‘My first play, Foxfinder, was read, liked, but not produced by basically the theatres that accept scripts – and not just in London. I’d had lots of meetings with people who said they liked it, but that it was a bit weird, or an unknown quantity. Even if they were interested, they didn’t know how to package it, until it won the Papatango Theatre Company writing competition.’
Dawn King interviewed by Ideas Tap here
Dawn King now writes for theatre, film and TV and is currently working on an adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World which will be touring the UK. It hasn’t always been like this. No one wanted to produce her play but she won the Paptango writing award and suddenly her career blossomed. This month I looked at the play that started it.
So what did I learn?
- Your play doesn’t need to be high drama to be chilling
When I trained as a director I attended some workshops with Katie Mitchell. She’d just opened Ivanov at the National Theatre and was very concerned with Stanislavski’s last phase: the method of physical action. Now I’m a writer I find this teaching haunts me. When I’m writing a scene my thoughts are ‘what is the intention behind this moment of action’, and I find myself thinking in ‘events’ (the way Mitchell taught us to breakdown the script where after you unit the scene, look for the little ‘events’ within that scene and this will give the scene shape: so you then focus on the pre event, event, and then post event in each unit which will help the scene to flow and also peak and trough).
I’m mentioning this because I’m always intrigued when I read plays that are not written in this way. Yes there are events in each of the scenes King writes, but she’s not concerned with a pre-event, event, post-event. There are a lot of small quiet scenes that build to the climactic event in the penultimate scene.
I don’t tend to write quiet scenes. I tend to write rather loud dramatic pieces where the characters are desperately trying to hold on to whatever it is they’re losing control of. Unless someone’s life is somehow in danger and the stakes are raised maybe by extreme behaviour it doesn’t feel dramatic enough for me…
So one of the biggest tips I’ve learnt from this award-winning play, is that slow, subtle scenes that build to a rather incredible event at the end are ok and actually hold your attention very well. The writing doesn’t meander either which, if this was written for television it may do.
- Always make the personal political
Of course I’m aware of this already and as a writer I’m very interested in ways that the personal/smaller stories you tell resonate with wider politics.
In an interview about Foxfinder King has said she never wanted to
‘present a polemic, but to explore the themes of paranoia.’
‘In the play, we’re dealing with a world in which a person has the power to come into your house, and is dangerous, and you can’t shut the door on him. I find the power of belief interesting and scary.’
Both quotes are from this interview.
It’s a subtle piece that takes an unnerving look at a countryside you recognise, but at the same time you don’t. You don’t have to be loud, brash and dramatic to be chilling, or to make the events of your play resonate with wider politics… Lots for me to think about on this as I’m planning to redraft a piece I wrote a while ago -this may just be the key to re-visioning it.
- Even if you use fantasy/sci-fi elements, you don’t need to give the audience too much info
This is also something that I found in the 2015 Papatango award-winning play that I saw: Tomcat, which is also set in a future similar to our own as Foxfinder is. With events such as foot and mouth and the B.S.E crisis we are used to seeing farms in difficult times, but King still didn’t explain much about the situation the farmers were in and how the society had got to the point of blaming the fox for their problems and possibly eradicating the species. There’s maybe only one or two lines about it but that’s all you need as an audience member/reader because we go with what we’re given if the story in front of us is engaging and speaks to us on a truthful level. It reminded me a bit of Caryl Churchill’s Far Away and how that piece also unnerves you by presenting this future reality through the actions of the play rather than describing the world with exposition (which is always the best way to present any drama).
So once again lots to think about for my own writing, and I hope yours too!
For my last blog in this series I’ll be looking at Polly Stenham and her first play which premièred at the Royal Court before going to the West End, That Face.