Last year I was privileged to mentor two fantastic writers – John Graham Davies and James Quinn – as they negotiated their way through early drafts of an historical play about the great unsung Liverpool radical Edward Rushton. As this blog is about creative process, I asked James and John to write a guest post about their collaborative process writing this epic, and also touching on our mentoring relationship. What are the temptations and dangers writing from history? How can two playwrights write one script with consistency in style and ‘voice’ and without falling out? You can read their great post, below, and support their crowd-funding project to celebrate this fascinating radical, campaigner, abolitionist and poet. Heady stuff.
Writing Unsung: A Guest Post by John Graham Davies and James Quinn:
When we were originally asked by Kaite to write about the mentoring process of our play UNSUNG we were deep in research into slavery and the abolition movement. Although both of us are writers, we have both been primarily actors. After years of trying to make bad soap lines sound good (yes, I know, it’s not always like that) maybe we thought that the meat and potatoes would lie in the dialogue. We can both write dialogue. It will be alright.
But historical drama, particularly when your play centres on an unjustly ignored historical figure who is determined to have his voice and exploits acknowledged (“fuck turning points and dramatic development, tell them about my amazing sea voyages in the 1790s!”), has a tendency, if you’re not careful, to suck you into a factual fog.
For about nine months we attempted to honour the extraordinary blind abolitionist Edward Rushton, and the vast number of human rights campaigns he was involved with. It seemed like a pleasurable duty. A famous letter to George Washington, being rescued from drowning by an ex-slave and friend, who as a result died himself, hiding clandestine human rights campaigners in his tavern in Liverpool, campaigning and writing poetry in support of the French revolution, the American revolution, the Irish Brotherhood, being shot at in Liverpool for his opposition to the press gang, going blind as a result of ministering to suffering slaves below decks, his establishment of the first blind school in Britain. Any of these activities would make a play in itself, but Rushton’s life was so rich, and his anonymity such a shameful omission that we were determined to crow-bar in as much as we could. To do less would be a dishonour.
We are now about eighteen months into the project, with nine months to opening. What has been the process?
We started with a fractured narrative, attempting to cover all aspects of Rushton’s campaigning and poetic life. The sea story, and his story once he arrived back, blind, on land, were woven together non-chronologically, and framed at the beginning and end of each act with scenes depicting his last, and finally successful eye operation. Kaite thought that this was faithful, yes, but both confusing and undramatic. In our determination to crow-bar everything in, we had paid insufficient attention to dramatic development, and the absence of a stable location made the action confusing.
In writing the second and third drafts we have tried to take on Kaite’s feedback. Both of us having been very involved in politics, we’ve both been equally keen to touch on as many of Rushton’s fascinating political campaigns as possible. But we now have a consistent location to which we return – Rushton’s bookshop – and we travel through it chronologically. However, the scenes to which Rushton is taken by his conscience figure, Kwamina, are not chronological. We may stay with this, but are still not entirely sure if the fractured narrative is potentially confusing.
In the first draft we had a Brechtian style narrator, in the form of a West African griot. This character has now been subsumed into Kwamina. Rushton’s friend from his youth, and a former slave. Kwamina is both a real character, in scenes set on ship in the Atlantic, as well as a Ghost of Christmas Past conscience figure. In this latter guise, he takes Rushton to places in his past. We have also, at Kaite’s advice, developed our use of SLI, so that our signer not only signs, but also participates in scenes. She recurs as a servant/menial in different locations, rather like the Common Man in A Man for All Seasons. Sometimes she will sign neutrally, but in other scenes, particularly in scenes dominated by movement and action, she will be an active dramatic component of scenes. We are taking on board Kaite’s warning that this is potentially confusing, and trying to find ways to clarify.
We have made some more cuts today, losing some historical material about George Washington. We still need to root all the scenes in the overarching drama. There are a couple of scenes which don’t really earn their place. One is set in Parliament, in a chamber adjoining the main chamber. The grand setting is theatrical, and the dialogue and conflict within the scene is effective. However, it doesn’t really grow out of the ongoing dramatic dilemmas facing Rushton, and we’ve shortened it.
As the piece has a strong inclusion goal, we have incorporated imagery and sound montage from the beginning. Audience members who are visually impaired will have a strong aid through the use of recorded words and music. Some of this will be to establish mood, but a good deal of it will help to accurately communicate location.
A word on our approach as collaborators; basically around three quarters of the writing is done solo with the two of us coming together to edit/rewrite drafted scenes. As we live at opposite ends of the East Lancs Road – James in Manchester (the light side) and John in Liverpool (the dark side) – Skype has been a useful tool in this regard. In terms of what each of us brings to the table, John brings the serious, conscientious craft to the project and James adds some ‘witty dialogue’. More seriously, it has been a fiendish story to tell. It is not enough to tell the story of a ‘great man’ – particularly one who nobody has heard of. The first draft of the script definitely leaned too much to that as we looked to do justice to Rushton. Now we are at a stage of being much more selective and looking to capture the essence and significance of Rushton in the context of a strong, compelling dramatic narrative, centred on the question, ‘What drove Rushton to undertake a series of painful eye operations’? Was he driven by a desire to see his children and wife (he was blind when he met her) or were there elements of guilt associated with his friend, Kwamina’s death. Is he trying to shut out memory, by regaining his sight? We want this piece of theatre to reach out beyond theatre audiences and followers of Edward Rushton and create a stir among the widest possible range of people. Naturally, although this is to some degree a biography of a historical figure, the show must be utterly contemporary. Through themes which have a contemporary echo (the corruption of parliament, the importance of the individual conscience speaking out) and stagecraft (using our signer as an integrated character and link with the audience) we hope we have achieved this, to some extent.
Another thought on co-writing (John this time). I didn’t find it easy in one respect – you have to rein yourself in when you have an urge to go in a certain direction, and that can slow things. Fortunately we have worked before as actors and when writing sketches, but this was much more ambitious. Historical drama requires large amounts of research, and finding a speaking style which echoes the period rather than recreating it, is not easy. James doesn’t have an ego, which made things a lot easier – his characteristically self-effacing earlier comments being testament to that – and writing with someone I didn’t know well would have been much harder than with an old friend.
As for our esteemed dramaturg, I had never worked with one before, but it was immensely helpful. I think Kaite realised early on that we are a pair of old pachiderms, so she was pretty direct with her comments. She needed to be I think – we’re also hard of hearing. Virtually all the time her feedback struck a chord with things we were already groping towards, but having someone outside say it made it that much clearer.
We write this just moments before our first meeting with the play’s director, Chuck Mike. It is a moment of great anticipation and excitement for us. The man is a giant (literally and professionally). A disciple and collaborator with the great Wole Soyinka, he has offered nothing but positivity and encouragement about the piece. We are in the South Bank’s Festival Hall, looking for a six feet eight inch Afro-Caribbean with a white beard and benign face. What words will he have for us today………………..?
To Be Continued……
To Support Rushton, Unsung: