A PLATFORM AND A PASSION OR TWO
I can’t exactly remember the first time I went to the theatre, or what was the first play I ever saw. I can only remember that it was magic. That lighted square, that shop window with real people in it. I can only remember that the first school play that made an impression on me was OUR TOWN by Thornton Wilder. It made a very big impression on a lot of other people that night. There’s only one thing more impressive than applause, and that’s the silence that goes immediately before it. I’m not sure I could ever sit through OUR TOWN again – it’s altogether too heart-rending. Several of the young actors that night went on to be professionals. One thing that Thornton Wilder said, quoting Moliere, which also impressed me deeply, was this –
“All you need for theatre is a platform and a passion or two.”
My parents enjoyed theatre, but my father was hampered by his deafness, so it was usually with my mother that I went to see a play. I suppose it was through my father, though, that I came to enjoy silent movies and thought about writing a silent play. Which I did, once. My parents both loved opera, and my father’s family, way back in Edwardian and pre-War days, were keen on music hall and variety. Comedians were the family heroes. My mother was a skilled pianist and taught music. Her grandfather had run an amateur minstrel show which toured the village halls around Derby and Burton in Victorian times. My grandmother’s cousin, Edith Yorke, became a movie actress in the days of the silents and played with many big names, including Lon Chaney in the very first version of Phantom of the Opera, and both Charles and Sydney Chaplin, as a supporting actress. One of her later roles was as the mother of a very young Paul Muni. And she even made a film with the celebrated FW Murnau. For me, though, it was live modern drama that really clicked.
My first stage play, REHEARSAL(Derby Playhouse Studio, 1980) was about the Spanish Civil War. Weirdly enough, it was triggered off by a dream I had that was so haunting that I felt I needed to write it down. All my life, I’d felt this curious allegiance with Spain and shadowy memories of a war that was over before I was born. No-one in the family had ever talked about it. I met a few Spaniards who were there at the time and researched the Civil War. At this time, Franco had only been dead a short while, but suddenly material was coming out of Spain that had been suppressed for forty years. However, most of the stuff that had been written up till then had been by outsiders – International Brigaders and journalists, mainly. No-one, as far as I knew, had written a play about the Civil War from the Spanish point of view. So that is what I did.
When the Studio Theatre at Derby Playhouse decided to do it, it was a brilliant opportunity for me. I never realised actors could be so supportive. They were wonderful to me. The show went well. The critics were kind. It was a happy time and good friendships were made.
A couple of years later, I was given the chance to write a Christmas show for the Studio and drew on my(and the director’s) staggering knowledge of the films and TV westerns of our mis-spent youth. With a faint nod to OKLAHOMA, we put songs in it too. It was set in a saloon in the town of Cowcake, Colorado, during the Gold-Rush. After some deliberation, we entitled it STICK ‘EM UP! (Derby Playhouse Studio 1984) Although rehearsals tended to be slightly more fraught than during my serious play, when we were laughing a lot(what IS it about comedy?)we did come up with a pretty decent show in the end. Several years later, people were still giggling over it. The critics were a wee bit aloof – not intellectual enough, obviously for the big boys – but local ones mostly enjoyed it. And as one of the big boys remarked, a trifle tartly,” If you LIKE this sort of thing, there’s plenty of it.” Luckily, most people did.
Next, DRESSING UP was produced at Croydon Warehouse in 1985. I decided to write a play primarily about women and based it loosely around a group of women who belonged to a baby-sitting group I’d joined.(My children were a bit past the baby stage by this time, but still needed someone to keep an eye on them while Mum and Dad were out.)There were some real characters in this group, and we met on a monthly basis for coffee and a good natter. Then one morning, something awful happened – a young local girl was raped on the way to work. No-one was ever charged. The thing I remember most was the awful silence when we met that evening. Suddenly, we all felt under curfew. I decided this would make a good topic for a play, and based it around a group of women at one of those garment parties they used to have at the time – a strange hybrid of coffee morning and sales-talk – where, as I put it in a blurb at the time, “You go to meet people you don’t like, eat food you don’t want and buy clothes you can’t afford.” Yes, it starts as a comedy and ends as a tragedy, of a sort. And did it hit home? Yes, it did, with women, anyway. Because I wanted people to get to know these women and to feel how vulnerable they were. We all had high hopes of DRESSING UP going on to the West End, as reviews were so good, but of course, it never did….
By the following year, cuts in theatre and arts funding were really beginning to bite. I’d already had two Theatre Writing Bursaries from the Arts Council and put those to good use, then had one more lucky chance to write a play for a group of young deaf teenagers at a local specialist school. I’d already written a play about my hero Buster Keaton, doomed to failure partly through subsidies being withdrawn and partly because another theatre a few miles away decided to put on a new play about said silent movie actor at precisely the same time (and pretty poor it turned out to be, as it happened)which really put the tin hat on MY project. However, I took material from it and produced a short play without words called BUSTER: THE EARLY DAYS. This too was destined to be problematic, and although a good play evolved and the students performed it well, cash problems and other disagreements evolved and left a bad taste in the mouth. The following year, another student group in London decided to produce it, and similar problems evolved yet again. The moral of this story is, never write a play about Buster Keaton. He’s still my hero, but the jinx he believed haunted him in his lifetime still seems to hang around. Keaton was a genius, unparalleled to this day, and I think, perhaps, that is where we should leave him, perched precariously on a wobbly pedestal, probably on the edge of a precipice, which I think is the way he’d best like to be remembered.
It was Keaton, though, who said approximately this – about films rather than plays – but it applies just as well to the would-be playwright, and indeed to the fiction writer –
Remember, whatever you do, that you are essentially, and above all else,