Bruntwood Prize winning Playwright Anna Jordan ‘Have your own voice, and use it’
In the second of our video interviews with the 2019 Judges, playwright Anna Jordan discusses what makes a story into a play, and how the…
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Anna Jordan won the Bruntwood Prize in 2013 for her play YEN
I love reading these day-in-the-life things and I was thrilled to be asked to write one. I also love the articles where you get to see what people have in their fridges, but I’ll spare you that.
I wake up every day before six, not because I’m disciplined or amazing but because I have a 22-month-old son called Gryff. I’ve told him how great sleep is, but he’s just not convinced. I’m still breastfeeding so he’ll want to hang off my boob from about half-past-five. Then we’ll lie in bed and watch The Very Hungry Caterpillar at least five times. The fact that it’s a vintage cartoon makes it feel more wholesome and me less guilty.
On a good day I’ll have tidied the living room the night before and set out some toys and books. We’ll get stuck straight into reading or drawing. On a bad day the room will be a fucking mess, strewn with odd socks and the dismembered limbs of Mr Potatohead. The TV will be paused on Cbeebies from the night before, probably Makka Pakka’s fat head. I’ll try to get the house sorted while Gryff wreaks chaos around me. Sometimes we get out early, to the golf course or the green. Sometimes I’ll still be in my pants at 11, chasing him with a nappy in case he pisses on the carpet again. It’s swings and roundabouts. I try not to beat myself up for not being perfect. Perfect is boring as shit. Right?
Gryff is my priority but work is always on my mind. I might put on a podcast or audio book for research, but it’s hard to focus and eventually Gryff will want to listen to all eighty-seven versions of Baby Shark. Occasionally I’ll be in the middle of some activity and shout HEY SIRI – OPEN NOTE. Then I’ll use voice dictate to record some insightful nugget before it evaporates into nothing. And it will evaporate into nothing. I use Siri a lot now, convenience sadly winning over principles. I’m thinking of dedicating my next play to him.
Not having childcare is tough, but it’s great spending more time with Gryff. He’s my best mate, after all. My partner and I do six hours each, then it’s dinner, stories, bath, bedtime, wine, oblivion (usually in that order). Sometimes I take a day off at the weekend, but often I’ll work right through. I’ve found work isn’t really any slower because of Covid. And in this crazy time my writing-life bleeds into my mum-life and vice versa. And I’ve discovered that actually that’s OK.
Perhaps more than OK. Perhaps they can enrich each other. My favourite thing to do is watch Gryff play. Discover. Imagine. Make-believe: Feeding a play-dough burger to his toy tiger, making important calls on mummy’s flip flop. It’s joyous. His complete absence of self-consciousness makes me cry. For what I’ve lost, maybe? For what he has to come? No. Don’t be so fucking maudlin, Anna. I think it makes me cry because life should be all about Play.
So I’m always on Five Minute Mum, several Whatsapp groups, and even – in my darkest hours –Mumsnet, looking for play activities for toddlers. I try to be innovative and change things up. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always interesting. Being an angry dragon or a sleepy bunny can get boring. But when we really play well, together… I forget housework, dinner, deadlines. Time passes in a heartbeat.
So when my partner takes over and I start the afternoon, I think about how I can take that into my work. What can I learn from play in my writing?
There’s lots of crossover. A gathering of resources, setting up of conditions – if they aren’t essential then they’re at least conducive to both. Planning can aid good play, but you also need to be willing to let those plans fly out of the window. And isn’t what writers need? To learn to Let Go? God, I do.
Sometimes it can be tedious and flat. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. But what do I do if Gryff isn’t responding to my Geordie sock puppet called Les? Do I keep waggling Les in his face – hoping he’ll cop on to my really quite brilliant character comedy? No. I change tack. See what else is around, what catches his eye. I pay attention to what flies and choose that over what crashes and burns. So why do I sit in front of my Mac screen, morose, so often? Waiting. Frustrated. Trying the same thing over again?
