Sending Another Script Off

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Spent the last couple of days reediting and polishing off an old script. Normally, this is a major sign of NOT BEING ABLE TO LEAVE THE DAMN THING ALONE (and who’s to say that it isn’t this time, too?) but at least time there’s a purpose to it: I had a deadline to meet. The BBC Writer’s Room has an occasional (actually twice a year) submissions open window – one for drama, one for comedy, and I decided to send something in. This time round, it’s the Drama window. I’ve only just remembered in the writing of this that I had already submitted something to the Comedy window last year, which utterly failed to get anywhere. This time, I’d spent a while doing some tightening up of the Mary Shelley script that I’d written last year (interesting, since the script has actually been produced at least once already in front of an actual audience), and the original intention was to change it slightly from a stage script to a radio script, which would’ve brought a certain set of challenges as, although all the characters are somewhat verbose (bloody poets, to coin a phrase), the play itself is reasonably visual, and plays with the chemistry (or otherwise) between the characters. I think, on some muted level, I was going to change the play from stage to radio before I submitted it to the BBC Writers Room because I probably felt – if they accepted it, it was more likely to be produced as a radio play rather than a TV film (particularly as the narrative is continuous and in one room, as opposed to several scenes all over the place). But then I told myself to get over myself: even if this submission were to be accepted (and that’s cheerfully unlikely, even if it’s any good, just down to the sheer volume of applicants), it’s reasonable to assume that successful scripts will serve only as ‘calling cards’, and never actually get produced, in lieu of whatever else the writer can cope with. This reminds me of one of my only clear memories of school (I remember bizarrely little of school, which suggests that it was an absolutely horrifying time, and I’ve repressed it all): a teacher saying that people aren’t actually scared of failure, as much as they’re afraid of success. You know the sort of thing: you’re good at a thing, people see that you’re good at the thing, they say well done for being good at the thing, and then they say the terrifying: ‘what else have you got?’. I remember at the age of eleven, or however old I was, that this was a genuinely new concept for me: the pressure of success. The weight of expectation.

And even so, I was surprised by how I felt when I hit the ‘submit’ button to send my script to BBC towers. Particularly as  I’d already done it with a different script last year (although, as I’ve mentioned, I managed to forget doing that). This time around, however, I felt oddly anxious. I have genuinely no idea if that’s because my subconscious thinks the script is awful (‘THEY’LL HATE IT’), or conversely, if it knows it to be pretty good (‘THEY’LL ASK FOR MORE AND THAT’S ALL I’VE GOT DAMMIT’). It’s sent off now, however, and it’s out there, free of my interference and meddling re-editing. It is (as all you established writers out there know already) a good habit to get into: find deadlines, competitions, festivals – reasons to finish the work, and get it out there.

And now on to the next one.

Keeping Stationary

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I had a work meeting last night, which overran slightly, as such meetings are wont to do. I wasn’t too worried, however, because I had temporarily forgotten about the trains. Until about this time last year, I was a regular commuter on the coastal route on the trains. I generally didn’t suffer too badly with the service, even though it was obviously bad: often overpacked with customers, almost never blessed with functioning toilets, often late, and occasionally cancelled altogether.

There are people reading this who can hardly dare imagine that the service was once that good.

I had occasion to change jobs around this time last year, which means that around this time last year, I no longer had to take the train every day. Also what happened around this time year was that the train service switched from merely bad to quite breathtakingly awful. There are a myriad of reasons for this, and you can choose which side you support another time, but it’s enough to say that I managed – via sheer dumb luck as well as anything else – to avoid the real misery of travelling by train in 2016. It simply didn’t affect me, even though I was reading enough news reports (and friend’s tweets) to understand that things had got really quite terrible.

So when my train home last night was delayed by an hour and a half, while it was annoying, I was reasonably nonchalant about it: after all, it wasn’t the sort of thing that had happened to me EVERY GODDAMN DAY. And anyway, it’s rare that I have an hour of enforced relaxation, so it would probably end up being quite healthy for me. Alright, yes, the first thing that occurred to me was that I should find a seat in a pub and catch up on edits on the current script, but that’s about as relaxed as I get, so I consider that a win.

