Steve Waters is a writer for stage, radio and screen. He is also very involved in the new playwriting scene. Steve has written about the pedagogy of playwriting and the nature of plays. He has been a participant in shaping arts policy for new playwrights. He ran the Playwriting MPhil at Birmingham University before moving to lead the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Steve has been described as ‘one of the UK’s most accomplished political playwrights’.
Selected work for theatre:
‘Limehouse’, Donmar Warehouse, February, 2017 – tickets on sale here.
Temple, Donmar Warehouse, 2015, published by Nick Hern Books
Ignorance/Jahiliyyah, Hampstead Theatre Downstairs, November to December 2012, published by Nick Hern Books
Little Platoons, The Bush theatre, January/February 2011, published by Nick Hern books.
The Contingency Plan (On The Beach and Resilience) The Bush Theatre, London April-June, 2009; shortlisted for John Whiting Award, 2009; published by Nick Hern books; subsequent productions in the USA, Australia; adapted for Radio 3, broadcast December 2009; currently being adapted to Film by Film Four and Cowboy Film Productions.
Fast Labour, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Hampstead Theatre (April-June 2008); published Nick Hern Books; longlisted for The John Whiting Award.
PC: What led you to become a playwright?
SW: It was quite a slow process. I didn’t grow up in a particularly theatrical culture. I grew up in the Midlands and there was very little theatre in Rugby, Coventry. I was from a working class family, I didn’t make much theatre, there was one school play a year and the year I was in it the school hall burnt down so that didn’t happen. In some respects it is the very last thing that I should have ended up doing. I was very interested, from a young age, in films, I watched a lot of films, I watched a lot of television: Plays for the Day and the like.
PC: Did you start writing at University?
SW: Yes. Things really started when I went to University. I went to Oxford and I read English in the eighties and the very first week, almost by default, I was brought into a group in my college to write a play, they wanted me to write, I don’t know why they wanted me to write, why they even thought I could do it but somehow that task fell on to me. It was during the miners’ strike, I wrote a play about a miners’ strike set in Anglo-Saxon England, it was a comedy. It was in this competition called Cuppers and on the board was Katie Mitchell, Patrick Marber, I mean, these are the networks aren’t they, and it did really well. It didn’t actually win but it almost won. Everybody then said, “You should write some more plays.” And I did, I tried to and I stopped, I didn’t write anything for years.
PC: What did you do instead?
SW: After university I became a teacher and I ended up teaching drama, as well as English. All of a sudden I found myself in a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire and I was teaching a load of kids, wanting to put on a production and I thought I’d better write it because it has got to have lots of young people in it – thirty, forty kids, so I wrote a play about the Victorian era. That was okay, that went down well. Then I directed loads of other stuff and I wrote something else. I learnt a lot from my colleagues actually; I had some amazing colleagues at that school who had come from that background. I was teaching theatre studies so I really thought I’ve got to know lots about Stanislavski, Brecht, Artaud. This was all new to me really and so I really got into that.
PC: Did you study playwriting as well?
SW: Yes. I went to Birmingham University in the early nineties. The second or third year of the MA in playwriting that was set up by David Edgar there, the only course of its kind at the time. I couldn’t have made a better decision. I went to Birmingham, one of my colleagues was Sarah Kane, I was a very good friend with her. David Edgar was teaching so every week we had different tutors: Trevor Griffths, Arnold Wesker, Howard Brenton. An unbelievable bunch of people just coming in to chat to us about scenes. It was chaotic but it was fantastic, it was an incredible year – 92/93.
PC: What do you feel that course gave you?
SW: That got a lot of stuff out of my system that I think that I had an overintellectuallised idea of what playwriting was, I think I thought it was very theoretical. I didn’t seem to take seriously things like Chekhov and all these writers that I have come to love because I just didn’t know enough about the theatre. I started to pay attention to things that I would have traduced before: naturalism. Trevor Griffiths was one of the people that I found most exciting during that year because he was a very intelligent man, a very underestimated writer, we only had him for an afternoon but he talked about Chekhov, he translated The Cherry Orchard and it was an incredibly exciting three hours. And Sarah Kane, meanwhile, talking about why you do things, I mean, I was 27, she was 22 and she was so alive and so exciting as a person that in a way just brought me back to first principles. I need to think more clearly about the excitement of theatre and the immediacy of it and so on.
PC: You seem to have had lots of different experiences to prepare you for writing plays.
SW: It was a long journey, I think it is worth saying. I think that that has been a big influence on me: that it took me so long. I am a slow learner in a way. It might sound surprising to you but I feel like it takes me a long time to really get things. I can sort of make it seem like I have understood them quite quickly but actually to really understand it, it takes longer. It took a while to work out that theatre was for me and partially that was about making theatre, teaching theatre, which is why those things have been so closely linked for me.
PC: What were your first steps to get work on after the Birmingham course?
SW: I sent out my work to the main new writing theatres and if they don’t get back to me I’m barking up the wrong tree. I’ve either got it or I haven’t, I’m not going to send it to everybody. I’m sent it to the Royal Court, the Bush, Hampstead Theatre and that was about it. And they all got back in one form or another. Whilst they weren’t saying, “You are amazing!” They were saying things that that seemed to register, I seemed to have something to offer.
PC: What did those contacts lead to?
