Think that short has to be sweet? Think again. In Short and Stark, a flavoursome assortment of nimble plays opening at Southwark Playhouse at the beginning of July, playwright Joel Horwood is teaming up with Urgent Theatre to prove that theatrical clout can’t be measured with a stopwatch. Here, with talk focused on anti-feminist blackmail, pseudonyms and our use of the word “emerging”, he tells Amelia Forsbrook about a few more assumptions we should be ready to challenge.
Why do you think it’s important to draw attention to short plays?
In the current climate, producing shorts tends to be more like having a stab at something; no one is really paid, no one can give them much time and audiences tend to be made up of friends of those involved. Urgent Theatre is doing something that no one else I know of is doing; it is giving short plays the credit of a rehearsal process, a run and (limited) production values. Urgent Theatre is producing ‘shorts’ with as much weight, integrity and detail as one would a full-length play because they are, at their best, complete plays. Only shorter.
In your plays you tackle some rather hard-hitting themes. Do you ever worry about being too rude – or, indeed, too polite?
How important are readings in your creative process?
I rely really heavily on hearing my plays aloud. I tend to try to read it with a group of friends as early as possible. This is absolutely excruciating of course because you hear everything that’s wrong with what you’ve written. But that’s also the point. I also don’t stop writing. I collaborate closely with the director and designer in the run up to a project. If we are doing a reading of something I tend to invite my colleagues. When rehearsals start is when I can rewrite with actors, refining characters, words and choices with their worm’s-eye view of their own journeys. Then the audiences arrive (or don’t) and the play begins to really reveal itself – jokes either work or fall flat, moments you thought would have people weeping and calling their fathers die on their arse, pretty quickly you learn what to change again. When I have directed my own writing I have never stopped rewriting. It strikes me that plays are living things, the script is just a blueprint for what happens on stage, so naturally they live, breathe, change and die.
Your work appears on the festival circuit. How conscious are you of the context of performance when writing?Very. Some of the plays at Short and Stark were commissions to write plays for music festivals. I was so excited when that was part of the brief; your writing has to hold your audience in a place where they can hear things that are much more fun just outside, so to have the opportunity to compete for their time and attention felt like a brilliant test. When I’ve written pantos for the Lyric Hammersmith I’ve loved the detail, expectation and precision that comes with those titles. Tonic theatre company gave me the toughest brief I think I’ve ever been given: to write a one-hour educational play for children about climate change, but avoid metaphorical narrative. After two years of research, workshops and interviews with scientists The Planet And Stuff is the closest I could get to a TED talk for ages eight and above, and it’ll be on at The Polka Theatre in October. So, all plugging and self-marketing aside, I really enjoy being given a brief that includes an element of performance context, I think it frees me up in the same way that sonnets can be easier to write than free verse.
Is it ever wise to shy away from a theme that makes you uncomfortable?
No. I think that when you get a sense of discomfort you’re probably onto something good. I’m currently adapting The Little Mermaid for Bristol Old Vic. The adaptation is of Hans Christian Anderson’s original (which contains mutilation and suicide) and it will be aimed at a family audience. When I originally read the fairytale I felt a little uncomfortable about the religious and (potentially) anti-feminist blackmail that the story includes. I’m still not sure if we’re finding our way around those uncomfortable themes – and I say we because I’m including Simon Godwin (director) and Jon Bausor (designer) in this conversation – but it’s those challenges that appeal so much about the adaptation. We don’t want to Disney our way out of Hans Christian Anderson’s emotionally complex coming-of-age story, so we’ll have to find a way to reconcile the themes with the performance context.
How conscious should an emerging writer be about defining him/herself as a playwright, or in stating their genre or political stance?
I think playwriting requires opinions and objectives, so whether a playwright should be conscious of those things is, I think, irrelevant. I also think that a playwright who is starting out in their career needs to work mentally to avoid the term ‘emerging’. I think the term probably began as a means of justifying the relative anonymity of someone a reader may never have heard of before, but it has come to reference a kind of hierarchy and destructive competitive nature that undermines artistic endeavour. You’re not emerging when you write a play, you’re writing and I think that makes you a playwright. Even if you’re not a great one yet.
Playwriting takes courage. Have you ever been tempted by a pseudonym?
I’ve written anonymously before and hope to do so again. I think that here in England we have always elevated the playwright above all other theatre collaborators and I think that’s problematic. Pseudonyms and anonymity tend to resist our obsession with crediting one collaborator over all others, and with tracking (and perhaps limiting) a playwright’s ‘voice’ with expectation and ideas of ‘development’. Although I agree that playwriting takes courage, I feel that making theatre at any level requires bravery, viewing theatre should involve risk-taking; hopefully we are all engaging in some kind of a leap by engaging in an age-old communal tradition.
We’ve all heard about playwrights who have struggled to cut their play’s umbilical cord. Which of your characters has developed the most after you’ve submitted a play to a director?
I don’t really think I’ve ever ‘submitted’ a play to a director. Characters have developed most in the relationship between the actors playing them and the audiences watching them. Sean Campion revolutionised my writing when we worked together to make Food. Milo Twomey and Jay Taylor did the same when we made I [heart] Peterborough. Joseph Arkley brought something to Dim that was wonderfully playful and alive; at Short and Stark we’ll be able to see another actor doing something utterly different in the same role. I really don’t know what to expect at Short and Stark beyond what the actors are going to say and I can’t wait to be exhilarated by the opportunity to see those characters breathe again.
Short and Stark is on the Southwark Playhouse from 1-13 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Playhouse’s website.
To be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to Short and Stark, click here for our competition.