There was a pub directly opposite the train station, which I stepped into, and then out again in about three minutes. There was a nice relaxed snug bit to the pub, but that section was closed. The open section was the bit with about five pool tables, three one armed bandits, one very loud jukebox, and at least ten people who certainly would have had to carry their proof of age with them at all times in order to continue drinking there. It wasn’t for me.

I knew that the next train station, the main train station for this town, was only a couple of minutes walk away, and that that train station also had a pub directly opposite it, so I thought I may as well give that one a go (I did have over a hour to fill, after all). Before too long, I got to the second pub. It’s a proper old style Opposite-A-Train-Station pub: huge, clearly doubled as a hotel back in the day, lots of gleaming brass and polished wood. It’s a genuinely beautiful pub. And it was pretty much empty.

I ordered my drink, and the landlord got the price wrong about three times, almost as if he wasn’t used to serving drinks all that often. Turns out, that may actually be the case: with a grim ghost of a smile, he asked ‘Waiting for a train then, are you?’ I admitted that I was, and he nodded with the air of a man for whom a single customer waiting for a single (delayed) train buying a single drink was going to dramatically improve his sales tonight. Which, bluntly, well may have been true.

The main problem for this pub was that it was directly next to the train station, which is a very bad location. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but think about it: train stations are generally on edges of towns or cities. Even if it feels like they’re slap dead in the centre of town, they’re not really: all the businesses, shops, cafes and pubs are normally – for the sake of argument – in front of the station, and then everything else – houses, smaller shops, etc – are tucked away behind. And there is very often a pub sitting next to the station, but since you generally only go to the station to go somewhere else, the pub is a place that you are literally passing on your way somewhere else. It’s not often that you’ll stop for a drink at the station pub unless you’re waiting for a delayed train (see also: buying anything from WHSmiths), and if you’re on your way out of the station – in other words, if you’ve just arrived – you kind of want to get your journey done, finished. And even if you do intend to go for a drink, that usually does mean getting as far away from the station as possible.

Over in Brighton, there’s a pub next to the station that has just closed down its upstairs theatre space and replaced it with a cocktail bar, mainly because the landlord apparently doesn’t understand this fundamental truth, universally acknowledged: those in want of a good cocktail will either travel a fair bit or not at all for it. Which is a clumsy way of saying that if you stick your cocktail bar next to the train station, almost nobody is going to come along to it: if they’re going to make the effort to go all the way to the train station (on the edge of town, remember), and they’re in a cocktaily kinda mood, they might well just jump on a train to London (as long as it’s not delayed, of course), and if they’re arriving in town, they want to actually visit the town, not stay at the pub that signifies as the city walls.

This has happened before: I remember a vegan café in Brighton a couple of years back that held regular comedy and spoken word nights. It wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, but it was literally just off the beaten track: it didn’t get a lot of passing trade – you either knew about it because it was about the only café in Brighton that was entirely vegan (yes, I’m as surprised as you are), or if you’d made the trip to see one of the performers. And of course what happened was that audience members – occasionally ones that lived only a few minutes away – would declare that they’d never heard of this place. But then they’d become regular customers. One hand washes the other, etc. 

A new owner came in, and decided what the place really needed to be was a champagne bar. Despite the fact that nobody walked past this place without already knowing what it was. The vegan café was shut down, the comedy nights and spoken word events ceased. Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for cocktail bars and champagne bars in Brighton, obviously there is (West Street needs a bit of a sprucing up, for instance). But you can probably see where this story ends: the champagne bar lasted less than six months (possibly a hell of a lot less). It’s perplexing watching it happen from the outside, when one is avowedly not a business person, watching a business make a fundamentally poor decision, thinking, ‘well, even I know what’s not gonna work ..’

Anyway, I got my train. And I managed to relax for a hour. I mean, I wrote this blog entry, but apart from that …

Mailshot: Cast Iron Theatre January 2017

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This is the mailshot I just sent out to people on the CAST IRON THEATRE and IRONCLAD IMPROV mailing lists:

OK, we have a couple of things coming up, which we’ll try to spend very little time telling you about: Firstly, the IRONCLAD IMPROV drop-in classes return to the DukeBox Theatre on Sunday the 15th of January at 7pm. As ever, beginners are welcomed along with seasoned regulars, and we’ll be exploring all manner of shortform and longform improvisation exercises and games every Sunday. We look forward to seeing you there! (we will also be returning to the Printers Playhouse in Eastbourne on Tuesday nights at 7.30, but check out facebook for confirmation regarding the actual Tuesday we’ll be back). Here’s the facebook page for the Brighton classes: https://www.facebook.com/events/1715385535443776/

On Friday 20th January, CAST IRON THEATRE and IRONCLAD IMPROV will be having their New Year’s Party at Presuming Eds coffee house on London Road, Brighton at 8pm. There will be a cheap bar, lots of munchies, a mini-cinema, and beautiful people. It’s a chance to catch up with fellow actors/writers/improvisers/directors/producers/painfully awkward people in a gorgeous environment, and it would be delightful to see loads of you there. Plus, if you want to get mercenary about it, particularly with the Brighton Fringe coming up: if you want to network with potential new creative partners, we’re hoping this will be an ideal opportunity to mingle and meet new people. If it goes well, we’ll do it again! For our interest, if you already know that you probably will be coming, let us know either in response to this email, or via facebook. By the way, here’s the facebook invite: https://www.facebook.com/events/528558790667109/

Our second evening of Cast Iron Shorts – an evening of short stories, read live at the Sweet Venues DukeBox, will be performed on Friday 24th February. Therefore, we are seeking submission: stories between 1,500 words and 2,000 words on the theme of YELLOW. The deadline for submissions is Friday 10th February, and can be emailed as a word document (not PDF) to cast_iron@outlook.com. There are more details on the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1476305909076437/

And finally (for now), we’re pleased to announce that CAST IRON 9 will be part of the 2017 HOVE GROWN FESTIVAL. As ever, we are seeking scripts for ten minute plays on a huge variety of subjects. The deadline for scripts is Monday 23rd of January, and you can check out the website for guidelines. Alternatively, here’s the facebook page for the Submissions Call: https://www.facebook.com/events/1611104319197203/ We look forward to receiving your scripts. Plus, if you’d like to be involved as an actor or a writer, let us know by responding to this email or chatting to us on facebook.

Thursday 25th August 2016

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Have recently finished writing a ten minute play for the next round of CAST IRON. It’s an odd little thing, one that I wasn’t too sure what I was saying with it until at least halfway through writing it. Possibly I still don’t. Largely this is because the play has been dictated more by location than narrative; at least to begin with.

Of course, it’s reasonably often that stage plays have their narrative shaped by a single location. It’s a naïve playwright (or one confident of a large budget) that will have the location switch every few minutes, as if it’s cinema. Obviously a smart director will not panic too much about scene one being set at the edge of a volcano, and the next scene being in an airport departure lounge – hopefully good dialogue will hold the audiences hands through such willing suspensions of disbelief. When scene three is set in an airplane cockpit, a swimming pool, or even somewhere as apparently banal and simple as a driver’s car seat, the location can be something of an irritant.

Having said all that, I’m currently fascinated by the possibilities of such restriction on location. Not exactly a ‘locked room mystery’ so beloved of the likes of Agatha Christie, but in the same ballpark (ooh! Ballpark! Another location!). Partially this is because I can see the next series of Inside No 9 coming over the horizon. Created and written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, Inside No 9 is a series that – for me at least – revels in unpicking a conceptual problem, and seeing how a story works. Despite the reputation to casual viewers, the series is much less interested in so called ‘twist endings’ (although a great many of the episodes have literally that), as much as it’s fascinated by unknotting a technical, or narrative conceit. So there are stories told in (mostly) silence, stories told in strictly edited segments of time, and stories told purely through the screens of (unmoving) CCTV cameras. So it’s clear that Shearmsith and Pemberton enjoy setting up storytelling challenges for themselves, and it’s always interesting to see what path they wander down: with or without breadcrumbs.

