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Feature: From social worker to playwright – the making of Carthage

Posted on 29 January 2014 by Richard Walls

Rehearsals for CARTHAGE. Photo Credit Darren BellIf Chris Thompson has any nerves ahead of the opening of his first play Carthage at the Finborough Theatre this week, he isn’t showing them. “It’s extremely exciting. I’m still pinching myself.”

Extremely exciting is right. Not only has the play won him a Channel 4 Playwright’s Scheme bursary (formerly the Pearson Playwright Award) and a residency at the Finborough, his second play Albion will be premiering at the Bush Theatre later this year. Despite his growing prestige Thompson is philosophical on its rewards. “It feels good not to be lonely professionally anymore. As a writer you’re lonely.”

Having worked in social services for over twelve years, the writer tag is taking some getting used to. Describing Carthage as a deeply personal response to his career, the play explores the fallout arising from the death of a young boy in care as well as the culpability of those who were tasked with protecting him. Though not based on any specific case, the play draws heavily on the emotional complexity that accompanies a career in the social services. “I remember being scared,” says Thompson. “I remember crying in the toilets not wanting to do a visit to check up on a child. I don’t feel sorry for myself, though. You have this privileged insight into people’s lives.”

Thompson stresses that heavy themes don’t make for a heavy play. On the contrary, the play is fused with the humour that has allowed him to navigate his way through his years as a social worker. “The play has turned out to be very funny and rehearsals have been hilarious.” Director Robert Hastie agrees, citing “lovely moments of small victories” for the characters in the play as providing a deft contrast with the play’s darker moments. “What’s beautiful about Chris’s writing is the comfort these characters take in each other when confronted with such adversity.”

Hastie first met both play and playwright over a year ago when asked to direct a reading of an earlier version for the 2012 Vibrant Festival. “I immediately fell for it. I just loved it and count myself very lucky that it came my way.”

Thompson asks whether Hastie has ever found it difficult working with him, given that he has no prior background in the arts, but Hastie refuses to let such modesty go unchecked: “I’ve never met anyone so curious as to what theatre can and should be, and that challenge has really enriched my understanding of what we do.”

The curiosity with which both men approach the work goes hand in hand with a deep-seated trust and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Asked how he has found the collaborative aspects of being in the rehearsal room, Thompson is both assured and relaxed: “I’m very comfortable with the process of it all. You have to let go.”

Getting to this point hasn’t always been easy. Hastie speaks of how earlier on in the process his main challenge was in making Thompson comfortable with speaking on an emotional level about his thoughts and his experiences, to which Thompson quips that, as a social worker, he’s dead inside, before going on to express his gratitude: “I used to go to the theatre all the time, and love what I saw, but social work killed that for me. It’s not that the plays were bad, but that I’ve seen so many bleak and horrible things. But in being spoken to like a writer – and in being treated like one – Rob’s really brought me out of my shell.”

Rehearsals for CARTHAGE. Photo Credit Darren Bell (2)

Now both men eagerly await what their audiences are going to bring to and take away from the work. Both stress that the play is not about social workers per se, but rather one which takes a wider societal view interrogating the systems we put in place and rely upon, and what happens when they fail. These are questions for the audience to wrestle with during the play and after. “It doesn’t feel a judgemental play to me,” says Thompson. “I think everyone has to leave with their own sense of the complexities and the greyness.”

Thompson is hesitant about imparting too much advice to aspiring writers but he strongly believes we should keep numerous avenues and routes into the profession open because people need time to find their voices. “As a writer, do something else other than theatre: listen to people, watch people, meet people, see people.”

Hastie argues that aspiring directors need to ensure they are engaging with writers and not just their texts – or the texts of dead writers. “There isn’t a theatre without that first creative spark. It doesn’t need to be a writer, but while there are great writers like Chris out there you would be foolish not to get to know them. Use that spark. There are as many ways of making good plays as there are good plays.”

Carthage is at the Finborough Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets visit the Finborough’s website

Rehearsal photos (c) Darren Bell. 

Richard Walls

Richard Walls

Richard is a playwright and recent graduate of the MA in Writing for Performance at Goldsmiths College, London. He is currently under commission to Theatre Absolute.

