Interview: David Greig

Written for The Stage

David Greig. Photo: K Ribbe

“I really believe that theatre is encoded into the human DNA.” Playwright David Greig’s has been talking in this vein for about 20 minutes and his enthusiasm is infectious – the kind of voice all theatremakers should want on their side right now. It feels hackneyed to say someone is inspiring but if that tag applies to anyone it’s this passionate playwright who gets carried away with his own sentences and uses more adjectives than an overwrought critic.

A prolific writer, Greig’s career has spanned straight plays (Europe), arty pieces (Whatever Gets You Through The Night), sequels to Shakespeare (Dunsinane), ‘plays with songs’ (Midsummer among others), and pub evenings inspired by Border Ballads (The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart). He is now working with director Sam Mendes on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. To read more go here

How to fundraise

Written for Ideastap

How to fundraise

Finding sources of income has never been more important – or daunting. Honour Bayes talks to top arts fundraisers to find out how best to ‘make the ask’…

“Turn critical needs into attractive propositions”

This advice – from Head of Development at Bristol Old Vic Alan Wright – is a good place to start when tackling fundraising: in order to get anywhere, you need to communicate clearly why any donation is an attractive option. Director of Corporate Affairs at the British Museum Sukie Hemming agrees: “What you’re asking someone to do, i.e. part with their money, is actually really irrational.” To encourage people to invest in you, she adds, “you need to ensure it is a sure and viable project” that warrants such investment. Read more

How to update a classic play

Written for IdeasTap

How to update a classic play

In the year Chekhov met Cobain, radical interpretations of classics have been all the rage. Honour Bayes looks at what it takes to successfully revamp a golden oldie…

Stay true to the original…

2012 has seen Anton Chekhov get modern makeovers, with Benedict Andrews’ modern-day Three Sisters (including a rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and Anya Reiss’ The Seagull, set on the Isle of Man. While each text is decades away from 19th-century Russia, both playwrights remained faithful to Chekhov’s play. “I value the opportunity to meet the play and get to know its characters better,” says Benedict. He adds that the most extreme transformations come from a rigorous re-examining of the text: “The only advice I can give is to not settle for quick answers or second-hand readings – seek out the play’s DNA, its raw fibres, and try to expose them.” Anya looked for the pieces of the original that were eternal: “Once I found them, they became the supports… and it’s just a matter of bridging between these supports, using the original as a blueprint of how you get from these points.” Or as One Man, Two Guvnors writer Richard Bean puts it, “The plot’s [Carlo] Goldoni’s and all the dialogue is mine.”

Read more…

Interview: Howard Barker

Written for The Stage

Howard Barker is looking startled. “I’m amazed, why would you leave?” I have just told him about the reports of early walk-outs in response to his claim that his play Scenes from an Execution is an easy ride. He looks genuinely baffled, and says: “It’s a pretty easy play to get on board with, it doesn’t give you a headache”.

Many people would disagree with him but then that is the story of Barker’s life. A tragedian in a world where comedy reigns, he is a lone figure. Still he casts a daunting shadow across the theatrical landscape with early productions at the RSC and Royal Court, plays such as Scenes from an Execution and Victory – which received a swaggering Arcola production starring Matthew Kelly in 2009 – and the formation of his own company The Wrestling School, created to carry out his vision of the ‘theatre of catastrophe’. “I believe in poetic discourse, in the value of speech in a non-naturalistic way, it’s speculative… I’m not interested in observed reality.”

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Interview: Richard Bean

Written for IdeasTap

Richard Bean: Playwright

Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors is the National Theatre’s most successful export since War Horse and is currently running on both the West End and Broadway. Other plays include The Big Fellah and England People Very Nice. He talks to Honour Bayes about speaking the truth, writing what you know and not being cocky…

You became a playwright later in your career – what made you realise this is what you wanted to do and how did you go about doing it?

I never wanted to be a playwright. I morphed into one, having become a stand-up comedian with good material but a B-team performance, and then a comedy sketch writer for BBC. I wrote a play, Of Rats and Men, which went on the fringe and then the BBC picked it up as a 90-minute radio play.

I then started thinking that I might be able to write plays, and get them on, something I’d never believed. I wrote Toast which was a co-production between the National and the Royal Court and then all the doors opened.

Of Rats and Men and Toast drew from your past working as a psychologist and in a bread factory. Should writers draw from their own life experience?

I guess. People are very sniffy about the usual advice “write about what you know” but in truth everyone does that. The great writers mine their own experience and understanding of life and can only really write about the culture they know and understand. So it’s pretty good advice still.

As a retired stand-up, do you think it’s helpful for playwrights to also perform?

