Playwright and actor Jay Taylor describes making the shift from acting to writing – and how his career onstage helped him shape his identity in his new offstage role.
After being an actor for ten years, the experience of rehearsing my first play as a writer can best be compared to the feeling one had when first being left home alone by one’s parents: you think you know how everything works but you don’t want to switch on any of the appliances in case the house explodes.
I jest, of course, but the feeling of suddenly being the ‘grown up’ in the room is truly intense. Suddenly you are the one that people are turning to for dramatic clarity, intentions, objectives and in some cases, complex emotional character analysis. Saying, ‘I dunno, I was a bit hungover when I wrote that bit…’ just doesn’t cut it. And rightly so. Even though sometimes it’s true.
I’ve always loved acting and for a long time it was all I wanted to do. But around ten years ago, I found a new and equally satisfying love in writing. It began with a brief and ill-advised foray into writing terrible poetry as a student. If you can think of a pretentious, romantic or grandiose literary cliché, I wrote it. As soon as I realised that I was no latter day Yeats or Shelley, I started to write dialogue and found that I had a much better understanding of the cadences of speech and the rhythm of conversation, than I did of verse and poetic structure. My friends and family all breathed a collective sigh of relief, I’m sure.
My experiences as an actor have entirely informed what sort of writer I wanted to be. Working with the rather wonderful Joel Horwood on his brilliant play I Heart Peterborough was a formative experience; seeing the way Horwood crafted the narrative and rigorously denied himself poetic indulgence because, as he said: “that’s me talking, not the character”, was profoundly important to my development as a writer. A deeply collaborative process was encouraged, and between Joel, myself and my co-star, the actor Milo Twomey, we created a unique, dynamic and moving piece of theatre.
Putting these experiences into practice whilst rehearsing my own play was very important to me. I’ve been involved with lots of new writing and the writer’s presence can be both an asset and a hindrance; it’s a difficult balancing act. You want to be present enough to clarify and contextualise aspects of the play, but you also have to relinquish control and allow the company to interpret your story in their own way. You have to realise that what sounded good when you read it aloud at home to the cat may not work when professional actors have to perform it in front of a paying audience, but at the same time you have to have the courage of your convictions to stand by the more robust elements of your work and stick to your guns; actors will change every other bloody word if you give them carte blanche (I’ve tried myself before) so an element of give and take is required. The whole thing is delicate and complicated, but you have to trust your instincts; you know when something doesn’t work and it’s usually because the line or scene in question is the vestige of an older draft, so sometimes you just have to suck it up and write something better. Easier said than done.
The Acedian Pirates was born out of a desire to investigate the ethics and morality of military intervention. Oh and also, it’s set during a fictional war. In a lighthouse. It’s not the future and not the past. Oh, and Helen of Troy’s in it, too. Simple, right? Not exactly the typical subject material for a first play and at least five hundred times in the last four years I’ve asked myself if I’m biting off more than I can chew. But I think ambition and imagination are vitally important for new writers and should be encouraged. This play was never going to be commissioned by a major theatre because it was a risk, as was I. But if the experience of writing, developing and seeing this play produced has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t attempt to write something because you think it’s what people want to see. In other words, you can’t second guess an audience. The play has been very well received and friends, audience members and critics alike have really engaged with the core themes of the play; which is absolutely thrilling and testament to the fact that you should just write what you want to write. Which is precisely why my next play is a four hour long monologue performed by me. No, I’m joking. It’s actually only three hours ten.
The Acedian Pirates is at Theatre 503 until November 14.
Image: Savannah Photographic