This year the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting Judges decided upon a winner anonymously on Monday 23rd October. The winner and Judges Awards will be announced at the Award Ceremony (livestreamed from 4pm Nov 13th) In the run up to the ceremony we’re profiling all the shortlisted writers and their plays.
Oh Graveyard, You Can’t Hold Me Always- Alan McKendrick
(AKA The Gothic Castle of Capitalism)
An interlinked series of vignettes concerning (but not restricted to) such enchanting topics as frog economics, library arson, partying professionally, bartending as nihilism, a philosophy of pipe-in music and the ever-multiplying joys of the modern uniformed work experience within the gothic castle of capitalism.
Alan McKendrick is a writer, director and translator working across theatre, film and opera. Work as writer/director includes an adaptation of Alexander Trocchi’s cult novel Cain’s Book (Untitled Projects); Finished With Engines (Arches/Traverse); Violence Was Offered (Arches); Emancipation Acts (Commonwealth Games Cultural Programme) and The Animal Sculpture Sinfonia Tunes Down (Seventeen Gallery Aberdeen/ACES). As writer : All Howl At Once (Aldeburgh Music); Every Inch Of Many Effigies (Birmingham Contemporary Music Group); Ophelia, a radical rewriting of Hamlet in collaboration with performer Adura Onashile and director Stewart Laing (Òran Mór) and The Eye (Untitled Projects), a free adaptation of Georges Bataille’s Story Of The Eye featuring kinetic sculptures, robotics, silicone prosthetics and live performer, presented at Glasgow Sculpture Studios.
Alan was formerly Playwrights’ Studio Scotland Writer-In-Residence with Untitled Projects and the Arches, and has made further work with various organisations including Malmö Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Volksbühne, Northern Stage and Riot Group.
‘Oh Graveyard, You Can’t Hold me Always’ was read under the temporary title of ‘The Gothic Castle of Capitalism’ to protect Alan’s anonymity due to the development of the script with the Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland being searchable online.
What inspired you to write this play?
This play was born out of numerous and at-first-seemingly-disparate things – one key factor being that canny old showbusiness dictum “Never go onstage dressed the same as your audience”. It seemed to me that I’d seen rather too many theatre pieces of late where any sartorial distinction between audience and performer was negligible at best, and so there came a desire to create a work that flew ardently in the face of that, and would proffer opportunities for some genuinely lurid and offbeat design approaches for once, particularly via the field of costume.
The way in which this took shape as a writing imperative was initially the desire to create a piece with a great many various characters, and absolutely none of those characters ever stepping onstage in what might be termed ‘everyday clothes’. How this coalesced was a world where everybody was constantly either in some kind of uniform or occasional garb – so a wedding dress or a burial shroud for example would have made the grade, though neither of those was resorted to in the end. What did keep coming back above all was uniforms, some gleefully cartoonish and others that half-step more in keeping with our own so-called reality.
I’m fully aware that there’ll be some people hearing this who might contend this seems a fairly superficial and/or indulgent means by which to embark upon the creation of a piece of drama. Firstly, I’d respond that pretty much everything short of community service is already arguably superficial and/or indulgent, and secondly this constant cavalcade created of people engaged in various works and non-works – and extolling their dissatisfactions with those various works and non-works – was absolutely what engendered the content and ultimate themes of the piece itself, which I’d advocate for as resolutely nonsuperficial by most anyone’s yardstick.
The absolute first root of the piece was in fact in a workshop exercise undertaken as part of the Jerwood Opera Writing Foundation course at Aldeburgh Music, wherein myself and the composer Luke Styles who had scarcely just met were tasked to write a 2min opera together in an afternoon – which to allow Luke time to score the music meant I had about 35min max to come up with the text. I don’t want to give too much away, but the very first page of ‘Oh Graveyard…’ is two individuals hymning their virulent dissatisfaction with their current station in life, and that came directly from the initial exercise. Shortly thereafter, I introduced a third character whose travails made those of the initial duo look tame in comparison, and the first speech of that new character was written very consciously as an unabashed operatic aria.
While nothing ultimately came of that particular opening gambit beyond the initial fun of doing it – though Luke and I have formed an ongoing and fruitful collaboration on various other opera projects together since – there was something about that slender stack of words which refused to go lie down quietly in the bottom drawer to die. A while subsequent, I was invited by the wonderful and ever-supportive Playwrights Studio Scotland to come in and do an introductory session with students at the Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland, with a view to ultimately workshopping a piece with some of that cohort. I brought in eight different short texts by myself as introductory material for them to work on in different groups, and one of those groups was given that short opera text, what is still now word-for-word the initial scene of ‘Oh Graveyard…’, and something about hearing that brief libretto uttered as spoken dramatic text just clicked, and ultimately fixed a world, tone and atmosphere for us to play in from there on in. Something about the every-syllable-carefully-weighted libretto origins of that first text also I think pervaded everything written subsequently, helpfully reining in some of my more textually bulimic tendencies, and a further series of costume/uniform-heavy vignettes arose from there, and the eventual result of that invaluable time with those excellent students is the play as it’s ended up.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey as an playwright?
I started out like I guess most people probably start out, with a good deal more desire than ability. One thing I give my younger self a bit of credit for though is understanding that just because I’d written some words didn’t mean each and every one of them automatically had to venture forth and strive to meet an audience – I particularly remember spending a summer aged nineteen cranking out a 35,000 word document, and then boiling that text down to a 15min monologue for eventual public performance (and you know what, that same speech would probably have been yet more improved by being a neat 10min long). This whole time though, I was directing student productions of contemporary plays at the University Of Glasgow, and learning a lot from those experiences.
