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’.

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.

Traverse Write Here – Fat Alice

I spend quite a lot of time on my own. More so since I recently left seven years of flat sharing in favour of solo living. I’ve named my plants (Nick, Tiggy and Valerie) and spend a fair amount of time looking out of the window from my desk watching the cat over the back (who I have named Seymour) in lieu of being allowed a pet of my own. This is not a bad thing, by the way. I like it. And I need to be on my own, in the quiet, to write. I’m not one of these who can have the telly on or music blaring.

I am my work. If I don’t sit on my own at my desk in the quiet then it doesn’t get written. The reward is having the play done – in the hands of a director, in the mouths of actors, an audience there watching and enjoying it.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this year. So it was with much excitement that I peeled myself away from my desk to head up to Edinburgh for the Traverse Write Here Festival.

As one of the Traverse Fifty I’d had the opportunity to pitch various ideas and was delighted to have my play Fat Alice amongst the lunchtime readings, my audio short Noise in the Headset Play line-up and my Hidden Play secreted somewhere in the building.

I only had two days up there – 28 hours to be exact – so I was going to have to make the most of everything going on. It’s safe to say I spent the time up to my eyes in theatre and I frickin’ loved it.

High points included finding all of the plays around the building – scribbled on the walls to scrolling across the till displays – the Lunchtime rehearsed readings by some of my fellow 50 and hearing my audio short Noise performed by Gabriel Quigley. Because you listen on an individual headset but can see other people around you listening too and hearing the same thing at the same time, it’s both a collective and personal experience. Not an unpleasant one, just different.

“super charged with energy and invention …
… small audio plays – including a superb foyer piece called Noise, by Alison Carr, brilliantly performed by Gabriel Quigley …
Among the hightlights so far … Carr’s extreme comedy Fat Alice in which the obesity crisis suddenly and literally intrudes into the new love-nest of an adulterous couple …
… explosion of creativity” ★★★★ – Joyce McMillan, The Scotsman

The day rounded off with the unveiling of the Writer Pictures exhibition. The photos had been hanging in the bar since the previous day, I’m not sure if people had to walk around with their eyes closed until the ‘official launch’ but anyway, here’s mine …

The highest high point, though, was rehearsing Fat Alice.

This is why I do what I do. This makes all the worry and self-doubt and solitude worthwhile – to be in a room with the director Zinnie Harris and two superb actors, hearing and working on my play which I wrote at that desk by the window in-between naming my plants and watching the neighbours cat.

Whether it be a development day, a reading, a fully blown production or anything in-between, I love this bit – the process, the chat, hearing the characters, seeing it getting up on its feet for the first time. There were questions and some cuts and small re-writes on the hop, and bits that weren’t working and bits that were – but that’s the point of sessions like this. Three hours to rehearse a script-in-hand performance of a twenty-minute play, you’d think it would be more than enough time but it flew by.

Fat Alice was a bit of a risk. It’s a black comedy in which a lot of physical things happen. This can be tricky in a rehearsed reading as those things aren’t going to happen. The event that kicks the whole thing off, for example, the foot that comes through the couple’s ceiling – well the audience are just going to have to use their imaginations.

So while it was a reading, Zinnie got the actors on to their feet as much as possible. She also got them up on their chairs and down on their bellies, so hats off to Gabe and David for being so game. And when it came to the audience watching the performance the following day it all paid off, they got right with the story and the characters – they also laughed lots and said nice things afterwards, which never hurts.

So I head home. And back to my desk. I wonder if Seymour’s missed me …

I nearly forgot, my Hidden Play. Very hidden!

For those of you without super-sonic vision, it reads thus …

YOU TOO? by Alison Carr
I sometimes feel, you know …
I know.
Do you?
Yes.
And do you feel …?
All the time.
Me too.