On playwriting, procrastination, feral youth and Russian Dolls

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Writing plays. Who would do that? Why? It’s a messy business, especially seeing it through with conviction to the final draft. Messy, lonely and uphill. That is play writing. Starting off with great intentions sometimes spurred on by a dream, a memory or an idea but losing confidence as the days clock on.

Far removed from initial intentions

I start working on one idea but usually end up with something far far removed from my initial intention. There will be blind alleys of research and wasted weeks, months sometimes. Starting isn’t really the problem. Trusting yourself to stick with it, and deliver by a made-up deadline is a trick that seems to work for me, even though that date means nothing to anyone else. I can pretend that the National Theatre are dying to read it. Yesterday! Without sticking power, it’s impossible to finish anything and it is a challenge to find sticking power without confidence.

So where does the confidence come from if you haven’t got success biting your bum? There is no answer but to trick yourself; imagine your unwritten but brilliant play being fought over by several directors all at once, in a trendy bar in Soho or Clerkenwell. Producers fighting over the casting and you saying firmly, ‘No, I’m sorry but I don’t want any stars!’

Imagine your unwritten but brilliant play being fought over by several directors all at once, in a trendy bar in Soho or Clerkenwell

Hope comes in handy, too, if you’re lucky enough to find any. Friends can be good at supplying hope, or is it faith? Especially when they are drunk. The easiest and most dangerous mode for writing is procrastination. Don’t we all love that! When meeting old friends who ask at a party what you are up to at the moment, you respond, after a big slug of wine “Actually I’m writing a play.” To which they respond; ‘Neither am I’.

It can help momentum if there is some burning issue that forces you to churn it out, before someone else beats you to it. Sometimes it is the kernel of a story which must be told. And only by you. Sometimes a character inside your head that won’t leave you alone, nagging to be dramatically realised. Every writer’s approach must be different but we all struggle to finish the bloody thing. Then, at least, you have, a draft, which will come in for a lot of knocks before you start all over again and again and again. Draft 4 might make it to the table. And so it goes on.

Nothing to do with Russia or Dolls

Russian Dolls, the title of my play, has nothing to with Russia or Dolls. But you know those pretty wooden Russian dolls that are identical and fit inside each other one after another until you get to the tiniest one? Those are the dolls I’m referring to, in a roundabout way. Mothers from one generation to the next, perpetuating the same cycle of neglect as the child becomes the mother again and again. The glue that holds them together is the child’s love for her mother, which is what she must learn to lose in order to break the cycle.

If this sounds a bit grim, it isn’t. I’ve been told that my play is surprisingly dark and witty but lacking in froth. My kind of coffee… and writing. Ideally, I like to make my audience laugh and cry. At least give them their money’s worth. I also seem drawn for some reason to write about older women and have since written two more pieces about women of certain years. Russian Dolls, however, is about young and old. It is about two women – Hilda, 75, and Camelia, 17 – who could not be further apart, generationally or culturally.

The feral youth. They are limited by their culture and economic circumstances at home, utterly without hope or direction

Camelia is on the brink of being a woman. She is savage, vital, raw, and funny in spite of her upbringing, or maybe because of it. She has a survivor’s instinct but it takes her a while to tune into this as a means of escape from the gang world in which she’s so horribly embroiled. However, if you sat next to Camelia on a bus, there’s no doubt you would be entertained by her fresh wit and imagination. She is bursting with potential that might never be realised.

I believe this to be true of so many young people out there in our towns and cities. The feral youth. They are limited by their culture and economic circumstances at home, utterly without hope or direction, unless they are lucky enough to benefit from mentors at school, in youth clubs, sports clubs and centres like Kids company, sadly no more.

In my play however, Camelia is lucky enough to meet her ‘mentor’, Hilda, an old lady who lives alone and is completely blind. It is not a chance meeting at all. Camellia has come pretending to be Hilda’s carer with the expressed intention of robbing her to get money to the gang who use her as a ‘cash bitch’. Hilda used to be a professional cook and hasn’t let her blindness curb her ability to cater for herself. From her early years, she also gained experience fostering rejected kids and sees through Camelia’s defences to the vulnerable child beneath. For the first time, Camelia comes to understand a sense of achievement, and the value of small things outside the world of instant gratification, which is all she has ever known. This is the premise of my play before the story kicks in. I wouldn’t want to tell you more in case I spoil it for anyone who buys a ticket.

A chance meeting with the real Hilda

So what I ended up with as a play, Russian Dolls, was not my first intention. Whilst researching another project at a Pensioner’s Day Centre off the Caledonian Road, I had a chance meeting with the real Hilda Porter. She so impressed me with her courage and tenacity that I felt compelled to write about her, so I promptly dropped the piece I was meant to be writing.

What was it about Hilda that enthralled me? Her sense of self-worth in spite of her recent blindness. Her human dignity. She had lost her sight only eighteen months before, but she was determined to take home some donated windfall apples and make an apple crumble. Why not! She loved apple crumble and nothing was going to stop her from making it, even if took her all evening. She would lay the table just for herself and even light a candle before sitting down to enjoy the crumble, completely alone and completely blind.

The essence of this real Hilda is alive in my fictional character, embracing something of that post war spirit and ‘good old common sense’. Having established Hilda (inspired by a real person), for my drama to ignite I needed to imagine a character who might challenge Hilda, rattling old bones out of the closet to make her question her ways of wisdom in 2016. And so Camelia was born. A composite of youth I’d encountered here and about, eavesdropping on top deck north London buses, and scribbling in my note book.

And so eventually Russian Dolls came to be written, in North Islington library, upstairs away from all distractions where right now I am sitting, near the water dispenser, procrastinating, and struggling to nail the next one!

Russian Dolls runs at London’s King’s Head Theatre from 5 to 23 April 2016. Follow @MyTheatreMates on Twitter to win a pair of tickets to Russian Dolls.

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Guest Bloggers on Twitter
Guest Bloggers
MyTheatreMates welcomes submissions from guest bloggers and other occasional contributors, including theatremakers commenting on aspects of their shows. Please email your suggestions to Mates co-founder Terri Paddock or submit them via our Contact Us page.