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…
Hello hello hello! My name is James McDermott and I’m a playwright based in East Anglia.
My new play ‘Time and Tide’ runs at Park Theatre from 5th-29th February 2020. The play follows May who runs a crumbling caff on the end of Cromer Pier and has to decide whether or not to sell up; her delivery man Ken who is losing customers to Costa; her head waiter Nemo who is desperate to leave and tread the boards in London; and Nemo’s unrequited love Daz who is burying his head in the sand over his best mate leaving. The play is an LGBTQ themed comedy drama about a little community struggling with change set against the backdrop of a country struggling with change.
‘Time and Tide’ was long-listed for the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize in 2017. Bruntwood have kindly asked me to write a blog about the writing, rewriting and development of the play in the hope the blog helps readers better understand what goes into getting a play out of your head, onto the page and then up on the stage. Thanks in advance for having a read. I hope you find it helpful.
I wrote the first draft of ‘Time and Tide’ in 2016 under the mentorship of Steve Waters and Timberlake Wertenbaker on UEA’s MA in Scriptwriting program. I can’t recommend that course highly enough. I doubt I’d have written ‘Time and Tide’ without Steve and Timberlake’s guidance and on the course, I learnt ideas that now underpin all my writing and writing teaching work.
I learnt that ‘finding your voice’ as a writer is about finding what you want to write about and the way you want to write about it.
I learnt that ‘drama’ derives from the Greek word ‘dran’ meaning ‘to do’ and so dramas are about characters trying to do something.
I learnt that if characters just did what they were trying to do, they’d be no story and so there has to be interior and exterior obstacles that a character has to overcome in order to get what they want.
I learnt that the spelling of ‘playwright’ reveals what the craft of playwriting is about: wroughting play or, in other words, mapping through action and dialogue the verbal, physical and psychological games human beings play with each other as they try to get what they want from each other.
I learnt how important it is to learn your craft as a playwright. If you want to be a pianist, it’s hard to compose a good symphony without first learning musical chords. It’s hard to write a good play without first learning about dramatic structure and studying the work of other playwrights.
Most importantly, that MA course gave me the space and time to write plays, read plays and share work with my peers which taught me about myself, my voice and my process as a playwright.
To fund my MA, I worked in Wells Deli Holt, a cafe in my home town in rural Norfolk. At that time in my life, I was trying to decide whether to stay in Norfolk after graduating and divide my time between cafe work and writing or whether to move to London and do much the same thing there. To try and work out what I wanted to do, I decided that for my MA dissertation, I’d write a play in which I explored my conflict through a character who had to decide whether to leave Norfolk for London. I named that character Nemo, so called because he felt like a big fish in a small pond.
Working in Wells Deli Holt, I became aware of how independent businesses in Norfolk are losing trade due to the arrival of chain shops in their towns and the fact that many coastal places are empty for most of the year due to Norfolk’s holiday home culture. In my dissertation play, I wanted to assert the problems faced by independent businesses in my county. So I decided that Nemo would work in an independent cafe in Cromer. The owner of that cafe and her self-employed bread man would both be struggling because of the emergence of chain shops. May and Ken were born.
Growing up gay first in Lincolnshire as a child and then in Norfolk as a young adult, I felt like a ghost no one believed in as rural LGBTQ lives were rarely represented in fiction. For my MA dissertation play, I wanted to write the play I needed to see in the world: a play that asserted and celebrated rural queer lives in the hope of helping people like me feel less invisible and encouraging people unlike me to better understand and reassess how they perceive rural LGBTQ lives. So I decided that eighteen year old Nemo and fifty year old May would both be gay allowing me to explore through them rural gay life for younger men and older women respectively.
Most of my closest friends are straight men. I’ve seldom seen onstage bromances between a gay man and their straight best mate so I decided that at the heart of ‘Time and Tide’ would be a friendship between Nemo and his best friend who I decided to call Daz.
I knew ‘Time and Tide’ was going to be a stage play and not a radio play, film or TV series. I wanted to tell the story of ‘Time and Tide’ in the theatre where audiences are used to seeing representations of the lives of kings, queens or middle class heroes to show audiences that the lives of everyday people who work in a cafe can be just as heroic, profound, poignant, dignified and interesting as the lives of the more conventional characters we’re used to seeing on stage.
