Helping Young People with Theatre Writing

There hasn’t been a blog post in a few weeks. I won’t beat myself up over it. I do the best I can. I thought it was all down to my touch of flu and the post viral fatigue that seemed to waylay me in the weeks between having it and shedding it. To be honest, today is the first day I’ve felt completely myself in a month or more. It’s nice to be back.

Over the past few weeks, when it came to Saturday evening and first draft blog post time, I put my lack of motivation for it down to the lurgy and hit the couch and, in truth, I’d say that was 80% of the story. The other 20%, I recently realised, was down to how I’ve been spending my Saturday mornings and early afternoons, and how much energy I’ve needed to carry that through.

So, what have you been doing then, on these Saturdays, Ken? Rather grumpily, I suggest that you RTFT or Read the Title (expletive dropped). We’ve been running this workshop/thing that we’ve also done in previous years, under the gentle overseeing eye of the lovely Paul Soye. It’s an opportunity for teenagers to come and learn a little about writing for theatre and then go off and write a play of their own which is then presented by professional actors and directed by a professional director before an audience in a full theatre setting. I could say I wish I'd had such a wonderful opportunity myself when I was a teen but that would be nothing less than churlish. If such an opportunity had existed, I would never have taken it. I was far too strange to step up for anything like that.  

Over the years, I've discovered that I love to engage with young people via the activity of writing, and particularly theatre writing. I don’t present as a know-it-all or a guru – far from it – but I know a bit and I’ve done it a few times and, most importantly, I care. I care that the writing gets done as well as it can be done and that the young writers see their visions distilled into a fine spirit and realised before them on the stage. That’s a seed planted right there. A tiny seed in rich soil. It might not grow but, by golly, it might. It just might.

I’m grateful to Marja and Tim and Richard in Independent Radio Drama Productions for being the first to suggest that I might have something helpful to say and do with writers and their writing. I’m equally grateful to The Linenhall Arts Centre for encouraging me to develop this part of my life, as well as several other parts, and I’m grateful to Fighting Words for letting me be a part of their wonderful encouragement machine, through which so many talented young people have passed. I am doubly grateful to Donna Ruane, who took on so many of my teen plays and introduced me to the phenomenon that is the Teen Actor. The Teen Actors I have got to know in this way are grown now. I meet them in pubs and in graduation gowns and we smile and remember the days when we jumped on and off theatre stages with such fearlessness and joy. We never lose it.

I've been coming out of these most-recent writing sessions a little dizzy and a little light-headed. As I said, that's been 80% flu but it’s the other 20% that is more interesting. There is an energy required in helping young people to write and create and perform. It takes it out of you. 

So, yes, where was I? I think the absence of a blog post over the last few weeks has been at least partly due to the amount of energy I expended in merely keeping up with the current cohort of teen writers. There is a level of invention and purity to the work they do that makes the gentle corralling of it an intricate and challenging job. One is reminded of Harry Chapin’s old song where ‘Flowers are Red and Green Leaves are Green’. It would be so easy and so terrible to extract the strange and quirky manoeuvres of the teenage mind from the writing work they do. “This doesn’t work” and “this isn’t how it’s done.” But what a tragedy that would be. The trick is to constantly walk the tightrope line between what works and what is beautifully and wonderfully parsed from a burgeoning and vibrant imagination. It’s no wonder I might feel giddy in the butcher’s shop afterwards.

On Sunday 5th November, in my beloved Linenhall Theatre, the new plays by the new writers will be performed, after an intense weekend with the actors and the directors. I saw this done last year and it was remarkable. I have no doubt this year will be the same. Come along if you’re nearby. It’s free but you have to book. It will heighten your faith in our young people; in how unendingly brilliant they are, no matter whether they pursue football, or writing or meeting their friends in the park on a Saturday afternoon. It will remind you of how great it is to be young, with the world at your feet and with the surety that every dream can still come true.

I’m not the best theatre-writing-helper-outer in the world. I tend to get a little over-invested and perhaps push a little too hard. I tend to tire myself out.

But I’m glad, so glad, that I get to do it, and I feel lucky, so lucky, as I arrange the tables and chairs in the lovely theatre space and the young people come in with their scripts and their dreams.

The Value of Certain Property Versus Time

Back from a week’s holiday in the sun. Last week’s post covered that a bit. Some people seem to think I invented the German Lady with the Rubber Duck. I am here to tell you that I did not.

