Amanda Whittington’s 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 Wills’s Girls at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol.
Her first major play to be produced outside Nottingham, Be My Baby, premiered at London’s Soho Theatre in 1998 and returned in 2000 before embarking on a UK tour in 2003. It’s 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 Louisa’s and Player’s Angels for new Perspectives, the recent Satin 'n' Steel, about two karaoke singers on the Northern club circuit, and three educational plays, Twist and Shout, Runaway Girl and Shirley’s Song for Young Perspectives.
Whittington was a writer-in-residence at Soho Theatre in 2001, and a writer-on-attachment at the National Theatre Studio in 2003. Following last year’s premiere at the Hull Truck, her play Ladies Day embarks on a UK tour later this month.
Date & place of birth
Born 9 July 1968 in Nottingham.
Lives now in
What made you want to become a playwright?
I don’t think there was a moment when I decided I wanted to be a playwright; it was just something I always wanted to do. 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 didn’t train at all, I learned on the job. I had a place at university but didn’t 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. I was writing features about art, music, all sorts of things - anything and everything I could get.
First big break
Be My Baby, which was commissioned by Soho. They have a writers’ development programme through which lots of writers submit unsolicited scripts. If they see potential, they take you on. 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. It’s just insane to have it studied in schools now, because it’s not that long ago since I was a student myself. I get lots if emails from students asking me about it. It’s wonderful but bizarre!
Career highlights to date
Every production I’ve done has been special. In some ways, just the fact that I’m still going is a highlight because what I’m 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, with ten or 12 plays in my repertoire, is a highlight.
Do you prefer writing for stage or screen?
Screenplay-wise, I have various things in development, but films take years to get produced. I much prefer the stage, I feel more at home with theatre. The main difference is with film writing you’re telling a story visually and on stage your main tool is dialogue. Film is also very plot-driven whereas theatre is character-driven. I think I’m beginning to understand how stage plays work. It’s like looking under the bonnet of the car and understanding where everything goes, whereas screen writing is still a mystery.
Favourite productions you’ve ever worked on
We did a play called The Wills’s Girls in a really lovely production which had a fantastic cast and 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 ‘n’ Steel was also very special, developed partly through devising. Sara Poyzer, who’s 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 it’s the director’s decision. I wouldn’t want the final say because they’re the ones who have to make it into theatre. I think I can make a contribution to the rehearsals, but I’m always happy to hand ownership over to the director once the play’s finished, because that’s what they’re there for!
Gareth Tudor Price who I’m working on Ladies Day with. This is the third play if mine he’s 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 that process. There’s a constant dialogue with director and playwright right at the beginning, which really benefits the play.
Miranda Richardson’s amazing. I think she’s a fantastic screen actor and I’d love to see her on stage.
I like Tennessee Williams, he’s one of my favourites. Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire are fantastic, emotionally-driven dramas. I also love Shelagh Delaney, she’s a tremendous writer. I love A Taste of Honey.
If you hadn’t become a playwright, what might 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 this summer 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 another one of my very favourite writers. Little Women was my favourite book when I was a kid and I was taken to see a stage version of it at Nottingham Theatre Royal when I was about seven. I think that was one of the first moments when I thought, I want to do this as my career. To see those characters on stage was magical.
What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
Make it accessible and relevant and open it up to everybody. I think it’s still seen as elitist and middle class and I’d love to see that broken down. We need to lower the ticket prices. I 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?
George Bush and undo all these dreadful wrongs he’s done. Whether you could do all that in a day, though, I have no idea.
Little Women is still one that’s very fondly remembered. And An Evil Cradling by Brian Keenan is an amazing testimony of the spirit surviving against terrible odds. It’s wonderfully inspirational.
Favourite holiday destinations
Zante, the Greek island, is wonderful. Sun, sea and plenty of relaxation.
Jumptheshark.com is about classic television, all these obscure TV series you think you’ve forgotten and the moments when series 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. It’s a fantastic compendium. You find yourself looking at all these mad TV shows you’d never really thought about before!
What inspired you to write Ladies Day?
The Hull Truck wanted to commission me. I was having a conversation with Gareth about what we might do and he said “I remember being at York when it was ladies’ day at the races and seeing them going in all dolled up and coming out blind drunk – I think there’s a play in it”. So he inspired me really. I ran with the idea and expanded on it. The play is set at the races, but it’s really about a gang of workmates and their friendships and lives and bigger things than the races. I guess it was an opportunity to write about these sorts of characters. I think what audiences will enjoy is the fact that it’s 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. People enjoy seeing other people’s lives suddenly transformed in the space of a day. It’s funny and poignant and the characters are very familiar. I have been to the races a few times and have spoken to other people who have, and who have been to ladies’ days, because I wanted to draw on a variety of experiences. It’s not verbatim, though, it’s all made up. Verbatim drama is not something I’ve done, but it’s something I would consider doing, particularly with my background as a journalist. It’s all about finding the right subject matter and a story best told by truth rather than an imagined version of events.
To what extent does a play evolve while it’s on tour?
I will try and see Ladies Day once a week while it’s touring. 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. It might be four or five weeks into it when the actors are really starting to discover the details. Different audiences also bring different energies to the play – it’s that interaction between the actors and the audience which has a great impact. If there was stuff that needed to be fixed, I think I would re-write; a stage work is always a work in progress. With Satin 'n' Steel, I did some rewrites for the Hull production. So I do tweak if and when necessary, but once a play is in full production I have to let it go.
The recent Channel 4 series The Play’s the Thing highlighted the lack of new plays & writers in the commercial West End. What’s your view on the situation?
I think the problem with that programme was that it sort of enforced the image where there’s this all-powerful producer who picks an unknown, grateful writer who spends the whole time being slightly over-awed by the process. I found it slightly depressing. There’s 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 can’t go into the West End if you don’t know your craft as a writer. I agree from a producer’s point of view - somebody’s got to carry the can because there’s lots of money involved, but it was wrong to say you can win this opportunity. It’s 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 future plans?
I’m doing a play for Northern Broadsides next year called The Storm about the abolition of the slave trade. That’s going to tour next year and that’s a big research project, which is very exciting. I’ve found lots of really interesting subject matter.
Amanda Whittington was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
Ladies Day opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds on 30 August 2006, and tours to Bracknell, Peterborough, Buxton, Perth and Hull, where it concludes on 2 December 2006.