The Art of Drowning – A Development Diary

Jacob Kay was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize in 2019 for his first play GLASS. Since then he has been working with LAMDA students and dramaturgs Suzanne Bell and Sarah Dickinson to develop the work… 

 

An old lecturer of mine once told me that she always loved the way in which first drafts had a sort of ‘wobble’ to them. This has stuck with me for numerous reasons, largely due to my love of the word ‘wobble’, and the smirk that appeared on her face just before the word ‘wobble’ passed her lips. I have now said the word ‘wobble’ too many times, and it’s beginning to lose its meaning. Regardless, despite my love for the phrase, I never really understood what she meant by it, at least not fully.

Recently, I was lucky enough to be invited to LAMDA to workshop my play Glass with a group of students on the MFA Acting programme, supported by the wonderful dramaturgs Sarah Dickinson and Suzanne Bell. The idea was to unlock something already present within the play, albeit somewhat hidden underneath the layers, bringing it to the surface and, therefore, making said ‘thing’ more palpable to an audience/reader/spectator.

Vagueness aside, I was extremely excited at this prospect. A chance to explore my work with a collection of spectacular artists is not an opportunity I take for granted. The excitement, however, always comes paired with an overwhelming sense of dread and self-doubt (at least for me it does). My mind begins to whir into motion, cogs start to spin, and a series of crippling questions commence:

“What am I doing?”

                                                                 “Do I know what I’m talking about?”
“Is the writing good?”

                                                                 “Make sense?”
“Do I know enough?”

                                                                  “Who am I to dictate anything?”
“Am I ready?”

 

                    Then, the questions quickly transform into statements.

 

                                                                 “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

                                                                  “The writing isn’t good.”

 “Doesn’t make sense.”

                                                                  “I don’t know enough.”

 “I shouldn’t dictate anything to anyone.”

“I’m not ready.”

                                                                 “I’m not ready.”

                                                       “Not ready.”

                                                “Not ready.”

                                       “Not ready!”

                  “NOT READY!”

It’s a frequent occurrence, and one I have grown accustom to. It’s partly the reason why I chose the title of this piece to be ‘The Art of Drowning’ (not related to the book of poetry by Billy Collins or the fifth studio album of the rock outfit AFI, just for clarification), as it is this collection of words, and the admittedly morbid image it conjures, that flashes in my mind, and I feel it is the best way to describe the feeling. This reaction, I think, comes from not only my own intrusive self-doubt, but also from the fact that I am rather new to this, and by ‘this’ I mean playwriting in the professional sphere. Since my shortlisting at Bruntwood, I have had this overriding feeling that I am in way over my head, barely keeping my head above water next to all the amazingly talented artists I come across.

The week at LAMDA, and the support of Sarah, Suzanne & the students, succeeded in quashing these thoughts almost instantly. Watching the play up on its feet, being explored from every angle, the text being stretched, taken apart and reconstructed, made almost tangible right in front of me. Being able to experience such a process is an extraordinary and infinitely useful affair. The care and precaution taken to create a safe and neutral space that I felt content in was particularly appreciated, as it allowed me to take a step back somewhat and allow my work to be shaped in such a malleable and experimental way. The constant reminder that I had a right to be in that room, no matter what the imposter syndrome was whispering to me. I learnt so much about my play in that week, and quite a bit about myself. The fascinating thing was that the process showed me how much of my anxiety permeated through the play itself, and how those feelings were weaved into the text subconsciously. Water, floating, drowning, isolation, anxiety. All these things intertwine the reality of the play, and my own personal reality.

One exercise during the workshops that sticks in my mind was the students writing their own short monologues from the perspective of a ‘person’ within the world of Glass. The text they created was brilliant, beautifully terrifying and violently peaceful, oxymoronic statements that make perfect sense when one hears the texts. After my envy at their spectacular writing subsided, it struck me how grateful I was for their work. For them to share their writing with me, and therefore a small piece of themselves, and then to be so open when discussing and exploring, is something I cannot thank them enough for.

I think that there is sometimes a misconception about the process of playwriting. That being that we lock ourselves in a dark room for months on end before appearing, ragged and dishevelled, clutching a perfect final draft, freshly laminated, ready to be shown to the world without further ado. Admittedly, the playwriting process can be a lonely one, and the isolation can be both beneficial to and detract from the process. It is also true that every writer’s process is unique, with all manner of work ethics allowing one’s creativity to blossom. Something that my experience at LAMDA taught me however is that, eventually, one must emerge from their writing cave and into the light of day to share their work with others. As I was, one may well be surprised by what they learn.

Segueing gracefully back to the ‘wobble’, I’ll be honest, I’m still not wholly sure what it is. But what I can do is try to place it within the context of my experience developing Glass during the week of workshops. I perhaps could see the ‘wobble’ of Glass as it’s rawness, it’s urgency, it’s scattered nature. And the purpose of workshopping is not to erase the ‘wobble’ and replace it with something that feels clinical, but to preserve it, all whilst sanding down the rough edges and carefully unearthing that which is just out of sight.

 

Or perhaps not. It’s still early days for me after all.

11 Mar 2020

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