Tag Archives: playwright

‘Cosy’ Costume design and playwriting…. Holly McCarthy and Kaite O’Reilly

Poster Cosy

I’ve always been a ‘word’ person. Despite my greatest efforts, I’ve never been able to draw or design anything except a perplexing mess.

As a playwright, I create characters from words. I don’t create an image of a character in my mind except only in the broadest sense – a child; a woman of a certain age – the idiosyncratic detail when everything else image-wise is a blur. I don’t know what my characters ‘look’ like. I know them by what they say and do. I seldom plan a character in advance, but am constantly surprised by what the characters say to each other once I get them together in a specific location. Given the particular way I work, it was a revelation to be shown these costume designs by Holly McCarthy for my forthcoming production of ‘Cosy’ at Wales Millennium Centre.

'Cosy' costume design by Holly McCarthy

‘Cosy’ costume design by Holly McCarthy

Somehow – and this is where skill and talent comes in – Holly has read my play and created these clothed human beings – these tangible, recognisable people from the words I put down on a page. The process is nothing short of magical to me. And so it was with extraordinary delight I looked at her designs, sighing in recognition, knowing, like a distant relative you’ve never met but heard about for so long, ‘ah! So that’s what she looks like!’ Although Holly does not provide facial features, everything else in her designs give a clear indication of the individual, and her age, world view, sense of ‘self’.

Costume design for 'Cosy' by Holly McCarthy

Costume design for ‘Cosy’ by Holly McCarthy

The other week at the Welsh Theatre Awards, I sat in the row in front of Holly and was delighted, but not surprised when she was announced the winner of Best Costume Design. It’s fantastic that she’s been costume designer on ‘Cosy’ and I can’t wait what she does next.

 

“Rewriting isn’t just about dialogue” Cosy developments

Rewriting isn’t just about dialogue; it’s the order of the scenes, how you finish a scene, how you get into a scene.

Tom Stoppard

Writing is all about rewriting, and revising a script prior to it going into production is probably my favourite part of the solo process (writing is solitary; rehearsals are communal and social and collaborative).

‘Cosy’ has had a long gestation period – the initial ideas and research into end of life scenarios and exit strategies began when I was on attachment to the National Theatre Studio in London in 2010. I had completed the first draft when I applied to Unlimited for a commission and production grant.  I was ecstatic when I was successful in the bid, and immediately embarked on the r&d, with an initial reading of the revised script with our cast in June 2015. Informed by that experience, I began revisions on the script and the second part of the research and development process occurred in Cardiff in November, at Wales Millennium Centre, where the production will preview on 8th March 2016.

Sharon Morgan in 'Cosy'. Photograph by Toby Farrow

Sharon Morgan in ‘Cosy’. Photograph by Toby Farrow

It’s wonderful revising a script when you know who the actors will be. Throughout the rewriting process, I’ve been hearing the voice of Ri Richards, or Sara Beer, and the other four fabulous performers as I tackle revisions. It’s a delicate process; I’m not changing the dialogue to fit the actors, rather, my knowledge of the skills of Bethan Rose Young, Llinos Daniel, Sharon Morgan and Ruth lloyd are urging me on, inspiring me to write a more complex symphony as I can ‘hear’ the individual ‘instruments’ in my head.

I have been tracing through individual strands or plot points, ensuring the characters are consistent, balancing the beats, editing the unnecessary, checking the speed and pace (they’re not the same thing) throughout the text. I feel like a composer setting ideas off into motion. I re-read the work in progress continuously, checking the flow, the change in rhythm, the moments of pause and activity, taking the emotional and dramatic temperature of the piece throughout.

Back in the Summer, I invited partners, allies, directors, dramaturgs, and the interested to a reading of the second draft of the play, collating feedback and responses. These comments informed my revisions but didn’t dictate them…. the amount of contradictory feedback I received was quite wonderful and would have been perplexing, were I not a mature playwright, with a strong sense of the piece I am making!

When working in a room with the actors, our process has not been one of devising, but strengthening the existing script.

