It’s almost two months since Chris Urch’s play Land of Our Fathers, finished its West End run at Trafalgar studios, but the playwright is showing no signs of stopping. Having won one of the 2013 Bruntwood Prizes, Urch will see his latest play The Rolling Stone premiere at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in the spring. Land of Our Fathers was about miners in Wales; The Rolling Stone is set in Uganda. When we talk over the phone, Urch, originally from Somerset, laughs that “I seem to just end up writing about places where I’m not from!” Even more excitingly, Urch has just been announced as a recipient of Kenyon Institute Fellowship, giving him the chance to travel to Kenyon College, Ohio, to attend the Playwrights Conference there in June 2015.
Urch moved to London to train as an actor at Drama Centre before turning to writing, first working on several short plays before being chosen as part of the 503Five, an eighteen-month writing residency run by Theatre503. Urch describes his experience of the residency as “being allowed to fail quietly.” He describes how “you do shorts around the circuit and some of them are good and some of them are bad, but it gives you a relatively safe environment. You learn from having your work in front of an audience and you can work out what you think you do well and what you don’t do well. I think that’s really important – to learn from your mistakes, because you’re going to continue making them. And if you’re not making mistakes then you’re not striving to do different things or to be better, you’re just being comfortable.”
He has certainly seemed to gain a great deal from the run of Land of Our Fathers. “I was just really proud of the play and production and I’m glad it was received so warmly,” he says. He also mentions that he hopes the play will one day be seen outside London. “I’m from the country and I think it’s something that would resonate with them,” he says affirmatively.
“I try to write for people who don’t go to the theatre,” he adds. “That’s really important for me is that you’re trying to make it as accessible as possible, and that’s not dumbing anything down, it’s just – there are so many people who don’t get to come to London because it’s so expensive, so why should they not get the opportunity to see stuff?” He notes that travelling down to London for a weekend to see a play can be incredibly pricey, and it’s great to hear him so enthusiastically praise the likes of NT Live and ETT in getting work seen in the regions.
On top of this is Urch’s current attachment to the NT Studio. “That’s amazing,” he tells me enthusiastically. “They genuinely do such good work and they’re really, really lovely people. It’s just great because they’re supporting writers – not just up-and-coming writers and emerging artists. They continue to support playwrights who have got quite a big profile, people in their mid-careers. It’s just a wonderful resource and I really can’t speak highly enough of them.”
With the 503Five and NT Studio attachment, Urch is no stranger to residencies that help writers to develop. He stresses the importance of the money he gained from the Bruntwood Prize and the Peggy Ramsay Foundation last year. This money gave him the opportunity to quit his job working long hours on the door of a club and take up writing full time for a year. “It’s been quite hard going from something you were striving your career to be – it’s kind of hard when that kind of hobby becomes your job, becomes your work,” he observes. “The money just gave me the freedom to walk away from my job, really, and go, ‘Look: this is the time to concentrate and it’s now or never. Go for it.’”
In June, Urch will be off to Ohio to represent the Royal Exchange at Kenyon College, an experience he is “really thrilled” to be able to have. “It’s gives me space to get out of London and write for a couple of weeks and just see what comes out of it, which is a rare opportunity and one I’m gonna relish.” Paines Plough are one of the companies participating in this years’ Playwrights Conference, alongside Playwrights Horizons and La Jolla Playhouse, and Urch notes that “just to be around some amazing companies will be brilliant as well.”
With his writing career well and truly kicking off, does he have any advice for aspiring playwrights? “Don’t give up,” he says firmly. “You get rejected a lot, you get rejected a shitload, so it’s about having a thick skin and keeping going. Don’t let fear stop you from writing, you just have to write. You can never improve on nothing, is what someone says, so even if it’s shit – you’ll write shit all the time, I write shit every day – by writing something you can improve on that.”
He pauses and thinks, and then adds: “Go and watch a lot of plays, read a lot of plays. I think that’s the best advice I can give: read lots and watch lots.”