From Longlist to Production- WHEN WE DIED

When We Died by Alexandra Donnachie was longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2017. It will premiere in March 2020 at VAULT Festival in London, produced by Carbon Theatre. It will be directed by Andy Routledge, who first encountered the play when reading for the Bruntwood Prize.

What impact has being longlisted for the award had on you?

ALEXANDRA – A huge one! The notion that a number of people had read my work – and liked it – was such an incredible feeling. I used to identify as an actress who wrote a bit, but now I think of myself being as much a writer as I am an actress and that’s largely down to the confidence that comes with completing and submitting a full-length play, let alone being longlisted. It’s also through the award that I met Andy who was one of the people who read When We Died, and who is now directing it. So yes, I’d say it has had a huge impact personally and professionally.

How did the Bruntwood process lead to you working together?

ANDY – You come into contact with a real range of great plays when reading for Bruntwood, but there are some plays that unlock something within you personally and you find yourself thinking about them again and again. That was certainly true for me with When We Died. One of my favourite aspects of the Bruntwood process is that you can ask to be introduced to a writer whose work you’re interested in. The writers submit under a pseudonym, and the reader comments and script report are also anonymous, so it’s not until that potential introduction and meeting that you learn who each other are. It means that the play is absolutely the starting point for your conversations, and I think that can allow for a particularly fruitful dialogue. Sometimes the writer has fairly clear ideas what they want next for the play and that meeting may focus primarily on answering questions, making yourself available as an outside eye or reading other things they’ve written. Occasionally, as was the case for When We Died, you may collaborate closely with the writer throughout the development of the play. I was interested by the questions When We Died was asking, and hearing Alex talk about the play with such detail and energy was very special. I feel lucky to be working with her on it.

ALEXANDRA – I had previously written and self-produced an autobiographical play which I perform with my younger sister Kate (3 Years, 1 Week and a Lemon Drizzle) but until When We Died I had always worked as a writer-performer and theatre maker. I received a script report in November 2017 which included a summary of the play and the various readers’ compiled thoughts and questions. I then met with Andy the following January. It was the first time I had met with a director solely as a writer. Andy spoke about my play with passion, curiosity and had a strong connection to it which was so exciting. I can’t describe the feeling of hearing somebody talk to you about characters who have lived in your head for over a year like they’re real people!

What can you tell us about the play?

ALEXANDRA – When We Died is about an embalmer who is tasked with preparing the body of the man who raped her 11 months previously. As she works through the various stages of how to embalm a body, the play explores her decision to stay and whether or not she will inform this man’s wife, who will shortly be arriving to say her final goodbye.

ANDY – It examines how an individual chooses to tell their story on terms that are right for them, and asks complicated questions of why someone may or may not inform others about what they’ve been through. Alex doesn’t shy away from the heaviness of this subject matter, and yet the writing has a particular lightness. For me it’s a play about recovery and life just as much as it is about trauma and death.

How has the play developed since that first meeting?

ALEXANDRA – Lots of writing, editing and talking via Skype! I wouldn’t say the plot or essence of what I think is important about the play has changed since the draft I submitted to Bruntwood, but the structure has – wildly. One thing that has not necessarily changed in the play but which we have been very mindful of since the first draft is how the cultural landscape has shifted. The first draft was written before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and this has ignited lots of conversations around the central character’s relationship to that. The later drafts definitely make me angrier now than the first one did and the story feels more urgent. I think that’s reflected in the changes to its form as the protagonist now has much greater agency in how she communicates her story.

ANDY – I think the changes to the cultural landscape has also impacted how upfront we are with an audience about the subject of the play. It’s highlighted our responsibility to ask complex questions but to do so in a way that ensures we are taking care of our audiences. We have been working closely with a Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Northampton and had conversations with professionals at the British Institute of Embalmers. We’ve presented sections of the longlisted draft at scratch events in the East Midlands (PILOT Nights and China Plate’s First Bite Festival) and these have informed the redrafting process. The latest draft is less bound by time as we feel that enables the story to go further into the long term effects of both the assault and recovery. These scratch performances, as well as a week at Pleasance as part of their LABS programme, have also prepared us to start shifting the emphasis from a writer/dramaturg relationship into more of a performer/director dynamic.


What’s next for the play?

ALEXANDRA – VAULT Festival 2020. Please come! We’re performing from 10th – 15th March (18:10, 15:10 on the 14th March) and we are all very excited. Courtenay, our fantastic producer for Carbon Theatre, has produced work there before, but it’s the first time Andy or I have worked there. After that, who knows? Hopefully it will have further life beyond that. I’m feeling really excited to see our posters up in the new year – complete with the Bruntwood 2017 Longlist badge!

Tickets are available for the production here:

Published on:
9 Mar 2020


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