Stef Smith looks at the ‘chaotic ways in which we continue’ in Swallow, October’s playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months

Stef Smith

Stef Smith, ‘one of Scotland’s most talked about playwrights’ -The Scotsman (

A friend of mine saw Stef Smith’s new play Swallow at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year and said I just had to read it! Smith wasn’t a writer I’d heard of and when I discovered she’d won an Olivier award in 2012 for her play Roadkill I felt a bit out of touch. However, I’m glad to say I have read this fantastic play and with inspiration from Sarah Kane in her work, she presents a beautiful, hopeful piece that takes theatre to its the limits.

So what did I learn from this one?


  • Don’t worry about stage directions, establish 3 characters and let them tell the audience what they’re doing

Swallow reminded me of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf and even though this isn’t a choreopoem, it does feel like 3 intersecting poems at the start with each character reflecting on what they’re doing. The writing is so image-full that you don’t need stage directions and even though the writing is reflective it’s active in a different kind of way -a lot of the action is described which gives the director a lot of space to envision what the characters are doing and how it will best work on stage.

  • Shifting out of reflective/described action to actual action means you see each character through their own eyes

It felt novelistic in many ways as instead of seeing the action unfold (I often think of theatre as being about the space between the actors as they take decisions in front of you driving the story forward), Smith has her characters, when they are in the moment of action, say their words of dialogue and also some comments on the situation they are experiencing. (Almost like the judgements and comments you may say to yourself in your head while you’re having a conversation with someone). It leads to a richer sense of each character and as Smith says in her forward to the printed edition, this play is about the ‘chaotic ways in which we continue’ by which she means exploring the anger and dissonance we have inside us, and she cleverly brings the audience inside and between the characters by using this descriptive/active dialogue. We are not apart from them, we are with them in every moment.

  • 3 separate characters with separate stories intersect and move the story on in a very interesting way

Ok so this is nothing new, however I’ve been really inspired by the way Smith does it. The quick fire intersecting moments of speech from all 3 characters peppered with longer speeches brings a vitality to the text that makes it feel like dialogue when it isn’t. Later on and by the end of the play when all 3 characters have met and through each other their lives have changed, it all wonderfully knits together in a way that you don’t realise it will, because the whole play has been written like this. Suddenly you can see the patterns between all the characters and maybe where they become everywomen that we can all relate to. I loved this quality about the play as all 3 characters are extreme, yet somehow by the end, I felt I could relate to them all. Something I’m definitely taking inspiration from for my current rewrites.

I think Smith has a play at Royal Court next year which I’ll definitely be checking out. For more info on her work check out her website.

November’s playwright

Dawn King

Dawn King (image:

I know I’m running a bit late with this series but I’m currently working on rewrites for one of my plays and with a full time job as well I only get so many hours in a day. However November’s playwright will be Dawn King as I have her Papatango Prize winning play Foxfinder in my bag ready to read.


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David Mamet’s tips for playwrights, care of @parisreview #inspiration #learnfromthegreats


David Mamet, photo by David Shankbone from Wikipedia:

There are some great interviews in The Paris Review’s archives, free to read, if you want to hear how some of the great writers create their work. Here are some tips from American playwright David Mamet:

  • ‘Well, you know, Hemingway said it once: “To write the best story you can, take out all the good lines.”’
  • ‘Cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience.’
  • ‘Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early.’
  • ‘I think the process of writing a play is working back and forth between the moment and the whole. The moment and the whole, the fluidity of the dialogue and the necessity of a strict construction. Letting one predominate for a while and coming back and fixing it so that eventually what you do, like a pastry chef, is frost your mistakes, if you can.’

