Fresh Ink: Joanna Erskine on leaving a message…or not

I don’t write ‘nice.’ I don’t write ‘sweet’, I don’t write ‘lovely’. I don’t write ‘a walk in the park’ either. My writing tends to delve deep into the corners of life that people would rather not talk about. And that’s exactly why I’m fascinated by them. If you read through my repertoire you’d see plays about war, death, postnatal depression, infanticide and other heartwarming themes. In fact, my father’s typical response in the foyer after one of my shows would be a well-meaning smile and the line “Well, that was confronting!”

Let me get things straight. I don’t ever set out to depress anyone. I don’t sit down in front of my laptop and think to myself “Now, what can I cook up this time?” with a maniacal laugh. And of course my plays are always littered with light as well as shadows; there is humour even if it is black. But I’m drawn to exploring situations that I’ve never experienced, understanding characters who are charting unimaginable emotions. I want to imagine. I want to feel what they feel. Through writing I want to learn what I’ve not learnt in my own life. Yet (perhaps).

Which brings me to Boot. A story about a horrific car accident that is the catalyst for the death of a friendship between two teenage girls. Although I’ve been in my fair share of car accidents, I’m fortunate to not have experienced one as tragic as the one Dana and Julia were in. I’m also aware that it was my writing, my words, that put them in that car, on that night. It was my writing that both brought Dana and Julia to life, and gave them this ‘unimaginable’ pain. It was my writing that also ended the lives of the boys in the boot, all characters who hopefully an audience will empathise with in some measure. As the writer I’m therefore also responsible for what the audience will feel – and if they fall in love with the boys, laugh with them and at them, then they are likely to feel sadness for them and their tragic fate.

As a writer I hold immense power in my words. I’m most aware of this when I’m sitting in an audience seeing one of my plays. Feeling every emotion with them, listening out for every little sound that escapes their mouths, any tell-tale gesture. I’m creating that, but I can’t control how they will respond. And I can’t control what they will think of my story and characters – will they connect with them or will they switch off? Will they like them or not find anything to like about them? Will they think what the characters say or do is reflective of me as a person? (That’s a good one.)

But one thing I never want to do, is try to control their thoughts. Good art (well, the art I love most) has always been subjective, not didactic. The writers whose work I admire most are the ones who will open a wound in front of me, explore what’s inside then, rather than stitch it back up, throw the option to me – what happens next? I want stories to stay with me past the buzzing foyer of conversation and ‘what if’s’, and into the weeks, sometimes months or even years later where I am still experiencing what I was left with. And what I was left with is an aftertaste, whether sweet or rancid, that I can’t get rid of. I might be happy about this, I might not be, but if this happens then the artist has done their job.

Audiences are smart and they want to be treated that way. Each person will leave the theatre with a different taste in their mouth, and there is no right or wrong about it. More so than for any other audience, young audiences deserve this option. The option to have an opinion, to be allowed to place themselves into the story and think of their own ‘what if’s.’ The option to imagine.

Boot is a story about a car crash. About teenagers drinking. Being reckless and stupid. Making mistakes. It’s not my job to have an opinion about that. To judge them or question their actions in any way. To say what I think. To hammer home a message. If my audience finds a message in Dana and Julia’s story, then it’s one of their own making. I didn’t plant it there. I simply opened the wound. Peeled back the layers and invited them to look. Invited them to question. Invited them to imagine.

Image: Joanna Erskine

Next week: The original monologues that inspired Joanna and Jessica’s short films