And while a fixed location isn’t always exactly the challenge they’ve set themselves, it’s something that comes up in their DNA a lot, and I became intrigued as a writer to see what would happen if you set up the location before even considering the content, or the narrative. Partially, this was inspired by a throwaway comment in an interview that may not even have been accurate (in fact, I’m pretty sure I saw it denied subsequently): that if a third series was commissioned, there was a possibility that there would be a spin-off, online only series (perhaps called Inside No 9a) of ten minute plays that could be entered by aspiring writers and filmmakers. And since, as I’ve alluded to already, one of the things I’ve admired most about Inside No 9 was the refusal to tell stories in an ‘easy’ or complacent way, I began to think about restrictive spaces, and throwing together people that wouldn’t usually share that same space.

As it turned out, Inside No 9a never happened (although series three of the parent programme was commissioned, and returns to the BBC in October), and I didn’t write the short films. However, when I began writing my next short play for the next Cast Iron night (that semi-regular evening of short plays we produce at the DukeBox Theatre) the same preoccupations surfaced.  Obviously, it’s slightly different, since – again – it’s more logical to keep a stage play in the same place, particularly if your play is only ten minutes. So I wrote a play entirely set in a karaoke booth, pushing the people into the location before I thought too much about why they were there. And while the play that I ended up writing ended up being more interested in the characters than the restrictions of location (which is probably a good thing), I’m grateful that the brilliance of Inside No 9 inspired me to write something new, even if it is entirely unrelated.

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Well, I say entirely unrelated: once I’d emailed the script off to the director and writers, I started writing an article previewing the upcoming series of Inside No 9. Which is when I discovered that they have already written an episode set in a Karaoke booth. No doubt their one will be scarier than mine. In the plus column, the other three ‘restrictive’ locations I have in mind aren’t included in the episode list. I’d better get writing …  

A Week Before The End Of Summer

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Well, this is it: the final furlong of our Brighton Fringe show – or at least, the rehearsals. The first night of Year Without Summer is a week away: Monday 30th May, to be exact. Everything is clicking into place satisfactorily, and all that remains is the actual audience. Have spent the last few days distributing posters and fliers in local coffee shops and the like. There are, of course, roughly three thousand other posters and fliers all jostling for attention. I’ve always been cheerfully convinced that posters – for a show, for a gig, whatever – are reasonably doomed to failure, but I’m equally convinced that as doomed failures go, it’s about the best you can go for. I reckon one ticket sale on the back of around 400 fliers is about as good a return as you can hope for. It is of course pretty difficult to get any sort of audience in for a show, particularly if there’s hundreds of other shows also opening at the same time, and particularly if there are no famous ‘names’ attached to your project: either as performers, writers, directors, or even the actual name of the piece.

We’ve got some things going for us: the play deals with (amongst other things) Mary Shelley coming up with the idea for Frankenstein, which should pique the interest of at least a few people – especially as we premiere the play roughly 200 years after it actually happened (give or take a month, but who’s counting?). I imagine we might be able to wave sweetly at some potential audience members with the promise of Lord George Byron being – well, like Byron. I’ve been a little bit cheeky about the timelines of events (at least two events, or the suggestions of them, didn’t actually happen until significantly after the ‘year without a summer’, but I’m hoping most scholars will grant me a pass on narrative freedoms).

Somehow, I’ve managed to catch a few things in the Brighton Fringe (equally, I’ve missed a spectacular amount). Blackbird, at the Rialto is an impressive and tense two hander, depicting a reunion (if that word doesn’t suggest too cheerful a scenario) directed by Sam Chittenden. It’s best that you know little or nothing going in, which I appreciate is something of a gamble at the fringe, but rest assured it’s a bet worth taking.