SW: I was too old for the young playwriting schemes and all that kind of stuff but Hampstead were the first theatre that said come and meet. Actually I owe a lot to them, particularly under Jenny Topper as they were then. A brilliant literary manager they had called Ben Jancovich, who became a very good friend of mine, without him I wouldn’t be talking to you today. Many things flowed from that for me: getting to know Hampstead, becoming their resident writer, seeing your work fail but also seeing people’s excitement about working on certain aspects of it, working with actors.
PC: How old were you at the point you started working with a theatre?
SW: I’m starting to do that in my early thirties so a lot of other writers would have been doing it ten years before that possibly, part of that learning curve. We’re talking late nineties, early noughties, when the theatre scene is changing very rapidly, there was a big burst of energy of In-Yer-Face, which is when I was starting to write. I wasn’t part of that world. It was people a little bit younger than me, taking more drugs, lived slightly more apparently outré lives. I was coming out of a very different context and in some ways my reference points were a bit earlier. I was still interested in the previous generation: the Hares, the Brentons, the Edgars and the Churchills, the Barkers. I have often thought I’m slightly out of kilter with what is happening but I suppose everybody feels that frankly.
PC: What were your early experiences with Sarah Kane on that course?
SW: I can tell you exactly how it began: I was late for my first seminar I had gone for a walk into Birmingham thinking that I was nearer to the campus than I actually was. Unfortunately, it is an all too common experience for me. I walked into the room and David Edgar was sitting across the room in his usual black jacket looking like a Marxist from the 1970s. And a young woman in a leather jacket with short blonde hair and a piercing was sitting by the door. Very beautiful, she was an extremely beautiful person Sarah, ‘Saz’ as we knew her and I just thought, “You’re a really nice person.” She was very friendly; I think that she found it quite a traumatic year.
PC: Why was it traumatic?
SW: She’d been this incredibly successful, very bright student at Bristol University, I think she did a year doing other stuff possibly. Then came to Birmingham, the only game in town at that point. It felt, I think, for her, quite male, quite middle aged. There were only three women on that course that year. She just wouldn’t take, you know, Sarah’s gay, she was a woman and she was angry about that kind of stuff. She also didn’t want to be identified with certain things too. She was an extremely political person but in a much more immediate way than me. It was different to anything I’d experienced as “politics” before.
PC: What was the different kind of politics?
SW: It was about confrontation. There was an amazing weekend for instance, where Terry Johnson came along and led a workshop. He workshopped one of Sarah’s monologues and he just said, “This isn’t really working.” He gave an action in the monologue, perfectly valid things but he did it in a rather unfortunately arrogant fashion, it must be said, she was seething. We all went to a party and he was there. Sarah just let loose. She wasn’t prepared to just take that in a way that we often do in pedagogical situations, thinking: “I’m the problem, not them.” She didn’t think that. Not in an arrogant way but in a way that was about politics I think. Next thing, she wrote a play, which I think is the genesis of Blasted, a short play with a woman, with a gun to a man’s head. A young woman and a middle aged man I think and made them workshop that. It followed everything he wanted: action and objectives and so on, but it was obviously an attack on him and he didn’t like that as you can imagine. The next day we did a workshop with a very nice guy called Richard Pinner and he did one of those things: “Let’s all do an image of how we feel after this workshop weekend.” Sarah got into the middle of the room, sat on a chair, picked up a piece of script, hawked and gobbed a huge greeny on to this script, put it on the chair and walked out of the space. He just went, “Thank you Sarah.”
PC: It must have been fascinating to see those moments of inspiration. Were there other notable inspirations for her work?
SW: She was a very bright person: she was reading Jane Austen and Hardy. I was thinking, “Wow, she’ll be reading all this kind of Pynchon and Derrida.” But she just wasn’t interested with that. Both of us went to see a Forced Entertainment show, I was really into them, I thought they were really important, but she hated their guts. She really hated them with a loathing, whereas Howard Barker for her was a total hero. That visceralness, is what I’m talking about. We’ve all got different characters, that’s not my character. That visceralness came out of something that wasn’t always about equilibrium outside her and obviously, ultimately led to disastrous mental illness and suicide, which is an incredible loss. I still think now, “Where would she be now?” She died in ’99 and I think it was a long time ago. She’d be in her forties. What sort of plays would she be writing now? I don’t buy all that bullshit, burn in hell, rock ‘n’ roll sort of stuff but I do think the energy was incredible. The care for dialogue, the care for each line, she was a poet of the theatre.
PC: And her energy didn’t always fit with the course?
SW: Yes, she was going against the grain of the course. The course was much more structure and objective and narrative. Actually it was much more open than that, David is very good at that sort of thing but he also has a broad church. But that course was just the opposite of where she was coming from. Indeed, she got into quite a lot of conflict with the course and she wrote the first act of Blasted, that was her graduation piece. It is an incredible privilege to have been in the room when that is first performed. I can’t tell you the tension that led up to it. There was something about the uncensored quality of it, the racist jokes, the use of the word ‘cunt’ all the way through it. That word was almost taboo within left wing circles because of a certain type of propriety that came out of feminism and the like. She was a feminist but she didn’t want any of that, she believed in total freedom of expression and that was quite scary at that point.
PC: Why was it so scary?
SW: In a way, the left had created this coy, gentle version of how we handle these transformations, how we respond to feminism and so on and she was having none of that, which made a lot of people that were coming from that eighties period hostile to her: she was not respecting that debate. I think she was, I think she was very aware of it. That hostility led her increasingly to non-naturalism altogether, whereas, at that time, if you think about Blasted it was the purest expression of naturalism imaginable. For me the jury is out on the quality of some of those plays, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t acknowledge an incredible force that they had: the power of her personality comes out of her work in a very interesting way.