We went to Lanzarote. A place we’ve been to a couple of times before. We like it and ease of access is a key consideration in choosing to go back there. We can be in the airport in 30 minutes, The airport is small and easy to get through, the plane is generally timely, and we’re home again shortly after we land. The place is nice too. It suits us.

I didn’t say where I was in last week’s post. I’ve thought about the reasoning behind this decision and it’s mostly because I didn’t want you to know where I was. For many years I had one holiday a year and that was Christmas at home (my delight). Lately, I’ve tried to take one additional week, and, in that week, I find I crave a level of isolation and escape from the norm. Whatever book I am in the middle of reading, I don’t want to continue reading in that week. Whoever I have been talking to, I don’t want to continue talking to. Just me and the Lovely Patricia, on our own, in a different sort of a week. I needed it to be that kind of something different and it was.

In this week, I spent a little time contemplating the real estate around the swimming pool. What do we like to call them? I tend to call them ‘Li-lows’ but that doesn’t work in Google very well. I think a more correct phrase is ‘Sun Lounger’ though I’ve never said that before, to the best of my knowledge. Anyway, I reckon you know what I mean. I’m talking about the equipment around the pool that you lie on to catch the sun.

Lest you be in any doubt, can I say that they are the things that people put towels on in the early morning to claim their space for later when the sun come up more. Now you definitely know what I mean.

And, indeed, therein lies the rub, and I’m not referring to suntan lotion.

The poolside real estate of the sun lounger is a game that many people engage in during their holidays, and it is one I prefer to avoid if at all possible. I can be boringly territorial if I allow myself license to be that way, so I try very hard not to.

You know the game. People get up at silly o’clock to stumble out and get their towels on the best sun loungers, then they stumble back to bed, secure in the knowledge that their own little bit of poolside real estate is secured for the day. The sloths and unambitious fools who arrive after breakfast hoping for a poolside resting place can go and whistle Dixie for it. The towel is down and, in a more recent development of which I was not aware, it is clipped to the sun lounger with large multi-coloured clothes pegs which seem to add even more authority to the staked claim on the bed, even though the claim holder is still firmly abed scratching their arse.

If you sense a certain irritation at this practice, then you may not be completely wrong. The sight of two prime ‘Li-Lows’ broiling empty through an entire day while tamer mortals perch in the shadow of the lift shaft is something that could evoke feelings if I let it. But I try not to let it. This, after all, is my week away from the world and the petty politics of poolside real estate is something I am happier staying out of. I find a sun lounger somewhere, as I’m generally early anyway, and when I go somewhere I bring my towel with me and I find another one when I come back (though, generally the original one is still there). I avoid the messiness.

Though I do rather enjoy watching it sometimes. The immense English Lady with the Gold Lamé one-piece who arrives like a cloud and breast strokes in a highly passive-aggressive fashion up and down the pool, puffing and blowing, and glaring at the empty be-toweled loungers as if they were the vehicles through which her entire family has been kidnapped. A part of me asks myself what she expected, arriving down at 10.30am with her tepid hangover and her sun-drenched Jeffrey Archer. Another part of me feels her pain. I rather wish she would storm over, remove the circus clothes pegs and launch the offending towel into the centre of the pool before planting herself firmly on the reclaimed territory. But she doesn’t. She retires to a chair in the corner and complains to anyone who will listen to her.

The day passes. I don’t spend much time on the sun loungers by the pool. I tend to burn easily and it’s not a sensation I enjoy. I watch the ebb and flow of people from a safe distance, from behind my sunglasses, from under my sun-umbrella, and from around my book. I steer clear and am the happier for it.

By five o’clock in the afternoon, the pool is vacated.

This mystifies me a bit. For me it’s the very best part of the day. There is still plenty of warmth and sunshine all around, but a part of the sting has been removed from the solar rays. The pool is nice and roomy, and one can take the sun lounger of one’s choice as nobody else gives a toss about them.

It makes me think something but it’s not something I’ve managed to reach any great moral or logical  conclusion about. It’s just simply how something like the common ‘Li-Low’ can be so prized and fought over and contested in one hour and be completely unwanted and disregarded in the next.

It speaks to me of life and the things in our lives. The things that are so all-consuming and great and terrible and wonderful and scary and unavoidable and massive and… and… you know… big. Yet tomorrow, or next month or next year, they will all be as naught.

