Tag Archives: Beckett

Name a thing and it is. Titles and character names…

I recently befuddled a friend with the title I’ve given my next play, ‘Cosy’. ‘But it’s about growing up, and ageing, and rubbish families and death!’ she exclaimed, ‘That’s hardly cosy material!’   ‘Exactly,’ I said.

This conversation made me reflect on the names we give things and the relationship we may have with titles. With plays, I either struggle and need suggestions and prompting, or I know straight away. I like titles of plays that hint at what I might experience if I attended a production – what’s been called ‘the promise’ is often there in the name. I like contradictions, or irony, or something that makes me pause and wonder about the content in an almost metaphysical sense. Beckett’s ‘All That Fall’ or ‘Rockaby’ lingered long after experiencing the text and production.

This then brought me back to a post I’d written about naming characters in our fiction or plays, and why they are important:

Shakespeare may have claimed a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but think of the added information that seeps through from knowing the character is called StJohn or Jerzey; Jonah or Jezebel; Shiraz or Shona, Sankaran or Steve. A sense of cultural heritage, class, social aspiration and period can be assumed through personal monikers.

Names are signifiers and they carry significance; more often than not they are a tip to the audience. It is not by chance that Ben Johnson’s protagonist in his Jacobean satire of lust and greed is called Volpone – Italian for ‘sly fox’.

Names can allude to character and disposition in an efficient, almost effortless way. Traditionally protagonists or heroes have big, heroic-sounding names – Lysander and Titania, Hermione and Ulysses. There is an underlying assumption of what a tragic or inspirational protagonist should be called – an assumption subverted to comedy effect by Monty Python in The Life of Brian.

Giving a character a name can be a significant moment for the writer in the process of making. It is perhaps when the fragmented flitting thoughts start finding shape in human form. When I’ve worked with writers on emerging scripts, some arrive with a name of a character as a starting point, and work outwards from there, guided by a sense of the individual’s personal traits, politics, guiding principles, almost as if they exist in reality and the writer personally knows them. Others, like me, may not have a name until well into the process. I sometimes have letters or numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4 – chosen simply by the order in which these emerging figures arrived on the page. When I find these numeric names limiting and annoying, snagging on my eye each time I read over the page, I know I have moved onto the next phase of development.

Naming characters always come swiftly. If I stumble between options, or dither, going eeny-meeny-miney-mo, I realise I don’t know enough yet about the character, or s/he is not yet sufficiently drawn to merit a title.

I can truthfully say I have never regretted a name I’ve given to a character, but that act of choosing has a galvanising effect on the way I engage with the character on the page, impacting on the words I put in her mouth, or the actions I give him.

I’m not sentimental about my work, so I never see them as my creatures or (god forbid) some kind of golem offspring – they are vehicles for my thoughts, or ideas I want to explore – but calling something brings it forth into being.

Name it, and it is.

Have monologues, will travel. From inspiration to the Southbank. Part 1.

Karina Jones, Mat Fraser, David Toole, Nick Phillips, Sophie Stone – in Water I’m Weightless. Photo Farrows/Creative.

My production with National Theatre Wales, In Water I’m Weightless, is at the Southbank Centre, London, 31st August and 1st September as part of the official celebrations for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, an Unlimited Commission. I’m fortunate to be part of an astonishing sports and cultural Olympiad, but the genesis and ambition for this project goes far back, with roots deeper than this particular celebration. True to the spirit of this blog, I decided to trace the project’s long developmental process, to answer, as Dave Byrnes put it: ‘Well, how did I get here..?’

Some years ago I received a Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council of Wales in order to explore the solo theatrical form and also create what I called The ‘d’ Monologues. These were to be a series of monologues written specifically for Deaf and disabled performers, written from a perspective where disability is not feared, or negative, but where it is the ‘norm’. As I have written at length elsewhere, I’m often frustrated at how shallow and negative the depiction of disabled characters are in popular culture; the narratives are often (but thankfully not always) about the shock and horror of dealing with an acquired impairment/illness, or trying to be cured. I wanted to create some alternatives.

