Photo credit Bill Knight
Some years ago I attended a playwriting course with Stuart Browne, a playwright and teacher, who introduced me to the concept of the Generative Image, first floated by Athol Fugard. The idea is that anything you see, any ‘image’, or anything you have experienced, any incident that you witness, can serve as a catalyst for a play. It can literally be anything. For instance, here is a simple one which has just occurred to me:
I have recently become very keen on making tea from loose-leaf tea, rather than tea-bags. The correct way to make tea like this is to first pour boiling water into the teapot – always known as ‘warming the pot’ – and then boil more, fresh water, to brew the tea. Something came to me, gift-wrapped, just the other day when I read about a young social worker who went to visit an old woman, who kindly offered to make her a cup of tea, using loose-leaf tea. She boiled some water, poured it into the tea-pot to warm it, and then poured it away down the sink. The social worker, who knew nothing about ‘warming the pot’ was so shocked by this apparent absent-mindedness that she immediately set things in motion to put the poor old woman into care. It’s a good story, isn’t it?
The image can be anything – something in nature, a landscape or a floating twig – that catches the imagination, triggers something off and ends up as a play. It doesn’t even have to appear in the completed work. In my present play I used two images which have, however. The first was seeing the wreck of a German submarine from the First World War, rolling about on the beach below Flambrough Head in about 1952. She was bright red, because the sea had stripped her right down to the original red lead paint. The second was a young woman called Rebecca who I was at Drama School with. Rebecca was from Barnsley and was fixated on the novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Both things stuck in my mind for years and both are used in Bridlington, which is about two people forming a relationship in a psychiatric hospital: one is obsessed with Wuthering Heights, the other hallucinates that he’s being visited by a German submariner called Wulf.
Sometimes it’s best just to sit and let these images come to you, then weave them into a narrative, some people find it better to write them down as they occur to them, then connect them later.
When people are experiencing writers block, I always recommend this method. It stops you focusing on the problems and takes you off in an unexpected direction: even if you don’t use the result, it opens your mind to different possibilities. Sometimes it’s better just to write, write anything, to get the brain working, than to sit staring at a blank computer screen.
Peter Hamilton is the writer of Bridlington at the Rosemary Branch theatre playing 14 April to 3 May. For more information go to their website.