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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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)

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 preview performances announced

Roll up, roll up!

I’m delighted to report that the dates for the Vera Shrimp work-in-progress performances have been confirmed.

Big thanks to our supporter venues Live Theatre and ARC for hosting us.

It’s a chance to see what we’ve been working on and where we’re at with the show after this development process, as well as offer your feedback for us to use moving forward.

Tickets are on sale now, so if you can make it then it’d be fabulous to have you there … x

THE SOAKING OF VERA SHRIMP

Written and performed by Alison Carr

Directed by Rosie Kellagher

For fourteen year-old Vera Shrimp a rainstorm isn’t a soggy inconvenience, it’s an exhilarating, breathtaking whirl of colours and feelings and words. Because Vera has discovered an extraordinary ability, one that might solve everything.

This is a work-in-progress performance of the first solo show by Alison Carr.

Alison’s  writing credits include Can Cause Death (National Theatre, Northern Stage); The Girls From Poppyfield Close (Live Theatre); Dolly Would (BBC Radio 4). As a writer-performer her credits include Mary, Jesus’s Mam (Trashed Organ/Live), Come To Where I’m From (Paines Plough/Live) and she has been a two-time guest on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb.

Live Theatre, Thursday 11 & Friday 12 July @ 8pm
Tickets: £5
Click [here] for more information and to book

ARC, Wednesday 17 July @ 7pm
Tickets: £3
Click [here] for more information and to book

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 …  

“Not forever, just for now”

Things I have learnt since the last time …

  • It can be too early for a handful of chocolate raisins.
  • Terry & Marg did it.
  • It doesn’t take as much as I thought to set me off blubbing.
  • “Micey” means disreputable/creepy/there’s a rabbit off.
  • It hurts when you put teaspoons straight from the freezer on your eyes (although it is good for tiredness – you’re in so much pain you forget how tired you are).
  • Columbo will be sadly missed.

And thus, so ends The Girls From Poppyfield Close.

I say ‘ends’. Ends for now.

Because the three night run in Live’s Studio Theatre last week is part of the play’s ongoing development. I’ve come out of the rehearsal process and performances with so many new thoughts and ideas – I’ve gotten to see the play up on its feet, in front of an audience, and there is no better way to shine a spotlight on what works and what needs working on further.

I can’t sign off on this without paying tribute to the team. With only a week and a half rehearsal time, Rosie, Phillippa, Cheryl, Cliff, Sam, Rachel and Chris achieved something incredible. And the hard work, enthusiasm and humour of everybody made it one of the most enjoyable projects I have worked on. Not to mention the fact that ‘treats corner’ was never left empty, not once!

And credit to the production team, of course. Designers Verity and Kate; technicians Drummond, Craig and Tom who created such an evocative and atmospheric world for the characters and audience to inhabit.

Ok. So that’s enough gushing. They were all fabulous dah-ling, blah blah blah!

For photos, reviews and audience feedback from last week’s production, click [here]

Biscuits

Day -4 and I have learnt a number of things this week …

  • Banana skin is a cure for verrucas.
  • When you want a lighter to run out of gas, it resolutely won’t.
  • Lunging is sinister.
  • My next play shall be called The Peregrinations of Mrs Budge
  • Establish a ‘treats corner’ and everyone is happy.
  • Someone being thwacked with a plimsoll is funny, no matter how sombre the context.
  • Cheerios are an evening meal.

I could go on.

But I won’t.

It all adds up to mark Week One of rehearsals for The Girls From Poppyfield Close.

The cast and director met up for the first time on Monday, starting with a script read through in the morning. Unfortunately due to an unavoidable commitment (which shall be filed in the drawer marked ‘Sods Law’) I have only been able to attend rehearsals in the afternoons this week. But, I don’t think this was such a bad thing. For the first session it meant the script could be read and discussed without me folded up in the corner, so when I did arrive in the afternoon they had had time to digest it a little.

