Blog: Write what you know – how one ex-prisoner’s experiences gave him the tools to turn playwright

First-time playwright John Stanley’s play The Monkey sees him delve through his own experiences of the prison system to paint a darkly comic picture of thieves bound together by addiction. In a blog for AYT, he describes how a chance encounter with a writing programme unlocked his talent and introduced him to a new career.

I was born in East London and I grew up in North London and I’ve lived in South London now for many years. My life has been varied and unusual to say the least but theatre had never been an interest. How The Monkey came about, I guess, was really by chance.

I had a friend that worked at The Young Vic and she read a couple of comic short stories I’d written. She liked them and said that maybe I should think about writing plays. Some time later she gave me a flyer for the Synergy playwriting course and I put the flyer away thinking I’ll never be able to write a play so what’s the point applying. I didn’t think any more of it but two weeks later my friend called and asked if I’d applied to do the course yet. I had to tell her I hadn’t but that I would. After turning my flat upside down I found the flyer and after submitting two short stories to my amazement I was accepted on to the course.

Our classroom was a large rehearsal space at The Royal Court on Sloane Square and teaching us were two established playwrights, Michael Bhim and Charlotte Thompson. Everything was highly informal and both of our teachers were approachable and patient. One requirement was to read a full-length play in our own time every week and to discuss it at length the following week. In my entire life I’d never before read a play and I could count on one hand the amount of plays I’d ever seen so everything was very new and there was a lot to take on board. One exercise Michael gave us was to write down an idea for a play, or it could be a few lines of dialogue for a play, the beginning of a play, the middle or the ending or simply a basic plot for a play. It was to be the main exercise of the evening. Looking around I could see that all were writing feverishly in their notebooks. At the end of the lesson Michael asked each person in turn to read out what they’d written. Some had written dialogue whilst others had written down the entire plot for a play but as I couldn’t think of anything to write down I hadn’t written a word. Still trying to think of an idea it suddenly came into my head just as it came to my turn to read out what we’d written. With all in the class expectantly waiting I said to Michael, “I haven’t actually written anything down but I see a guy waiting at the bottom of a lift shaft waiting for the lift to go up to the sixth floor to see an acquaintance.” He thought for a couple of seconds and answered, “mmm, could develop into something interesting.”

Our homework that week was not only reading True West by Sam Shepherd but enlarging on the evening’s main exercise. That evening on the tube journey home I concentrated my thoughts on a plot and I had the beginning and the major part of the plot in my head by the time I arrived home. One thing that we learned was to write about what you know. The characters in The Monkey are a blend of some of the many people I’ve met along my life’s highly unusual journey. The fact that my play has gone on to be produced professionally is truly gratifying and one of the very few things I’m able to say that I’m proud at having achieved.

The Monkey is at Theatre503 as part of Synergy’s Homecomings Festival until March 18. Synergy creates ground-breaking work which harnesses the energy, instincts and life experiences of prisoners, ex-prisoners and young people at risk of offending.

John Stanley is a lifelong Londoner who has written poetry since childhood and recently completed a novel based on his life story. He’s had short plays performed at Theatre503 and The Monkey is his full-length professional debut.