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Review: An Evening With Sylvester Stallone, The London Palladium

Posted on 15 January 2014 by Chérie Locatelli

 An Evening with Sylvester Stallone - London

“I think everyone has a certain kind of formula in their life. When you deviate from that formula, you’re going to fail big or you’re gonna win big”. And that is what Sylvester Stallone did: he won big. He is now just the third person in Hollywood history to receive two Academy Awards for one film, and the only person ever to have a number one box office hit in five consecutive decades.

So what was Stallone’s formula? To be a fighter with relentless endurance, which he made clear for one night only at the London Palladium. I went to the Palladium with a minimal view of Stallone, knowing him as the man who made all those Rocky films and that one about the troubled ex-soldier, Rambo. I also saw him as the man who is currently trying to hold onto his acting career by the skin of his teeth, along with those other ‘I-think-it’s-probably-time-to-retire-now’ actors in the film series The Expendables. But, of course, he is much more than that and I was introduced properly to an actor, writer, director and producer who tenaciously fought through ups and downs to be where he is today.

Stallone started off, like many actors and writers, completely penniless, in a small apartment with papers and books piling up around him. At the London Palladium, sitting in a sharp suit on a huge sofa, he told us – and the witty host Jonathan Ross – that when you’re talking to a writer whilst they are taking on a project, they are not really there: they are continually in the story, thinking about how they can make it work. This is what Stallone explained that he was like when he had nothing much to live for other than his screenplay of Rocky. He went through countless drafts to make the character come to life, until one day he turned up to an audition, didn’t impress them with his acting, but offered his script. They told him to go home and bring back the script –he excitedly told us that he was back within 15 minutes, banging on their door. “We love it, but we don’t want you” they said, but Stallone had built the character of Rocky with only his own face in mind, and he would not let go of his script until he was allowed the main role. The production company offered him thousands of dollars, constantly raising the offer for the script while he kept on rejecting every one, until they finally gave in: Sylvester Stallone would be Rocky, and that was when the legend was born.

Stallone is sincerely loved by his fans; nearly every two minutes the crowd would applaud him with an amazing roar whilst Ross, sitting with him on stage, was in undeniable awe and constant childish glee. He has every reason to be loved, with his words that are set to inspire and a full life to show for everything he says. Despite all his success and fame he still manages to possess a genuine modesty, as his face seemed to be unsure of what to make of the continuous applause.

After explaining that he tried to move away from his stereotypical action roles, by writing and directing movies such as Staying Alive, he showed that giving up was never a plausible option for him, even when his career was not on top. Turning up to one of his film premieres with only two people there to watch did not dampen his enthusiasm for his work.

After his interview with Jonathan Ross, the audience members were given a chance to ask Stallone questions, such as who he loves to work with: the answers being Harrison Ford and Antonio Banderas. He walked up and down the stage answering questions with pride, yet giving off no air of arrogance, despite explaining previously that he used to be insufferable and wished he could “go back and punch myself in the mouth”. He answered every question with grace and with as much explanation as he could possibly fit in for his fans, while teaching life lessons to aspiring scriptwriters in the audience.

Stallone has said that “when I was in junior high school, the teachers voted me the student most likely to end up in the electric chair”. Yet from An Evening With Sylvester Stallone I have learnt the same lesson his teachers must have learnt decades ago: that Stallone is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. He probably deserves the title of legend – not forgetting that he knows his Shakespeare too, which was proved as he quoted a piece from The Comedy Of Errors!

An Evening With Sylvester Stallone played at the London Palladium.

Photo by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

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Feature: Cuckoo at the Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 13 January 2014 by Laura Turner

suhalya el-bushraOpening this week at the Unicorn Theatre is a new play by Hollyoaks writer Suhayla El-Bushra, whose play Pigeons recently ran at the Royal Court Theatre. Cuckoo is, in her own words, “a play about an unlikely friendship between two teenage girls, Jenny and Nadine, and how this friendship is tested when Jenny becomes jealous of the relationship that develops between Nadine and Jenny’s mum, Erica. Although it’s about teenagers it also raises questions about parenting – how responsible should we be for children whose own parents have failed or are unable look after them?”

What inspired you to write this piece?

