A Call To Arms

9 Months To Birth Your Play

9 Months To Birth Your Play is a new series designed for artists to explore well-being-centred approaches to their practice whilst gaining a more rigorous understanding of the psychology of drama. 8 Well-being Workshops by neuro-psychodynamic coaching psychologist Anna Webster run alongside Writing Workshops from 9 exemplary artists working in the wonderful world of new writing today.

The next workshop to be published will be Well-being Workshop 1: Mindfulness on Friday 3rd May.

Look out for 3 recommended resources related to this article at the bottom of the webpage!

A Call To Arms by Juliet Gilkes Romero

As I sit here wondering what to share about my life as a writer, the intersection of self-care, diversity, creative resilience, financial resilience, undying curiosity, and authenticity shout loud. Maybe this seems like a lot but bear with me as I attempt to unravel my story in relation to these themes (and in no particular order).

First of all, this industry can be wonderfully rewarding. Over the years I have grown in confidence and creative self-expression. I strive to be a great dramatist and am constantly learning my craft. I give thanks to the theatre companies and professionals who have embraced me and the rubble of my imagination. My first major play, At the Gates of Gaza about the British West Indies Regiment during World War One, may have taken some seven years to get into production but it did end up winning the Writers Guild of Great Britain, Best play award. I have since learned to be patient, to believe in my voice and to realise that a dream can fuel disappointment unless pursued with discipline and action.

I have also been forced to navigate the no man’s land of rejection and accept that while I love theatre, it cannot always provide financial security (unless you are fortunate to have a string of West End hits). This is where creative and financial resilience is key. It’s important to understand and plan for economic drought both personally and within the theatre landscape. These issues are exacerbated by the economic health of our nation, international conflict, and pandemic; we all lived through the horror story of Covid as it decimated the earning power of creatives in the Arts.

I am a Trustee of HighTide theatre, and we have a very serious commitment to find, encourage and develop new plays by playwrights from around the East of England. Imagine the shock when Suffolk County Council recently announced it was cutting funding to Arts and Culture by 100%. These are the times we are living in, and where over the past three years our sector has witnessed a revolving door of some twelve different Culture Sectaries.

I have said on many occasions that no culture can thrive without the Arts. And a more specific question is what defines human existence? Simply, there’s no way to understand the human world without stories. The transformative power of art lies in this sharing which means new writing must be sustained by any means possible.

I began my writing career as a journalist. I am endlessly curious and fought hard for assignments to countries including Haiti, Cuba, and Ethiopia. I remember Editors wanting to send me to cover the Notting Hill carnival. Now don’t get me wrong, I love carnival, my mother is from Trinidad. But I fought hard to go to Northern Ireland instead. As a journalist and playwright I have always resisted being stereotyped. And I always encourage new writers to get out of their comfort zones, explore untold histories and never let anyone stuff you into a box of their choosing with the lid firmly shut!

Just look at the current battlefield of writing about history, especially as a black British woman. The toxic weaponization of so called ‘culture wars’ and ‘woke’ nonsense increasingly threatens the way a writer of colour approaches and navigates the past. For the record, I believe that history needs constant investigation and revision, especially in the light of new facts. Who knew that in 2015, British taxpayers finally finished paying off a multi-billion-pound loan (in today’s money) raised to compensate slave owners in 1833? This ‘bailout’ one of the biggest in British history made slave owners eye wateringly rich. Why is this history barely known to the British public or taught in British schools? Whose responsibility is it to tell it? I wrote The Whip because I believed that the facts deserved to be re-examined and that future generations have the right to debate how Britain’s collective colonial memory, or lack of it, shapes our current cultural reality.

To this end, historical drama is fertile territory that as a black writer I am just not willing to quit. This is where self-care comes in. Diversity in this arena is not always welcome. The resulting battles can be bruising. This inspirational quote by Hilary Mantel helps to keep me on point – “The most helpful quality a writer can cultivate is self-confidence – arrogance if you can manage it. You write to impose yourself on the world, and you have to believe in your own ability when the world shows no sign of agreeing with you”.