All experience is useful. For me, it has helped in understanding what is funny, and why something’s funny, and how it can be funnier.

England People Very Nice caused quite a bit of controversy, as have some of your award acceptance speeches! Do you think it is part of a writer’s role to provoke the establishment and audience?

It’s certainly part of a writer’s task to speak the truth. And that’s all I’ve ever done. I wasn’t aware that my acceptance speeches had upset anyone. It’s my chance to do a bit of stand-up, which I enjoy. Paul Taylor [theatre critic for the Independent] said after one acceptance speech that he didn’t like me, that I was too cocky, but he was wrong. I’ve never been cocky in my life. He just doesn’t like me.

Do you think it’s important for theatre to be political?

I think overtly political theatre can be a bit tedious. The best theatre is very human, with the politics there just because the business of humanity, trying to live with each other, is inherently political.

You have had huge success with One Man, Two Guvnors, an adaptation of the Commedia del Arte comedy, Servant of Two Masters. What’s the secret to a successful adaptation?

Usually truncate it, cut it, take out the verbosity, use full stops a lot.

This very British production has recently opened in Broadway. How much should a playwright let an audience’s cultural understanding affect their writing?

In an ideal world, one would be able to present a play to another culture in exactly the same way it was originally presented, but with a play like One Man, which only exists to make the audience laugh, it’s permissible to change the script. You can’t ask an actor to stand on an American stage night after night delivering a punch line which consists of “…. Swiss roll!” if the Americans don’t know what a Swiss roll is. It would be cruel to both actor and audience.

With a tragedy, one might change esoteric stuff just to get the meaning across. I had a version of Toast done in Geordie once, so that’s a wholesale change. It worked.

Interview: Martin Crimp

Written for Ideastap

One of the most acclaimed voices of modern playwriting, Martin Crimp’s work spans cult texts, such as Attempts on her Life, and bold adaptations of Molière. His double bill of plays, Play House/Definitely the Bahamas, marks his directorial debut. Here he talks to Honour Bayes about the importance of writing what excites you…

You have said you don’t see being a writer as a job you chose to take on, but something you have always been. Over the years how have you honed your craft?

Since writing Attempts on her Life in 1997 I’ve become more sensitive to the power of narration in drama, which I abandoned for a while in favour of a more fashionable ping-pong of fragmented dialogue. Going back recently to Definitely the Bahamas, a play I wrote in 1986, I’m struck by the fact that its climax is four pages of continuous storytelling, which remains powerful. So I would say honing my craft means trying to stay open to all forms of writing.

When you sit down to write what is your process?

The important thing for me in this world of endlessly rolling information is to empty my mind of all distractions. I still write by hand and I believe in the importance of the mark on the page. I improvise until I find an image or a tone of voice that feels alive. For example, I’d been improvising some tiny scenes of people offering each other gifts. After some months, one of these scenes, in which a woman gives a man an unexpected present, became the starting point for Play House.

Where should writers look for inspiration?

Inspiration is the mysterious collision of intense lived experience with intense literary experience. Whatever the experience, banal or remarkable, it’s the intensity that counts. Plus, for a playwright, the strange music of the human voice is central.

You have had long associations with the Orange Tree Theatre and Royal Court Theatre. Is it important for new playwrights to form a relationship with a venue?

The support of a theatre is a wonderful thing, but you shouldn’t be afraid to create diverse relationships with theatres and with directors. This will broaden your notion of what a theatrical event can be.

You have adapted a number of classics with a radical flare. What do you need to take into account when approaching someone else’s text?

You need to be clear about the rules of engagement. Is the plan to write a new play on top of an old one? – like Cruel and Tender, which is based on a play by Sophocles – or is it more simply to intervene by modernising the language and cutting? – as I did with The Seagull. In both these cases the conversation with the director – Luc Bondy in one case, Katie Mitchell in the other – was an essential part of establishing the rules.

Do you believe working on translations and adaptations affects a writer’s own craft?

Translating sets the much harder work of imagining your own play into stark relief, because, when you simply translate, the imagining has been done for you. What’s interesting about translating is that it pushes you into areas of language you may habitually avoid; I resist this, but at the same time it excites me.

You recently directed for the first time. How has this experience impacted on you as a playwright?

I wrote the 13 short scenes of Play House in part as a directorial challenge. How do you give each short scene – and they range from punishing accusation to the exuberant physical expression of love – a strong separate identity, but at the same time create a seamless theatrical flow? It never occurred to me I’d be the one having to meet that challenge myself.

As for how it affects writing, I’d say it reinforces what I’ve always known: only write what it excites you to write. Don’t be afraid to create problems. Provided the writing is truthful, the director and actors will find ways of solving them.