From Represents…. to The Pleasance: playwright Sarah Davies on how her short, Grit, has been developed into a full lengh play.
‘She deals with the world now with a grimace that to her looks cheerful, and to everyone else, looks like the final stages of rigor mortis setting in. She puts it on as she reaches the school gates and leaves it in her lap-top case at weekends. Pupils go out of their way to let her pass now in corridors, heads respectfully bent to the floor. Because she never checks her reflection she can’t see their view; that carnival mask grin and her eyes like dead things that float in ponds. Belly-up and sweetly rotting she goes about her day, the coffee-prep-register-teach-coffee-prep-teach-mark-coffee-mark-never-finish-coffee-mark day that stretches into months’.
I love the fact that I live in a world where I can say ‘Ok, I’ve written this play about a school teacher who has a breakdown and decides to secretly live in a cupboard’ and there are people who will help to develop it! My play Grit centres on long-time teacher Val. She can’t remember yet what she has done, but she knows it is bad. Bad enough to lose her job, and bad enough to reduce her world to the size of the school stationery cupboard that she decides to hide in whilst she tries to work it out.
Originally written as a novel, I adapted a section of Grit for Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents…. (April 2015) and having seen it successfully up on its feet, was convinced that it could be developed further.
Simply, I LOVED director Marc Kelly’s take on my play. Usually in the process, the playwright will have the chance to attend rehearsals, but at the time, being based in deepest Kent under a pile of marking and only surfacing for occasional caffeine shots made this impossible. So I turned up slightly nervously on show night and downed a glass of wine so quickly that I fell up the stairs of the auditorium into the lap of a random man in a stunning display of clumsiness wholly unfitting to a night of feminist theatre!
BUT my nerves were unfounded; Marc and his cast fully captured my concept for the piece; hanging as it does on a Brechtian style including narration, freezes and multi-rolling , making me certain that there was scope for much more.
Excitingly, Grit was seen by a producer from The Pleasance Islington, who was open to discussing possible avenues for development. With her encouragement, I began the process of developing the play in to a full length piece for a rehearsed reading with them. I decided early on that I wanted to retain the style, and I had a good idea of the overall narrative having already written most of it in novel form. There was simply the small matter of changing the protagonist from a 6ft 4 man into a middle aged woman, adapting the novel in to script form and cutting about 70% of the description. Easy!
Actually, despite these challenges, the task was incredibly enjoyable! Writing with a specific remit, cast and director in mind, using material that you have already created in another form, is a very different experience. On the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme, playwright Simon Stephens would often refer to the concept of ‘killing your babies’, getting rid of those lines that you love but that just don’t work. This resonated with me particularly as I went on to perform a metaphorical infant massacre just to get an outline for this script! I couldn’t afford to be precious if I was going to even approach the idea of ‘showing not telling’, and so vast swathes of description were replaced with action and sub-text.
I also had to tread what sometimes felt a fine line in using my own experience as a teacher. It goes without saying that this is a work of fiction, exaggerated for theatrical effect, yet I still feel a strong moral impetus to make that clear. After twelve years and at times LOTS of pressure, I still genuinely love teaching. I relish the fact that every day I get to explore theatre and plays with enthusiastic students (and sometimes as a bonus canter around a room under the guise of a ‘warm up!’). But as in any job, I see the flip-side too, particularly having worked in a school environment, which was a markedly different experience for me. In the process of developing my play, I’ve discovered the reality of something that I’ve long advocated to my own script-writing students; the importance of real truth in writing. Here I am now, a female teacher, writing a play about….a female teacher. There’s nowhere to hide (apart from in a cupboard!) and that’s scary. And exciting!
So, I dashed off a first draft to Marc and the cast, roughly 45 pages long (I generally go by a minute a page for timings) and….found out that I needed to cut roughly a quarter of the play or the audience would need to bring thermos flasks and sleeping bags! That in itself was a challenge, but I enjoyed having to be ruthless, and I think that the script is stronger as a result. Now, we are at a more manageable length, and I have very high hopes of developing this play; simply, there is so much that I want to say through it.
Writing for theatre is like nothing else; you have a live audience right there, with the opportunity to create a specific atmosphere solely through action and words. There’s an element of risk that appeals hugely to me, and the director has patiently responded to me enthusing that ‘in my head…the whole stage is a giant cupboard, right, with different compartments that ping out at key points’. To be fair, he didn’t even blink an eyelid about the scene where Val is force to defecate in a box file……! Of course, his task now is to bring all this to life within the confines of an empty stage, and I have every faith that this will be achieved brilliantly! I WILL get that cupboard eventually though!
So, next week it is! The purpose of the rehearsed reading is to share the work, invite feedback and to secure a producer. It takes place at 3pm on Thursday 29th October at The Pleasance Islington in London. If you’d like to come along, or are interested in hearing more, please email me to be put on the guest list – I’d love to see you there! : firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Davies is a drama lecturer, playwright, director, and reviewer for Total Theatre – follow her on twitter @TallTalesSarah