And some tips on how to differentiate whether you’re writing a drama or a tragedy (if you’re not sure):

  • ‘Drama has to do with circumstance, tragedy has to do with individual choice. The precipitating element of a drama can be a person’s sexuality, their wealth, their disease . . . A tragedy can’t be about any of those things. That’s why we identify with a tragic hero more than with a dramatic hero—we understand the tragic hero to be ourselves. That’s why it’s easier for the audiences initially to form an affection for the drama rather than the tragedy. Although it seems that they’re exercising a capacity for identification—Oh, yes, I understand. So-and-so is in a shitload of difficulty and I identify with them, and I see where the going’s bad and I see where the hero is good—in effect they’re distancing themselves, because they’ll say, “ell, shit, I couldn’t get into that situation because I’m not gay, or because I am gay, because I’m not crippled or because I am crippled . . . They’re distanced. Because I can go on with drama. That’s the difference between drama and tragedy.’
  • ‘A tragedy has to be the attempt of one specific person to obtain one specific goal, and when he either gets it or doesn’t get it, then we know the play is over, and we can go home and put out the baby-sitter.’

And as an example, when writing Oleanna, Mamet says ‘Classically it’s structured as a tragedy. The professor is the main character. He undergoes absolute reversal of situation, absolute recognition at the last moment of the play. He realizes that perhaps he is the cause of the plague on Thebes.’

All these quotes can be found in this interview here. Happy reading! And writing!

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Taking the audience to new worlds, Alistair McDowall’s Pomona, September’s playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months

I’m a tough customer when it comes to watching a play because I want it to really challenge my views on something and make me think, not just entertain me. So I only tend to go to see shows I’m sure I’m going to like or are written by a writer/ directed by a director/company /at a theatre I know I like because it’s so depressing to go see a show that just doesn’t touch you in anyway at all.

That’s why my #12newplaywrightsin12omnths project where I see or read a play by a writer I don’t know every month has been great this year. I’ve seen and read some pieces I never would’ve done and I’ve discovered some gems like this one:


The poster for Pomona (above) if you ask me looks brilliant and I said to my friend I saw the show with: ‘this play is never going to be as exciting as this poster image, I mean, someone with a squid mask on, I’ve never seen that in a theatre. No one’s going to do that!’

However, I was wrong.

Pomona blew my socks off and it’s very possibly my show of the year, as not only was the writing brilliant, but the directing, acting, set design, sound, everything coalesced to give a fantastic theatrical experience and was a real lesson in how far you can take the audience and still communicate something very true with depth.


Alistair McDowall, the playwright behind the show, won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting a few years ago and his play Pomona was commissioned by the Royal Court for the Royal Welsh School of Drama before it went to the Orange Tree in Richmond and then transferred to the National Theatre in London before going to the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

There are some great interview available on why and how he wrote it (theatre voice, write a play & an article in the guardian on his style).

I learnt lots from watching and then reading the play afterwards and here are my top 3 tips:


  • It’s ok to keep the audience in the dark

So this play isn’t chronological, it goes forward and back in time jump cutting to different strands of narrative between characters who all fit in a story but who don’t all know each other and no one person oversees all the action. I actually had to read the script and then write down what I thought the time period of each scene was in an attempt to find their chronology. It moves around a lot in time and some scenes happen simultaneously if you look at it in this way. The scenes are short too, some very short and this adds to the role the audience ends up having: you become a detective trying to piece the pieces together. I haven’t experimented with a disjointed chronology but this has definitely given me the challenge to have a go. McDowall got a good balance of jump cutting towards the beginning and then longer scenes that explained a bit about what was going on. He also made sure that the quest within the play was spelled out at the beginning so if you did feel lost later on you had that to cling to.

  • Setting can become a character and theme can hold the play together

The only constant through all the jump cuts is place: we are in Manchester and the city (where all roads lead to Pomona) may as well be a character in the play itself. This gives the quest set at the beginning -Ollie is looking for her twin sister- a mysterious quality as the city seems to have its own laws. However whether the characters are searching for Ollie or not, through the play we learn that all the characters are searching for the same thing: the city is a place where you’re on you’re own and it’s hard to meaningfully connect with anyone, everyone is searching for that person or thing that will bring them out of their despair. This eventually gives us a connection to all the characters and the parts they play in search for or the hiding of Ollie.

  • Make magic for a better audience experience

The play is inspired by many things: McDowall’s late night drive round the M60, sci-fi novels, comics and films. In this interview McDowall says

”There are no rules in theatre – you can do anything”

“In theatre, I can do whatever I want. No one is going to say, ‘Don’t put a time machine in your play.'”

