When I was twelve, I had my first taste of success when I came second in my school Eisteddfod playwriting competition. I had written a dark piece about an evil army of killer guinea pigs set in a largely imagined medieval Wales and, as an ignorant monoglot, I had also made up the Welsh. And so came my first taste of controversy as my Welsh teacher pinned me against a wall and shouted that I had let down myself and my whole country. Pretty good for an 11 year old. I remember this story because when I think about ‘how to be’ something, I usually return to my childhood self and think more about ‘why would you be’ something.
For me it was an escape. A gay kid at that time, I wasn’t persecuted or bullied, but I also knew that nothing around me quite fitted; I had to make up a few things that did and so I wrote plays and stories. I think that not fitting in, or seeing how weird the ‘normal’ world can be is probably the most essential ingredient of being a theatre maker.
The second ingredient is, I think, listening. I like writing that leaves you with questions rather than gives you answers. I like characters that surprise me and actions that seem strange and intriguing (sort of Tennessee Williams mixed with David Lynch). I think that if you listen then you will always have questions. You want to know why someone has acted the way they have. Again, I spent a lot of my youth wondering why people said one thing when it seemed clear to me they meant something completely different. Listening and conversation have always been things that delight me and without a love of them I can’t see how you’d ever write subtext or sub sub text or sub sub sub text.
Thirdly, I think that to make good theatre you need to abandon your ego. It took me a while to learn that there are huge ups and downs when you work in theatre. You might have a play at the Royal Court one minute and have nothing the next. To deal with this I found that ignoring status is essential. Britain, especially, is obsessed with status and class and you have to realise it means nothing. It is for the unimaginative. For me I was lucky enough to be given the chance to work in theatre for young people. In the UK this often has very low status, especially in England. I would often receive looks of bafflement or pity from other ‘theatre people’ when I said I was making a show for 10 year olds. But it has been without doubt the place I have truly learned the skills to be a good theatre maker. It is where I have had to think of my audience before myself. It has also allowed me to work without words, with dance and to make stories from pictures alone. I have also found some of the best artists from across Europe are working in theatre for young people, perhaps precisely because it is not hamstrung by tradition, the needs of a building or outdated creative structures.
I think finally that to be a theatre maker you need to make theatre, not fill paper. If you’re a writer you need to learn to get stuck in. Your words are not the play. The play is a living breathing thing that you make in the rehearsal room; so get in that room, move about, learn what performers can do, learn that you can throw words away, you can change things about just to see what happens. Learn what action can do. Become a director. Work with a choreographer. Don’t worry about making mistakes. You are not there to pass a test and show everyone how clever and controlling you are, you are there to collaborate and allow everyone in that room to make a moment of which you can say ‘you just had to be there… you just had to be there.’