As a result of this, once I finally in my mid-twenties did start to regularly produce writing that I felt was worth showing around that bit more, I’d spoiled myself somewhat by having gotten used to the fatal narcotic of having approval over casting and sound design, and found myself loath to give those things up. As such, once I started working professionally it was invariably as a combination writer/director, and I’d go so far as to say that for a long time I really genuinely didn’t understand where one discipline ended and the other began. Directing my own work became a necessary approach whereby I could support my preferred process of writing as much as possible in rehearsals as opposed to in advance of them – not devising, not really improvising either to any real extent, really just me turning up with maybe the first ten minutes or so and then writing the play through the course of a compressed rehearsal period, with each scene following as a direct and immediate response to seeing what the performers did with the previous one. This made for a process so white-knuckle, last-minute and predicated on a kind of gung-ho brinksmanship that no other director quite rightly would anyway have stood for it, not to mention an approach which requires a very particular kind of performer, and indeed producing theatre.
The Arches in Glasgow was absolutely instrumental for me in those early stages, trusting from the early directing work of mine they’d seen that I might have something to offer textually as well, even if I seemed congenitally incapable of providing them with any hard written evidence of this in advance. I still remember producing the initial version of my play Finished With Engines for them in 2006, which was a project where the Arches had put me together in collaboration with two members of the New York ensemble the Riot Group, Stephanie Viola and Drew Friedman. Neither Stephanie nor Drew had seen a single page of script before they got on an airplane to arrive in Glasgow a scant fortnight before we were due to open, and not a single person from the Arches asked to see a word of text or even visited a rehearsal at any point, they all just came on opening night as much in the dark as any other audience member. That level of kamikaze trust in a total beginner playwright – on behalf of both performers and venue – is just astonishing to me in retrospect, and something for which I’m unutterably grateful, though I’ve little doubt I took it very obnoxiously and single-mindedly for granted at the time. I reckon that validation of being encouraged and supported to make scripted drama via determinedly unorthodox means was absolutely key for me early on, and has determined a lot of the journey I’ve been on since.
A second crucial part of that journey though I think has been about decoupling the two disciplines of writing and directing, and experimenting with each in isolation. Unusually for a young director, I’d never done any assisting work but had rather written my way into lead directing roles, so to speak, with the result that after having made my first three professional productions I still had absolutely no idea whatsoever how anybody other than myself ran a rehearsal room. Seeking to amend this and finally peek through the neighbours’ curtains at long last, with the help of a Federation Of Scottish Theatre bursary I inveigled my way into the working orbit of the visionary director/designer Stewart Laing, assisting him on an Offenbach piece at Malmö Opera, followed by his company Untitled Projects’ radical Pamela Carter-scripted adaptation of Marivaux’s La Dispute at the Tramway and Traverse. Subsequent to this initial contact, Stewart employed me on further projects first as dramaturg, then eventually approaching me to write a playscript for him to direct – the first time anybody had ever been reckless enough to ask, and an invitation I jumped at gladly. That process was absolutely transformative, not least insofar as I even managed to script the entirety of a playtext in advance of rehearsals for once in my life.
Around about the same time, I started to get my first professional offers to direct the work of people who weren’t myself, and so this splitting of those two aspects into something separate really began to hit the ground running. I’m still capable of and keen to operate in my old writer/director mode, but simultaneously have an increasing interest in creating texts for theatre that are somewhat legible to people beyond myself and my immediate collaborators, and that might potentially even (who knows) have potential life in productions beyond my own particular idiosyncratic stab at that material. In my early work I genuinely wasn’t interested in that, probably mostly because on some level I realised that I wasn’t capable of it anyway. I’ve been making theatre for really quite a long time now, but the putting of words on a page with the intention that they can be interpreted by others without my having to be leading the rehearsal process or even be in the room at all is still a really, really new discipline to me, and one I’m actively embracing.
How do you feel about being shortlisted?
Startled, in a word. As enumerated above, I’m coming from a place of being confident I can get a desired effect across to an audience through the actual mounting and realisation of a piece of work, but in many ways far less confident that I can communicate more than a vague diminished trace of that intended effect through just placing words on paper. I think it’s fair to say that over the past dozen years or so, I’ve had relatively minimal contact with the literary departments of various theatres, and that next-to-no work has ever come to me from such avenues. The productions I have had mounted have tended to come from artistic directors seeing examples of my work and then commissioning another production, as opposed to any potential I might or might not possess having at any point been so glaringly apparent to any readers just of words written on a page. As such, I quickly fell off pursuing such literary avenues to any especial extent, figuring that if I didn’t seem to be able to get in by the door but that I was doing alright gaining ingress via various windows instead, then I should probably concentrate on my climbing skills as opposed to my door-knocking ones. As such, having people I’ve never met respond strongly to something that exists for them purely as a text, with no impression whatsoever of any envisaged stage aesthetic or basic human personality that might come along with it, that’s really new and exciting and largely unprecedented to me in all honesty. Either that or my script simply hit an incredibly lucky streak of passing before the eyes of all of the Bruntwood’s most downright perverse readers along the way, which if true I’m more than fine with, and I salute them.
What do you think about anonymity of the Bruntwood Prize?
I’ve probably addressed this pretty comprehensively in the previous answer already – suffice to say that it’s been a positive aspect of the experience and one which has created for me a really fresh and intriguing experience of having been considered on my merits or lack thereof as a playwright specifically, as opposed to ‘that guy who puts together those really weird raucous shows in railway arches’. And that for me at this point in time is welcome, very welcome.