but equally its rewards. And as we head into this final stretch we can’t wait for you to meet Vera Shrimp

 

 (subsequently published on the Live Theatre blog, 22.09.14)

Fat Alice at the Fringe

So, I finally made it up to Edinburgh last week and got to join in with the Fringe-funtimes. It’s very easy to feel like the whole world is at the Festival in August, while I’m sat in my flat watching Sharknado 2.

 

I was there for Fat Alice. It’s been a long, rocky road to get there but five drafts (although we try not to talk about the first two cos they went in the bin) and quite a lot of notepaper headed ‘what is Alice?’ later we got there.

 

Traverse Associate Director Emma Callander has been with me every step of the way, and it was a real joy to finally be in the rehearsal room with her, two actors, AD Caitlin and SM Camilla and get to hear it out loud for the first time. The first time read by other people I should say. You know, like, proper actors, and not just me reading it out loud at my desk in – worryingly – a Scottish accent which I didn’t mean to do but couldn’t help it.

 

Anyway. It was a brilliant day. I’ve said before how much I enjoy being in rehearsals, hearing the play, seeing it start to come alive and so on. I might not look like I’m enjoying myself as I go ghost white and sit there shaking and trying to fold myself invisible in my chair, but believe me – there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

 

I was lucky to get two great actors for the roles – Meg Fraser and Keith Fleming – and it was gratifying that everyone at the table ‘got’ it from the off, liked it and went for it.

 

The first performance on Friday was to a sold-out audience which was lovely to see, and everyone seemed to be in good spirits with their bacon butties and cuppas. I hope they enjoyed it. I did. I even remembered to breathe. I have a couple of script tweeks to do before the next one and can’t wait to see it again. (also sold out – whoop!)

 

Below, some poor quality rehearsal photos taken by me, plus the massive poster outside the Trav cos having your name on a massive poster never gets old …

Big massive posters with your name on NEVER get oldA poor quality rehearsal photo (Keith & Meg)And another one in Trav2. Still Keith & Meg - Alice not pictured. Or is she ...? (No)

In the meantime I’ll leave you with my Fringe tips, as I’m sure you’re waiting with baited breath …

Show#1: The Carousel at the Traverse – a beautiful monologue performed outstandingly by Maureen Beattie. Gorgeous set, mood, tone, all right up my street. I got a little lost sometimes with the multiple narrators and jumping about in time, but it didn’t matter.

Show#2: riverrun also at the Traverse. Indescribable. Kind of beautiful and a bit intimidating. Once I stopped fighting it and just let it wash over me, then I had a better time. Reminded me of Not I.

Show#3: Buffer (Thrive Theatre) – enjoyable new play by fellow Trav50 writer Alan Gordon about relationships and online life. Funny. Good use of the limited space and good performances. It’s finished now though so, yeah.

Show#4: Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen Vol2 – engaging, fun, endearing, even for someone like me who doesn’t really know Cohen. A potentially rather moving ending spoiled by a fire alarm. At least they didn’t start evacuating us til the show ended!

Show #5: Ernest And The Pale Moon at the Pleasance – possibly my favourite of the day. Stylised, inventive, a couple of scares, atmospheric, energetic. We were accosted by a man in the queue who told us in great detail about how amazing he and his play are. We did not appreciate this. I don’t think he comes with the show though, so a strong recommend for something a bit different.

Show #6: Spoiling at the Traverse (do you see a theme?!) – interesting, funny and sharp two-hander about a Scotland in transition after a ‘yes’ vote. Great performances, especially Gabriel Quigley who I think is ace.

So there you go. Wish I could have seen everything I wanted to and more, but I don’t think we did too badly for one evening and one full day.

My year with the Traverse 50

“a unique theatrical experience” ★★★★★EdinburghGuide

“slightly mind-blowing, and endlessly fascinating” ★★★★ – Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman

In 2013 Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre is 50. Happy birthday, many happy returns, etc.

Amongst its celebrations is The Traverse Fifty – a year-long attachment to the Theatre for 50 new and emerging playwrights. (I spy a ’50’ motif here)

The call went out far and wide, with over 630 writers applying with their 500 word ‘Plays for Edinburgh’.