PC: You get the sense that, like Brecht, every one of Sarah’s plays was an experiment: testing her idea of theatre. The plays are as much for the writer as the audience. Perhaps that is why the jury is out on the quality of the plays. More and more experimental work is created collectively. This can lead to dialogue being overlooked. How do you teach dialogue?
SW: I think it is a bit of a weak spot in teaching, perhaps coming out of my own slight sense that dialogue is something that is intrinsic to a person, that you channel in the act of playwriting. I think the things that we tend to talk about when teaching playwriting are the things that are perhaps more easy to identify and more separable from the personality of the given writer: structure and things like that. You’re right to pick up on dialogue which is perhaps the dividing line between a body of work that identifies itself as devising in the theatre and a body of work that identifies itself as writing in the theatre. I think that is where the most unhelpful term here is ‘play’ writing, perhaps if we talked about writing for the theatre we could be more inclusive in our account of that and as you say trying to be a little bit like that.
PC: In The Secret Life of Plays you describe Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment and Simon McBurney as playwrights. They would usually be considered devisers leading a collective. Why did you want to refer to them as playwrights?
SW: The Secret Life of Plays is quite belligerent because it is a defence of playwriting at a point when I thought, and I think a lot of playwrights felt, that we need to argue for ourselves. There is always a risk that the specific value of the task of playwriting and the role of the playwright is always in question in the theatre. Theatre, whether it is in the UK or elsewhere can imagine that it would get along without writers: “Oh well, we’ll sort that bit out later.” Or: “We’ll create it by other means and we’ll knock a bit of dialogue up.” Okay do that, that’s absolutely fine, I’m not going to stop you. Sometimes I have enjoyed that work but don’t tell me that it is writing because I think writing is a responsibility. Sarah is a classic example: somebody who won’t compromise, maybe that is too strongly placed but a playwright is somebody who is not going to seek to compromise. What you want from writing is a very clear vision of the world which is expressed in dialogue. The dialogue is not just about, “I like the feel of that dialogue.” It is something to do with what is happening with the dialogue; the way that it shows you how people behave; the way it shows you about how life is. If you think about the really characteristic voices, whether they be Pinter or Caryl Churchill or, I’ve just been reading again Annie Baker’s wonderful play, The Flick, it is all in there, in the interactions. That is what dialogue is, it is not necessarily line by line it is something about the space between the lines, the rhythms. I always fly a flag for dialogue because I think it is strangely undervalued.
PC: Why do you think it is undervalued and why is it so important?
SW: There is a whole discourse in screenwriting: “Dialogue’s not important. Dialogue’s the last thing you do.” This idea that writers, who aren’t ‘real’ writers, sort of pootle around with words when they should be structurally engineering their stories. I despise that approach to writing because really good writers like Martin Crimp would say until they can hear the play, they haven’t got anything. The idea of sitting down and working it all out and then fitting the dialogue in is a lot of nonsense because dialogue is about action, it is about the energy in the play. If I want to write in television, God knows I’ve tried, we have to play that game, I’ll write a beat sheet, I’ll write an outline but I don’t believe a word of it. How can I understand the next scene unless I have written the first scene. It seems to me that it has to be so specific what you’re writing. When you’re writing a play, unless it is exactly like that, the next scene won’t exist. The idea that you could hammer it all out in the abstract with any degree of confidence is false. That is just the production talking, that is somebody who wants to control the story rather than a writer who has to get through it minute-by-minute, second-by-second, word-by-word to get to the next word.
PC: How do you evangelise about it in your teaching?
SW: I look at different ideas of dialogue: I often use a bit of Mamet’s play The Old Neighbourhood, which has an extremely brilliant two page scene between brother and sister and you just know everything about them through that scene and yet nothing is told you directly. There is barely a stage direction; there is no visual thing mentioned. It is all in the drifting offs and the rhythms and the subtle communications and the pauses and the who is speaking most and who is not. That is where you get to the heart of it. People who care about that will be good playwrights.
PC: How can teachers encourage ambitious young playwrights and theatre makers to care?
SW: Actually, if schools could look more at plays and how their students can find ways of creating wholly original pieces of storytelling, that would be really great and sometimes it does happen. My son is doing GCSE Drama at the moment and I’d like to see more of it but I can definitely see that impulse more there than when I was a classroom teacher, it was almost like, “Don’t even bring a play into the classroom, it is going to really frighten people. It’s not about words!” There is all this crap about: “It is not about words.” Why not?
PC: I think time can be a massive constraint and the way that more passive English lessons have taken ownership of play texts and the written word. The time it takes to be persuasive and win over a group to the practical exploration of texts doesn’t necessarily fit with the exam factory model. Exam boards are really emphasising practical exploration of play texts in Drama and Theatre now. However texts are still linked with written exams. To bring us back to your process: how do you make a start if it is not an emphasis on structure?
SW: The process begins when I can start to imagine a scene, which is often about somebody wanting to do something but also I’m excited by the language of that scene, I’m excited by the energy. Everything is about energy in the theatre. That is what you are seeking as a writer. What is exciting to you? What is exciting to me? What excites the body of the actor? What excites the audience’s body? It is about this circuit of energy that you are trying to create so even the way in which you start to write something should come out of excitement I think.
PC: Do you begin a research phase after that initial excitement about what you have imagined?