That’s something I love about theatre too, which is why you get goats in Africa and men eating live flying birds in my plays.

In order to give as he puts ‘a better audience experience’ (in this interview) he deliberately keeps the audience guessing by SPOILER ALERT having the actress that plays Ollie also play her twin sister, which adds to the mystery of the whole play as you wonder if you’re in a game or if there even was a twin or… well it just makes you wonder and makes the play feel slightly magical in it’s complexity. Like the moment you realise NEO is the ONE in The Matrix

My lasting memories of this play will be this sense of magic and it’s tender heart but brutal moments too. I will definitely be trying some of these tricks in my own work!

Stef SmithOctober’s playwright

As you can see I’m a bit behind on my October playwright, but I have a copy of Stef Smith’s Swallow in my bag to read so she will be my next focus.

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Why make theatre at all? David Lan shares his inspiration @intlifemag


When I’m starting a new project as I am at the moment, I always ask myself WHY is this theatre? HOW can I give the audience a better experience of the story that will unfold in front of them so they’ll really think about the issues I’m writing about after the play is over? WHY am I telling this story now?

Looking at Intelligent Life magazine is month there’s a great article where Young Vic director David Lan talks about his inspiration: Natalia Koliada (find the article here) and how she inspires him to remember the reason why theatre is so important to cultural and political expression.

She is the artistic director of the Belarus Free Theatre, who despite no longer being able to make work in her home country because of police raids due to the repressive society in Belarus (they are now based in London), they still make political work designed to express and provoke emotions and opinions as they campaign for freedom of expression and human rights.

I haven’t seen their work myself, though Miki, our actress in Godless Monsters this year told some fascinating stories about working with them. There’s a festival to celebrate their work in London in November this year which I’m going to try and catch, but just reading this article is making me want to go further, write better to express the issues I write about in the attempt to more directly reach my audience.

Theatre is a live artform and the show is only complete after the audience has seen it. That’s the magic of it, but that also holds its power.

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‘We’re not supposed to keep secrets in here’, update #DebraProject with @ToTheMoonUK


‘We’re not supposed to keep secrets in here, so I’ll tell you … This might sound a bit strange but you’re in here too so I expect you’re used to strange … There’s a monster, living underneath my bed.’ –quote from my script The Debra Project

Since our workshop last year, which revealed many things, including why a shadowy hand is sometimes better than a monologue (see my blog post on that here), I’ve finished a new draft of the script and in several meetings with director Sharon Burrell, we’ve decided to take this project in a very exciting direction.

Sharon has been working with You Are Already Dead at Camden People’s Theatre creating a digital installation Glitter and Smoke with Performance artist Natalie Wearden see the video here:

This has lead us to look at The Debra Project in a very different way and rather than the usual writer director relationship this is going to be more of a collaboration between us to test the boundaries of text-based practice in the communication of psychological experience:

Inspired by shared experiences of clinical and cognitive depression, the Project asks whether the experience of depression and the therapeutic process can be recreated through multi-disciplinary artistic expression to enable better understanding.   The Project will reflect the fragmentary nature of the source material through its “collage” form – the work being structured from a number of decentralised narratives each in different locations and different art forms over a period of time.

Look out for further updates coming soon!

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‘I want people shaken up,’ David Harrower on his play Blackbird, August’s playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months

Harrower’s two hander Blackbird was an unexpected winner of an Olivier Award. It’s a concisely written piece that plays out over real time and explores what happens when a couple reunite after about 15 years. This is no ordinary couple though. She was 12, he was a neighbour and eventually did time in prison for their relationship. I enjoyed reading this piece so much I read it twice! I’ll definitely be looking at more of his work and I would encourage you to do the same as its not only an interesting piece there’s lots to learn and take from it.

So how did Harrower come to this subject? Well he was inspired by a newspaper article:
‘The story is based on a newspaper account of a man who travelled abroad to meet a 19-year-old woman he had encountered in a chat room online, only to discover that in real life she was much younger. That the couple pursued the relationship anyway intrigued Mr. Harrower, but it was a difficult play to write.’

