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INTERVIEW: The NT's exciting new Double Feature writers

Throughout the summer, the National Theatre present four world premieres by four exciting writers, performed at The Paintframe - a one-off extraordinary pop-up performance environment. Run Riot caught up with the four writers, Sam Holcroft, Prasanna Puwanarajah, DC Moore, and Tom Basden to quiz them about their plays and what other cultural tips they recommend to the Run Riot readers.

The productions are presented in two double bills, a single group of performers and theatre-makers deliver these funny, scary and moving plays for today. Double Feature runs until 10 Sept at the National Theatre. www.double-feature.co.uk

SAM HOLCROFT
RR: Your new play examines a 'police state in crisis'. Was any of it inspired by real life experiences in our society? The recent phone hacking and police pay-off scandals seem to make the subject even more poignant.
SH:
I was definitely inspired by real life events, but not the phone hacking scandal. Every day I would open a newspaper to read a new story of revolution and civil unrest in the middle east. At the same time I had been reading Simon Seabag Montefoire's 'Young Stalin' and the themes of oppression and resistance were very much at the front of my mind. This combined with a desire to play with theatrical form led to finally settling on the concept and story of Edgar and Annabel?

RR: How did you start writing?
SH:
I was studying Developmental Biology at the University of Edinburgh and was set to continue on to do a PhD when i joined the Young Writers' Group at the Traverse Theatre. While with the group I wrote a short play which led to a workshop with the associate director at the time, Lorne Campbell, and following this I was commissioned to write my first full length play. I haven't looked back since.

RR: What would be your advice to new writers?
SH:
I can only say what worked for me, but joining a writers' group is a good move. It helps you to build a relationship with a theatre and puts you in touch with the creative team who will be able to read your work when it's finished. I also suggest just getting your work on by any means - the Edinburgh festival, the London Fringe, your sitting room - anywhere.

RR: Your cultural event is…
SH:
The Old Vic Tunnels - the National Youth Theatre are performing a range of shows ('Our Days of Rage' and 'Orpheus & Eurydice, a myth underground') in the Old Vic Tunnels this summer, until 17 Sept. Amazing space and talent.  www.nyt.org.uk www.oldvictunnels.com
 
PRASANNA PUWANARAJAH
RR: Your new play looks at the idea of 'home' in a multi-cultural society. Where is home for you, and how do you think this has influenced your work?
PP:
Home is London, but originally I'm from Hampshire. The content and context for the play is drawn from a number of places. My family are from Sri Lanka so there is of course an influence, but I haven't written an autobiography here. It's a world I'm familiar with, not my world.
 
RR: How did you start writing?
PP:
Just opened up Word and got on with it. There's no trick other than allowing a first draft to just arrive on the page without too much self-editing. It's like being a diarist. If you stop to go "I'm writing a diary now" you're already altering the output and it's ceasing to be your voice.
 
RR: What would be your advice to new writers?
PP:
If you've got an idea, just write it. You don't need anything at first, just the need. Then, show it to directors and designers (who are very often the unsung heroes in theatre) and aim to get your stuff on anywhere. Writing, like all creativity, is an act of sheer will. So just get on and make the mistakes (there will be loads and you'll make them repeatedly and they will teach you everything you need to know).
 
RR: Your cultural event is…
PP:
The BP Portait Award at the National Portrait Gallery (until 18 Sept). I've been going to this for years. It is a brilliantly varied exhibition of new pictures - and free to see - and it is an exquisite blend of technical virtuosity and bare human frailty. Not a blagger in sight, just artists of extraordinary vision and skill. www.npg.org.uk
 
DC MOORE
RR: Your new play is set in a 'decaying pub' on a rainy day. Is the family you depict as typically British as the setting?
DCM:
My quick answer would be yes. It's a family that is a bit cobbled together and has endured it's share of divorces, runaway father/mothers and buried secrets, so I suppose that's British to a degree (though not exclusive to us, obviously). The main British theme or trait that I wanted to write about though was emotional repression. I'm a big fan of Terence Rattigan and was very much inspired by watching the recent West End run of his play Flare Path. What I think is interesting is that the kind of emotional repression that Rattigan is famous for exploring is somehow seemed only to be at work in the upper-middle-classes, whereas I think it permeates much more of British culture than that. Even if you see, say, a working-class couple having a blazing, terrifyingly loud row on a train, if you pay attention you'll usually see exactly the same kind of emotional evasiveness at work, it just comes out in different ways and tends to be less eloquent. However, I think that lack of eloquence can just as tragic, if not more so, to watch. People who are not only trapped by emotional evasiveness/repression but also can't cleverly talk their way out of it or hide it with eloquent, aloof bluster. That was what interested me and what I was trying to explore in the play. Though one of the main characters, Jim, does have a sort of blustery, sweary articulacy, he can't really talk about his feelings, it just isn't in his repertoire. And I think that says something to the British character. I might be hopelessly, utterly wrong but there you go.    
 
RR: How did you start writing?
DCM:
By failing at acting and directing. I acted a lot at school and university, principally because not many boys wanted to do it, so you get to do loads of big roles even if you've no real aptitude for it. However, I had a moment of clarity when I saw Tom Hollander in Don Juan at the Sheffield Crucible ( I went to Sheffield University) and thought, very simply, 'I can't do what he's doing.' He was so physical and brilliant and intoxicating to watch, that I realised I didn't want to spend the rest of my life not being that good at something. I had a similar moment after I briefly considered being a director. I then sort of fell into writing after doing some short plays at one-off theatre nights in pub theatres and the biggest 'break' came when I got on the Young Writer's Programme at the Royal Court Theatre in late 2004 and had the rather astonishing experience of being taught by the playwright Simon Stephens. That changed everything for me and  turned what was a hobby into the beginning of a vocation. I didn't have a professional production until 2007 but Simon showed such faith in me and was so inspirational, he made me believe I could do it.
 