SW: So with research, often what I am doing, I think my USP sometimes is turn boring things into exciting things and some people might say boring things stay boring things in my hands. I think at my best that has been the journey for me because I am looking for where drama isn’t necessarily located which I find dramatic. Areas which I think are latently dramatic but I need to ignite them for the audience and the actors and so on. An In-Yer-Face cliché play is most people jacking up in a flat and shagging each other. All very exciting stuff, or is it? There is a bit of me that’s thinking, “Why is that exciting? Is that just about you trafficking, clichéd popular culture images of lifestyle which somehow offer a grungy glamour for the audience?” There is no such play, so that is okay, I am not slagging anybody off! My direction has always been the other direction it has always been, “Okay if you think that is exciting, I want to find something else which is not exciting to you, which I am going to make exciting.”
PC: Is it just through a thorough research process that you discover the excitement?
SW: It is about going into the whole thing so much that you start to find the points of excitement. Getting so immersed in something that you care about it completely as those involved with it also cared and then you can locate the energy in it. As soon as I can imagine something I am ready to write it. I think that is the point isn’t it? You’re priming your imagination to find that little aperture that you can see.
PC: Is that something that you have been through with your new play at the Donmar?
SW: Yes, it’s about the SDP which were a sort of sect within the Labour Party in the eighties, who broke free of the Labour Party, the so-called ‘Gang of Four’ 1981, January 25th. The play is set on the day that they jump. Partially it is exciting because the Labour Party is in an enormous fix right now. There are various people that are possibly having those thoughts but are not able to make that change. There is a unparalleled conflict at the heart of the party. We’re in a position where the left is so badly needed but is everywhere absent. It is an absolute bottom point, it seems to me, in politics. I have never been in such a bleak place. I wanted to write into that.
PC: How do you channel that bleakness into a play?
SW: You question your own existential feelings about the world? What are you feeling scared about, desperate to know more about? If I am feeling that, I suspect the audience might go with me. So I suddenly started thinking, “I don’t want to write about Jeremy Corbyn, I don’t want to write about the Labour Party now.” I think, “Okay, what about then? Is that the same vibe or is that something different?”
PC: What resources do you draw upon when developing your ideas?
SW: I can meet people, which I have done. Also I have got all their books, their autobiographies, all these dusty big books. Nothing could be less exciting than those books and initially I picked them up with a heavy heart thinking, “What the fuck have I done? This is dead. This is done with.” But slowly and incrementally, you read and you read and you read again and you read again, you don’t actually read the whole book, you read the bit that really matters to you and you read it and read it and read it, think about it and think about it. The very first scene in the play, which is David Owen in the middle of the night talking about an operation he undertook with a child. I thought, “That is the image.” This man who stuck a needle into a two year old boy’s spine; that is the sort of man that is going to seek to destroy the Labour Party or at least to transform it into something new, who knows how urgent it is. I could write that. Then I think, “Right, what is happening the next morning?” So one scene breeds another.
PC: What other questions do you ask of the research material to guide your early choices?
SW: What is the situation where people cannot help but act? So much of life is like today, after Trump won last night people are waffling around thinking, “What should I do?” And that is the boring bit. But then there is the next day and you think, “I’m going to do this. What is in the way?” And who is in the way? Suddenly you are in the presence of the story. I think it is keeping that liveness. The worst thing for a play is to approach it like an academic. Colleagues of mine, academics, who are friends, would suggest to me that my research process is not dissimilar from their’s. I accept that but my feeling is that I reserve the right not to do well, that my research process is not about knowing things, it is about finding things. It is a very single minded thing that you are tunnelling down into something until you find something that excites you. Hopefully it then connects with the audience. I mean Limehouse happens to be a fact based piece. The last couple of plays have been but I won’t always write those plays and I haven’t always written those plays. I just happen to think that right now, what is exciting me is finding the fiction in fact. Finding the imaginative density of that. It is not my intention to keep doing that.
PC: When you say you imagine your work, how do you does it look in your imagination? Do you imagine it quite cinematically? Do you imagine it quite realistically? Or do you imagine it on a stage?
SW: That is very interesting. It obviously depends on what I am writing. I think that theatre is about imagining constraint and imagining within that. I don’t imagine being in the audience sitting watching it but it does seem to me really important to get the boundaries in your mind clear, the constraints to action. I think there is a degree to which that lovely line from Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination compact.
And he goes on to talk about imagination needing a local habitation and a name. Which is a lovely quote and I think that that is absolutely bang on. As soon as you can say, “They exit here; they come on there; it is this time in the morning; there are these people on the stage and not others.” The scene starts to come to you. It might not start that way, I definitely think you probably start with something that is a little bit more boundary-less but you run aground quite quickly. As soon as you start adding in those boundaries which are, of course, the obstacles. They’re are the things where the limits of the character’s world, the story grows, I mean it just grows. It is going to bed at night and running through the play. But it is very interesting if I can imagine it clearly, I know I am on to something. As soon as I start to find it really difficult to remember everything in my plays as I imagine it, it is actually because I haven’t quite thought it through enough yet. I know actors find that well-written lines go into the memory quicker. I certainly think that a well-structured play will be easier to remember too. I have got into the habit, when I go and see a films or plays, to try and think through that structure very quickly afterwards: how did I get from one point to another? I saw I, Daniel Blake at the weekend and I think I could go through every moment of that film. I think that that is a good sign. If you know that this bit definitely comes before that bit, it has clearly all worked.