The work would not be Verbatim, nor Testamonial Theatre, but fictional monologues informed by the reality and normality of living life with an impairment. I wanted to reflect what I call crip’ humour and disability cool – a way of being in the world which is celebratory, subversive, collaborative and supportive.

I also wanted to develop my dramaturgical skills as a playwright. I have much experience in writing dialogue with a multitude of characters, but not with solo pieces. The monologue brings a whole set of dramatic problems with it, including issues of pace, dynamic, tempo-rhythm, and that central question ‘who are they talking to and why?’

I don’t believe naturalistic pieces where a character starts speaking aloud ‘to themselves’ – it reads as expositional, and it’s not naturalistic to have long conversations with yourself in full sentences, it’s stylised. I’m also not a fan of ponderous solos where a character addresses themselves reflectively in a ‘mirror,’ usually whilst removing make up, brushing hair, trimming moustaches, or straightening ties (it might be more interesting if they were doing all of the above, at once).

Direct address to the audience can be powerful and intimate (think Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’), but my personal favourites are those which are more stylised – think anything by Samuel Beckett (‘Eh Joe’, ‘Piece of Monologue’, ‘Rockaby’, ‘Not I’, etc), Bryony Lavery’s ‘Frozen’, or post-dramatic work by Crimp (parts of ‘Attempts on her life’), Kroetz (“Request Concert’), Simon Stephens (‘Pornography’), to name just a few.

My ambition was to develop myself as a dramatist, and not to follow one particular style or voice. The project began with me exploring the broad form of the solo dramatic work through practical and theoretical experimentation: reading extensively, picking apart renowned work as though it was a car engine and then piecing it together again (seriously – this is the best way to learn how a piece of respected writing works), seeing solo work, and interacting with its makers.

I decided to start with the queen of the ‘microphone and stool’ solo – Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues. We had some email interaction, and spoke once through her office on the telephone, but we never managed to meet in person. When I was in New York she was out of town, involved with productions and organising international ‘V’ Days.

The quotation which stuck is: ‘When you bring consciousness to anything, things begin to shift.’

I spent some time in the US in 2009, observing and experiencing performance work which was either solo work, or dealing with stories of disability and impairment. Although my work would not be biographical, I saw work by Anna DeVere Smith and spoke with her about creative process, then to my great fortune shadowed Ping Chong + Company in New York.

Twenty years ago Ping Chong initiated ‘The Undesirable Elements’ series, ‘an ongoing series of community-specific interview-based theatre works examining issues of culture and identity of individuals who are outsiders within their mainstream community.’ I was fortunate to spend time with the associate director, Sara Katz, and saw several performances around the Brooklyn area, where disabled individuals performed their own stories, based on interviews which Sara had dramaturged.

The company describe the process as follows:

Undesirable Elements is presented as a chamber piece of story-telling; a “seated opera for the spoken word” that exists as an open framework that can be tailored to suit the needs and issues facing any community. Each production is made with a local host organization and local participants. The development process includes an extended community residency during which Ping Chong + Company artists conduct intensive interviews with potential participants and get to know the issues and concerns facing that community. These interviews form the basis of a script that weaves cast members’ individual experiences together in a chronological narrative touching on both political and personal experiences. The script is performed by the interviewees themselves, many of whom have never before spoken publicly.’    http://www.pingchong.org/undesirable-elements/

It was immensely useful to see this work, for although it was not a style or approach I wanted to follow, it gave me an example of interweaving voices. I wanted to explore choral work – how several actors could tell the one story – and I also wanted to look at interlocking individual monologues to make a whole. A great example of this in a full length work is Mark O’Rowe’s ‘Terminus’, which I saw at Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2008.

After my various field trips, I started writing extensively, and in different ‘voices’ and form, supported by workshop explorations over eighteen months. In 2009/10 The ‘d’ Monologues were shown as script in hand readings at the National Theatre Studio in London, Unity Festival at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, and Disability Pride, Cardiff Bay. Directed by Phillip Zarrilli and myself, they were performed by Macsen McKay, Sara Beer, Kay Jenkins, Rosaleen Moriarty-Simmonds and Maggie Hampton.

Cymru crips at National Theatre Studio, London.