The r&d in November was small and private, involving the full cast, director Phillip Zarrilli and  Unlimited Impact trainee producer/playwright Tom Wentworth.The company sat around a table with me, working through the script line by line. We identified areas that needed clarifying, or extending, and had open discussions about the themes of ageing and end of life scenerios. I am now finalising what will be the rehearsal draft, the version which will be published in my forthcoming Atypical Plays for Atypical Actors with Oberon.

This gathering also gave Phillip and Llinos a chance to share with us some of the early explorations they’re making for what might be the ‘soundtrack’ of the production. Llinos is a talented singer and musician, known in Wales for playing the harp, but for ‘Cosy’ she and Phillip have been exploring the use of medieval instruments – the crwth and bowed psaltery.

Llinos Daniel with crwth and hammer psaltery. Cosy r&d day

Llinos Daniel with crwth and bowed psaltery. Cosy r&d day

Rehearsals begin in early February, which is putting wind in my rewriting sails. As I write, I’m just finishing off the last details – where god and the devil are reputed to be – knowing the text will change again once we are in the rehearsal room, trying it out on the floor. I can’t wait.

Pain and truth and learning…. the playwright’s progress…

So what really goes on when you’re writing a play? So often I see narratives that miss out on the difficult bits – those moments where, in my experience at least, the learning happens. In these sanitised versions the play somehow falls, fully formed, onto the page and thence into the mouths of actors in the rehearsal room… Where’s the sweat, the not-knowing, the doubts, the sudden moments of clarity and certainty? Creativity comes from problem solving. I move on as a writer when I’ve struggled with something – and if not learnt something new, have found the strength to let something go.

And so onto the blogs by dramaturg and playwright David Lane. I featured some of his earlier blogs on first idea to final draft here. David emailed me again today with an update on his ACE-funded writing process public engagement blogs. ‘I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences more widely,’ he wrote, ‘particularly the painful and truthful ones!’ Which are the rare ones – and the ones I like to read, to absorb, recognise, and hopefully learn from.

So with David’s permission, I share them with you….. Painful and truthful blogs on the writing process…..

http://www.davidjohnlane.com/writing-treatments-knowledge-and-magic-ace-blog-5/

http://www.davidjohnlane.com/the-play-you-wished-youd-written-use-it-ace-blog-6/

http://www.davidjohnlane.com/how-many-drafts-make-a-play-ace-blog-7/

http://www.davidjohnlane.com/post-reading-facing-hard-truths-ace-blog-8/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Guest dramaturg and playwright: David Lane

I received a lovely email from the playwright and dramaturg David Lane this evening, inviting me to share his fabulous blogs on process.

David wrote:

Knowing your love of a deeper analysis of playwriting, I wanted to send you a link to this most recent blog post titled Paralysed by Process: Writing off the Grid (number 4 of 10) that is part of my public engagement promise to ACE, after they funded me with a personal grant for writing a play.

The 10 blogs are reflecting on my funded process from idea to first draft, and this fourth one made me think of you as it’s reflecting on some creative collisions between wearing the dual hats of playwright and dramaturg.

I’m afraid the blogs are crack cocaine to a process and creative junkie like me – I recommend them, but warm you, they can be highly addictive:

Blog 1: Finding Your Writing Voice
Blog 2: Asking the Best Questions of Your Writing
Blog 3: What Happens After Playwriting Research?                                                         Blog 4: Paralysed by Process: Writing off the Grid

It’s always a delight to share work and analysis of a process which often seems mystifying and mysterious.

Many thanks to David for sharing.

Writing is all about rewriting – but one thing at a time….

 

strikethrough

I was recently teaching a writing workshop in India, when one of the participants asked me about revising a draft. ‘Writing is all about re-writing,’ I said with great emphasis, ‘but only concentrate on one thing at a time.’  It may seem obvious, gnomic even, but it is a piece of advice so often overlooked. When revising work, focus on one thing at a time. The conversation that followed prompted me to go back, fillet and revise an earlier piece on this very subject.