Also impressive is Am I Fuckable (no, don’t type that title into search engines), which depicts very human and humorous (as well as moving) responses to modern dating in the era of tindr. It’s on at the Globe (no not that one) and has two performances left, scattered across the fringe. I understand that both performances are officially sold out, but it really is worth rocking up just before the start time just in case of no-shows.

Plus, there’s Un-Titled (also at the Rialto), whose tagline – ‘A play about art, told by art’, pretty much does what it says on the tin: an artist in her 80th year, is visited by the pieces of art in her studio, including a depiction of her earlier self (portrait). As well as being witty and moving, it’s also directed by Judey Bignell, who is Mary Shelley in Year Without Summer, which sort of brings this entry full circle. I’m not sure how Judey found the time to direct one show and be in another. I haven’t dared ask her, either: she may hit me.

Tickets for all those shows can be booked via the Brighton Fringe website, but obviously I’m going to draw lots of attention to the link for my show (it’s called Year Without Summer, did I mention?) and you can avoid booking fees but clicking on this link here image

Piratanical!

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The Brighton Fringe is really kicking into gear, and I finally got round to comparing diaries, and confirmed what I had already suspected – that I’m going to end up missing at least thirty of the shows and productions that I really wanted to see over May. It’s been this way over the last five years or so – I’ve always been involved in some major production over these few months, either as director or writer, and so I’ve always ended up missing the main bulk of the fringe. So, each year I’ve promised myself that I’ll take spring off, so that I actually see some bloody stuff. Obviously, this never happens: I always find myself doing something. Sometimes, it isn’t even my fault (sometimes).

My major thing at the moment is a rewrite for Piratanical! which absolutely, under no circumstances, can surrender to any procrastination whatsoever (why do you think I’m writing this blog post?), which will be performed at the BOAT – the Brighton Open Air Theatre – in July this year, as part of the very first Starboard Festival, for local youth groups, youth theatres, and schools. It’s a mostly original piece (I’d written a half hour version almost ten years ago), and the fun thing has been altering the roles to specifically fit the young actors that I’m currently working with. Although ideally, Piratanical! has a shelf-life long after my interference.

And of course, we have Year Without Summer, which opens at the end of the month, st Sweet Waterfront in Brighton. More than half the cast have openings for other Brighton Fringe shows this week, so obviously, the vibe is one of joyfully heightened hysteria. Maybe it’s time to load up on the laudanum. BOAT

Tuesday 3rd May 2016

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Yeah, lots of stuff going on this week. I have a final draft of Piratanical to finish – ignoring the fact that I already finished a final draft at least twice before. At least this time, I don’t have to blame my can’t-leave-it-alone hack writer tendencies, but more the fact that I’m writing for youth theatre – an actual youth theatre, with all the shifting sands of new kids suddenly turning up that that entails. Normally when you write something, you’re writing a fixed piece, with a certain number of characters, who will serve whatever plot it is that you come up with. In this situation, I’m having to find the plot to serve the number of actors (all of whom of course have varying levels of confidence and experience). It’s obviously a fool’s errand to find a role that’s perfect for everybody (there really might be tears before bedtime), but we have many brilliant kids who deserve a shot at some decent stage time. It’s becoming one of the toughest things I’ve written.

Apart from the other toughest thing I’ve written, of course. Year Without Summer is rocking through rehearsal, and we open in less than a month. It’s about – well, it’s about many things, really, but the strongest hook for me to talk about if you happen to know absolutely nothing about the story is to say that 200 years ago, Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In fact, on the day of me writing this blog entry, it’s exactly 200 years since she and lover Percy ran away in the middle of the night. They also had a passenger, Claire Clairmont, who features somewhat strongly in our play. Rehearsals are fun, we’ve got a greatly charismatic cast, and I’m looking forward to seeing our venue in Brighton in the next week or so.

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