I am also fortunate to have supportive friends and mentors. I would not have reached this far without them. In the past I had often felt plagued by the spectre of ‘imposter syndrome’. Then a very savvy ‘sister’ explained that “imposter syndrome’ is actually ‘inauthentic syndrome”. (Say what?) “Because, if as a writer you’re being ‘authentic’ then it’s impossible to be an imposter”. Thank you ‘sister’. This is love.

As for self-expression, I’m personally driven to write drama with international resonance whether it’s going to Mexico to research the scandal of the country’s disappeared in Day of the Living, the tangled history of the transatlantic slave trade in The Whip or retelling Medea in The Gift with themes of exile and migrant persecution. I’m always keen to expose stories hidden for political expediency but always with an eye on bringing to life the contradictions and struggles of characters in an entertaining, yet informative way while hopefully leaving an audience talking for hours, days and perhaps even years.

I like plays with political bite. Katori Hall’s fearless examination of the Rwandan genocide Our Lady of Kibeho is outstanding. There’s Danai Gurira’s electrifying The Convert about the collision of race, religion, and colonialism in what was Rhodesia in 1896. Also, I love August Wilson for his cycle of ten plays that chronicle the twentieth century African American experience. Who is not inspired by his vision and ambition? And then recently I was stunned by Beth Steel’s Till the Stars Come Down, a play steeped in the pain, fire and joy of a family traversing, love, bigotry, and sibling rivalry and set during a wedding.

I try to read a lot. According to novelist Stephen King. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” This keeps me motivated but perhaps a little too much. The problem is I want to read “everything, everywhere, all at once” to borrow from the title of the Oscar nominated multiverse fantasy, bursting with wild, irrepressible, and rampant ideas. I am currently enjoying ‘An Untamed State’ by Roxane Gay and ‘God – An Anatomy’ by Francesca Stavrakopoulou. And when I don’t have time to read, I cheat by downloading my wish list on Audible.

When all is said and done, being a full-time playwright has not been an easy road. As already stated, there is no financial safety net, you must learn financial resilience and I have made mistakes. But I am the writer I am today because of challenging experiences, and I am grateful for that. All in all, there isn’t much I would do differently even if I could jump in a time machine.

What would I share most with new writers, especially those eyeing the Bruntwood prize? Be creatively resilient, authentic, and endlessly curious now more than ever. According to Albert Camus “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” I believe it, especially as our world endures yet more conflict in Yemen, the Middle East, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ukraine, and Sudan. The key question I ask myself? What do I have to say about it all, if at all? What do you want to say?

What flows from us as artists should not be controlled, but we do have responsibilities as local and global citizens. This means we must understand the power, privilege, and impact of our words. But perhaps most importantly and this is where authenticity reigns supreme “the privilege of a lifetime is being who you are” – Joseph Campbell.

About Juliet Gilkes Romero…

Juliet Gilkes Romero is an award-winning writer for stage and screen.  She was Writer in Residence at the National Theatre attached to the New Work Department for 2022/2023 and is currently under commission for both the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company.  She is the recipient of the 2020 Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play for The Whip, the Roland Rees Bursary 2019 (named in honour of the co-founder of the Alfred Fagon Award) and the BBC World Service Alexander Onassis Research Bursary.

Her plays include; The Gift a retelling of Medea filmed for Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines of Greek Tragedy season 2020,  The Whip at the RSC’s Swan Theatre 2020,  Day of The Living as part of RSC’s Mischief Festival 2018, Upper Cut at the Southwark Playhouse 2015, At The Gates of Gaza, Birmingham Repertory Theatre & tour, winner of the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Best Play Award 2009 and Bilad Al-Sudan at the Tricycle Theatre (now Kiln) as part of its 2006 season dealing with genocidal conflict in Darfur.

Screen and audio includes; Soon Gone; A Windrush Chronicle for BBC co-produced by Sir Lenny Henry’s production company Douglas Road and the Young Vic Theatre, and One Hot Summer broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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Published on:
26 Apr 2024


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