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In the name of writing a play I have:

Done all of my washing and ironing. And then some washing that, if I were to be totally honest, could have waited.

Compiled the order in which everyone should (ideally and for maximum enjoyment) read every Virginia Woolf novel.

Caught up with the Guardian theatre blog.

Read a lot of twitter.

Lamented my lack of biscuits.

Bought biscuits.

Spent time working out what is the best (free) App to use for dictation.

Read the internet. Yes, all of it (or something like that)

More productively, though, I have:

Written the first five minutes of the play.

Read things that confuse me about hedge funds.

Written lots of notes on to lots of separate pieces of paper.

Dictated several random half-thought-monologues.

Typed up three pages of other random-half-thought-monologues and lines.

Written poetry.

Thought, decided, then re-thought and re-decided exactly who my characters might be.

Told real-life people about the play. Thus making it even more pressing that I actually finish the bloody thing.

Drunk coffee, walked through London with my music on and just thought.

In many ways this is the exciting bit. There’s still the endless possibility. It also means the release of pure joy that won’t come again until I can see the end of this draft. And that, as far as understatements go, is nice.

Next week, though, I’m making myself be more disciplined – I’m going to try and eliminate things like reading the internet in its entirety and replace them with solid page counts. So, erm, twenty pages in the next week? We’ll see.

I always envisaged that the WBN blog would be a mishmash of many things, not only the work we’re making* but also of theatre and writing in a more general way.

As of today I officially started writing a new play. I’ve written a couple of one-act pieces in the last 12 months, but not a full-length extravaganza. At this stage I don’t quite know where or how this play might go, I don’t know if it’s a WBN project or not, I don’t know – with all the uncertainty of a new script – if I will ever show it to anyone.

I’m telling you this because I’ve previously found keeping a writing diary useful for bigger projects. Generally I go out and buy a new notebook (yes, like many writers before me I have a relationship with new stationery that borders on the worrying) and begin work there. This time, however, I’m going to plot it on here. One – because I think it might (hopefully) be an interesting record of a writer’s process (or lack thereof). Two – there’s nothing like a watching audience to shame you into continuing. So I’m aiming to keep my patched notebook come scrapbook on here. Which is either genius or insanity. I’ll come back to this at the end of the process.

Today I’m going to set out some of my rules and starting points for this play (yes, I have rules when I start plays. This speaks volumes about me).

The big ones:

I’m aiming – no demanding – that I’ve finished a first draft of this play in six weeks. Generally once I’ve got writing I write quickly and hard, so in and of itself this isn’t too unrealistic. Providing life doesn’t come and bite me in the butt or something. Six weeks from here puts us in mid October. So, come October the 14th I’m wanting a printed copy in my hand.

The idea I’ve got for the structure of this play makes the text a little bit more fluid than anything I’ve written before. Having loved the process of working on Reasons For Listing, where I went into a rehearsal room with what I labelled draft 0.75, I want to let this script loose on actors almost as soon as it’s written. I want it to grow from this starting point and I’m quite keen to have some element of music or dance or juggling or kazoo playing (or maybe not) that’s integral to where it goes and what happens to it next.

And my thoughts as things stand now:

This is a play about…

Four people.

Ten years.

Cities.

Beliefs.

Differences.

Little moments.

*And though we might have been a little quiet on that front recently, be assured we’ve been beavering away in the background. Even if the beavering did turn into an extended sojourn in Edinburgh, of which you can read more about on my personal blog. I’m also going to grab Charlie and force him to do an audioboo about his first experience of Edinburgh Fringe

Did you know I have a ‘thing’ about water? Not a ‘thing’ thing, just a writer’s thing. I blame early indocrination on Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath and T S Eliot – and, oh, I could go on. Thus far in my writing life I have made characters fall into the river Cherwell, mythologise a trip to a Scottish loch, dance in a fountain, skinny dip in a lake as 1999 passed into 2000 and decide the future of their thirty odd year relationship by a duck pond. Indeed in a first draft read through of that particular play the most universally loved aspect of the play was the ducks and I understood why. I could list the one hundred and one metaphorical/ literary/ allusive reasons I come back to water time and time again, just like I could try and list the reasons why I could never live somewhere that wasn’t (at the very least) near a river. And why I have to make periodic trips to see the sea or else I might combust. But I’m sure you’re smart enough to guess them – or, better still, invent your own more complex ones.

The water thing, then, was part of the reason that I immediately loved the idea of Hannah Nicklin‘s The smell of rain reminds me of you. The idea is that you submit your (true) stories of kissing someone in the rain. As it happens, in the depths of my ‘Unblogged’ file I had one such story I’d already written up (but then, as the title of the file it resides in suggests, had never published because of things like scruples and privacy and the fact that the blog post concerned goes on to talk about my watching the son of someone famous take drugs in the lobby of a hotel. Ah, those were the days). So I found said blog, cut and pasted the relevant bit as – crikey – four years later I know I’ve shared much worse.

