I loved this idea, and it got me thinking. Until that moment, I’d had stories published and tiny plays staged. I’d won a few prizes, made a few short films, and occasionally, if asked, would claim to be a ‘writer’. But Tim was talking about something else.
As I’ve come to learn over the last year of attachment on the 503Five scheme – which selected five unproduced writers and thrust them before the discerning audiences of the Oliver-winning space in Battersea – being a playwright is about more than rhythmic cadence, well-placed bons mots, or character-revealing bits of business. All these elements are great, even essential – but a successful play requires more than well-honed dialogue and elegant turns of phrase. Instead, it demands something more difficult to achieve: successful moments of connection.
Here’s what I mean. The first assignment given to me and my talented 503Five comrades – Richard Marsh, Rex Obano, Lou Ramsden and Beth Steel – was to write a 10-minute Christmas comedy. Ay caramba! we wailed as one. Are you guys serious? They were. And so we learned the terror and the joy of the audible audience response. Did they get the joke? Did they giggle and purr? Or did they, as we feared, sit in silent incomprehension? In my case, a little of all three.
The next lesson was learned when Tim – along with fellow artistic director Paul Robinson – asked us to contribute a short piece to Decade, an evening of plays themed around the last ten years, setting our plays side-by-side with work by masters like April de Angelis and David Eldridge. Trial by fire indeed. Especially as my experiment to use two characters as a metaphor for the ‘special relationship’ left a fair number of the audience bemused. “Oh, of course”, they sighed in the pub afterwards after being let in on the conceit. “I can’t believe I didn’t get it!”.
And so the question was raised: what kind of writer do you want to be? Because it’s very easy to hide behind the words – to claim your intentions have been misunderstood, or whine that audiences are inferior. But if you’re hoping to connect with people and evoke an emotional response, there’s really nowhere to conceal yourself. The words either work or they don’t, and if they don’t – well, you need to work harder.
Over the last few months I’ve worked harder than ever before on Wild Horses, a play about a teenage girl struggling to find her place in the world, a rite of passage story that contains all kinds of surprises. With the support of Theatre 503’s incredibly intuitive and gifted literary manager Sarah Dickenson and the brilliant, imaginative director Nadia Latif I’ve toiled through successive drafts to create something that I hope will connect with audiences and capture some of the pains and pleasures of adolescence.
Right now, two days before the play opens, I have no idea if I’ve succeeded. It’s an interesting time. But whatever happens when the critics assemble, I’m proud to say that the play is something which belongs to all of us – from Nadia and her team to the wonderful cast whose nuanced performances have elevated the play to a level beyond my wildest (and horsiest) imaginings. For as Tim implied in the rehearsal room, theatre is gestalt, not individual. And whilst I’ve written many things before, this is the first I’ve wrought – and I couldn’t be prouder of the result.
Wild Horses runs at Theatre503 until 10 July.