WARNING: Contains swears.
Part of the joy of 28 Plays Later is responding to the titles and briefs set by the Mysterious Overlord, Sebastian. Since I’ve never met him, half-way through the month I began to suspect that he’s not a flesh-and-blood person at all but some sort of sadistic AI designed to torture creative types by setting them bizarre creative hoops to jump through each day. Looking back over the month, though. I see that the variety of tasks was a great part of why the whole thing was so much fun; some might lead to flashes of creative brilliance which blossom into full plays, but others are the equivalent of lifting weights at a gym – developing parts of our writing we might have neglected.
But that does often make for odd reading. When you sign up, part of the deal is that we won’t circulate the prompts, which means I can’t tell you why I wrote this:
Fred walks in, covered with blue fur, beard, horns, bare feet, big beard. He walks over to the controls of the ship. He pushes some buttons.
Sephie, small and lithe, comes in after him, hisses and makes a bolt for the opposite door. The door hisses open to reveal Colin in a big coat, grinning, bald head:
Sephie jumps and races out of the other door. Fred looks up.
FRED: What is she going to look like with a chimney on her?
He sighs and goes back to pressing buttons. The door closes on a still grinning Colin.
A third door opens and a harassed woman is running towards it.
WOMAN: Aliiiiiiiiiiiiice! Noooo! She loves gloves!
The door hisses shut just as she comes to it.
The view screen of the ship is suddenly filled with a mysterious ginger-bearded face.
GINGER BEARDY: I am his reason.
A gangly youth comes on wearing tennis whites with matching sweatbands on wrist and head.
YOUTH: And then a duck walked in with a hat on.
FRED looks up and points at the view screen which changes to say the words ‘It’s Nice To Be Important But It’s More Important to Be Nice.’ The youth turns around and walks straight out.
The phone rings. FRED answers after two rings.
FRED: Hello, Two Ring Suzie here?
VOICE ON PHONE: (Very loud.) This is your early morning fact! Bromide is brown!
FRED hands up and sighs.
FRED: Why do birds suddenly appear?
The door slides open and on the other side is a teenager wearing a green trilby and mac.
TEEN: Fish got to swim.
Birds got to fly.
Apart from ducks, which do both.
That’s that system of taxonomy fucked.
The door slides closed.
FRED looks back to the view screen. An Alien toy appears on the screen and goes ‘Rarrr!’
The lights go out.
FEMALE VOICE: (whispered) I’m breaking up with you and going out with Josh.
Lights come back on. FRED has disappeared. There is a bearded man in the chair instead.
MIKE: (To audience) Manchester is not a clever place.
The lights go out again.
MALE VOICE: While a live on turns the corner!
Hopefully some of the other ones I’m going to share here will actually make sense, but I wanted to start by sharing this one, as I was reflecting on why I want to share these random nuggets of brain wind. Last year marked a significant step in reconnecting with my creativity – I made time for writing, not because it would further my career or boost my finances, but because it acknowledged and celebrated the little creative voice in my head which had been whispering, ‘Don’t forget me!’ I’ve spent so much time mentoring playwrights and theatre makers I was in danger of forgetting what it was like to create myself.
And as rewarding as 28 Plays Later and NaNoWriMo were I could just stop there, leaving the work in a digital drawer. They served their function in that I enjoyed making them and felt nourished by the process. But there was another desire at work. Theatre is my first and greatest love, and what I love most about it is that it is a collaborative art form. The feeling of bringing together a team of exceptionally skilled and creative people, working towards the common goal of giving an audience an amazing, coherent experience, is the greatest thrill I know. The moment of sitting in the audience, watching a production for the first time in front of the public, and not even being sure of which idea on stage emerged from which creative, hearing the audience laugh, or gasp or cry, is extraordinary.
But it is also immensely hard work – finding the funding, bringing the teams together, rehearsing, takes months, if not years, from conception to conclusion. So, I wanted to find another, contrasting outlet for creativity, which required less effort. Just me and my laptop and a few hours. But if it stops there, it’s not quite finished. I need to put it into the world, for it to meet an audience. Not so that they can love it and shower me with praise, but so that it’s completed the process of any work of art, no matter how rushed and flawed. Are the marks on a canvas a painting till they are seen? Are the notes a piece of music till someone hears them? Are these really stories till they are shared?
And also, in my growth as an artist, I need to keep pushing myself to get better at both halves of the process; creating and sharing. And this is a crucial idea which I think the Artist’s Way captured very clearly, and which I sometimes find hard to communicate to other creatives and writers whom I support; the desire for something to be perfect before we are prepared to share it can kill creativity. I know of so many plays and novels rotting in drawers and hard drives. I know of hundreds more which exist only in the minds of my friends and colleagues. They whisper alluringly but without the courage to even write them down they will always remain only whispers.
I used to think that not caring about the response of a piece of work was a cop out, that it meant abandoning any attempt at striving for excellence. But now I’ve seen how deadly that idea of excellence can be on a fledgling idea stumbling towards becoming fully formed; it is like saying to a child, ‘Don’t try walking till you’re sure you can do it without falling over.’ How will it ever learn? Better, as Julia Cameron exhorts, to focus on bringing the idea forth, trust the universe to worry about quality, and be prepared to learn from mistakes. And through this I have found that I am still a perfectionist, but the focus of my desire for perfection has changed; if I apply it to the individual project then my creativity will be stifled, if I apply it myself as an artist I can continue to grow.
A friend of mine was assisting the premiere of a new play by a very prolific and successful playwright. When the show met the audience for the first time in a preview, my friend spotted a flaw in the script which could be fixed with an easy rewrite. My friend took a deep breath and exceeded his role by suggesting the change to the playwright. There was a long silence and then the playwright nodded, slowly, ‘Yes. Yes, that would have been better.’
‘So are you going to change it?’ asked my friend.
‘No,’ replied the playwright, ‘But I won’t make that mistake on my next play.’
That attitude, of perfecting the skill, learning from each project, but not smothering each project with the unbearable expectation of being perfect, is probably why the playwright is so prolific and successful. (It also shows, I think, an awareness of the process – something might be an easy rewrite but not be an easy re-rehearsal for the actors during high-pressure previews.
All this is to say that I’m sure that some of these short plays I’m about to inflict on you are not going to be great, I’m learning to care less about that and more about what I learn from writing and sharing them. But, while I’m not worrying if you’re going to like them, I do want you to know that I appreciate you taking the time to read them, and so, to that extent, I hope they are interesting for your sake, if not for their own! Thank you, as ever, for coming on the journey.