So now it resides as part of the growing collection of  The smell of rain reminds me of you. Th0ugh, no, I’m not saying which is mine (though, if you know the lyrics of Gary Lightbody then it shouldn’t be too difficult). And if you’ve got a story and feel even vaguely writery then you should add yours too to what is fast becoming a beautiful, funny and often moving project.

[As a side issue should anyone feel like taking in other weather conditions I have a cool snow story too].

I’m going to talk about hat wearing.

And that’s not just because I like hats (though I do) but because it’s something I’ve been very aware of since, just over 18 months ago, I decided to stop writing in my spare time and decided to do the thing that paid my rent in my spare time and write in my full time. Being a writer means you’ve got a lot of hats to wear.

“What do you do?” is an easy enough question. But how do I answer it?

Well, there’s my Writer Hat. I write plays. I’ve got a half written novel. I write blogs.

Then there’s my plethora of Write By Numbers Hats. I’ve got my Artistic Director Hat. I’ve got my Marketing Hat. I’ve got my Accountant Hat. I’ve got my Tea Making Hat. I’ve got my Planning Hat. I’ve got my Workshop Leader Hat.

I’ve got my Literary Associate Hat. My Dramaturg Hat. My workshop Assistant Hat.

I’ve got my Journalist Hat. I’ve got my Columnist Hat. I’ve got my Reviewer Hat.

I’ve got my Shakespeare Hat. Given that this is the hat that (most regularly) pays my rent I’m reasonably fond of this one. But it’s the one I define myself least by.

And what do all these metaphorical hats mean? Hat- hair I guess.

Having had the luxury of spending a good chunk of January/February entirely wearing my Ovid Reworked – The Brixton Project Hat I’m very aware now that I’m back to the hat swapping routine. Some of that is very exciting – I am itching to get back to work on some of those stories that are floating around my head and commit them to the keys on my laptop. My head is buzzing with new plans, new opportunities which The Brixton Project has opened up for us. But some of the hats are, I know, hats I wouldn’t necessarily choose to wear if choice were an option. They’re hats I wear, to borrow a phrase from Avenue Q, “only for now”.

But I know if I were to go back to Writers School (if such a thing exists) I would tell anyone thinking of writing to get ready for the hats.

One of the most asked questions I get when I tell someone I’m a playwright is ‘What do you write?’. When I hear that question I’m probably already in the brace position because that question is not ‘why’ (because I have to and would combust if I didn’t) or how (pen to notebook diagram, diagram to keys on the computer, rarely in mornings, usually best at about 8.00pm). As I crouch on the floor with my hands around my head I’ll mumble something like – ‘well, drama, y’know plays’. And they’ll come back with are the funny or serious and I’m all ‘not comedy-comedy but not humanity is doomed and we’re all going to die alone either’ and by then I’m probably rocking. Maybe only Harold Pinter could have answered that question (‘well, there are these men in a room…’) and, let’s be honest, it’s not a very interesting question, is it? A writer can write about anything, yes we’ll have our own ticks and quirks but the ‘what’ – that can be huge. Or HUGE, as it should probably be given my current prediliction for capitalisation. By giving all of our writers the ‘what’ in Ovid Reworked (stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) we’ve removed that question. Yes, they may be comic or tragic or one of the endless shades in between but I like to think that getting the ‘what’ out of the way allows us to look at more interesting things. Like ‘how’. And since we’re specifically talking about plays – how does it go from story-to writer-to director-to stage?

If I were being flippant then my answer to that for this project would be ‘quickly’. I did an interview for IdeasTap a few days ago and when they asked me what I liked about working in Empty Shops I posited about how the need to create (and discard) quickly is extremely liberating. Having a theatre-space which we can programme to our whim and will allows us to take lots of risks. And one of the plays we debuted today I think demonstrates this beautifully.

A week before we moved into the space we went out into Brixton to do a photoshoot for promo material. Retreating from the cold we went into a local cafe/bar where one of our Directors, Estelle, started having something of a quick read-through of lines with two of our actors. Our waiter noticed the script that was being read (The Fall of Troy as it turns out) and asked what we were doing. And so it emerged that our waiter, Eddie Molloy, not only knew his Ovid but was something of a writer.

Ten minutes later, Eddie had agreed to write a short adaptation of the story of Narcissus and Estelle had agreed to direct it. In terms of risk and possible insanity in terms of curating a festival this stands out. Not just for us (in as much as we’d never met Eddie before and that there’s always the potential for the elephant in the room of ‘can this person write’) but for Eddie. Writers can be spikey and self obsessed (hello, have we met?) and whilst I’m sure Mr Molloy doesn’t have the worst of my writerly characteristics he was still investing the time and energy into producing a script for a theatre company he had bumped into in a cafe. But having an empty shop gives you license to do all those things you couldn’t do elsewhere – like engage a Brixton writer to write for you with less than a week to go to opening day. To be entirely serious (momentarily) it would be wrong for us to play ‘safe’, particularly when the Brixton Village Market project as a whole is about engaging Brixton and embracing risk and experimentation and imagination.

