20 Questions with... Amanda Whittington
Date: 29 June 2006
Playwright Amanda Whittington, whose Ladies Day is about to tour the UK, talks about surviving as a commercial playwright, the scandalous cost of ticket prices, and how lives can be transformed in the space of a dayÖ
Amanda Whittingtonís plays include the recent touring production of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which she adapted from the novel by Alan Sillitoe for New Perspectives Theatre Company, Bollywood Jane at Leicester Haymarket, and The Willsís Girls at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol.
Her first major play to be produced outside Nottingham, Be My Baby, premiered at the Soho Theatre in 1998 and returned in 2000 before embarking on a UK tour in 2003, is now a recommended English A Level text and has been published by Nick Hern Books. It has also been produced at Oldham Coliseum, the Hull Truck Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse.
Her other plays include The Boy on the Hill (currently in development as a film for October Films) Last Stop Louisaís and Playerís Angels for new Perspectives, and three educational plays, Twist and Shout, Runaway Girl and Shirleyís Song for Young Perspectives.
Whittington was a writer in residence at the Soho Theatre in 2001, and a writer on attachment at the National Theatre Studio in 2003.
Her play Satin n' Steel, about two karaoke singers on the Northern club circuit, opens at the Hull Truck Theatre on 6 July, and the theatre company is preparing to tour Whittingtonís Ladies Day, following last yearís premiere at the venue. Ladies Day follows a group of workmates who go to the races and get lucky when they discover some passes to the grandstand which have been left lying around. Might their fortunes be changed forever?
Date & place of birth
9/7/68 in Nottingham.
Lives now in
Nottingham, Iíve always lived there.
What made you want to become a playwright?
It was just something I always wanted to do; I donít think there was a moment when I decided I want to be a playwright. Even before I had gone to the theatre I used to put plays on in my garage, I loved theatre and writing, I always wanted to write and I was just drawn to the theatre. I didnít train at all, I learned on the job. I had a place at university but didnít take it up, I took off with the intention of finding something to do and I started working as a freelance journalist because I thought that was how I could make some money from writing and I really learned just by doing everything. I was writing features about art, music, all sorts of things - anything and everything I could get.
First big break
I would say Be My Baby which was commissioned by Soho, they have a writers development programme through which lots of writers submit unsolicited scripts and if they see potential they take you on and that was my first play that had any kind of national impact and it was one of the first things I ever wrote, which was about ten years ago. I had no idea it would have any extended life. I remember it being picked at Soho for a week of plays there, as part of a festival, and that was extraordinary. Itís just insane to have it studied in schools now, because itís not that long ago since I was a student myself and I get lots if emails from students asking me about it. Itís wonderful but bizarre!
Career highlights to date
Every production Iíve done has been special. In some ways just the fact that Iím still going is a highlight because what Iím trying to do is stay in a lasting career as a writer, so the individual plays are one thing but just having a body of work now and having ten or 12 plays in my repertoire is a highlight, to have that longevity.
Do you prefer writing for stage or screen?
Screenplay wise I have various things in development but with film it takes years to get things produced. I much prefer the stage, I feel much more at home with theatre. The main difference is with film writing youíre telling a story visually and on stage your main tool is words and dialogues - film dialogue is very minimal. The stage uses words rather than pictures and thatís what I enjoy most of all is the words, and I think Iím beginning to understand how stage plays work. Itís like looking under the bonnet of the car and understanding where everything goes on stage, whereas screen writing is still a mystery. Itís very plot drive on film whereas theatre is character driven.
Favourite productions youíve ever worked on & why?
We did a play called The Willsís Girls which was just a fantastic cast and really lovely production which went on to become a Radio 4 serial, that was very special working with a great bunch of actors who are still all friends of mine now. And Satin ní Steel was also very special, developed partly through devising and Sara Poyzer, whoís now in Billy Elliot, was involved right from beginning and that was great to work with her to form the play. I have an input in casting but ultimately itís the directorís decision. I wouldnít want the final say because theyíre the ones who have to make it into theatre and I think I can make a contribution to the rehearsals but Iím always happy to hand ownership over to the director once the playís finished, because thatís what theyíre there for!
Gareth Tudor Price who Iím working on Ladies Day with, this is the third play if mine heís directed and he always does a really fantastic job with my work. And Esther Richardson who did Satin n' Steel at Nottingham is particularly good at script development and supporting the writer through the script development process, there is a constant dialogue with director and playwright right at beginning which really benefits the play.
Miranda Richardsonís amazing, I think sheís a fantastic screen actor and Iíd love to see her on stage.
I like Tennessee Williams, heís one of my favourites, I love the classics, Glass Menagerie and Streetcar are fantastic emotionally driven dramas. I also love Shelagh Delaney, I love A Taste of Honey, sheís a tremendous writer.
