Written and developed over a two year period, Happiness Ltd is my fourth full-length play. A co-production between New Model Theatre and the Bike Shed Theatre, supported by Theatre Royal Plymouth and Salisbury Playhouse and funded by Arts Council England, Happiness Ltd was directed by Jo Newman and toured to Exeter, Plymouth, London, Salisbury and Bristol.
After explaining a few times to family members and friends what exactly I’m getting up to with my life at the moment, I was keen to put together a short vlog which explained what a PhD (both as product and process) is for the uninitiated.
(What is a PhD Anyway? What does PhD Student life look like? | https://youtu.be/CpqFgR86plk)
This week I decided to take a deep dive into the work of Caryl Churchill, particularly looking at her work such as Love and Information and Seven Jewish Children where she makes use of unattributed dialogue in order to focus on an idea or concept rather than a character.
(Playwriting Tips: Caryl Churchill | The Dramaturgy of an Idea in Seven Jewish Children | https://youtu.be/zZQKecYla6w)
I had some wonderful news from Arts Council England a few days ago. In my latest vlog I’ve used that as a bit of an excuse to talk a little bit about my theatre practice and a couple of plays and shows I’m currently working on.
(Grants for the Arts, Hedgehogs, Headphones and Happiness Ltd | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3RW7idmToI)
I spent last week at TR2, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s education and production centre, with four actors, Tessa Mason, Liam Salmon, Lois Mackie and Justin Palmer, workshopping my new play Happiness Ltd.
It was a brilliant, inspiring and hugely informative week and I gathered up some reflections on my YouTube channel below.
To wrap up this period of development, supported by Arts Council England, we’re holding a staged reading at The Bike Shed Theatre this coming Monday 9th May at 3pm. It’s free and open to all so, if you’re in the area, do come along!
(Happiness Ltd | Development Week: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONQY1qsxgqI)
I’ve recently heard the brilliant news that Arts Council England will be supporting me in developing my new play, Happiness Ltd from the second draft, where it currently is, through to a completed play!
As part of this, I’m documenting my process through a series of YouTube videos which may or may not be incredibly cheesy.
Check out the first one below and let me know what you think!
(Playwriting Tips with Tom | Introduction: https://youtu.be/VAEoaTeJrZ0)
I’m currently wading through the thick sludge that lies between the first and second draft of any new play. From initial idea of the-play-currently-known-as Happiness Ltd to first draft, it’s been a fairly slow process – I know I can rush things and I wanted to take my time on this one. This will be my fourth full length play and the process is in many ways very different to when I sat on the charity shop-bought sofa in my student bedroom writing what would eventually become Static – I have the strange sense that I might finally know what I’m doing for a start. But in many ways it feels very similar.
For every hour spent beating fresh hell into my keyboard, another seems to be spent drafting emails and having phone calls in the hope of having some way of getting the words into the mouths of actors (there’s also a third hour which is spent playing Playstation but it’s a play about video games so… erm… erm… research!?!?). Which is why I’m incredibly excited that tomorrow I’m heading into a rehearsal room at Theatre Royal Plymouth with David Prescott, TRP’s Artistic Associate, and a bunch of professional actors for a closed reading of the play.
I have a feeling I might feel a little big-headed sat there listening to four actors read out words I’ve written to a total audience of two yet in any artistic process the safe space in which to iron out flaws is an important one. It’s essentially a chance for me to hear the dialogue out loud and find out what zings and what is more disagreeable to the ears. It’s also a chance to share the work with a group of artists who will be able to spend the day focussing on the journey of one character through the play, reporting on whether their journey feels complete and/or their decisions justified. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s about sharing the story with a few more people and finding out whether it’s one worth telling, whether it feels exciting, gripping, emotional or at all important.
Playwriting can often be an incredibly literary activity, sat in front of a computer scene impressing words onto digital paper. Days like tomorrow break that potentially dangerous routine and reignite the performativity in a playtext. So, if taking this one slightly slower leads to opportunities like this which allow me to improve this play and my practice as a playwright in the future, then I’m really excited to see what that may hold.
This article has the danger of making me sound like a bit of an arse. Although that’s probably a fairly good evaluation, I thought I’d preface with the disclaimer that this blog wasn’t inspired by anything in particular but by a general shift that I’ve sensed recently as much in my own work as anything I’ve seen (to the point of adding a sticky note to my computer monitor before the somewhat lacklustre adhesive let it fall to the floor).
I’m worried plays are becoming more boring. Or rather, I’m worried that playwrights aren’t taking enough care to avoid the one thing that can be fatal to a play. And it is certainly ‘plays’ (by which I mean here shows written by a writer and then staged by a creative team) that seem to be more prevelant on the diagnosis list than work made through other creative processes. When an ensemble or companies create work on their feet, anything ‘boring’ rarely makes it to the end of the day, but for the playwright sat solitary at a desk, it’s easier to let our greatest foe creep his way in to our writing.
We’re consuming narrative from increasing sources. TV, film, books, video games, theatre etc etc. Each medium has a particular area where it shines and Theatre seems to have identified BIG ISSUES as the thing which it’s going to hold close to its chest and run with. This is something I am totally okay with and perhaps the work that, as an audience member, I seek out most. For where better to discuss the large stuff than in a communal space among others? Yet this comes with its dangers.
