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’.

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!