Recently I was lucky enough to catch up with playwright Michael Dennis to talk about his debut full-length play, Dark Sublime, running at the Trafalgar Studios from 25 June 2019 for a six-week season. As a theatre-loving sci-fi fan, Dark Sublime has been on my radar for a while, so it was great to get to chat to Michael about how it came to be over a coffee at the BFI café.
Thanks so much for meeting with me today. First off I’d really like to talk about your upcoming play Dark Sublime. What led to Dark Sublime?
It is the first full-length play I’ve written. Once I knew I wanted to write a play, of course the next question was about what. And it was a combination of two things really. With my other hat on I’m a stage manager and I’d worked quite a bit with older actresses who were uniformly great fun. They’ve been around the block, they know what life is, they don’t take any shit and, more often than not, are just great fun. So that was a bit of a starting point, I thought… I’d like to have an older actress in it.
Also around the time I started writing it I’d seen a few plays featuring older actresses, and as an audience member I found it enjoyable to watch something led by an older woman because it is still not the norm.
Yes, I was going to say you were lucky to find many shows with older women leading.
Quite, so I thought I’d like to do that because it interested me… So I’d decided I wanted to focus it around an older woman. Additionally, I’d been having thoughts about unrequited love as an abstract concept. The parallels that might have with fandom. I have my own fandom, I’m predominantly Dr Who. I remember Tom Baker saying in an interview once, how he valued the purity of fan love. That the love of a fan was incorruptible, it would never die, it was something strong and pure.
I wonder if he’d still say that now, in the social media age, where it is turning slightly scary in places.
Oh I don’t know. I think Tom has always been the recipient of the adoration he desires. So really in a way, I just threw all those things into the pot. There wasn’t this sort of mechanistic working out of ‘I want do to A so I’ll put it with B and then see’. I had certain impulses and certain ideas about the sort of dynamic I wanted on stage and the ideas I wanted to explore. I just stirred them up and it came out.
In terms of the casting you must be pretty thrilled, Marina Sirtis is a sci-fi legend.
Yes. Now, of course when thinking about casting Marianne, the lead part, in my own head, before any discussions with anyone, or before the notion of the play being mounted was mooted, you go through all manner of people and who it might be. I have to say that Marina came via Andrew (Keates, the director) and I, of my own volition probably would never have arrived at Marina purely because of Star Trek. Purely because she headlined an American series. And the aesthetic of the play is very much around British sci-fi of the late 70s, early 80s.
Now Marina is British, which I didn’t know, and because of her association with Star Trek… I wasn’t looking that side of the pond. However, Andrew suggested her to me, and that is when I found out she is British, and I looked at some of the work she’d done. That is a long-winded way of saying I’m totally delighted, I think she’ll bring the right sort of robustness to it. I’m very much looking forward to that. I’m very much looking forward to rehearsals starting.
So when do rehearsals start?
Obviously this is your first play, and you’ve talked about the time you were alone with it, not sure if you’d stage it or not. I’d be really interested in knowing what took you from ‘I’ve written something I’m proud of’ to ‘let’s get this staged.’ Finding the people to produce, direct etc..
As I said, it was the first full-length play I’d written and at the time I was working at the Royal Court, and Chris Campbell, the then literary manager of the Royal Court, read it. Chris gave me some notes on it, and it did a small ‘doing of the rounds’ but it didn’t really come to anything. But through that, I got my agent, so in a way I thought even if nothing else happens with it, I feel like it has earned its due because it got me my agent. I’m very happy with my relationship with Dan. You need that in order to make other things happen. I felt like, OK even if it doesn’t get staged, it’s paid its way.
So it effectively got put in the bottom drawer while I moved on and did other things. Then Mark Gatiss texted me one day and said he’d mentioned it to Andrew. They’d been at a party or something, and the two of them had been chatting and Mark had said to Andrew, I think this is a play you might be interested in.
He does love his sci-fi
So my agent sent it to Andrew and that is why we are where we are now. It’s as simple as that. It’s thanks to Mark
And Mark is going to be the voice of the computer. I’ll be he’ll have a lot of fun with that.
Mark’s a friend. It is always lovely to work with friends. And of course having Mark associated with it is terrific. Mark is absolutely cut from that cloth.
He is also incredibly generous. He did a master class on writing for Arion Productions, Andrew’s company, and I was really struck by the generosity of information and how much he opened up to people about the realities of writing.
