A Different View – The Playwright

This marks the beginning of our blog series “A Different View” where The Pensive Federation have asked a few of their alumni to recall their experiences working with them.  First up: Serena Haywood.

On the morning of 21st January 2012, I updated my Facebook Status to, “Unexpectedly very nervous about meeting a theatre company. Last minute shoe panic and vodka for lunch…”. One interview and a spare pair of shoes in The Royal Festival Hall later, I was told I was working with Neil and Laura and the team of the Pensive Federation as a writer for The Significant Other Festival. So quite rightly I then went out and got properly and gleefully sozzled.

I really, really wanted this gig. The title was intriguing and the concept of 7 writers, 7 directors, 7 props, 14 actors, 7 plays, 7 days had a sort of Biblical numerical mysticism. How could anyone resist?

The writers were asked to provide an example of our work and a covering letter. In this I perhaps foolishly blathered about liking deadlines. Then we were given the task of writing 12 lines of dialogue between person ‘one’ and ‘two’ using the theme of significant other in a ‘real’ setting, thinking as much about what the characters were not saying as what was in the dialogue and to include ‘the magic in the mundane.’ I spent more time per word on this project than I think I have on anything else in my writing career. I really wanted to get it spot on. I like to hope my opening line ‘You disgust me!’ helped. I then checked my email a ridiculous number of times and was bowled over to be invited for an interview.

What impressed me particularly was Laura and Neil’s strong identity as a theatre group including a mission statement “…..work that examines our hopes, fears and dreams and all that matters when you strip away race, religion, and sexuality”. This was referred back to and was consistent throughout the evolution of the pieces. This was very comforting. Their organisational skills were phenomenal and their availability to the whole team was second to none. So much of themselves was thrown in. At the interview, they asked very politely whether I minded keeping them updated with drafts during the process. Again, I found this very reassuring as a sign of the integrity of the festival. They also didn’t seem to mind when I answered the question, what was my main creative influence? with, ‘Dunno. Life?’

I am a relatively new writer having only really emerged from my healthcare based profession via the Brockley Jack writers’ course in Summer 2010. What was so lovely to hear through this is that I appear to have evolved a ‘voice’; a bit of a woolly wordy one I suspect but apparently very female which would impress my mother who still reminds me at intervals that I should have been called George. Every writer wants to hear they have a voice; thank you so much! I am always indebted to my friends of The Coach and Horses writers Group, Clapham with whom we share new writing. It’s mostly through their constant support and encouragement that I felt brave enough to embark on this adventure.

Talking of bravery, the Meet and Greet day when the whole team was brought together for the first time was an utterly terrifying experiences but ultimately one of my life’s most memorable. Ah, who said writers are immune to a bit of drama. We first got our stickers with ‘Writer’, ‘Actor’ or ‘Director’ and to be frank, I could have spent the afternoon just swanning around showing everyone my sticker and I would have been satisfied. It was great meeting everyone and then we had to do creative things in circles which made me panic. In one of the circles we had to name our fictional Significant Others; everyone was so clever. I wasn’t thinking straight. Can I change my answer to Scott Pilgrim now, please? 

We watched our 12 lines being expertly acted and then were united with our teams. Score! I ‘got’ fabulous director Adam Marchan, and wonderful actors Ryan Wichert and Thomas Edge. There was sadly little time for hugging (although I made sure I got my money’s worth) as the writers then had exactly 7 minutes to write a page of dialogue. After my intestines had rearranged themselves in their rightful order I put together something off the top of my head which resulted in me liking my head much more than I usually do. Thomas, Adam and Ryan made something beautiful out of this verbal doodle and then I think we all went to the pub. At least everything then got a bit blurry for a week. It’s worth mentioning that the poor regulars of The Good Intent pub had a fairly disturbing night; one toothless man opened the door to witness a very animated conversation about mime, closed it again and slunk off back into the night possibly never to be the same again.

Then it was go writers!

I basically wrote my play on the train, in the loo, on a sofa, on another sofa and mostly at 10pm or beyond. Adam was the most sympathetic director who read draft after draft, nudging, coaxing suggesting and even set me homework (which I didn’t do, so sorry again Adam). It turned out to be the busiest working week in a long while but the writing somehow made everything better. It also helped having my lovely Coach and Horses writer friend Mike Carter on various messaging forums also crafting away on his piece for Laura and Neil. Conversations went along the lines of:

01.00 – Hey! How’s it going? Great! (arghggh).

02.00 – I just sent off my final draft! Did you?!. Yes! (No -that was a complete lie).

02.30 – I’m off to bed. I’m writing. Oh look, a film on telly. etc etc. I like to think it’s what Shakespeare would have done on his laptop.

I kept Laura and Neil up to date with drafts and we all merrily twittered and tweeted until it was time to put our pens down. Oh actually not until the final draft where I took just about all my words out and Neil rang and gently suggested I put them back again. So, Now Wash Your Hands was finally in the hands of Adam, Tom and Ryan. As part of my gift to them were the words: ‘Woolly cuckoo’s egg’ for which I cannot apologise enough.

I went to the one rehearsal. I was late. I jumped up and down like a primary schoolgirl on amphetamines. I giggled with Neil in the back of the room. I realised I probably wasn’t very much help but I LOVED what they were doing with the scarf; my sexual abandonment, relationship security metaphor…and in Ryan’s expert hands, a rhythmic gymnastic prop.

I tried so hard during the performances on Saturday not to say the lines out loud, but team Adam had transformed it beyond the words breathing energy into the text and bringing heart tugging emotion. Some things were funnier then I’d realised, the innuendo went down a treat (see, I can’t help myself) and the hoped for sexual tension was a thing of beauty. I cried. By the time Mike, Pieter, Laura and Neil had finished up with Crazy Lucky People I was a sobbing blob. That sniffling you can hear in the background of the Sunday closing night video is me.

We had a lovely after party. I then had a little lie down for a fortnight. In the meantime, The Pensive Federation is planning the next festival and world domination. I would be very happy living in a world run by them.

I made fabulous friends, I made some words for a play, I developed a dangerous Twitter habit and a now totally insatiable thirst for vital, new, innovative theatre with crazy, good people. I hope they’ll have me again.

Oh, my mother-in-law still is delighted I had ‘something on in the Royal Festival Hall’ and that night, my shoes got nicked in Soho but I didn’t care because then and now I am a WRITER!