Nick Wood explains how he became a writer-actor to perform his latest play
There’s a knock on the dressing room door. I follow James the duty manager up the stairs to the back of the stage. I bend to put my keys down under the second step. Before I can straighten up the house lights are coming down. I take a breath. The pre-set is brought up and I walk on to the stage at Square Chapel Halifax for the first night of the tour of my new play A Girl With A Book.
One-third of the way through. The words are coming out in the right order. I haven’t tripped over the scenery. Then I cut the last three words of a paragraph. I’ve lost the rhythm. I’ve no idea what to say next. I suddenly realise sweat breaking out your forehead is not a cliché – I can feel it. I look at the chair where I’ve established Malala is sitting. I walk back to the desk, look at my notebook. Look at the spot where her father stands. I have been silent now for at least an hour and a half. I’m thinking do I say “Ladies and Gentlemen I have no idea what happens next” or just walk off the stage. From nowhere the word Ziauddin comes out of my mouth and we’re off again.
Afterwards I’m complemented how I had the nerve to pause and let my character, the writer, think about the implications of what her father asked Malala to do. On my own I walk it through to see how long it really lasted. Top estimate? Four seconds. Let’s get things into proportion – it’s not coal mining and nobody died, but, at that moment, it did feel pretty scary.
I wrote the play for another actor. I said. But I didn’t really. I would have been happy if we’d found another actor after the showcase at Nottingham Playhouse. I was overjoyed when it was suggested by my director Andrew Breakwell that I do it myself. I knew what I was trying to do from the start. Use the story, not tell it. But I could see the problems. In one try out where I only did an extract I was asked what did I think I, a white, middle aged, male, had to contribute to the debate? I was able to tell my questioner she had almost quoted one of the lines from the play. “What have I a white middle class middle aged playwright of no fixed belief living safely in the West got to say on a subject he knows nothing about?”
At the top of the playtext it says: “The writer can be played by an actor of any age, gender, or ethnicity.”
I wanted to do it because I wanted to react to this event. The play isn’t ‘about’ Malala. I wanted the disjoint that would come from seeing a middle aged man wrestling with attitudes and prejudices he finds far too near the surface as he researches the event. Tying himself in knots, making a fool of himself, venting his anger at the evils religious differences have brought on the world, wondering how a father could let a daughter run such risks, before arriving at the one quality that undercuts all our fears of the different – empathy.
It’s me saying the words I’ve written, and I quote verbatim from the people I met and talked to during the research but I’m obviously not David Hare and it isn’t Via Dolorosa. At times although there may only be a whisker between us, the writer isn’t me.
The early drafts were largely rants. The later drafts were all about creating a character who is torn between anger and incredulity at the circumstances that result in the shooting and his astonishment at the bravery of the girls. Finding the way he moves away from seeing groups and starts to see the individual became the imperative.
What I’ve made I don’t really know. One night I think it’s about girls’ education. Or the way the creative imagination can react to current events. Or it’s about courage. I do know I want us to see the writer becoming aware that the creeping demonisation of Muslims has infiltrated far beyond what he believes to be its natural spawning ground, the stereotypical Daily Mail reader, and may even be creeping around the edges of his soul.
What it is about is 55 minutes. The tour dates are on my website.
In addition to its UK tour, A Girl With A Book will also have productions at the Deutesches Shauspielhaus Hamburg and the Landestheater Innsbruck this season.