Tim X Atack on sustaining a career as a playwright

Playwright Tim X Atack won a Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2017 for his play HEARTWORM As well as the £16,000 prize money, Tim has been developing the play towards a co-production between the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester and Royal Court, London. Check out part one of his development diary here


Hello, this is going to be an unplanned and under-edited blog right here. I’m writing fast, in the middle of what I can only describe as a deadline crunch. 4 lines of work have decided, independently of each other, that the next few weeks represent the best possible time for me to deliver fresh drafts or mixes of many things, all at once. Obviously as a freelancer you could describe this as one of those ‘nice problems’. But as it stands it feels, let’s say… precarious.

There’s a writing workshop to run, 2x audio drama drafts to deliver, 1 week’s worth of TV writers room session to attend, and the score for a short film; alongside all this, further work on my Bruntwood play, Heartworm. Earlier this year I had a schedule that saw each of these deadlines fall like dominoes, in orderly and artful fashion. Logistics and life in general (mine, and other people’s) caused them to gravitate towards each other, and suddenly everything feels more like a game of Jenga.

It wasn’t always like this. I’d say I’ve had a purposeful eye on my writing for just over a decade, but up until early 2017 I had about 0.8 radio gigs per year, my company Sleepdogs would make a show every 18 months or so, most of my screenplays were written on spec. I left the day job five years back largely because of sound design work picking up, allowing me to go freelance. Then late last year I made a decision to focus more on my writing for a while – turning down some lovely sound gigs in the process.

What’s struck me more than anything is that I’m grateful, now, for the projects that felt like they were either taking ages to get off the ground or were just mine to tinker with. The space around them allowed me to use those plays / films / albums as a school for hopping between disciplines. As I find myself collaborating with more people on tighter turnarounds, I’ve named the feeling that used to accompany the shift between day job and creative work, and now represents the lurching sensation you get when an urgent email about one project arrives in the middle of deep focus on another: I’ve decided to call it the gear change.

(I don’t drive, incidentally. Ha.)

The key to a successful gear change seems to lie in recognising the need. An example: Sleepdogs are currently developing an electronic musical for the stage called A Million Tiny Glitches, which I’m scriptwriting and scoring – a musical about grief. The intertwining harmonic resonances of love and grief also feature heavily in Heartworm, and you’d think it might be useful to leap from one to the other, copy-and-pasting processes, but I’ve had to accept it’s not that simple. The space for one is not the same as the space for the other and I’ve had to get a feel for the emotional and practical differences. The recognition often needs to happen quickly, it needs a mental reset.

A Million Tiny Glitches is for theatres, but I’m writing the script in graphic novel format. Our story’s themes and imagery suit the economy that graphic novels demand, the ability to present unbearably complex feelings in frames. I’ve been enjoying this drafting process a lot. It feels honest, true to the story’s intentions. After our most recent workshops on Heartworm at the Royal Exchange it was suggested that the next draft of the play might similarly ‘explode’ the imagery, that I might write some impossible or wildly lyrical stage directions – and I thought, should I convert Heartworm to graphic novel format? It felt really enticing… briefly. But I quickly realised that would really just have been a comfort for me, a quick fix, not an honest solution – basically, denying the gear change.

But asking the question made me realise I needed to identify that shortcut, the thing that would allow me to sit down and redraft Heartworm when the inspiration struck or when the diary allowed, rather than sealing off big chunks of ‘protected’ writing time (which I’ve discovered isn’t always productive in my case.)

And a few days back it struck me: no, I won’t be redrafting Heartworm as a graphic novel. But the next version will be an ‘illuminated’ one. OK, not literally bound, embossed, painstakingly inked like a medieval manuscript, DON’T HAVE THE TIME MATE… but it will be a draft with what feels like marginalia, the stage-direction equivalent of gold leaf, iconic figures, intricate borders.

That’s the theory anyway.

So this is what I’ve discovered as an on/off playwright – that the gear changes are not always annoyances. They’re often the very places you find solutions or inspirations, in the spaces between the day job and the writing.

Sleepdogs have been using a process for about a decade, a thing we call ‘The Thirty’. It’s our own development slate, a compilation of ideas we assemble at least once a year. Some are just titles we like the sound of, others fully storylined, some without specific media or formats attached. It’s become a way of keeping ideas alive and growing without necessarily having to chase after projects constantly, and maintaining thirty of them between us seemed like it would allow diversity without feeling overwhelming. They’re rarely discussed as elevator-style pitches – but it’s meant that when opportunities arise suddenly or randomly, we never meet them with an unplanned tangent. Heartworm came from The Thirty, my first radio play too. I don’t think I’d be able to do what I’m doing now without this laboratory for ideas. I certainly would never have written Heartworm without The Thirty and the family tree of projects that sprang from it.

And not to get too meta here, but the other thing that has helped me no end with the gear changes is the sharing of practice – writing pieces like these, making an account of myself. I seem to remember reading that David Hare has/had two desks in his office, one for admin, the other for the ‘actual writing’. A few years back I might have considered this blog as something launched from the admin desk in my head: circling the art, picking at it occasionally. But asking intriguingly / annoyingly detailed and ongoing questions of the batshit stuff you write will, after all, happen in the rehearsal room. If you don’t do it, someone else will. So I’m now convinced sharing like this is not just healthy, it’s essential to what I do. Which is why I’m waving at you from the churning, all-consuming centre of a deadline crunch, right now. Thoughts and prayers please. Be seeing you

Published on:
12 Sep 2018


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