He wrote the play for the Edinburgh International Festival, where ‘with its comparatively large budgets, [the play] had 15 characters, four locations, the ghost of Marvin Gaye (don’t ask) and a performance by a children’s choir (ditto).’ These quote are taken from an interview with the writer here.

On writing it Harrower says:

‘“You kind of have to go to these stupid places, sort of, to get back,” Mr. Harrower said ruefully. “So I went there. And then a genocide happened.” Exeunt a dozen characters.’ (Please see the link above for the full interview).

It’s made for a tense exploration of a love that is taboo and in opposition to the Duncan Macmillan I read last month, its dialogue is direct, but in a different way, it’s all about what the other character is trying to do to the other, especially when you realise towards the end that one of the characters has lied.

So what did I learn from this one?


  • Active dialogue isn’t just direct dialogue

There’s definitely something of Pinter about his dialogue which, as a Pinter fan I really enjoyed. You don’t know why the girl has come to see the man but the conversation almost instantly talks about their relationship and its impact on them. The dialogue is about what the characters are doing with the words, what the intention is behind them and their effect on the other as we join the characters in an exploration of what they want from each other now.

  • Characters searching for each other through their speech

The text on the page looks more like poetry than script. Its full of repetitions, incomplete sentences and I’d love to see the effect of this in performance, where I imagine it would feel very real and true to the moment as the characters search for a way to discuss the relationship they never got proper closure on from each other. I’m not sure if I could write in this way myself but I may have a go.

  • Plot reveal, keeping the audience in the dark

It’s quite clear that the story of their relationship is a difficult one for the characters to tell each other and although you realise they both haven’t stopped thinking about it, maybe for different reasons, actually being face to face finally brings with it a difficulty of telling the story about a relationship that at the time felt easy to get into. This means that all our attention is on the characters in this situation and the way the story of their relationship is revealed becomes paramount with twists in the disclosure of facts. Through reading it I felt my own perceptions of the characters shift and I was left swinging between each character’s rendition of the truth, which I would think would be very gripping on stage. The moment when you start to question everything you’ve been told about the male character and what the female character wants is stunning. A very good lesson in playing with perceptions in a taboo subject, and something I’m going to try to work with more.

I could write a lot more about this play, but I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. If it’s on in a theatre near you, go and see it. If not pick up the play and have a read yourself.

September’s playwright

I’m seeing Pomona at the National Theatre this month so Alistair McDowall will be the next playwright I look at.

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A masterclass in active dialogue: Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, July’s playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months

‘Theatre is often tedious, irrelevant, ridiculous and smug. At its best, though, it cuts through the noise of everything else that’s competing for our attention and gives our empathy and imagination a workout.’  From an interview with Duncan Macmillan here.

In this quote Macmillan could be talking about his own play Lungs which I saw as part of the Paines Plough Roundabout season this summer. With just two characters playing ages from roughly in their 20s to their 80s with no set and purely dialogue pushing the story and setting forward your imagination is certainly given a work out in this modern love story.

So what were the key tips I picked up? Well…


All you need is active dialogue to keep the audience engaged

My attention could have easily waned. With no set, sitting in the round so I could see everyone else who was watching the show I could’ve easily been distracted by my own thoughts and not kept up with the plot. However, in this tightly written play there was no room for long speeches or scene setting, all dialogue is active and directly to the other character which directly engaged me with the story and the plot. Even the slightly longer speeches which were needed to expand the context/feeling of the situation were in direct response to a question from the other character, and this made the small poetic sections  peppering the speeches really stand out and catch your attention.

Don’t add unnecessary extras: you can create place well with no set or anything

Although Katie Mitchell has directed this play in Germany with 2 actors performing the dialogue whilst cycling on static bikes (see the trailer of this production here), Macmillan’s initial view for the play (and as I saw it) was for no set at all and just the actors creating a sense of place as the conversation carried on. Due to the active dialogue and the jumping from decade to decade (as the play feels like an ongoing conversation throughout the characters lives once we meet them) place becomes less and less important as the anxiety of the characters becomes more and more the focus of the play. It made me realise that for a good play to work you don’t need all the paraphernalia of set if the play itself doesn’t need it. I was engaged anyway and followed everything I needed with my own imagination.