If you hadnít become a playwright, what would you have done professionally?
I would very probably have been a copywriter and made lots and lots of money but been very unhappy.
What was the last stage production that had a big impact on you? And the first?
I saw a touring production of A Taste of Honey last week at Oldham Coliseum which was very good and a really interesting reinvention of the play. And Billy Elliot was amazing as well, Lee Hall is one of my very favourite writers. Little Women was my favourite book when I was a kid and I was taken to see it at Nottingham Theatre Royal when I was about seven and I think that was one of the first moments when I though I want to do this as my career, and to see those characters on stage was magical.
What advice would you give the government Ė or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Make it accessible and relevant and open it up to everybody. I think itís still seen as elitist and middle class and Iíd love to see that broken down, even the ticket prices, I just find it depressing that it costs £15 to £20 to go and see a show in the regions. I would much rather sit in a theatre where four seats sold for £5 than a theatre where one seat sold for £20. We need to get people to take a risk and get inspired.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be & why?
George Bush and undo all these dreadful wrongs heís done. Whether you could do all that in a day, though, I have no idea.
Little Women is still one thatís very fondly remembered, and An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan is an amazing testimony of survival and the spirit surviving against terrible odds. Itís wonderfully inspirational.
Favourite holiday destinations
Zante, the Greek island, is wonderful. Sun, sea and plenty of relaxation.
Jumptheshark.com is all about classic television and all these obscure TV series you think youíve forgotten and the moments when shows become ludicrous. People write in and say when a particular show stopped being credible, for example when a new actor plays a long-standing role. Itís a fantastic compendium. You find yourself looking at all these mad TV shows youíd never really thought about before!
What inspired you to write Ladies Day?
The Hull truck wanted to commission me and I was having a conversation with Gareth about what we might do and he said ďI remember being at York when it was ladiesí day at the races and seeing them going in all dolled up and coming out blind drunk Ė I think thereís a play in itĒ, and so he inspired me really. I thought, ďthereís something in this gang of women going into ladiesí day at the racesĒ, so I ran with it and expanded on the idea. It is set at the races but itís really about gang of workmates and their friendships and lives and bigger things than the races. I guess and it was an opportunity to write about these sort of characters. I think what audiences will enjoy is the fact that itís about ordinary life and I mean that in the best sense of the word. Four ordinary women have an extraordinary experience and without wanting to give it all away they come very close to winning a huge amount of money and I think people enjoy seeing peopleís lives suddenly transformed in the space of a day. It is funny and poignant and the characters are very familiar. I have been to the races a few times and I have spoken to other people who have, and who have been to ladiesí day, because I wanted to draw on a variety of experiences. Although it is all made up, it is not verbatim. Verbatim drama is not something Iíve done but itís something I would consider doing, particularly with my background as a journalist, but itís all about finding the right subject matter and a story best told by truth rather than an imagined version of events.
Did you base any of the characters on yourself or your friends?
I think you do subconsciously, I think thereís a bit of you in everything you write, but nobodyís wholly one individual who I know, that I am aware of.
To what extent (if at all) does a play evolve while it is on tour? How much input do you have in the casting process?
I will try and see Ladies Day once a week. I think the performances certainly evolve and change and grow and that can in turn bring elements of the play out you never knew were there, and it might be four or five weeks into it when the actors are really starting to discover the details. And different audiences bring different energy to the play and it is that interaction between the actors and the audience which have great impact on that. If there was stuff that needed to be fixed I think I would re-write; a work is always a work in progress. With Satin n' Steel I have done some rewrites for the Hull production so I would tweak it if necessary, but once a play is in full production I have to let it go.
With the recent The Playís the Thing highlighting the lack of new plays, do you think new plays can survive in the commercial West End, and how can writers be encouraged?
I think the problem with that programme was that it sort of enforces the kind of image where thereís this all powerful producer who picks an unknown grateful writer who spends the whole time being slightly over-awed by the process, and I found that slightly depressing. There is another story to tell. There are lots of writers out there at various stages in their careers, and new plays can be brought through but you canít go into the West End if you donít know your craft as a writer; I agree from a producerís point of view, somebodyís got to carry the can, thereís lots of money involved, but it was wrong to say you can win this opportunity. Itís about acknowledging the professionalism of writers. I think audiences are very open to new work and it would be good to see more in the West End.
What are your plans for the future? Anything else youíd like to add?
Iím doing a play for Northern Broadsides next year called The Storm about the abolition of the slave trade; thatís going to tour next year and thatís a big research project which is very exciting. Iíve found lots of really interesting subject matter.
Amanda Whittington was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Ladies Day opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 30 August 2006. It tours to Bracknell, Peterborough, Buxton and York.