As a working class person who loves theatre, I get frustrated that in many plays about working class life, writers impose elaborate plots onto their characters as opposed to authentically representing the mundanity of their everyday lives. In ‘Time and Tide’, I didn’t want to build the plot of the play around a fast-paced complicated narrative but build it around the routines, rituals and small talk of the cafe, the staff’s inability to do what they want because of the limits of their lives and their inability to say how they feel due to their undemonstrative natures.
All these ideas infused the writing of the first draft of ‘Time and Tide’ which I submitted for my MA dissertation. The script got a distinction. Encouraged by this, I decided to keep developing the play. But it was difficult to make time to do this as now I’d graduated, I found myself working full-time in Wells Deli Holt. I was frustrated. It felt like the job would hinder my development as a writer; instead of spending all my time making plays, I’d now be spending my days making coffee…
But I started to see that the time I was spending working in the cafe was great training as a writer. I was spending my days watching people and listening to what they weren’t saying to each other which taught me lots about human interaction and subtext. In sharing a small kitchen for nine hours a day with staff who were constantly clock-watching, I was learning about the effects of space, place and time on people. In seeing the differences between how my colleagues behaved inside and outside of work, I was learning about the conflicts we all have between our professional, social and private selves. Gradually, I learnt to change the narrative I was telling myself about the day job. I learnt to be present at work and see everything that happened there as potential writing material.
My experiences working in Wells Deli Holt and what I learned about myself, my county and people from working there infused the re-writing of ‘Time and Tide’. I’d rewrite the play most nights after work. With every rewrite, I was trying to get closer to finding the play I wanted to write behind the play I’d written.
Finding the motivation to write with a full-time job and without the deadlines of an MA was often difficult and so, in order to keep galvanised and keep learning the craft, I applied for places on Soho Theatre’s Writers Lab and Papatango’s free Introduction To Playwriting Course at Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. On those courses, I met once a month with a group of aspiring writers and we would share ideas, workshop scenes from our plays and learn from visiting practitioners.
I learnt lots of gold on those groups. I learnt that when you create characters, you are creating human animals who fake emotions and rarely say what they want because they’re vulnerable.
I learnt that a big part of the craft of playwriting is revealing inner life through outer action and that a protagonist’s true character is revealed through the choices they make under pressure.
I learnt that if you tie up every narrative thread in your play, your audience never has to think about the play again but if you leave a few questions unanswered, they’ll think about your play forever.
Everything I learnt in those sessions infused subsequent rewrites of ‘Time and Tide’ and the friends I made on those courses continue to inspire me as we regularly read and watch each others work.
When I’d rewritten ‘Time and Tide’ several times and it now felt like the play I set out to write, I wanted to see extracts of the script performed in front of an audience. Ultimately, playwriting is about mapping energy in a room and wroughting a night out in the theatre so in order to know if my play was working, I needed to see it in front of people. But I didn’t know how to make this happen…
Then I found London Playwright’s Blog, an invaluable web site which lists writing opportunities. On there, I saw that Little Pieces Of Gold, Harts Theatre Company, Scene Gym, Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds and Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre were all looking for new scenes to workshop and stage at scratch nights. I submitted extracts from ‘Time and Tide’ to all of these call-outs and got my work staged at these events.
In seeing scenes from ‘Time and Tide’ in front of an audience, I saw where the crowd got bored. I felt where I was and wasn’t in control of the energy in the room. I heard which lines felt over-written. These are things I couldn’t have learnt about my play without staging extracts at scratch nights. These observations showed me what I needed to rewrite in subsequent drafts of the play.
Taking part in these new writing events also helped me to create connections and begin collaborations with other emerging writers and theatres. Lots of these connections yielded further work for me as a writer. Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds commissioned me to co-write a play for young people; Scene Gym asked me to become a Writer In Residence and Harts Theatre Company commissioned me to write a short play for Lyric Hammersmith’s Gala night which was dramaturged by Simon Stephens, performed by Jude Law and directed by Sean Holmes.
After further rewrites and after seeing that extracts of ‘Time and Tide’ were well-received by audiences, I felt the play was ready to submit to playwriting competitions. I submitted the script to The Bruntwood, Papatango and Verity Bargate Playwriting Prizes and waited to hear back…
‘Time and Tide’ didn’t win any of these competitions but it was long-listed for all of them and script readers from each competition kindly sent me a script report documenting how I might further develop the play. Encouraged by the long-listing’s and the advice in these reports, I felt the play was worth further development and so, with director Rob Ellis and producer Amy Hendry, we successfully applied to develop ‘Time and Tide’ on Park Theatre’s Script Accelerator Programme. The scheme gives a writer, director and producer a month of time, space and creative mentoring at Park Theatre to workshop a play with actors culminating in an industry showcase and hopefully accelerating the play’s chances of getting programmed.