Mark is extraordinarily generous. He absolutely is. He is a friend first and foremost. But we also both work in the industry. Mark has opened up opportunities for me. I of course wrote for Queers, the series of monologues that were done for BBC 4 and the Old Vic a couple of years ago. That was just dropped into my lap by Mark, which he had no need to do.
But he knew you were writing
Yes, and that is a headline example if you like, and there are umpteen other smaller examples. Mark’s generosity is something I’m thankful for continually.
Speaking about your journey to Dark Sublime. It sounds to me like you’ve always been writing but play-writing is something you came to quite recently. Or is it something you’ve always played with in short form but not long form?
I dipped my toe in the water over 7 years ago. There was a point when I thought that I wanted to be more creative than the day job in stage management. So I took some time off and started writing and started making in-roads into that. I was short listed for a sitcom writing competition that BBC3 ran, and that put me in contact with some useful people. And I wrote a sitcom for TV, a pilot script, that was looked at by some interesting people, so wheels were starting to turn. And then life got in the way. I split up from my long term partner, and in that kind of situation other priorities rise to the surface. The writing got knocked back and it was some years before I had the heart to go near it again.
And heart is important with writing
It is, I sort of intellectually knew I was going to at some point, but I didn’t have the impetus and then one day I did. And I sat down, and started writing what has ended up being scene 3 of Dark Sublime… And almost tentatively, almost from the sense of ‘I’ll sit down, start and see how I get on’. Luckily I kept going. Luckily I kept feeling the compulsion to sit down, and the pages kept coming. Before I knew it I had a first draft, fairly quickly. Now a first draft that differs quite substantially from the play that exists today.
That makes sense though. With first drafts you’re exploring what the story could be
Interestingly there are a couple of anchors points, that first scene for example, that are almost exactly as I wrote them on that first day years ago. There is some other scene later on again, that remains almost untouched. The rest of the supporting structure has come in and out of focus a lot over many drafts.
You mentioned that Dark Sublime sat in the bottom drawer for a while. So what were you doing while Dark Sublime was marinating?
Well I did Queers, which took a while
Wow, so you wrote Dark Sublime before Queers?
Yes, it absolutely was. If you ignore the stuff from over a decade ago, if you start from year zero as it were, Dark Sublime is absolutely the first thing I wrote. So I did Queers, which took a few months and was an incredibly happy time. It was a really happy project. I’ve written a second play which is being read as we speak. And much more prosaically the day job, in terms of paying the rent, the day job does stop me from writing because I’m facilitating other people’s writing.
For playwrights at the start of their careers, those trying to get a toe in the door, what advice would you give them?
I suppose I would say, take a stab at everything. If you can, enter everything you can. Any kind of playwriting competition. It is important, this feels like a banal thing to say, but it is important to have written. You need to have stuff that you can pull out and show people. So write, even if there isn’t currently a competition or opportunity in sight. Write something, (a) because you have something to pull out when there is an opportunity and (b) it keeps you active. It gets those gears going. You learn about writing through writing, I think. So my banal advice is write, write, find opportunities for it and keep persevering. Perseverance is the key.
Agreed the biggest quality any writer needs is perseverance, and a thin skin with very thick bits, rejection padding if you will, that doesn’t stop all the emotional intelligence seeping in.
I suppose that is part of … If you are a writer and you have a good handful of stuff, if you are continually submitting to different competitions and different opportunities then it means you are placing less emphasis on any one thing. You’re managing your potential for disappointment.
For a long time, when I was doing quite a lot of short story writing, I set up what I called my “rejection spreadsheet”. I’d read this article about this guy who’d tried to get 100 rejections in one year. It meant that when he did succeed it was a pleasant surprise rather than anything else. I thought I’d try it, and he was right. It worked. The ones that annoy me are the competitions that don’t tell you if you’ve won or not. You kind of guess because time has passed and you’ve heard nothing. I’m now a firm believer in embracing rejection, almost gamifying it.
I think that’s it. I think if you submit something, go about the rest of your life. If you’re sitting waiting for the email or phone call or text, it isn’t going to come. You submit it, and you absolutely forget about it and you carry on with the next thing. Or as I say, if there isn’t a specific focus, it doesn’t matter create your own focus. Decide you are going to write a half-hour, two-hander or whatever. Just something so you’ve got something to spring from.
And while we’re on the subject of rejection, some advice from me for people out there doing the rejecting, don’t send the emails at 4.30pm on a Friday, that is just mean. It was years ago and I’m still cross about that one.
And on that note, I’m going to let you finish your coffee, thank you so much Michael, it has been a real pleasure talking to you today.