PC: Is there anything else that supports your imagination of a play in development?
SW: The process of casting is very helpful to me. If I am lucky enough to be in that situation I can start to move that actor around, Simon Russell Beale or whoever, if I am so fortunate to have him again. Generally, I don’t start with that, I think the imagination in the theatre is both open and closed, it is quite a mixture of quite specified things and quite open things and that is perhaps the way it differs from screenwriting. On the one hand you have got to still be open because everything will change but you’ve got to map it in the first instance quite precisely. I’m not a novelist, I don’t write what clothes people are wearing and stuff like that, whereas, I suppose when you are writing a novel you need that level of texture to even get anywhere. That shows you the level that you imagine something else, but when you imagine a play, you are imagining something else, you are imagining atmospheres and pressures and stuff that people do to each other.
PC: Imagining the play must lead you to stage directions. How do you decide what stage directions to include so as not to interfere with the director?
SW: Going back to the general question of stage directions, there was a school of thought amongst directors and some people I have worked with where they claimed they crossed out all the stage directions that a writer put in and then add in their own as it were. I think that is quite unforgivable. Sarah Kane is interesting with this because she was extremely assiduous with her stage directions. When you look at some of her plays you realise that fifty percent of the play might be stage directions. Annie Baker, again, has extraordinarily sustained stage directions without which there is nothing. In The Flick there is an amazing scene where one of the characters puts on a bit of Jay Z and starts dancing around as if, in an abandoned cinema. It is a pain, the stage directions are incredibly specific and I remember it very vividly from the production but it is a pleasure to read as a stage direction because it is not superfluous.
PC: And how about the actor?
SW: I think the boundaries are that you don’t give notes. I never say “angrily”, “poignantly”, I try to be light with the emotional colouring of my stage directions particularly when it refers to the actor’s performance of a line or action. I’m trying to be quite objective. Other people aren’t, so there are different economies of stage writers but I know that I probably have more than some but less than others. One of the things that was a joy in Temple as a production and which I’m really seeking in my writing was moments where somebody’s alone, largely the Dean on stage, moments where he is literally in that room and we are with him and nothing is necessarily happening and yet something is and that needs to be written in. There is a scene, which I am very pleased with, she gives him some flapjack and he drinks his coffee. It is a very interesting moment because, my mother-in-law, she is a very wise person, she said that was a scene of communion. That is kind of deliberate, those kind of metaphors, which are lightly done, hopefully, but nevertheless have a point where you imaginatively engage with it in the audience. How could you write that without writing the stage directions?
PC: I think it is a delicate balance for the writer and one that is not always achieved by aspiring writers.
SW: The problem with stage directions is, yes, one of commentary, we are not here to add our frustrated directorial commentary, we not here to perform the role of the designer. We have to remember that these are, yes for the reader, but more for our theatrical collaborators and sometimes we are saying to them that this is a long wordless moment and we need to see it. You can deliver it any which way you want, I’m not going to say, “Step. Stop. Pause. Move.” There is a certain type of hyper-controlling stage direction, although, I do love those Beckett plays. But at the same time respect my senses as a writer, that is part of my theatrical vocabulary. I am a very dialogue driven writer and probably a very wordy writer. I am conscious that that’s what I need to fight in my plays. Those moments of stage directions is where I do that.
PC: One of your stage directions stood out for me. It is in Temple: the Dean goes to tidy up, but doesn’t. It is a fascinating unfinished action.
SW: There you have his whole character. Hopefully not laid on with a trowel but just in these little moments of faltering action or attempts at good will, a lot is expressed. I think the task is to keep everything in view at the same time. That is the really difficult thing of playwriting. You often get a clump of stage directions at the beginning and then a bunch at the end and then they are gone for pages and you think, “What? Are they just standing there?” They’ve still got bodies, they’re still in an environment and they’re still doing stuff.
PC: Are there any examples of effective use of stage directions that you draw upon?
SW: I think that what we can still learn from the Ibsens and the so forths, is the way in which the script is a score of physical and verbal gestures and that they should keep coming. I think that flow of material objects on and off the stage is part of the seduction of the imagination of the audience. Even someone like Brecht, if you look at Mother Courage, he is very precise about that kind of stuff: who is setting up a canteen over here? Who has got a little box of fortune telling cards over here? Kattrin is on the wagon cleaning her boots. There is usually multi-dimensions at work within any given moment in Mother Courage, verbally, non-verbally and so on. I’m sure you can realise them in a million different ways but you need to start from them. The production shouldn’t just dispense with that stuff. It can say, “I am going to honour that in another way.” But it shouldn’t say, “That is just you waffling, I am going to do my own shit there.” Why? Who are you? Have you written the play? No! But, of course, you can always surprise the writer and give them something gorgeous back: some of those stage directions will have evolved in rehearsal. There is no doubt something is in the wrong place or something that you can’t capture in writing that can only be done between you, the actor and the director. There is no doubt that a script is not an entity in itself and we should always remember that.
PC: Status seems particularly important in your plays. The arrival of the students at the end of Little Platoon seems to subvert the status that has been established. How does status inform your early imaginings and the development of actions and obstacles?
SW: That is an interesting question. It is useful to know that I wrote that scene for a two play Education and Schools season at The Bush. The other play was The Knowledge by John Donnelly, which is an excellent play if you don’t know it, which is of course about schools, it would be great to see that in schools because it is an outrageous play. The four young actors that played the teenagers were the centre of that play and there was the idea to use them in Little Platoons. It was great, a sort of hand grenade to throw into this largely middle class play about people setting up a school. I would never normally bring a whole bunch of new characters on in the last twenty minutes of a play.