Revising and redrafting a script can be a chaotic and ramshackle activity. After finally stumbling through to the end of an early draft, hopefully realising what the play or story is actually about (which may not be what we thought it was about when we set out…) it’s time to revisit and refine.

So often in my early experience and more recently, with those I dramaturg or mentor, revising can end up resembling the carnage of a kitten caught up in a ball of wool. It is not cute, pleasant, or the stuff of chocolate box covers, despite its many cliches. The combination of tender inexpert claws and fragmenting strands of wool is choking and potentially deadly. Likewise for the enthusiastic or inexperienced playwright whose imagined elegant and ordered combing through of the various strands of a script can result instead in a cat’s cradle of knots, unintentional dread-heads and a confused and despairing writer.

It’s easily done. I  begin reading a first draft and see some improvements I could make in the flow of dialogue between the characters, so mid-read I begin the revision, only to get distracted by the layout, which surely should be indented and double-spaced? (yes please). So I start doing that, but wait, surely that’s a saggy bit there in the middle and the stakes aren’t nearly high enough? So if I just reintroduce the character I cut halfway through the first draft and have her explain – but no, wouldn’t that just make her a cipher? And that’d be telling, not showing – which seems to be what’s happening in that section there – so maybe, maybe if I changed his motivation in that beat and therefore introduced rising action there, I could…. and there I am, hopelessly lost and demented, script dismantled about me, trussed up in my narrative threads like a turkey on Christmas morning.

We have to be ordered in our approach.

Try and work through the full draft, focusing on only one thing at a time. One read-through you may be looking at the journey of each individual character – and don’t try to do several in one reading to save time, as you won’t. Focus and comb through that strand, separating it from other considerations, and really pay attention. Then another read-through may be taking the dramatic temperature of the whole – the presence of tension or pace or rising action. Another read may be looking at effective dialogue – and so on.

It seems simple and obvious advice, yet somehow most of us manage not to absorb it. We try to be economical with time, but end up instead squandering it, giving ourselves headaches and small crises of confidence.

In redrafting, be specific and focus on only one thing at a time.

Be patient and calm.

Above all else, enjoy.

Your inner kitten will thank you for it.

20 Questions…. Samantha Ellis

To celebrate this weekend’s Fun Palaces and Agent 160 Theatre’s involvement, here’s one of my occasional ’20 Questions…’ blog, when I ask novelists, actors, burlesque performers, directors, non-fiction writers, poets, the creative great and the good to respond as they wish to a series of questions. It is my great delight to present Samantha Ellis and her wonderful, witty, inspiring responses….

Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis is a playwright and the author of the reading memoir How to be a Heroine; Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much. Her plays include Cling to me Like Ivy (Birmingham Rep and on tour, published by Nick Hern Books) and Sugar and Snow (BBC Radio 4), and she’s just had Starlore for Beginners and other plays on at Theatre 503. Goat and Monkey Theatre are producing her immersive Victorian thriller Anatomical Venus in 2015. Her short play This Time I Win is part of  Agent 160 Theatre Company’s Fun Palace, celebrating Joan Littlewood’s centenary 4 – 5 October 2014 at Wales Millennium Centre.  www.samanthaellis.me.uk

What first drew you to writing?

When I was really small I used to sit under the kitchen table where all the women in my family were cooking—my job was to pull the leaves off the parsley for tabbouleh—and listen to the grownups telling stories. The stories took me to another place—Baghdad, where my family are from—but also gave me nightmares (not everything that happened there was good). I was told to stop having such an overactive imagination. But then I read Anne of Green Gables. She also had an overactive imagination and she used it: to become a writer and tell stories of her own. So I thought I would too.

What was your big breakthrough?