I learnt so much about the craft developing the play for a month in a room with actors and a director. I learnt that playwriting is about writing for bodies as well as voices; characters in ‘Time and Tide’ could use their height, weight, gender and sexuality as well as words and intellect to try and get what they want from each other.
I learnt that playwriting is about setting your scenes in places where activities that happen in those locations affect the action of your scenes; when characters in ‘Time and Tide’ needed to talk about something important, suspense and conflict could be created by interrupting and delaying their chats with the arrival of a bread man whose order needs unpacking or a customer who needs serving.
I learnt that ninety percent of our communication as humans is non-verbal; actors could convey with one gesture the intention and emotion under ten lines of text so I could cut more dialogue.
Everything I learnt on the Script Accelerator scheme infused further rewrites of ‘Time and Tide’. Following the well-received sharing at the end of the programme, the Park asked to me to submit the rewritten final draft of the play to be considered for programming…
I was in a car in Suffolk when director Rob Ellis phoned me to say that The Park were going to stage ‘Time and Tide’. I cried like a baby. Because my baby had finally found a home. May, Ken, Nemo, Daz and that Cromer caff would finally live and breathe and meet the world.
As I write this blog, I’m just about to start rehearsals for ‘Time and Tide’ with a dream of a team. The play is being directed by Rob Ellis and produced by Amy Hendry & Relish Theatre and stars Wendy Nottingham (Peaky Blinders, Mr Selfridge, Vera Drake) as May, Paul Easom (Tim Firth’s The Girls) as Ken, Josh Barrow(Silk Road) as Nemo and Elliot Liburd (Bismillah: The Isis Tragicomedy) as Daz. I can’t wait to learn more about the play from these collaborators.
‘Time and Tide’ has taken four years to get from the page to the stage. In that time, I’ve learnt it’s very common for a play to take that long to get produced. I’ve learnt to not get disheartened that playmaking takes time. In fact, I’ve learnt to enjoy how long it takes to write, rewrite, develop and produce a play because ultimately, the more time you have to re-think, re-see, rewrite and workshop your play, the more thoughtful and effective a play it’s likely to be when it finally goes on.
I think it’s important to stress that this blog only represents a fraction of ‘Time and Tide’s journey. I submitted the play to many competitions that it didn’t get long-listed for. I submitted the play to many development opportunities that it didn’t get selected for. I sent the play to many theatres, programmers and producers who either passed on it or never emailed back.
In the last four years, I’ve learnt to not be discouraged by rejection as different producers, programmers and theatres all have different tastes and dramatic intentions which my work just might not chime with. But I kept writing and submitting and eventually, I found a theatre and a creative team who care about the story I want to tell and want to help me tell it.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I hope you’ve found it helpful and I wish you all the very best of luck wroughting your plays. Don’t forget to book tickets to see ‘Time and Tide’ at Park Theatre from 5th-29th February: https://www.parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/time-and-tide.
Learn the craft. Do the work. Write your truth. Find your people. Ignore the noise. Enjoy the journey. Never give up.
James McDermott is a playwright and performance poet represented by Independent Talent. He is an Associate Artist at HighTide and Norwich Arts Centre. James graduated from The University of East Anglia with an MA (Distinction) in Scriptwriting and trained on The Royal Court Writers Group and Soho Theatre’s Writers Lab. He is currently one of four writers on Hampstead Theatre’s Inspire: The Next Playwright Programme. James’s plays include ‘CAMP’ (Norwich Theatre Royal/Norwich Arts Centre; UK Tour), ‘Street Life’ (Norwich Theatre Royal) and ‘Rubber Ring’ (Pleasance Islington; UK Tour). James is currently developing new plays with Hampstead Theatre, HighTide, Eastern Angles and Norwich Playhouse. James’s plays are published by Samuel French and his debut poetry collection ‘Manatomy’ is published by Burning Eye Books in July. When James isn’t writing, he teaches playwriting at Norwich Theatre Royal, New Wolsey Ipswich, The Marina Theatre Lowestoft and in schools, colleges and care homes across East Anglia.
Website: jamesmcdermottwriter.weebly.com Twitter: @jamesliammcd