Eddie duly delivered his script in the middle of last week and when I read it and saw how enthusiastic Estelle was about directing it I was glad we’d taken this risk. We always wanted to make writers do unsual things and I think this spectacularly counts as an unusual thing. When I read Narcissus we didn’t have an actor for the role (and we have, to put it politely, already had one WHERE ARE ALL THE MALE ACTORS? stress) but, rather fittingly, Edward Cartwright was recommended to us on the strength of a monologue he’d previously performed. Less than forty eight hours after Edward got the script he was performing in Shop 82. With a gas mask.

Narcissus - First Performance

Because sometimes, just sometimes, life and making theatre is like that.

It was one of those quirks of timing that on the day that my (and indeed Charlie’s) results for our Masters degrees were released we found ourselves putting Reasons For Listing through its paces for the first time.

I’ll be honest – I love and hate first readings in probably equal measures. Maybe it’s just me as a writer but the desire to crawl under the table at some point is fairly overwhelming. Because – however witty or poignant or clever you think your words to be when you sit in front of your computer screen chuckling to yourself there’s nothing like putting them in the mouth of an actor to make you reach for the delete key. Or the rubbish bin, depending on which is nearer (the latter also being handy for the overwhelming desire to vomit). Conversely, when you’re not jabbing things into your eyes, there are also those moments which just work. And when you hear those for the first time – and everyone in the room stops and has the same feeling too – there’s a tiny (okay, a huge) amount of joy in that.

Aside from the time a few years ago when I got together a group of friends in the backroom of a pub, made sure everyone had alcohol in their glasses and got them to read the first draft of a play I was writing, the first reading of Reasons has probably been my most pain-free of first readings. It’s a pleasure really to sit around a table and know pretty much instantly that everyone is on the same page (literally and metaphorically). Putting a script at what is a relatively early stage in its development (in my strange numbering system the script for today’s rehearsal was labelled 0.75) is a new experience for me. But I felt very much when Charlie and I decided to start Write By Numbers it was because we (and other writers we knew) wanted to work in a different way. It feels entirely natural and liberating to open the script up at this point, a collaboration between all of the people sitting round the table.

And, wonderfully, it pretty quickly became apparent that we’ve got a bloody brilliant actor at the centre of it playing Joseph.  Which always helps.

Now, after a day of imagining all the places Reasons could go, tomorrow it’s back to the computer and, word by word, getting down to finishing Draft 1.0.

Very interesting (and provocative) piece up on Blogomatopoeia (which I would have missed had not 99 seats flagged it up) about common mistakes/ cardinal sins of new writing.

And have I done any of them?

Erm – of course I have.

As with many ideas in the last year I was on a train somewhere in London when I dreamt up Reasons For Listing. It certainly didn’t come out fully formed – Charlie would give it the working title which has firmly stuck a week or so later – and I wasn’t sure exactly how all the pieces slotted together. But I knew then I wanted to write about an adult with Autism (and not the Savant-style Autism that apears in many fictional portrayals) and I wanted the piece to be in some way interactive. That the experience of Autism should be a catalyst for an interactive piece seemed oddly right in a way that I couldn’t quite articulate but which instinctively felt right.

The plot fell together quickly and I soon began to get a feel for who Joseph, Reasons For Listing‘s protagonist, was (and indeed is for, really, we are still getting to know each other). My starting point – intensely personal and spotted with the kind of fears that if I thought about them too hard would prevent me from sleeping – was there but no loner visible.  Reasons For Listing is about a young man who has Asperger’s Syndrome but it’s also about growing up, striking out on your own and puzzling out the world around you. Which, at some point, every one of us has to do (for some it is, quite simply, a bit later or a bit harder than for others).

It’s a cliche to say that a picture paints a thousand words. I’m a playwright so I wouldn’t dismiss words so easily. But what might a photograph express? If we were to choose them what might it say about us? Living alone for the first time Joseph begins to create a photographic list of everything which makes him happy. And those pictures told a story too; there’s something about the photos that I realised he would choose that elevated him from casual labels. Because we’re all a lot more complex than a throw-away sentence describing some aspect of who we are.

As it stands I have a draft of Reasons For Listing which is labelled 0.75. In the next few weeks it’s going into the hands of both Charlie and a willing actor and it will undoubtedly see itself anew again at that point. But before we get there there’s the vital part of Reasons For Listing that requires your contribution:

If you were to take a photograph of something which makes you happy what would it be?

The idea is that Joseph’s story will never quite be the same in any two performances, changed as it is by the photos that people submit. For there is Joseph’s list of things that make him happy and then there are the lists those who he comes into contact with (or, equally pertinently, who come into contact with him). And that includes you.

We’ve written up all the details here and the only limit to what can be submitted it your imagination. Equally, if you want to submit more than one photograph please feel free.

So, what makes you happy?

Write By Numbers is a new-writing theatre company. This is where we blog.

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