PC: You mean in terms of practicality and getting your play staged. I think it is a brave decision. The play doesn’t build to a massive climactic moment but I think that the students’ arrival gives a shift in tone that foregrounds the question: “Who are we doing this for?
SW: The equivalent in Temple, which never happens, would be if a bunch of Occupy people suddenly burst through the door. Lizzy is quite distinct from them but she brings some of their energy into the play. It goes back to the thing that I mentioned early on, my interest in closed worlds if you like. I actually think, as we have experienced in this terrible, catastrophic election of Trump today, part of the problem of contemporary life is indeed about the incommunicability of areas of society to each other: the closure that is occurring, the shutting down of connection, connected tissue between people, people and parties, countries, you can see it at every level. On the one hand everything has opened up to this great gale of global change, on the other hand everything gets closed down, things are increasingly inaccessible to us. I think that is fatal for democracy and fatal for politics in general.
PC: So, beyond the make-up of the company, why did you choose to open up that closed world in the second act of Little Platoons?
SW: Little Platoons is an interesting one to pick on because, whilst it is a very specific play about free schools and Britain in the early days of the coalition government, in a way it tells us something else, which is, in a way, a big preoccupation of mine, as somebody who is a latecomer to the middle classes but conscious of: what does it mean to be middle class? I think that very identity is under assault, you might argue. Still there is this notion that there are these people with a bit more power than other people who are making decisions about other peoples lives, be they teachers, people in higher education, politicians and so on, often the people in the audience. That is where my politics comes into the process I suppose, I am interested in being quite forensic about what we think we are doing, ‘we’ of the liberal left. I’m not interested in the bad guys necessarily, I think they are all too clear. I’m more interested in the problem about trying to be good. Little Platoons is a classic example of that because what can be a better idea than a bunch of parents taking it upon themselves in the middle of a very, sort of, divided city, to say we’re going to start again and make up a school? We’ve been given a green light from the government. We’re enraged by the education that we see about ourselves, we’ve got a great bunch of ideas, into our life walks a disenchanted teacher who is recovering from a divorce, she’s got this bug bear about culture being downplayed in schools and so, hey presto, let’s make a school. Great. However, one thing that is a very important corrective about classroom kids is they aren’t going to be what you hope they’re going to be. They’re always going to be ten steps ahead of you. When those kids come in it is a bit like verfremdungseffect in Brecht.
PC: Are there other similar examples outside of Brecht?
SW: A great example is the second act of The Cherry Orchard, everyone is waffling about life, the universe and everything and then along comes this guy who is on his way to a prison colony. Chekhov knew about those people because he went to visit them. He just rocks up and says, “Have you got any money?” Because they’re all outside. It is a brilliant moment. He sings a little song and he walks off and we never see him again. Closed worlds suddenly turned inside out by those people. It throws the whole map of power because you are suddenly looking at everything through a different lens.
PC: Those unexpected shifts in power within a play’s structure seem particular pertinent today. Are you drawn to those closed worlds so that you can create those shifts?
SW: I’m very conscious of the limitations of my world and recognising that, in theatre, you almost want to leave a hole in your stories where the light comes. I’m not a member of the Church of England and I never will be. I’m very interested in it, I became a lot more interested in it when I started writing Temple, but I’m interested in it as a moral lens onto the times. Occupy actually interested me more but I felt to write directly about them was a less interesting decision in a funny sort of way. Plus they are a reaction to something, I know that Occupy was there to create new values but in some respects it was more like a big question mark dropped into the world. Who is under pressure from that question? That drew me into the hands of the Church of England. But that world is incredibly closed, so Lizzy the PA, she is our way in. I hope she’s a person in her own right, she certainly was a great presence in the show. It seems to be important that that world won’t reveal itself without some kind of mechanism.
PC: Temple is a play in real time and Little Platoons has that long single scene second act to contrast the multiple scenes in the first act. They are very exposing of character and action. How do you make those major structural decisions? Are they conscious choices or do they appear more organically during the process?
SW: Time management, to use a banal phrase, is what you do as a playwright. You are very aware of time, it is something that is of course true in a film but it is actually more true in the theatre. The nature of shared time between the audience and the performance. It is intrinsic to why theatre will always be so different. A feeling of being lost in that time, and given over to that time is incredible. I got very interested in real time. It goes back to a play I was writing before that which was called Fast Labour which was about migration. I wanted the first half to be very epic storytelling theatre, in the jumping, episodic mode of Brecht. I then wanted the second half to change the lens to a family crisis drama set in one place as this world falls apart. It was a similar dynamic to Little Platoons. Every section of The Contingency Plan is in real time, particularly in the second play Resilience. I wanted to try that again in Temple and it is just that.
PC: The bells in Temple foregrounds time in a really stark way which is another stage direction and idea for production that is completely rooted in what you’re doing.
