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The Plays of Innocence & Experience, experience
By Jan Harris (pictured, below)
The first time I read about The Writers’ Guild’s Plays of Innocence & Experience scheme was in an email from City University where I had received an MA in theatre and film some years ago. It stated this new project funded by the Writers Foundation UK and run in partnership with RADA was to focus on developing plays of great promise.
Opportunities like these usually come with a price tag, so I cast a beady eye over the details and found an unfamiliar phrase ‘out-of-pocket expenses paid’. In my 20 years of being a ‘new writer’ on both sides of the Atlantic I've never received out-of-pocket expenses. I've had profit share where there has been no profit; I once won a $25 third prize in a playwriting competition that charged $20 to enter, and a prestigious award with a $500 cheque attached from a theatre in Connecticut that cost me $1,000 in airfare to collect. Still cynical, I continued reading looking for the hated words ‘open to new young writers’, only to find that this scheme was ‘open to all writers, at different stages of their careers’.
There’s a new turn of phrase.
The second time the project caught my eye was on Twitter, where I saw that the Foundation had extended Plays of Innocence and Experience’s submission date; meaning last chance, now or never.
I had a first draft copy of a play about Sean O’Casey, The Green Crow, languishing in a drawer; I swear every time I opened that drawer it cawed ‘Rewrite! Rewrite!’ So, for two years I stopped opening the drawer. Now, with a new deadline approaching, I halfheartedly made three hard copies and sent them off to the Writers’ Guild.
On the 13, September I received this email from the lovely Richard Pinner:
I am delighted to tell you that the Writers’ Guild Theatre Committee have recommended that you (and your play) should go through to the Plays of Innocence & Experience development workshops at RADA - as one of four, chosen from over 145 applications.
We sincerely hope you will be able to accept this....
I hit the reply button without reading any further.
Four lucky playwrights were to be given this leg-up-the-ladder opportunity, and I was one of them. My sagging playwright’s ego had been given a well-needed boost. The Green Crow was out of the drawer.
The weekend of 19 and 20 October was scheduled for the workshops. Each writer would be given a mentor and work with actors provided by RADA in close collaboration with a director and dramaturge. A single cold reading to be slotted into the schedule before the workshops began.
My mentor was the talented Lisa Evans and, from our first meeting over a cup of tea in the RADA bar, I knew I was in safe hands. She couldn’t stay for the evening reading but was familiar with the play, having read it more than once or twice; I was impressed.
Next came RADA’s famous dramaturg Lloyd Trott who introduced me to the cast for the reading, which took place in a freezing cold room, two flights up in the labyrinth that is the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I counted seven actors, yet The Green Crow is a simple three-hander – but here is where the magic began. Lloyd had brought in an extra four young students, still fresh from performing The Plough And The Stars, simply to read the few lines in my play that I quote from The Plough, (voices in O’Casey’s head). These young actors were familiar with O’Casey’s work, and the discussion after the reading soared. Trott, with laser vision into the strengths and weaknesses of the play was so innovative that I started the second draft at home that night.
The Friday and Saturday sessions would allow each playwright three hours to workshop their play, two writers in the morning and two in the afternoon. This should have allowed time to observe each other’s work in progress.
Friday 19 October: The Green Crow was in the afternoon session; Lloyd Trott had brought me bad and good news earlier that day. The bad news, the original cast was no longer available. The good news, Catherine Cusack would step in to read the part of Eileen O’Casey. Although performing twice nightly with Michael Gambon and Eileen Atkins in Samuel Beckett’s All That Fall, Catherine would give up six hours of her free time to help an unknown playwright develop a play. Could this workshop get any better?
The change of cast led to another cold reading, which made my time in this workshop more of a discussion than a physical session. However, after observing one of the plays in the morning workshop, it seemed to me that actors, going through a timeline of emotions, most of which were silent, were consuming a lot of the given time. I was not sure if this would work for me, much as I love silent emotion. At the plenary that evening, I voiced my concern about the time spent on the actors’ motivation and the short time we had to workshop the play. This did not make me popular! I had forgotten, this was RADA.
Saturday: Morning Session.
My play takes place over one afternoon on one of the last days of O’Casey’s life.The three characters are Sean O’Casey, Eileen O’Casey and John, a fictional young man. I knew I had to develop Eileen into something more than a ‘would you like a cup of tea’ kind of wife; I had written a new scene, a frisson between her and the young man. I asked if we could work on that scene as I was still not sure about incorporating it into the play.
Catherine Cusack and Caolan Byrne, who played the young man, were a joy to watch as they improvised the new scene. They brought everything that was between the lines to the forefront and more; they were both inspiring. Denis Quilligan captured the essence of O’Casey when he was ‘hot seated’ – meaning he had to respond to unscripted questions while remaining in character. This was a masterclass that brought new meaning to play development, pure inspirational collaboration. Is this what Jez Butterworth is offered at the Royal Court? Or David Hare at the National?
Caolin Byrne & Catherine Cusack in the workshop
The final 60 minutes of the project were used to improvise a new scene and the many ways it could be played. Catherine Cusack’s talent and professionalism was a delight to watch, especially as she danced the charleston while describing what a flapper did in the 1920s. I don’t think I could have written the scene any better than her improvisation. Is this how Mike Leigh works?
My six hours were all used up! Nothing left now but the plenary.
David Edgar asked what made this workshop different. My quick response was to say that it was the calibre of the actors, but now with time to reflect there was so much more.
There was the dedication of the overworked Lloyd Trott to his students and alumni. The generosity of spirit from Richard Pinner, Lisa Evans and Robin Soans – mentors from the Writers’ Guild who were very much part of the creativity and not just observers. And there was RADA itself, and the professionalism it imbues into its students.
The Plays of Innocence & Experience Scheme has shown me what happens when playwrights are nurtured. It makes their good plays better, and gives them a reason to write.
The Writers Foundation UK had delivered all they had to give. As for the ‘out-of-pocket expenses’ – I felt I owed them more than they owed me so I didn’t bother to collect.
I will now write a third draft, maybe a fifth, before The Green Crow goes back into the drawer.