Lots to think about for the new play I’ve just started to write…especially about paring the story down to only what’s necessary.

August’s playwright: David Harrower

As you can see I’m a bit late with my blog this month, partly due to me writing the frst draft of a new full length play. I’m half way through Blackbird by David Harrower though so he will be the next playwright I look at.

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‘That’s as cinematic as you could get on stage.’ -Martin McDonagh, June’s Playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months

Now known more for his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths Martin McDonagh started as a playwright. Performed in 2003 although written in the mid 90s The Pillowman won an Olivier for Best New Play amongst other awards and is by his own admission his most cinematic piece for the stage. For a writer like me who who writes rather theatrical pieces, it was interesting to look at something where the dialogue is very much the focus of the drama.

So what writing tips did I pick up this month?


  • Simply telling a story on stage can be just as powerful as a monologue to get inside the head of the characters

The Pillowman is about the power of stories. Set in an undescribed totalitarian dictatorship the main character Katurian is a writer under investigation for 2 child murders as they have been killed exactly as described in some stories he has written. A little girl has also gone missing. Does he know where she is?

There are long sections where Katurian tells the stories he’s written defending his work and they do what a monologue can do: at once you’re opening up the character’s inner world, getting to know his tastes, what he thinks about, what his world view is. They’re not verbose. They are quite straight and simple as McDonagh lets the images in the stories do all the work. Yes, they are very dark, but the style reminded me how monologues or in fact stories told as stories on stage don’t have to be poetry to be poetic and resonant.

  • Push the boundaries of how you present your story

I agree with McDonagh. In the quote above ( found in this interview here) he’s referring to The Pillowman and the techniques he uses are definitely very cinematic but they work on stage too and are a reminder that fourth wall can be transcended even in what seems like a realistic piece. 2 scenes (including 1 scene which is an act of its own) is solely Katurian telling a story which is acted out with other actors playing the characters in front of the audience. If it was a film, this would be a voice over, but having the storyteller on stage reminds you that you’re watching a piece that is about stories. At the end of the play the dead rise and narrate the very last moments directly addressing the audience, pulling together the themes of story and the whole piece becomes a ‘story’ from one narrator.

It made me think even harder about how the very best plays use every moment they can to bring the piece together and make their point (if they have one), and I’m definitely going to be trying to go further with the new piece I’m working on to be more self-conscious of how the piece is packaged and presented to the audience.

  • Keep the audience guessing and they’ll go into dark places with you

I think I’ve written before that police investigations are not my favourite kind of drama as they end up being very static and without the techniques mentioned above I would’ve lost interest very quickly. However, the world McDonagh presents and the questions the play raises are interesting and relevant, and the twists in the story keep you guessing as it focuses you more heavily on the plot rather than the rather unpalatable subjects the play discusses. A good tip when working on tough material.

July’s playwright: Duncan MacMillan

A couple of years ago I went to a workshop run by MacMillan and in it he talked of a play he’d written about environmentalism, but that he’d written it through a love story. This play, Lungs, is showing in Paines Plough’s Roundabout on the South Bank so I’m going to watch it and see what tips I can pick up.

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Who is Daisy Scarlet? Update #triptychchallenge


It took us all a little longer than we’d hoped but we have all written a scene or collection of scenes in response to our stimulus and eerily there are some connections between the work other than our restrictions (see where this project started here)… We’ve actually got a beginning, middle and end to a story and now we’ll be working independently on all 3 sections to shape the story and then bring them together into one narrative:

What happens when you learn your whole life is based on a lie? For Daisy Scarlet there’s only one answer…

Annette, Marianne and I will regroup in the autumn with a new draft and then we’ll be ready to share our story. If you’re a director or producer let me know if you’d be interested in reading it.


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‘In the olden days they used to think of writing as more like witchcraft and there’s something in that.’ -Marina Carr, May’s Playwright #12newplaywrightsin12months

This quote is from an interview with one of Ireland’s most prominent playwrights Marina Carr whose 2 brilliant plays  Portia Coughlan and By The Bog of Cats I read this month. There’s definitely something magical about these pieces and if I didn’t need to move on to another playwright for this blog series I could’ve happily continued reading her complete oeuvre. They both read like séances with the otherworldly and are masterclasses in how to write about the darker side of human nature.