In my twenties I was too scared to write the plays I wanted to write, and I was working as a journalist, which was not what I really wanted to be doing. I was researching a piece about the premiere of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and she just seemed so tough, so clear, so passionate, so angry, and I realised I wanted to write like that too, to give it everything I’ve got, to be brave. If I could. If I can.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

 Keeping thin-skinned enough to be open to ideas, and write from the heart, while also being thick-skinned enough to cope with the rest of it (meetings, rehearsals, reviews…)

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

The book that rocked my world, more than any other, was Wuthering Heights. For years I tried to date Heathcliff. With predictable results.

What’s more important: form or content?

Both.

How do you know when a project is finished?

I never know! I wish I did.

Do you read your reviews?

Yes. I like to know what the response is, and to try to learn from feedback if it’s useful. But I try not to get upset if it’s not super-positive (I don’t always succeed).

What advice would you give a young writer?

Stay curious, keep exploring, read everything, watch plays. And join a writers’ group or start your own—for honest criticism, for good advice, for the fun of being part of a gang, for drinking with on opening nights.

What work of art would you most like to own?

I just like looking at it.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That it should be easy. That you just lie back on your chaise longue and inspiration happens…it doesn’t, unless you really, really work at it.

What are you working on now?

I’m working with you! I’m so glad to be part of the women playwrights’ collective Agent 160, and to be making a Fun Palace inspired by Joan Littlewood at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff this weekend. My short play, This Time I Win, is about a woman discovering her inner (furious) feminist.

I’m also writing a book about Anne Brontë, called Take Courage (those were her amazing last words).

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

Wuthering Heights (both the book and the Kate Bush song). A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lace. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Thousand and One Nights. When Harry Met Sally. Moonstruck and, most recently, Pride, which made me think about how outsiders can come together to change the world. Oh & certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I wish I hadn’t been so eager to please, to write “nicely”, to plane off all the rough edges, to write characters that were familiar and non-scary…it turns out the more odd and specific the writing is, the more people respond to it. The more I’ve written from my broken, messy, awkward, confused heart, the bigger and more truthful the work has seemed when it was finished…much better than trying to write something perfect and general and “universal”. And writing about people who aren’t often written about is a radical act.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To keep doing what I’m doing.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

On my last day at university, a friend gave me a postcard of a Paul Klee painting and on the back of it he’d written out a bit of a letter Chekhov wrote to Olga Knipper, saying: “Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling. There are in store for you many unsuccessful days and whole unsuccessful seasons: there will be great misunderstandings and deep disappointments… you must be prepared for all this, expect it and nevertheless, stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way.” I think about that all the time…that it’s not going to be easy, but you just have to keep going. I also do a lot of baking and go for a lot of long walks.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

“Samantha Ellis has no humanity.” It was my first ever review, of a play I took to the Edinburgh Fringe when I was 21. My friends and I got the paper at a late night newsagent’s off Prince’s Street, and read it under an orange streetlight. I cried off all my mascara and then we got chips and vinegar and ate them as the dawn came up.

And the best thing?

I love that Lee Randall of the Scotsman called my book “a life-affirming feminist text”. But even better than that is if I write something my mum likes. She’s my biggest inspiration.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

Wow…I wish I knew…

What is your philosophy or life motto?

I love the improvisation rule “yes and”; when someone makes an offer you should accept (yes) but also offer something new (and). I think it works for life as well as art.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

You don’t have to be perfect or finished or grown up to write; you can write out of rawness and uncertainty and doubt (in fact it’s probably better to).

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

My mum’s recipe for kichri (Iraqi Jewish rice & lentils) is the answer to most questions, I find… http://www.samanthaellis.me.uk/2010/04/lentils-are-for-consolation.html

Samantha Ellis's memoir of reading too much...

Samantha Ellis’s memoir of reading too much…

Links and further information on Samantha Ellis:

http://agent160theatre.blogspot.co.uk/

http://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/Book/296/Cling-To-Me-Like-Ivy.html

http://www.hive.co.uk/book/cling-to-me-like-ivy/9697228/

http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-To-Be-Heroine-learned/dp/0701187514

http://www.hive.co.uk/book/how-to-be-a-heroine-or-what-ive-learned-from-reading-too-much/18159868/