So here’s the things I’ve been doing to Get Away From My Mac: writing in a notebook, using auto-dictate or voice recorder, keeping a scrap book, using index cards, using a big magnetic whiteboard (the best fifty quid I’ve ever spent), using magic whiteboards in other rooms. I write in streams of consciousness if I feel stuck and I use music to inspire or to distract. If something isn’t working I’ll stop and watch or read something related. Or something I love. Being flexible is important, especially now I have to share a small desk in Gryff’s bedroom.
On the flip side, if Gryff’s laughing and bright-eyed I know I’m on to something. When play is working you keep going. And you repeat, refine, strengthen, develop and build. It’s like getting stuck in a brilliant creative groove. Playing has made me more aware of hitting these grooves in my writing. I really take advantage of those times when words and ideas just seem to flow.
But the real discovery is about lack of consequence. I mean, of course you want playtime to be bonding and stimulating – but that one particular morning of making dens or magic potions? It doesn’t really matter if it’s brilliant or crap. It will fade into the fabric of life, of childhood. With this impermanence comes a great liberation. The absence of outcome means a lack of self-consciousness. What conditions for creativity to thrive in!
With my work I began to think: What if no one was ever going to read this? What if there was no deadline? No notes? No sharing? And yes – it’s an artificial environment you’re setting up – but as writers our imaginations are our best gifts, right? So let’s pretend. Let’s Play. That It Just Doesn’t Matter Whether It’s Good Or Not. Suddenly parts of my brain that were brittle began to feel soft and responsive. Ideas came. Thoughts for the sake of thoughts. Words for the sake of words. Writing for shits and giggles. I love it.
Around half four I’ll usually go for a run. I have one of those ridiculous on-off relationships with running but I always come back to it, sheepish, with wine and petrol station flowers. During lockdown I’ve become serious about it. Serious and not-at-all serious, if you get what I mean. Getting out there has kept me going, giving me freedom and space. It’s great to feel something in the body and give the mind a rest. I’m running further, faster and more often than ever, using guided runs from the legend that is Coach Bennett on Nike Run Club (I recommend whether you’re a regular runner or you’ve never run before). I’ve even managed to make running a metaphor for writing: It’s rarely easy, often painful – but if you want to get better then you just have to Fucking Turn Up.
Then it’s generally gin o’clock or wine time. The Daily Briefing is unbearable without a drink. I like to shout WHERE THE FUCK IS BORIS at the TV for a bit. Or I might tweet WHERE THE FUCK IS BORIS. Something’s bound to get me weepy or angry; It might be lack of PPE, Patel’s horrendous immigration bill, the V.E. Day congas or our government’s general disdain for the general public. It’s like a game of shitshow bingo. I try not to dwell a lot on what the pandemic is going to mean for theatre. I put it from my mind until I have more time and space, but I’m looking forward to getting involved in some conversations about how we can move forward. I think overall, I’m a bit frightened. I work a lot in TV now, but theatre is home. Pretentious thought alert: Life without theatre would be unbearable.
At 6.30 it’s a video call with my dad and my sister. We are very close and I’ve missed them so much in the first eight weeks of lockdown. But now we do a bit of socially distant visiting and I’m much happier. We’re thinking of taking a trip to Barnard Castle soon.
After Gryff is asleep me and my partner find a soft surface somewhere and stare gormlessly at our phones for an hour. I might have another go at watching Tiger King before falling asleep ten minutes in. I wish I could work at night, but my brain is mush. Sleep is precious. Gryff doesn’t sleep through, but if you’re a parent reading this who’s kid does sleep through that’s great, I don’t hate you. (I HATE YOU). Sleep is deep, weird and broken of late. Foxes shag in the garden, cats fight, Gryff cries. I have crazy dreams. Last week I dreamt that my partner and all my ex-boyfriends were having dinner together and they wouldn’t let me in the room. Unravel that one for me.
Then it’s up at sparrow’s fart to do it all again. Lockdown has been tough but it’s made life sort of simple, and I like that. In two weeks our childminder opens again and then we’ll find some semblance of normality. Maybe. But I’ve learned a lot during this testing and ludicrous time: Play well, turn the fuck up, Zooms aren’t that bad and baking powder gets the smell of piss out of the carpet.
Disclaimer: I set this pic up. It is impossible to work with a toddler on your lap.