It is not a long rehearsal period so was a case of jumping-straight-in from Tuesday. The energy and attitude towards the play has been great, the actors seem engaged by their characters and the story. There are regular questions and ideas which is fantastic – I’m kept on my toes, never far from my editing pencil, but I love it. It’s great to be able to share these characters and this story, to see it ‘come alive’ (horribly cheesy, sorry), to have conversations about it, answer the questions (or not) and see different ideas played with and tried out.

I think a massive bonus is the fact that the director Rosie Kellagher has been with me for the whole process of developing Blood in to Poppyfield.

It was Rosie who rang me at the back end of last year to ask if I’d be interested in developing it in to a full-length piece and she has read every draft thereafter. It is Rosie who has assured me it’s “not shit” and listened to me doubt and fret. But it’s all been worth it, cos on Friday she saw me do a giddy little dance after the first stagger through of the Acts! I know that she knows this play and where it is in its development. She gets where I am coming from and gets me as a writer, and that is invaluable.

But don’t tell her I was being nice about her though, it’ll go straight to her head.

While I am being complimentary about other people (it’ll wear off shortly and normal service will resume, I’m sure) a big huzzah for the talented company of actors on board. I have looked forward to going in to rehearsals every day to see them and what they’re going to do.

And it’s been a great surprise how much laughter there has been – while there is humour in the play it’s hardly a ‘comedy caper’, but there is a real enthusiasm to the rehearsals. And biscuits. Biscuits always help. Kudos to Cheryl for bringing in the best biscuits so far – a sort of chocolate Hob Nob/cookie hybrid. Immense.

So then. Rehearsals continue next week, with the play kicking off on Thursday. I really hope it continues to be as enjoyable. Or at the very least, the biscuits keep coming and to such a high standard.

Anton & Me … (+ Past Glories; Day 46)

Howdy. How are we all? Good? Great. Let’s get back to me …

I am delighted to report that the workshop for Can Cause Death went incredibly well. Charlotte, David and I went through the script bit by bit and by the end were left with a rehearsal draft I think we’re all happy with. David is heading off to Dublin to perform at The Gate Theatre until the end of October, so he’s taking the signed-off script with him to learn. How very thrilling.

I also got the chance to meet Sophie, the producer; Fabrice, the designer and Phillippa, the composer.  AND, saw my piece alongside Chekhov’s Harmful Effects for the first time since York back in June … which suddenly made it all very real.

Me on a double-bill with the mighty Chekhov, who’d have thunk it?!

We rehearsed at Paines Plough, and below are a few poor-quality shots of David and Charlotte in action …

Just a quick word about David Bradley. A legendary actor, we already know this. But what a damn nice man, to boot. Generous, gracious, patient, funny – he and Charlotte made me feel so welcome and I am delighted to be part of the project. David didn’t even mind when I asked him about Harry Potter. Well, it didn’t seem like he minded but then he is an Olivier Award winning act-or … oh dear …

 ‘When’s it on?’, I hear you ask. ‘Where?’ Patience my friends. Announcements coming soon … [Update: announcement announced – click here]

Past Glories; Day 46 

Just a mini-update on this one … the feedback from Michael Chaplin is in and it was all very positive, with useful suggestions of things to look at again/consider. Armed with this – along with an informal reading last night by some friends – means I am on the homeward stretch towards the official Draft 1, to be handed in on Mon 13. Hearing work read out loud is invaluable, it flags up so many things, so to be able to do that even at this early stage was great. Thanks to Kath, Jo and Alisha.

  • In other news … I WON!!! My play Yackety Yak triumphed at Live’s A Million Short Cuts event last week. 57% of the audience vote, I’ll have you know. There is no actual prize, just the warm glow of victory! For details about the night, click [here]
  • In other other news … disappointingly I was unable to record my Come To Where I’m From monologue. Dull story, don’t ask. All is not lost though and I am hoping to get a recording organised on home turf and send it down to them. Fingers crossed.