RR: What would be your advice to new writers?
DCM:
First rule, get stuff on. It's the classic quote from Joe Strummer that you learn more from  doing a 20 minute gig in a pub than you would from 20 years sat in your bedroom. That is particularly true in writing: you need to learn from your mistakes and in theatre that involves getting your work in front of an audience. I've yet to write a 'perfect' play (an example of which, in my opinion, would be 'A Number' by Caryl Churchill or 'The Shawl' by David Mamet) but each time I put a play in front of a paying audience I learn a bit more about what does and doesn't work and hopefully I'm crawling towards being a better playwright with each play. I'm learning that writing is much more about craft and painful lessons than divine moments of inspiration and glory. It's about trying to be as honest as possible with yourself about what your strengths and weaknesses are and doing your best to avoid repeating mistakes. Also, another piece of advice would be to be nice and pleasant and avoid messing people about as far as possible. Theatre is a small world and there are some world-class practitioners who have pretty much ruined their careers by being world-class arseholes. No-one in theatre (at least in the most new writing venues) is being being paid enough to put up with people who've no respect for the craft and dedication of others (from administrative roles to technical, backstage roles to actors to everyone else), so if you have a chance to fuck other people over to gain short-term success, realise than long-term it might and probably will cause you all sorts of problems.

RR: Your cultural event is…
DCM:
No idea about what's on during the summer, so I'll recommend a book: 'Consciousness Explained' by Daniel Dennett. I'm reading around the science and philosophy of consciousness at the minute and it's totally fascinating to learn that we don't really see what we think we do, that we don't remember things how we think we do and that are brains are near-constantly tricking us about how we really function. It is genuinely changing my conception of myself and humanity, so I'd recommend you dig out the same sort of info. Dennett's book is a good place to start. Buy from Amazon.

TOM BASDEN
RR: Your new play is set during a civil war in  another country, another time. Whilst we still see it on the news, most Londoners are far removed from the reality of war these days; how important do you think it is to remind people of the madness of conflict, lest we forget?
TB:
It wasn't really my intention to remind peole of what war is like, mainly because I don't really know much about that anyway, but more to try to demonstrate just how quickly and easily these things get out of control. I think the recent riots in London and around the country are a pretty good reminder of this. That's also why I wanted it to be a civil war, because the play is really not meant to be seen as a critique of western foreign policy- really it's more about the divisions that exist between people who occupy the same space.

RR: How did you start writing?
TB:
I wrote early versions of some of the scenes and then worked on them for some time with the director Lyndsey turner, until we had an overall shape and story that we were happy with. Because of the nature of the play, I always knew it had to be a bit chaotic, so it was mostly about managing the chaos to start with. In some ways it still is.

RR: What would be your advice to new writers?
TB:
Get things in front of an audience any which way you can.

RR: Your cultural event is…
TB:
Because I'm in the plays I won't get to do many cultural events over the next month or so, but I'm really looking forward to the new Ryan Gosling film, 'Crazy, Stupid, Love'. He's a bit of a hero of mine. UK release on Friday, 23rd September. www.crazystupidlove.warnerbros.com
www.rottentomatoes.com/m/crazy_stupid_love

 

DOUBLE FEATURE
For more information about the plays, click here.

Edgar & Annabel
by Sam Holcroft
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

A young married couple prepare dinner in a smartly furnished kitchen. Annabel is composed, intelligent, in love. Edgar is professional, successful, assured. She’s chopping vegetables, he’s brought the wine. But something isn’t right. In a city not so different from our own capital, a group of freedom fighters attempt to stand up to an Orwellian establishment in increasingly perilous circumstances. Sam Holcroft’s ingenious new play paints a picture of a police state in crisis. The story that unfolds brings into question relationships, identities and the very nature of reality itself…

The Swan
by DC Moore
Directed by Polly Findlay

In a decaying pub in South London, preparations are being made for a wake. The beer is warm, the rain is falling, and tempers are running close to breaking point. Denise has lost a father – and Jim has missed his own son’s funeral. With only an hour before their guests arrive, a fractured family begin to settle their accounts. The ghosts of lives lived and opportunities missed are laid to rest as new and ancient betrayals are confronted and forgiven. DC Moore’s touching and very funny new play examines the ties that hold us all together.

Nightwatchman
by Prasanna Puwanarajah
Directed by Polly Findlay

Abirami is English. And Sri Lankan. And a professional cricketer. Tomorrow she makes her debut for England against Sri Lanka, but tonight she faces a relentless bowling machine in a one-on-one session to prepare her for the innings of her life. As the night  draws on, she challenges our preconceptions of politics, sport and national pride as harshly as she challenges her own. Prasanna Puwanarajah’s new play, coarse, funny and provocative, is a vivid exploration of the search for the meaning of home.

There Is a War
by Tom Basden
Directed by Lyndsey Turner

In another country, in another time, civil war rages. The Blues and the Greys have been fighting each other for as long as they can remember. Soldiers, priests and scavengers roam a landscape scorched by years of battle and decay. Anne, a young medical officer, finds herself abandoned and useless, unable to locate the hospital or even the war she was promised. A journey into the dark heart of a strange and surreal conflict, Tom Basden’s miniature epic explores the mad savagery of war with biting black comedy.

 

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