I was working in a Pupil Referral Unit with teenage girls who had been excluded from mainstream education. I had worked there for some time, mainly with boys, but I had come back from maternity leave and there were suddenly a lot more girls attending. I was intrigued by the way their behaviour was different from the boys. They were much more charming and sweet – but then would go out and get arrested for beating people up after school. I wanted to explore what it was that made girls go out and commit acts of violence; young women aren’t ‘supposed’ or expected to be aggressive, so I was interested in female anger – where it comes from and what happens when it’s suppressed. I had also recently become a mother, so I think I was subconsciously looking at that through Erica’s character – at the devotion and sacrifice involved in having a child, but also the resentment that can stem from that.

There must have been challenges in writing that story. 

I hadn’t written a play before – I’d only written feature film scripts – so I was getting my head around writing for a different medium. The first draft had loads of scenes, several locations and a cast of about 20, but it was also structured like a screenplay. It took me a while to work out what would and wouldn’t work on stage, but luckily I had the chance to work with some actors and a director on the characters and the story quite early on in the process, so I learnt a huge amount doing that.

I started Cuckoo a long time ago and kept coming back to it at various stages, with long gaps in between. I spent time developing it in Brighton, but after I’d written the second draft I had the chance to work on it some more with Nathan Curry (who’s directing it now) for a couple of days at the National Theatre Studio with some professional actors. So that really moved it on as well. And it’s great that Nathan has been on board since then, partly because he’s a brilliant director, but it also meant that when we started rehearsals I knew he already had a very strong understanding of what the play was about.

Having written for TV shows such as Hollyoaks, just how different is writing for the stage?

In terms of form, that’s a tough one to answer, because for every rule you can find about the difference between writing for stage and screen, you can also find an example that breaks that rule. For me, the main difference is about the process. There are usually a lot fewer people involved in putting on a play than there is in creating a TV series or a feature film, so it tends to be you, a director and some actors in a rehearsal room trying things out. It’s a very immediate and direct way of working. In TV you might work on a script with script editors and producers without meeting the actors and director, so you do miss out on that part of the process and you can feel a bit detached from the end product when you finally see it.

How do you balance the young girls’ stories with the role of the mother in the play?

I think it’s definitely more the girls’ story, although Erica is so important in terms of driving the plot. It’s her behaviour that influences the girls’ actions, but the focus is more on the effect that has on the girls than on her. There’s a slight imbalance in that there’s less explanation for Erica’s behaviour: it’s very clear what’s motivating the girls, whereas the actress playing Erica has to do a lot more digging, but it is in there.

What do you draw on as a writer?

Anything and everything. Books, articles, things I overhear on the bus. I think you can’t help but put some of your own personal experience into whatever you write though, even if you try really hard to avoid it.

Why is the Unicorn the right home for this play?

I think the fact that, as well as staging work for young audiences, they’re also keen to put on plays that explore our relationship with young people, as Cuckoo does, makes it the right home. I’m very proud that it’s being staged at The Unicorn as I’ve seen some brilliant work there recently.

I’ve been involved with both [rehearsals and casting]. I think it’s vital for writers to sit in on rehearsals and understand that process. I don’t ever feel like I have a huge amount to offer by that stage of the proceedings, but it’s interesting to see how it takes shape. I think you learn a lot and that it definitely informs the next thing you write.

Cuckoo plays at the Unicorn Theatre from 14 to 25 January. For tickets and more information, visit the Unicorn Theatre website.

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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Feature: Q&A with Sam Potter on Mucky Kid

Posted on 04 January 2014 by Lisa Carroll

Sam Potter has had a long and varied career in theatre, most recently seeing her debut play, Mucky Kid, open at Theatre 503. She shares with A Younger Theatre her thoughts on playwriting, career changes and dealing with rejection.

Mucky-Kid-Theatre503

What was the inspiration for Mucky Kid?
I had known about Mary Bell since I was a teenager because the village I grew up in, in Norfolk, housed Wayland prison and there was a rumour at school that Mary Bell lived somewhere nearby. However, apart from knowing that she had killed two small children when she was ten, I didn’t know anything more about the case. It must have been somewhere at the back of my mind though, because when I had my first child, I found myself wanting to learn more about Mary Bell. I suppose I wanted to try to understand why she had murdered two children at such a young age.