Here are some of the tips I picked up:


  • How to keep long dialogue active to reveal backstory and keep the play in the present

Something I find challenging when working on a play is how to reveal backstory through action and the more I write the leaner the backstory becomes. I was surprised and impressed in both Carr’s plays by how long the chunks of dialogue are (there are very few snappy exchanges) and nearly everything references backstory that still haunts the characters today. I’d be interested to see how this works onstage (please comment below if you’ve seen either of these pieces staged and can tell me how it felt to be in the audience) but I expect, as on the page, the tension between the characters is active, as instead of being lost in their past, the characters are actively revealing their backstory by tackling how this past affects them now. Even when *spoiler alert* in Portia Coughlan Portia admits to killing her brother 15 years ago she’s lost in the memory and the guilt she still feels about her crime, but this admission also reveals what’s driven her to drink and we understand how the reality she rails against throughout the play has been created. In both plays Carr deals with strong women, each with a murderous secret that lies at the heart of their present predicament that reach boiling point, but instead of editing it out, she steeps both Portia (in Portia Coughlan) and Hester (in By The Bog of Cats) in a backstory and makes this propels the play on.

  • How to keep the audience guessing even when the end is inevitable

Frank McGuinness has commented in The Guardian here as saying

‘Tragedy is so often the consequence of a fatal lack of self-knowledge. Marina Carr rewrites that rule. Her characters die from a fatal excess of self-knowledge. Their truth kills them. And they have always known it would.’

This is true of both plays and something very interesting about Carr’s work, but in Portia Coughlan Carr goes further and ruptures the chronology to give the audience a different view on tragedy completely: after act 1 which is played in the present (on Portia’s 30th birthday), Carr goes forward in time to the end of the day for the 2nd act when she’s found dead, and then backward in time for act 3 to show what happened for the rest of her birthday before she’s found dead. Is act 2 a dream in the middle? Or is it a clever way to disarm the audience and present something that feels inevitable in a less emotional way? Her suicide is a sum of guilt and family secrets and this rupture to the chronology definitely gives you a less emotional view of the play. It also gives a rich view of depression, which isn’t often picked out so well within this kind of piece and is a great reminder about how a play isn’t just about the story you tell but how you tell it: you can present both an emotional tragedy and a richly filled complex piece that gives new insights into difficult subjects.

Holly Hunter playing Hester in By The Bog of Cats image found here:

Holly Hunter playing Hester in By The Bog of Cats image found here:

  • Go as far as you like with using fantastical / unusual characters, you’ll create your own original landscape

I’ve never read an opening scene like the one in By The Bog of Cats. It includes a Ghost Fancier who mistakenly thinks he’s come to collect Hester’s soul because she’s died but then discusses this mistake with Hester who is still alive, while she drags a black swan (who was a well known local animal on the bog) that she’s found dead. This sets up a murky foreboding atmosphere which Carr goes onto expand on throughout the play and the omen on Hester the Ghost Fancier sets up comes true by the end. It also features a character called Catwoman, a sort of local mad woman who only drinks out of saucers and accentuates the otherworldly sense of the play with her speeches, and by the time Hester is talking to the ghost of her dead brother the audience are totally inside the story and don’t doubt this original world Carr creates. This play is actually based on the Greek play Medea but by infusing it with her own brand of tragedy (see the Frank McGuinness quote above) and her own strange mythology, Carr’s version attains it’s own mythic status and adds originality to the story.

I always question my work asking whether I’ve gone too far with some elements of fantastical story (particularly with The Debra Project), but reading Carr’s work has made me realise that the further you can go imaginatively and create your own original world, rooting your characters there, the better the play can be.

June’s playwright

I’ll definitely be returning to Marina Carr for more inspiration but June’s playwright is Martin McDonagh. I’ve seen his great film In Bruges and studied some of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, but I’ve never read a complete play by him. The Pillowman has been mentioned to me a few times as one to read so this will be June’s feature.

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