SW: Yes. I think partially it is about thinking about who we are now. I think we, as a society, have Attention Deficit Disorder, we find it very difficult to concentrate. We’re not required to, culturally in many cases. Television, which I am a great consumer of, just diverts, diverts, diverts. Even at its best it is flinging stuff at us all the time, like flinging fuel on top of a fire trying to keep us busy. The internet likewise, things within things, within things and you’re lost within seconds. We are all afflicted by that it seems to me. Theatre is one of the last places where we can go deeper together. You can do it with a novel but that is different. The idea of experiencing the properties of time, building up of a situation and then following it through. Other people would say, “No don’t do that because theatre has got to reflect all this new attention deficit.” I think, “No way.” If theatre starts doing that it just becomes part of that same problem that we have with sitting still and thinking and experiencing. I think the other thing that we’re trying to deal with, as writers of theatre and makers of theatre, is to seize peoples imaginations and hold them. People need to be immersed.
PC: That is fascinating in the current trend for large scale ‘immersive’ theatre.
SW: I think this notion of the immersive is taken to be really like a fairground ride almost. I think it is what theatre is anyway when it is well done. You need to sync people into it and then they’re there with the characters in a way that they are never in any other form. Temple, it was fascinating to watch that opening sequence and how the Dean gets his two telephone calls and we could hear the music outside, there are about five minutes before anybody speaks. I think that sense of being in the room with him, breathing in, listening to sound, watching an actor. You can watch the audience settling into it imaginatively, various things hooking into the imagination.
PC: Do you think that real time plays and stage directions take away the director’s autonomy?
SW: No. I actually think it gives autonomy particularly to actors to make a real time sequence work you are handing over power to people on stage every night and that was another reason I wanted to do it. I love watching actors negotiate us through that, they become the editors and the directors in a way. The director just has to make sure that they have the through line really clear. I actually think it foregrounds theatre in a way. You can get totally absorbed in the situation.
PC: What do you mean by absorbed?
SW: Not in a narcotic way, a term Brecht uses to describe an audience totally hoodwinked by naturalism. I actually think that is not our problem now. Naturalism is so alien to us that it is much harder work than it used to be. We don’t just take it for granted: we think, “Oh that’s interesting.” We don’t see stuff like that. I see it in films I admire too. A lot of film is restricting what is done so that people can really feel it. Not just more camera angles and more music. So that is why I got into that mode of working. Funnily enough the new play jumps but it is all one day. I’m not dogmatic about it. This one has a different rhythm. Temple is about, “Oh, shit. Here comes twelve thirty.” Everything building to that head and a man who doesn’t want it to happen. So you’ve got those two currents of time at work in it. My new play is about four people who want to do something and they’re getting in each other’s way and then time is passing, then whoosh, “We’re okay, we’re going to be fine.”
PC: The Secret Life of Plays highlights important debates and discussion that I think are tied in with what we have been talking about. You write that “there is a reality in any play and the writer is the final arbiter.” You mention the actor and the direction but you say the final truth is the writers. What about the audience?
SW: I think that what I was getting at there is responsibility for those kind of questions. The audience will make their own truths of what they experience. It will resonate differently for them, hopefully they share the experience as one. That is one of the responsibilities of a writer: to take the whole audience with you, not just bits that you happen to like. Bits that get you. That was a big journey for me to work out that an audience needs to move together and learning to make that possible for them without feeling that’s a fascistic thing, that it is actually about the clarity of your emotional writing. I think the theatre fails when the audience aren’t all travelling together. Some of them are looking at others and thinking why are they laughing so much.
PC: How is control negotiated through rehearsals and previews?
SW: What you get is: a writer writes a play, the director asks them questions, they have to reckon with those questions and think about them, possibly rewrite the play, the designers ask questions, the actor asks them questions. So the whole process of rehearsal is everybody making sure that they have their own vision of that truth that is being created by that play. You’re right it is a participatory truth that is being created and that makes room for the audience to bring in their own contribution and yes the audience may change the focus very drastically, in a way that is quite alarming, “They think this bit is funny, we didn’t anticipate that.” That goes back to the writer still. It might be that the actor says, “I’m doing it a bit wrong.” But it might be then that there is something in the writing that is encouraging that. It might reveal something that the writer didn’t realise that they were doing.
PC: That is a pretty daunting prospect for a writer!
SW: We are revealed in the way that we had no idea through plays, we are all alert to that. David Hare says it very well in Obedience Struggle and Revolt, he talks about theatre as an act of judgement, you are being judged and you’re there, you might think that you’re sitting at the back of the theatre, but you’re on stage far more than the actors in a funny sort of way, you are naked in front of that audience and they’re seeing into you and all your short-comings. It is very clear and very scary.
PC: You are exposing yourself in the writing.
SW: Yes. You’re saying this is true about the world. It is absolutely possible that you could say that and everybody would think he knows what he’s talking about, it feels right, it feels true to me, let’s do it and then it turns out to be wrong, fundamentally wrong, not just a little bit wrong but that is a complete misreading of how reality is. Who will be blamed for that? The writer. I think rightly so. Unless somebody has disagreed with them and got it and taken it in another direction. I think that is what I am getting at there.
PC: It raises questions of the ethics of theatre.
SW: Yes, if I say something in Little Platoons which is not true about coalition government policy or how you set up a free school or the ethnic composition of west London and the audience knows that all better than me, they have a right to laugh at my play and hold it in contempt. That is not the actors fault and that’s not the director’s fault, they need to have asked better questions but I think that that is where you get into the idea of what really is collaboration in the theatre. Yes you can have a devised show where everybody is taking responsibility for research but I think sometimes my worry there is who is really answerable for that work? Everybody? Nobody? I think the writer, even just legally, they are in the spotlight, you know when my play gets read for the Donmar they increasingly have lawyers reading my script and they’re saying, “Can he stand up to this? Can he defend that?” That is partially because of what I am writing about. That tells us something about responsibility but I by no means mean that I own the truth. I am responsible for what we’re saying together. Particularly the fine level of the story, the lines and the characters and so on. I’m not responsible for how that is ultimately done.
