Writing for Performance
Give me an empty stage and a bunch of actors…
Many people get their first experience of theatre as kids. Not me – the first thing I saw was a really rubbish puppet show when I was about 8 years old. It got me interested in puppets, but not in theatre. The first professional performance I went to was a production of The Mikado at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, when I was about 15. And while it was good fun, it wasn’t theatre the way I think of it now. In fact, I didn’t see a proper stage play until I was 23 – Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking at the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
Even then, it didn’t grab me all that much because it was the sort of thing we saw all the time on TV in those days, and wasn’t anything new. So of course, all the playwrights I was familiar with were the ones who wrote for the telly – Alan Bennett, John Osborne, Dennis Potter, Stephen Poliakoff, David Hare, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Alan Plater, Graham Reid, Andrew Davies and so on (all men, of course). It was years later when I saw a proper theatre company performing a fantastic play called The Day of the Dead, that I really got into drama. It was directed by the lovely John Wright (who I met several times when he was running drama workshops). Anyway, that’s what did it, and that’s when I started trying to write plays. And failing miserably…
In 1995 I was at the University of Northumbria doing a degree in Drama, and it was there – while learning about the great playwrights like Brecht – that my writing changed from being crap, to being quite good. And the thing that made the difference was working with other people. Having to devise short pieces of theatre and perform them to our peers, gave me an insight into why some things work on stage and some things just don’t. And I still say that all the best playwrights are those who have also been actors.
I’d been in several performances by the time I moved to Scotland, so when the opportunity came to set up a new theatre company with a couple of friends, I jumped at the chance. We started the Writers and Actors Collaboration Theatre Company with a grant from Aberdeen City Council, and produced 20 new plays over a period of three years. Three of those plays were mine (the fourth ‘No Phones on Planet Pluto’ was co-written with Suzy Enoch), and are available as playscripts.
Love Song in Sixteen Bars
Performances: First performed at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 18 April, 2011. Written and Directed by Colin Garrow and produced by WACtheatre.
About: Ever been in one of those relationships? You know – the ones that don’t work? Whenever Shona embarks on a new relationship, she always ends up getting dumped. So when her latest one starts to hit the rocks, she decides to find out why.
The Writing: The song ‘Sixteen Bars’ by The Stylistics inspired the title of this one and I liked the idea of having the play set in sixteen different pubs. The original version was ridiculously complicated and repetitive and I completely rewrote the second half to get it into a workable script. Even so, the device of having each of the main characters (Shona and Pete) show their side of the story, still demanded a certain amount of repetition and this proved a bit of a nightmare during rehearsals.
‘Love Song in Sixteen Bars’ is available from Amazon.
The Body in the Bag
Performances: First performed at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 10 February, 2009. Written and Directed by Colin Garrow and produced by WACtheatre.
About: A darkly comic tale of death, drinking and deceit – with songs! Edinburgh, 1827. In their shabby lodging house, William Hare encourages his drinking partner William Burke to think about the future, about an easier way of making a living. When one of Hare’s lodgers dies, the scheming duo plan to take the body to the medical school where corrupt surgeon Dr Knox exchanges cash for cadavers. . .
The Writing: When I started writing The Body in the Bag, I’d been writing plays for a few years, but only some of the shorter ones had been performed, so I was keen to complete a full-length stage play (ie with a running time of 90 minutes or more). I researched the testimonies of William Burke, one of the so-called body snatchers who terrorized Edinburgh in the early 1800’s. I found that Burke had given two slightly different versions of events so I focused on only one of them. I began to explore the question of whether Burke might have had the opportunity to stop the dreadful killing spree, or whether he was coerced or driven to continue killing by the stronger, and perhaps more dangerous character of William Hare. In the end, I decided that Burke could have got out of the mess he was in, but chose not to:
If I’m honest, there was a chance to get myself out of it. I know there was. I just didn’t take it.
‘The Body in the Bag’ is available from Amazon.
Towards the Inevitability of Catastrophe
Performances: First performed at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 27 October, 2009. Written and Directed by Colin Garrow and produced by WACtheatre.
About: It sounds like her – has her memories, her laughter and her pain. But it isn’t her. Or is it?
He sits there scribbling down every word I say then goes off to his garret to produce his masterpiece of theatrical bloody immensity and what is he actually doing? What is he actually doing? I’ll tell you what he’s actually doing – he’s stealing my life. . .
The Writing: Inspired by events in the performer’s own life, as well as delving into the way writers and actors manipulate each other, I wrote ‘Catastrophe’ for two reasons: I wanted to write a piece for a woman that would offer me the challenge of writing from a female perspective, and I was interested in the idea of mixing fact and fiction so the audience wouldn’t necessarily know if they were watching a piece of theatre or simply someone talking honestly about themselves. I worked with the performer (Suzanne Enoch) to use snippets of information about her that could perhaps lead me into other directions and so create something that was essentially a work of fiction but with elements of truth.
‘Towards the Inevitability of Catastrophe’ is available from Amazon.
No Phones on Planet Pluto
Performances: First performed at The Lemon Tree in Aberdeen on 20 October, 2009. Written and Directed by Colin Garrow and Suzanne Enoch. Produced by WACtheatre as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival.
About: Revealing, touching and amusing tales inspired by the stories and experiences of mental health service users.
Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to present to you something that isn’t entirely the truth, but isn’t entirely not the truth. We’d like to offer you a sense of what it means to be living with mental illness.
The Writing: Working with several mental health support organisations, myself and Suzanne interviewed a number of individuals living with mental health issues. We used these interviews as a starting point to write a series of 10 monologues about how people cope in the community. The show was performed by eleven actors as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival and has been used in workshops, including with students at Waldorf Teacher Training College in Witten-Annen, Germany, facilitated by my pal Jessica Hernandez.