I walk among the sun loungers when everyone else has gone. I go up on the roof deck and look out over the town. People are on to the next thing, preparing for their holiday evening. Tomorrow, it will all kick off again.

I think…

A drink, perhaps.

Yes. Just a small one. Before dinner.

Rubber Duck Experimentation

It’s eight o’clock in the morning and the sun is barely up in the sky. We’ve made our way to the beach, which has been ploughed and tended and is ready for another busy day of sun cream and lying about.

But that won’t happen for a few hours yet, and we’ll be long gone by then. For this hour, the beach and the waterline belongs to the walkers and the joggers. Not to the swimmers, though. Not yet at least. There is no sign of the swimmers.

Which is a bit of a shame because we had our hearts set on a daily eight a.m. swim in the sea before breakfast on this long-anticipated week’s holiday of ours. Nothing is stopping us from doing that, of course, nothing at all. Except…

Well, it’s a silly thing, really. It’s just in all the mile or two stretch of pristine beach and calm grey water, there is no one in the sea. Not one single solitary soul. Quite a few people, like I said, walking and jogging, some walking backwards. But nobody is swimming.

There is a disturbing sense that the world knows something that we don’t. That our early morning swim would be a very, very, bad idea indeed. Who knows why? Your guess is as good as mine. Pre-breakfast sharks? Killer jelly fish? Aliens from the depths. Something must be amiss. Nobody is in the water.

An elderly lady in front of us is walking along in our direction. She is going pretty slowly but that is almost understandable as she is walking backwards. She’s got a big billowing caftan on, and she looks a bit like a sailboat, albeit a pretty slow one. We watch her go. We want to walk backwards too, just to see what it feels like, but it might seem rude or mocking in some way.

The end of the beach is nigh. A stone-built rampart marks the termination, and a modern 4-star hotel rises above it. The walking-backwards lady gets to the wall as we contemplate the empty sea, and she proceeds to so some wall-pressing and wall-face-planting exercises that are a little reminiscent of the final scene of the original Blair Witch Project movie.

Why is nobody in the sea. What do they know that we do not?

The Blair Witch Walking Backward Lady has now been joined by another lady of similar vintage. She leads the first lady in a series of gentle movements which seem neither Yoga-like nor all that coherent. Then the newest lady breaks away and comes over the beach to us. She is brandishing something and as she draws closer, we can see what it is. It’s a tiny yellow rubber duck with a complicated tubular scientific device secured to its underside.

“Good morning,” she says in a way that somehow tells us that she is German.

“Good morning,” we reply as we eye up the duck device warily. Will some form of insertion be required?

“I need to know the temperature of the sea,” the German lady continues, “for my friend. She won’t go in if she fears it will be cold.”

We are sympathetic if a little unsure about what is required of us. She presents the duck, ceremoniously. “Could you help?”

All is suddenly clear. The tubular undercarriage is now clearly a thermometer. To paraphrase Robert Shaw, “Duck goes in the water… thermometer in the water… farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…”

We must have looked as if we were readying ourselves to go in the water, despite nobody else on God’s Earth being in there. We must have looked brave. I take the duck and smile.

“No problem,“ I say.

The water is lovely. Cold at first but then just grand. There are lots of little blue fishies who swim around in the sand that our feet kicks up. Patricia goes out and swims strongly parallel to the shoreline while the duck and I continue to dick around in the shallows.

The German lady returns to Our Lady of the Wall, having first ascertained Patricia’s first name. (“My daughter’s name is also Patricia,” she says, and is there a note of sadness in there, or is that just writerly license? 'Not sure). I bring her the duck and she inspects it, confirming to the lady that the water is indeed 23 degrees. The lady does not nod, perhaps out of fear of scratching her chin on the wall, perhaps not.

As we leave to walk back to our holiday place for our first breakfast, there are swimmers in the water. Did Patricia show them all that it is okay to do it, or did it just become okay right after the three of us (Me, Trish, and The Duck) ventured in? It’s hard to know.

All I know is that we’ll be back tomorrow, when the 7.45 alarm sounds. We’ll walk the beach and then we’ll have our dip regardless of whether anybody else is in there or not.

Sometimes it’s okay to be the first to do something. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing if nobody else is already doing it. In fact, sometimes it’s a very good thing that they're not.

I have this on good authority from one very small duck.

That, and the water temperature.