Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Writing Plays

The last few weeks have been dedicated to the production of my first full length play, Suspicious Minds. I was working with the Edinburgh company Siege Perilous founded by talented director, Andrew Corelli and tireless producer, Tina Finch. The play ran between the 25th and 29th May and was an incredible experience all round. The cast, Colin Little, Ruth Tapp, Alan Scott-Douglas and Bill Addison were superb.

Writing a play is quite a different process to writing a novel. I've been writing prose since I could pick up a pencil. (I won't say since I could spell because I'm still not that good at that.) When I was in the later stages at Primary school I started writing plays. I enjoyed acting and ended up providing my own plots because I liked them better. Fortunately so did my classmates. And then I stopped. I didn't try to construct a play until about eight years ago when I attended a workshop run by playwright Douglas Maxwell. My intention was to improve my dialogue for prose writing. I was very sure I had no idea and no capacity to write a play. To my astonishment I wrote my first adult play, Pulse, and rather enjoyed the experience.

For me writing a play is about constructing a huge jigsaw in your head. You need to spend most of your time thinking. After all in most hour long plays there will be less than five thousand words, while novels range from 50,000 to 100,000 words.

So how long does it take me to write a play? I can date when I began Suspicious Minds from the book I wrote about my older son - How to Survive the Terrible Twos: Diary of a mother under siege. In it there is a point when my son, known in the book as the Emperor for obvious reasons, is experimenting with language. I become aware of how much he hears and picks up on a couple of occasion. Once when he wakes up in the morning and the first thing he says is, 'Uh-huh, thank dhu very much.' He'd been listening in on one of the first conversations my partner and I had had about the play. That was six years ago.

I should note here that having a supportive partner who will talk over ideas with you, read endless scripts, correct your swearing (I've never been good at swearing) and generally encourage you to keep going is the greatest asset any writer can have. (So thank you, Graham. Your help is always appreciated.)

Of course when I sat down and wrote the play in an afternoon I was extremely chuffed. I think it must have been the 14th or 15th version (some many years later) that I sent to Siege Perilous and was accepted. While I was working on it I completed a mentorship with the Playwrights Studio Scotland and have a great deal of help from the BBC Radio Scotland Drama Department (Thank you Kirsty!) I frequently called on the aid of the writer in residence at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and most recently attended Zinnie Harris' excellent course that led to the formation of an Edinburgh playwright group and the 10 production at the Traverse as a showcase for all our work. All this helped me develop my playwrighting skill. I needed to learn about plays and construction before I could go on to break the rules.

Suspicious Minds moves about in time and frequently broke the fourth wall (between audience and actors). Writing a play is about finding your own voice and telling a story you'd like to watch. It's utterly different from writing a novel and exercises your creativity in a very different fashion.

You can read a review of the production here.