In December 2012 the final 50 were announced, and I am delighted to be amongst them. In case you don’t believe me, here’s a poor quality photo I took of my name on a blackboard in the Trav bar…

DECEMBER

I’m delighted to be amongst the Traverse 50 writers whom the Theatre have commissioned to develop full-length plays, headed for performance in 2014. Click [here] for an article in The Herald.

OCTOBER

The Write Here Festival kicks off – read about it [here]

“you cannot put a price on the integrity of the Traverse and the quality of its work, it is beyond value” ★★★★★ – EdinburghGuide

SEPTEMBER

I deliver my Headset Play Noise and Hidden Play You Too? Noise and its pitch differ quite substantially, but as I was writing it it became something else. And I know You Too? is a terrible title – it sounds like a kids TV programme – but I panicked, ok.

My Headset Play and Hidden Play are going to be part of the Autumn Festival, which is frickin’ awesome. Now I just have to write them …

AUGUST

We are invited to pitch Headset Plays and Hidden Plays for the Autumn Festival. The Headset Plays are five-minute shorts that audience members listen to on individual headsets in different parts of the building. The Hidden Plays are tiny bursts of theatre that will be scattered about the building. I pitch for both. Gotta be in it to win it!

The Fifty Plays for Edinburgh return to the Traverse, split over two nights this time so it’s less of a theatrical marathon!

JULY

I am delighted that my short Fat Alice has been selected to be part of the Autumn Festival, to be performed as a rehearsed reading directed by Zinnie Harris. I’ve got a month to deliver the re-write based on my feedback session, let’s hope it doesn’t go all “mashed potato” on me.

JUNE

I head up to Edinburgh for a meeting with Zinnie Harris about the play I submitted for the Autumn Festival. It’s a short play and a short meeting, but it’s not every day you get the chance to have 1-1 feedback with a writer of Zinnie’s calibre and experience, and getting the most out of the opportunity is what this year is all about. My play opens with the downstairs neighbours. We then leave them and go upstairs to the action. Zinnie suggests a re-write that involves telling the whole story from the downstairs neighbour’s perspective. I am unsure if I want to. I am unsure if I can. She says it “might all go to mashed potato” but to try it.

I meet up with professional photographer Ian Forsyth to take the photos for the Writers Pictures exhibition of the 50 – read about it [here]

MAY

The Traverse announce their line-up for the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, including another outing for the 50 Plays for Edinburgh.

MARCH

A 2-day workshop this month. Day #1 spent with writer Tim Price dissecting various well known films and talking about structure. Thanks to a landslide = bus replacement service for part of my journey I was regrettably late, so all of the prep we had been tasked with – WHICH I DID – was wasted as that bit of the session was over by the time I got there. Fuming. I got a bit of an attitude on, thinking ‘yes, yes, I know about structure’, but once back in my B&B I actually sat down and applied Tim’s ideas and methods to a pitch I was working on. Lo and behold, it improved it no end. Turns out I don’t know everything. Who’d have thunk.

Day #2 spent with Zinnie Harris who ran an imagery workshop. Right up my street and even though she didn’t like my ‘what happens next in the suitcase story’ idea (sob) it was really interesting and got some ideas sparking.

FEBRUARY

We’ve all be paired up with our photographers. Your photographers? I hear you cry. Yes indeed. Writer Pictures, who specialise in literary portraits, are collaborating with the Trav50 to produce portraits of each of the writers and they’ll be displayed later in the year. ‘My’ chap is a very talented documentary photographer called Ian Forsyth. I opened my introductory email to him with the words “I hate getting my photo taken” … we’re yet to meet but plans are afoot and I just hope he doesn’t end up feeling he pulled the shortest of short straws.

JANUARY

The whole thing kicked off with our first get together (it had a very first-day-of-school vibe about it and there were name badges).

This was followed by the not inconsiderable task of staging all 50 tiny plays to ‘introduce’ us and the project to the wider-world. Clearly the ‘wider-world’ were interested to have a look as the original one-nigher had to be extended to two to meet demand.

“theatrical pockets of joy” – Orla O’Loughlin

“Rich, imaginative, theatrical. A glimpse of the future” – @ZinnieH

The project has attracted quite a lot of attention so far, including a spot on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row which you can listen to [here]

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