My Mum was in the audience the night I won the Bruntwood Prize. This almost didn’t happen. I fully expected the evening would see the end of my Bruntwood journey and imagined making the most of the opportunity – you know, darting around the Royal Exchange in a networking frenzy, pitching Russell T Davies my TV series about the lonely robot, yep, yep all that – and I was worried it would leave poor Mum sidelined and twiddling her thumbs. She told me not to be so daft. Quite right too.
I can’t give you a full picture of what it feels like to have won the Bruntwood on the fifth attempt, not yet – but I can tell you what the immediate moment felt like. When it became obvious that Kirsty Lang was reading out the synopsis to Heartworm, Mum made an involuntary noise and crumpled into tears, then as far as I remember that set me off, meaning that as I got up to the podium I was catching my breath and for a moment could only say: “Blimey.” Felt a bit embarrassing at the time. Afterwards it felt so, so right. It felt like another block of logic falling into place, even if it was one I’d never completely understand and couldn’t have predicted.
So what I thought I’d do here is write a bit about being an emotional artist, about thinking of emotion as a kind of driving logic when making stuff. Sometimes making theatre is a pressing thing. Sometimes, for whatever reason, the first thing to leave the room is the honest feeling.
Heartworm was written without asking too many questions about craft (or at least not ones that I registered while typing) and without a complete idea of where I was heading, prioritising instinct and emotion over intellect – with a driving sense that a ghost was somewhere at my shoulder, raising an eyebrow and coughing if I ever strayed from the true path… whatever that true path was.
What emerged was the story of a young woman who turns up at a couple’s house, where she’s rented their spare room. She announces that the room used to be hers – that she grew up in it, that it holds all kinds of memories. The couple are perturbed but can’t help being intrigued by this vivacious, eloquent and rather strange young woman. They let the weirdness pass, probably because tonight they’re having problems of their own – wrapped up in a blazing row that has gone on for far too long. But as the evening progresses their guest’s behaviour just gets odder and odder, until before they know it events have taken them deep, deep into the night.
I love those moments when a bunch of people are resolutely not sleeping, gathered in dim light, fighting off the tiredness, tired and wired and desperate to keep talking, acting on impulse, not really knowing why. It always feels transgressive and unhealthy and exciting. You end up high on the hormones that your confused body brews up. You say things you’d never otherwise volunteer, go to places you’d shy away from in broad daylight. At their best these moments are like a waking dream. The evidence suggests that before widespread artificial light, humans used to have ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleeps. We would wake in the middle of the night and embrace our wokeness for a few hours, using it to guard against predators, to tell stories, to make music, to make love, then we’d go back to our slumbers until dawn. Maybe Heartworm is a play for in between the first and second sleep. Maybe that’s when it should be performed, in the middle of the night. When I was a teenager that’s certainly when it would have been written… as it stands, here I am, mildly professional, adult-ish, and Heartworm was mostly constructed on trains.
On those trains I was trying to channel those late nights of the psyche and what happens within, the moments when you argue with your lover about nothing, arguing horribly almost for the sake of the argument; not knowing why you’d fallen in love and being annoyed by it, by yourself, as if it were your fault. The moments where you look at your own actions and think: is that me, but in a parallel universe? Portraying the illogical energies of these feelings, embracing their contradictions as honestly as I could, became the most important part of scripting Heartworm.
When the Heartworm team start workshops in July, we’ll be looking at how to channel these confusing emotions into, you know, an actual play; the kind of language we might use, the performance modes. I’m like a stuck record in these situations, my brain is always asking ‘how does it feel?’ like the first line of Blue Monday over and over (if the company are unlucky enough my mouth is asking it too.) And my favourite theatre rehearsal rooms are ones where it seems like we’re all musicians in a band: a bunch of people trying to shape smoke, wrangling an abstract form until everyone’s happy with how things are working but for reasons they often can’t express in words. It’s perfectly possible to intellectualise music-making, but I’ve never been convinced by the results where that’s been the driving ideal. For me at the moment, it’s the same when making drama. I’m far happier addressing an emotion than addressing a noble concept.
As I’m writing this Maddy Costa has posted a typically brilliant piece of writing on Exeunt where, as part of a review, she considers how we discuss the theatre we’ve seen, the balance between the things we comprehend and the things we feel when experiencing a show – quoting at length some tweets by James Varney that do the same, also brilliantly, from a different standpoint. It’s obviously not a binary. And I’ve loved plenty of shows where the principle aim seemed to be to make you think deeply, and to think in terms of positions and presumptions – my memory skips back to a production of Hamlet directed by Yuri Lyubimov in 1989 or Palmyra by Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas, which I saw just last night. When I trace the chain of influences that led to me writing Heartworm, though, it’s all about the art that moved me without me fully understanding why: shows by Goat Island, Dead Centre, Elevator Repair Service, Back To Back Theatre, #TORYCORE, Quarantine, Derevo, Liz Aggiss; scripts by debbie tucker green and Sarah Kane; films by Maya Deren and Wim Wenders and Tarkovsky.
What’s going to be very interesting over the coming months is to see how this both-one-thing-and-another quantum ‘logic’ turns into a play that can connect with people. So, yeah, maybe that’s the deal here: I’ll let you know how winning the Bruntwood Prize feels as soon as I have the words for it.