These workshops and shared public readings allowed me to refine the texts, check the response to the work and also ‘test’ the content and form, before diverse audiences I was able to discuss the work with, after – professional (NTS), integrated (Unity), and disability culture (Pride).

Further projects included work with Julie McNamara on a one woman show I Fall to Pieces, about surviving the mental health system,  which was presented as work in progress at DaDaFest International Festival in Liverpool in 2010, and a project I aim to bring to full production in the future.






Directed by Phillip Zarrilli, the presentation was part of my first Unlimited Commission with The Llanarth Group.

I Fall to Pieces enabled me to explore the relationship between live song and text. Julie Mc (as we call her) is a phenomenal performer and inspiring individual, whose energy, experience, and talents opened up a new vista for me as playwright and dramaturg, creating a full length one woman show. I had to struggle with changing dynamic and keeping the tempo rhythm and narrative going. In plays with more than one character, you can refresh the dynamic and lift the mood by simply having a new character enter. How to keep the pace moving, the audience engaged, and the narrative rolling can be a big challenge when making a solo piece. I relished the challenge and look forward to a time when we can fully realise this project, for we learnt from the tears and emotional response from the audience at DaDaFest, this material, combined with these collaborators, works.

A further entry on this journey from inspiration to Southbank, will follow.

For information about Unlimited, ‘a series of major commissions, the UK’s largest programme celebrating arts, culture and sport by deaf and disabled people’, please go to:


In Water I’m Weightless, directed by John McGrath, for National Theatre Wales, will be at The Purcell Room, Southbank Centre:

Friday 31st August 6.30pm, Saturday 1st September 2pm and 7.30pm


Kaite will be speaking on a panel at Southbank Centre, plus leading a writing workshop on 30th August: ttp://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/08/13/kaite-oreilly-workshop-and-panel-discussion-at-southbank-centre-30th-august-2012/

A happy day. And it’s not even 10am yet.


I get up, my head full of thoughts for the paper I’m writing for a forthcoming conference. I’m reflecting, amongst other things, on Sign Dance Theatre, featuring my old collaborator, the Deaf choreographer/dancer Denise Armstrong, who I have worked with since the late 80’s/early 90’s. My thoughts busy with language which is written (my job), then interpreted and transformed into theatricalised BSL (British Sign Language), gesture, and choreography (Denise’s job), I go down into the kitchen, where the unmistakeable words of Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days meet me. ‘This has been a happy day,’ Patricia Boyette is saying round the corner, unseen, at the table, completing, I realise, a word run of the second act, which she is currently learning by heart. Earlier, propped in bed and doing my morning emails, I heard a low humming rumble from below which I now recognise as her rehearsing the first act. It is a phenomenal feat, laying down such texts to memory, and yesterday at dinner when talking of neuroscience and enhancement – how just learning the alphabet makes physiological changes to the brain – Patricia laughed and wondered what Beckett was doing to her brain….








Patricia Boyette as Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, The Llanarth Group, for the Malta Theatre Festival.

Outside in the studio Phillip Zarrilli is encouraging Andy Crook to throw himself around – hurl himself to the floor – to cross the space, teetering, off-balance, as though pushed violently from behind. They are rehearsing Beckett’s Act Without Words One – Phillip, pulling the strings which reveal, offer, and withdraw the scissors, the flagon of water, the canopy of shade offered on Beckett’s arid island, calls it not directing, but torturing. Like Happy Days, and several other Beckett shorts including Ohio Impromptu and my favourites Not I, and Rockaby, they are in preparation for the Malta Theatre Festival.

Much as I adore Beckett, I retreat upstairs to my study, and interact online with my friend Peader Kirk and Mkultra, currently making an intervention in Athens during these historic days around the election: http://celebrationsathens.wordpress.com/onlinetoday/

Then, just as I am about to start work again on the conference paper, I see Hannah Ackroyd has nominated me for a blogging award. I pause, look over this brief morning, reflect on the people around me, their creativity and work, and think yes, indeed, this is a happy day. And it’s not even 10am yet.



Phillip Zarrilli and Eugenio Barba at Theatre Week at the Malta Arts Festival: http://www.labforculture.org/fr/groupes/public/labforculture/événements-et-actualité/101036