By Kate Glasspool
WGGB continued its series of popular panel events on Monday 12 June 2017, this time with playwrights Bryony Lavery (The Believers, Queen Coal, Thursday, Treasure Island), Ali Taylor (Fault Lines, Cotton Wool, Overspill) and Charlene James (Tweet Tweet, Cuttin’ It).
All at different stages of their career, the panelists spoke at length about how they approached the process of writing. All three admitted to the pain involved in starting a new work with Bryony saying: “Every time there’s a necessary patch of terrible ground you have to go over – all those awful cliches.”
“I never plan,” said Charlene. “I just write and see where it takes me.” Bryony adopted the same approach, although she was more solitary in her practice: “I don’t like talking to people to make a play. I like to do it at a slight remove.”
Charlene, whose career took off with Cuttin’ It, a play about FGM, firmly believed that it was important to write about something that you were passionate about, while Ali insisted, “Insight is the thing. Things that launched me were things that I had insight into.”
He admitted that when he felt he had run out of his own stories, his work as a journalist had provided plenty more: “Journalism is a goldmine. Most people don’t have their stories asked of them, so when you do they open up.”
Charlene, too, had found that other jobs helped inform her work. She had been at her most productive in terms of writing when she was an assistant teacher. “It is quite daunting to spend the whole day writing alone. I miss those conversations.”
“How do you fill your writing days?” asked one audience member.
Bryony replied: “I only do three to four hours at a time, in short bursts.” She also admitted to taking regular afternoon naps and to giving herself the occasional day off: “There’s no point in working when you are low.”
Ali, meanwhile, had found that as his career and life progressed, and the time available to write decreased, he was more productive: “Things have changed. I have a young daughter. I only have 2.5 hours days a week to work. I write more now than I did before.”
In terms of play structure, the panelists’ approach was varied. Ali preferred to limit stage directions to a minimum (“If I have something clear in my head, it seems to come out that way anyway”) while Bryony adopted the reverse: “I put a lot of directions into my text. People have a style. It’s your work – you do it how you like.”
The panel members discussed the transition from text to rehearsal as an energising part of the process. “There is this amazing moment when everyone comes into the room,” said Charlene. Bryony likened the playwrights trade to a particular craft: “There are a few ‘wrights’ – ship, cart, wheel. We are part of a process when rehearsal starts. You are making the best of people working in their craft.” In her collaboration with Frantic Assembly, a physical theatre company, she said that she loved “the negotiation between text and physicality”.
Her thoughts were echoed by Ali, whose multi-site work A Little Neck with Goat and Monkey at Hampton Court, had changed how he thought about writing. “I love working with people who introduce physicality and how that informs story-telling,” he said.
Asked if there was any point during the writing and production of play at which they started to relax and enjoy the process, Ali reflected: “Your anxiety increases as the production progresses.” And for Bryony, who has 20 plays to her name, even a solid track record was no guarantee of easy and continued success. She spoke about a recent salutary experience involving a “terrible” reading of her current project Slime, lamenting, “It’s all in pieces over the floor again.”
She was keen, however, to identify a favourite moment in the realisation of a playscript. “Suddenly, the air gets stiller and thicker, and you know that magic is going on. It happens at different times.”
In order to build on a career, Charlene advised playwrights to build up a relationship with a local theatre, as she had done with Birmingham Rep, and to try to get any produced plays published. The emphasis from the panel was very much on “being proactive” – “Invite literary managers to come to see your work. Use Twitter, react to others’ work. The more groups you can join, the better.”
Asked at what point they considered themselves to have become proper playwrights, Bryony replied: “I didn’t start calling myself a playwright until I could make a living and when I put playwriting on my passport.” For Ali, the answer was more practical: “I didn’t feel I was a playwright until I got my first cheque. You always have lots of different identities. It’s also a confidence thing.”
Playwriting has been, for none of them, a matter of money. Bryony joked: “I’m fabulously wealthy”, but pointed to adaptation as a good source of income and a complementary skill. Her fellow panelists agreed that the theatre paid much less than screen. “If you want to earn, go into TV,” said Charlene. “I earned more from being a teaching assistant.”
Perhaps the most valuable advice of the evening came in response to the question, how do you keep your self-belief and keep going through times of despair? All three admitted to tough times in their writing. Charlene allowed herself to escape to the theatre, to read, to give herself a break, while Ali advised, “Allow each draft to be bad” and to make each draft a little better than the last. “Writing is a confidence game.”
“You have to have doubt, not just self-confidence,” said Bryony. “But the answer is always in the writing.”
The event was chaired by Poppy Corbett, playwright and Co-Chair of WGGB’s London & South East region.
Slideshow photos: Em Fitzgerald