PC: Do you think writers should be involved throughout the production?
SW: Any good production should involve me in the rehearsal process. Writers need to be involved where at all possible so that they can say “No, no, no that is a total misreading.” And if everybody else says, “That is really what you’re saying.” Then I need to think about that.
PC: In The Secret Life of Plays you say playwrights prevent the theatre simply becoming about itself. What is the danger of theatre becoming about itself?
SW: Well, I think that it is back to the context of the book where I am suggesting that there are forces that are, energies in the theatre that tend to sort of shut new-writing out, that it is not a natural thing. There are many cultures where it doesn’t exist actually: I had the pleasure of working in Italy four or five years ago and in both Milan and Bari, the reason that they asked me over was to know, “How do we create the possibility of new-writing for the theatre? We don’t have it.”
PC: Why do you think that is?
SW: It is lots to do with taste and culture and the fact that there is only funding for children’s theatre and there is no budget line for the writers so it is writer/directors, auteurs, devising. It is also the intellectual history of theatre that goes back to Commedia dell’arte. There were all sorts of reasons but one guy said it brilliantly, he said, “We’re running out of stories.” There is only so many times that I want to see King Lear. I may have reached peak King Lear actually as much as I adore it; I think it is the most important play. I have seen two or three in the last year, that is not good for you after a while. There is only a certain number of times I want to see Medea retold. But that is what happens when you start to remove writers from the equation.
PC: Re-interpretations of classic plays attract a particular kind of audience.
SW: Yes, I think theatre will disappear up its own arse if it doesn’t keep admitting new people into the theatre who have got new stories to tell. It is becoming an immensely middle class endeavour in the way that for one brief interval, from Joan Littlewood onwards, actually British theatre opened its doors to completely different constituencies. That was about a challenge to that world which came out of the welfare state and the post-war world. We’re seeing that window close.
PC: I see that in the actors that perform. Would you say they same of writers?
SW: There is no doubt that actors, all sorts of people, the theatre is becoming a really middle class place again, big time. The writers’ backgrounds, often they’re coming from, they’re all graduates; Arnold Wesker wasn’t a graduate, Pinter wasn’t a graduate. These people who are the most exciting writers came from a completely different context from Mike Bartlett, Duncan MacMillan, Steve Waters, I’m putting myself in the same camp. You shouldn’t have to take two courses and spend £9000 to write a good play, I think that is bullshit. If that is the only way to get people’s work on then we’re doing something wrong. There should be people out there who just say enough with this, this is a version of the lives that we’re living, here it is, do something with it, put it on. It should be so exciting and dangerous that theatres can’t resist it.
PC: Why do you think these new voices aren’t being heard?
SW: It is because of the way, when times get hard, theatres stop commissioning plays, they stop having writers in the building. It is happening now. It has happened actually even with the new writing theatres you notice a preponderance of American work. I like American plays but that is to do with the fact that those theatres haven’t paid a penny to develop that play; it is already a hit in America and they bring it over, sometimes they bring the production over. You start to realise they’re not taking responsibility for keeping the language of theatre open to new voices. Many theatres now don’t receive unsolicited scripts so they’re not looking for work from the outside: they groom their own writers. It sounds a bit sinister when put like that, I think that is excellent but at the same time I think there are the people that they won’t be aware of that should be allowed to just throw their work into theatres. Theatres should be able to react to that.
PC: How have they been able to react to that in the past?
SW: If you look at the history of theatre, and it is a trend I explore in The Secret Life of Plays, again and again, that is how it has changed, it is changed because, it could be a director and they think, “Enough with this, you’re doing it all wrong, I’m going to do it this way.” Or a producer too. But often they are doing that with a writer who is saying, “The stories are wrong, the way we tell stories is bullshit, it is lies, it is out of date. And the stories that are told are crap.” I think that we are at that point. I honestly think that there is a lot of really boring work in the theatre these days. I hate to say that because lots of people I love and know are involved in it and some people I have taught.
PC: That must be fascinating to see your students develop as writers.
SW: Yes but I’m very aware that a lot of the strong people I have taught are not on our stages and other writers are. I am one of them. What is that about? Is it the route from the talent to the realisation of that talent? The gap seems to be getting bigger and bigger. It is hard and it is often about staying power. It is about somebody having the wherewithal and the financial backing to somehow stay in the game just long enough to somehow just get noticed and bingo. That is what we need to be alert to.
PC: What else do you think we need to be alert to in contemporary theatre?
SW: I think the other danger is work that appeals to academics. I have to say there is a whole strand of work that is very easy to write about if you’re an academic. Plays aren’t so interesting to write about sometimes: they’re a bit sort of middle brow for some academics. I am intrigued by how certain types of work seem to fit where things are really at right now: “Does it fit the theoretical ideas I want to explore?” There are certain writers who don’t fit that pattern who don’t fit that conference, who don’t fit that approach to how we circulate theatre. Theatre studies is very broad brush, with academics looking for things to illustrate really quite tedious ideas that are constantly recycled: postdramatic theatre, whatever it is. Some of them are useful but often they become terrible, boring clichés that we should be ashamed of propagating. It fascinates me how you can almost make a career out of being that kind of theatre maker that fits campuses rather than the left behind.