The Economy on its own isn’t a barrel of laughs and Voting Reform doesn’t come out of the packet as a fun evening out. Now, I’m under no illusion that to say that they have the potential to be is in any way prophetic, but its somewhat harder to find the warmth, humour and character in Society’s Relationship with Religion as it is in a man walking into a pet shop with a dead parrot in his hand. I don’t think anyone sets out to write a dry play about any of these topics but when starting from a theme more at home on BBC Parliament than BBC Two (or Three…), one has to tread carefully. When I think through my favourite plays, which
aren’t exactly a controversial collection, they all combine the BIG ISSUES with plenty of chuckles. Often I spent the majority of my time in the auditorium giggling and it isn’t until I have time to think it through later that I have time to find the life-changing observations of the nature of life.
So I’ve made a bit of a pledge to myself. Perhaps something I already thought I was doing but something which I’m now going to keep firmly in my conscious when writing (with or without the help of Post-It’s finest). I am introducing a programme of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions on Boring in my work. Even as a massive politics nerd, I would rather see a night full of nob-gags than a show which discusses something incredible but communicates it through a thick sludge of technical language or linguistic deconstructions of opposing arguments. Often, the line between playwright and polemicist becomes blurred, mainly because we’re a pretty angry bunch. But there’s a clear distinction – where polemicists turn people into arguments, we turn arguments into people. And people make nob-gags.
TV is undoubtedly currently delivering us some of the best storytelling. With more new work than film (which, as ever, loves a franchise) and a larger reach than literature or theatre. Although some would say human attention spans are dwindling towards barely being able to get through 140 characters before scrolling on, I’d argue that actually we’re beginning to respond better to longer, more involved storylines. My favourite piece of storytelling from any medium last year was The Last of Us which took me around 30 hours to play from beginning to end.
Yet, ever since it became possible to store huge amounts of data on DVD’s, we’ve drifted toward a culture of consuming whole series in one big gulp. The habit of devouring a whole box set of Lost or 24 in one weekend soon became the watching of an entire new release when it’s unceremoniously dumped on to Netflix like a gauntlet being thrown down in front of us.
Traditional TV outlets have tried to combat this by creating ‘event TV’, the phrase used to describe the latest series of Broadchurch, which was delivered to viewers in the what now seems turtle-like, episode-a-week manner. But there was an odd feeling to this when stellar series such as House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt were given to us as a whole set.
Over the last six months, I’ve gradually become a more avid comic book fan. Largely because I work in very dialogue-driven storytelling, I’ve found this visuals-first medium really exciting (and, with the right artist, often beautiful). But the thing that’s struck me most about following stories through comic books is the waiting. After reading an instalment of Hawkeye, The WalkingDead or Rasputin, I find myself waiting a month for the continuation.
Partly this is because comic books take a long time to make and, where a TV show can change artistic team between episodes, it would be much more jarring should the artist change mid-story arc in a comic series (Ultimate Spiderman did this for a couple of issues and it made me downright livid).
But I’ve grown to love this. Where the binge-watching of House of Cards does mean it’s easier to recognise call-backs to previous episodes, I find myself able to absorb a decent comic over the intervening month, mull over what has happened and predict what might follow.
None of this is really an issue in theatre as we tend to lock our audiences in a dark room and, at most, make them wait twenty minutes while they have a drink and a wee wee. But, in episodic storytelling, I think it would be a shame if we lost the joy, anguish and anticipation of waiting.
I LOVE research. Ever since my grandad (whose official title was something like King of the Family Historians) took me to the record office to uncover my incredibly dull heritage, I’ve found huge rewards in immersing myself in new worlds. Luckily, research is something which is bold, italicised and highlighted in a playwright’s ‘job’ description.
In retrospect, I’m not sure it was the family history that lit up my day with Grampy but the new world I entered inside that record office. A whole sub-culture of unwritten rules and best practises, specialised language and lingo. Like a less stubbly Indiana Jones, I found something fascinating in entering a world which initially seemed like a foreign country and slowly learning how it worked until I passed the citizenship test (in this, now slightly overstretched, metaphor the citizenship test is the operation of a microfiche reader).
Now, I’m currently writing a play about video games. More specifically about video game developers. Now, I don’t need an excuse to play more games, it’s safe to say I have a fair knowledge (particularly of games which came out around 4 months before whenever you’re reading this as that’s usually when their price drops) and at some point I really want to write a blog about video games as a medium for storytelling. But this play involved going behind the scenes a little and learning a bit of game design.
So, over the past week, alongside actually writing (and trying to beat my high score on Streets of Rage), I’ve been learning to write video games. If it means anything to you, I’ve been using Apple’s SpriteKit and the language Swift to write 2D sprite-based games for iOS and OSX. I’ve currently built one game which involved zombies (I’m a big Walking Dead fan) and another which is essentially Flappy Bird but the bird is the flaming head of Ed Miliband (I was particularly proud of this one).
And now I’ve found myself pretty hooked on the idea of writing a video game (probably more narrative-based than either of the ideas I flirted with above). This is classic me. My girlfriend would probably say I’m having another ‘phase’. She’s probably right.
Another character in my new play has a vlog. I suppose that means I’ll be starting a vlog soon because I simply can’t help myself (also I’m a massive narcisist and want you to know EXACTLY ALL MY THOUGHTS ABOUT STUFF). Look forward to my vlog.