15 Jul 2017

Learning to write (again) by Hugh Dichmont

I often start a project with a title. Parameters are always good when writing, especially a mission. The title of our forthcoming show, The War On Terry, is obviously a joke. I had the title for a good long while before I knew what the story could be. I knew the protagonist would be called Terry, and he would be down on his luck. First I thought it could be a fairly straightforward story about a loner, albeit with an unseen detail: that humans haven’t escaped the food chain; the banality of the morning commute enhanced by the threat of being eaten by a pack of cougars. (The “war” being the banality of Terry’s life- the food chain just acting as an absurd counterpoint to his patheticness)

Then instead I decided it should be a monologue. I had seen lots of competitions for one-act monologues, and feeling like I didn’t have the skills, thought I should teach myself how to write one. I set about this learning process by first trying to adapt a screenplay I wrote into a monologue, as an exercise in picking apart the form. I had the story. I just needed to shift the focus from the exterior, to inside the protagonist.

I did it, but the resulting monologue was trash. Why? Because I didn’t know my character. That’s the difference between film (a visual medium) and theatrical monologue. As much as we are taught to “show not tell”, a monologue really is telling. A person telling their life story, or at least an important part of it. I.e. the writer needs to know everything about them. (This doesn’t mean the protagonist should know everything about himself, however, as I came to realise)

With a monologue, you need to get deep into the psychology of a character. To paraphrase Simon Stephens, playwrighting is not about writing pithy lines. It’s 100% psychology: what makes people do what they do.

It was in writing The War On Terry –due to be premiered at Nottingham Playhouse on the 2nd of October 2017– that I managed to address this failing at the heart of my writing process, and learn (again) how to write.

In my first attempt at writing the play as a monologue, Terry addressed the audience directly, going through the different scars on his body one by one, as chapters to his life story. (The “war” being his tough upbringing) I tried my best, but the idea ran out of steam. Why? Because I was trying too hard to make the story interesting with lots of things happening, without ever knowing who Terry was. It’s obvious to me now that I was just being bloody stubborn: recognising you’re crap at something you want to be good at is devastating (but necessary if you want to actually be good at it, outside of your own head).

I set the play to the side, and worked on other projects.

When I returned to The War On Terry some months later, I decided I would take a more personal approach.

Years ago, I decided all my plays would be set in Nottingham, the city I live in. Why? Because for all the stress you will go through with the script, where your protagonist does their shopping shouldn’t be one of them. I decided at that point that The War On Terry should therefore be autobiographical. Again, this was about making the task of teaching myself how to write a monologue easier. I wouldn’t need to get inside Terry’s head, if Terry was, at least in some essential details, me.

An early reference for good practice was Fleabag. For those who don’t know, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV show was originally a stage monologue, performed by her. I saw it back in 2015 and it blew my socks off. I studied the text religiously. It was filthy and funny, but more than that, it was true. It felt like the writer had channelled her own love and hate and everything into the play’s eponymous protagonist. And I wanted, now, to do the same. I wanted to write a male Fleabag.

My first drafts, like that of my scars approach, were over-packed with stuff. Things in early versions, but not in the final play include:

  • Terry’s father transforming into a biscuit: “His gaze was fixed on the wall. I say his gaze, what I mean is, where his, what his… Let me explain. In place of his eyes were two blue flavoured iced gems”
  • A homeless Cherno Samba
  • Terry ranting about pretentious theatre: “It’s a fucking echo chamber”
  • Terry cheating on his girlfriend with a conceptual artist named ‘Shadow’
  • Many other silly things. Silly silly me

God bless Steve Conlin. Steve is my Terry, the actor I wrote the play for. He would come around to my flat, and he would do the latest draft, script in hand. The first thing that process taught me was, one page of writing = 4 minutes of solo performance. My first draft was, at 41 pages, two hours too long. Oops. The great thing about knowing that was, I couldn’t keep most of the crap that I knew I should get rid of. Whole plotlines had to be wiped out.

Steve

Steve is an actual giant. He drinks water straight from teapots.

The more and more I whittled, the more I found what was essential. It turned out, surprise surprise, that the monologue in which the protagonist’s brother killed himself was about… brothers!

I got the play to a good-ish draft, but it wasn’t until my wife secretly read my script and gave me some no-bullshit-slap-round-the-face feedback that I knew what I had to do to finish the thing off. Essentially it was the same advice I got seven years ago, when I first started writing, from an early mentor of mine, writer Nick Walker. He said: “Don’t write around the thing. Write the thing.” In other words, you KNOW deep down what the play is about, and that thing is uncomfortable to you, because it reveals something hidden and raw. But go there. And once you have got to that place, stay. Set up camp. That is your play.

So the play is about brothers, then. It reflects on my relationship to my brother, albeit through a fictional lens. The story is made up, but the feelings aren’t. I had to mine into my buried feelings of childhood injustice to create the central relationship of the play. I think what came out of this process is true, to me at least. I hope, too, that our audience will see themselves and the people they know in the characters brought to life on stage.

Having studied Fine Art for my BA, and with an illustrator for a wife, I often compare playwrighting to visual creative processes, or at least I try to. It’s so easy to get trapped in your laptop, and end up writing a pithy mess of clashing ideas. Printing out early drafts and cutting them up –physically engaging with the paragraphs as raw material– helped me very much in removing my ego from the editing process, as did hearing it read out loud.

What’s more, thinking of playwrighting as visual helped me to come to terms with the fact that I wrote at least four plays worth of unused material. Seeing this excess as a block of granite, I pictured myself carving away to reveal the masterpiece (*ahem*) underneath. (The difference, though, between playwrighting and sculpting is that the writer also has to excavate that raw material from the ground.)

Undoubtedly, once this play is performed for real (once again, 2nd of October, Nottingham Playhouse, one night only, BE THERE), I will want to make more changes to it. But for now, I’m enjoying the feeling that the script is finished enough. In fact, since finalising the performance script for this piece, I have finished the first draft of another monologue, hot on the back of my maiden attempt, picking up on a few of the abandoned ideas of the first attempt at The War On Terry. Which goes to show, if an idea is good, it never ever really goes to waste.

Either way, I know for sure I couldn’t have got The War On Terry where it is now without writing so badly, and in doing so, teaching myself to write, again.