How did you conduct your research and then shape that into a play?
I started by reading the two books that Gitta Sereny had written about Mary Bell, and then moved on to newspaper archives and comment pieces. In the second Gitta Sereny book, Cries Unheard, I came across the fact that she had escaped from prison at the age of 21 and gone on the run for three days and I thought that story would make a good play. The play I initially wrote was a straight chronological dramatisation of that real event but I felt constrained by that shape – I felt I couldn’t talk about the subject as a whole in any depth because at that point in her life she had no understanding of why she had done what she had done. I then started to think about writing a broader play and Paul Robinson at Theatre 503 encouraged me to take the story out of sequence. […] The eventual shape of Mucky Kid came out of me trying to express what I’d experienced in my research – which was a sense that people who are damaged don’t hold a linear narrative of events. There is an element of confusion in their own minds about how things had happened. When I found the shape I have now I knew it was the right shape because it was a different shape to any other play I’d read.

Tell us a bit about your career to date and how you came into writing?
I directed for a long time – the best part of 10 years. I worked at the NT, RSC and Glyndebourne Opera. I loved assisting but when I went freelance and started directing my own work I basically realised I was in the wrong job. All my creative ideas were about what I wanted to write, so although it seemed like a crazy decision at the time, because I had built up a good level of experience as a director, I just bit the bullet and decided to follow my heart. I started Mucky Kid, which is my first play, in 2010 and for the last three years have been essentially teaching myself to write. Alongside all my work I have always done literary work of one sort or another, when I was directing I used to script-read for the NT and Soho, and then that developed into becoming the Literary Manager at Out of Joint and now the Creative Associate at Headlong. I think it’s good for writers to be a part of the theatre world and I love working on other people’s plays as well as my own, so its suits me to do both.

Has your work as a director and literary manager shaped how you write plays? What was it like changing roles?
I think the two things have shaped me in different ways – having worked as a director means I have a very clear and practical imagination about what is achievable on stage. I also know what actors are capable of. I love seeing them stretch themselves so I try to write them parts where they can do that. Having worked as a literary manager means I have a lot of knowledge to fall back on, obviously, but I also find it really creatively stimulating to see what other people are writing. There’s nothing better than reading something brilliant. Good plays have so much energy in them because they are blueprints for a performance – they’re just bursting with it. Changing roles was horrendous – not so much the handing over, more that I hadn’t appreciated that writing feels so much more personal than directing. I’m still not used to that yet.

What was it like working for Out of Joint?
I learnt more about theatre from Max [Stafford-Clark] in two years, than I had during my previous 10 years working all over the place, so I’m enormously glad I worked there. The best thing about working for a smaller company is that you get to see how everything works. I was sat next to the person doing marketing and press, I could hear the producer setting up dates with theatres, I was part of the commissioning process and saw first-hand how those plays were chosen and developed. Before working at Out of Joint I had worked mainly in big institutions where you never see any of that stuff –at the NT, for example – the marketing and press all happens several floors up from where the work is made. It’s like a separate company. Working for a smaller company is actually a lot more useful for when you go on to make your own work.

What advice would you give to young theatre makers who are thinking of writing a play and trying to get their work produced?
I genuinely think the most important thing is to focus on your work. Really work hard at writing the best play you can write. It’s very easy, especially when you are young, to get distracted by the other stuff, the business side of things, but the work is the thing you have control over and it’s ultimately the most important thing. Also – almost every play that makes it to the stage will have been rejected somewhere along the way, Chimerica for example – so don’t be disheartened if that happens, just send it to the next person. I would also say that to make sure your work is at its best you need to hear it out loud. Everything gets thrown into sharp relief when you hear plays. So make sure that happens before you send it anywhere.

What’s next for you?
I have just been appointed the Creative Associate at Headlong, who are a company I have admired from afar for a long time, so I’m thrilled to be working with them and I’m just researching a new subject ahead of writing a play in the New Year.

Mucky Kid playied at Theatre 503 last year. For more information see the Theatre503 website.

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll graduated from University College Dublin in 2012 with a B.A International in English. She is also a playwright, script reader and director. @lisa_carroll46

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