My journey in theatre started when I moved to Bristol and joined Bristol Old Vic Young Company.
I’d spent my childhood and adolescence on various council estates in Worcester – a city about half an hour outside of Birmingham. Most of that time was spent doing things I won’t incriminate myself or my friends by putting into writing but, suffice to say, while I was having a good time, it wasn’t really leading to anything positive. I’d managed to scrape a few decent A-Levels and some not so good GCSE’s and had the vague idea that I might go to University at some point, but I was in no rush. I liked where I lived and I didn’t see a reason to leave.
When I was 19, my kidney failed. I spent just over a year very unwell and then about another 3 months rehabilitating, after surgery to remove my collapsed kidney. Big up the NHS. Sitting on my Mum’s settee, I was pretty gutted about what I felt I was missing out on (metaphorically, as well as my actual kidney). Freedom, spontaneity, any energy to actually do anything - all evaporated, but what I did have was a lot of time on my hands. I’d love to say I used the time to grind out 3 plays but I didn’t do any writing at all. The concept of me being ‘a writer’ was still years away from being formed. What I did do was watch incalculable hours of TV and countless films. I watched anything and everything. Old films, new films, box-sets, foreign cinema my mate leant me from his sixth form library. I spent nearly a year and a half just watching stuff. And while I didn’t put any words on the page, I learnt as much as I ever have done about writing during that time. Without even realising it. Obviously, I’m not recommending kidney failure as a route into writing but you see what I’m getting at…
I came to the decision that after I was better I needed a fresh start. So, after they whipped out the offending organ, I rang up my Dad and he said I could come and live with him in Bristol for a bit. A city where I didn’t have any friends, or a job, or anything to do but after a year and half of doing nothing, I was pretty motivated to do something.
After a couple of months of signing on and, not surprisingly, being unable to find anyone to hang out with, my step-Mum suggested I go down to the Bristol Old Vic to meet some people. My little sister was basically a fixture in the building. She’d been going to the Bristol Old Vic’s young company since she was 5 or 6, and had recently been cast as Young Joan in Simon Godwin’s professional production of Far Away, at the tender age of 12. I had a D in GCSE Drama, a subject I’d only chosen because Sarah M told me she was taking it, in the morning break before finalising my choices. Sorry, Geography.
I was reluctant. A ‘young’ company? I was 20 (like, an Adult). What if they laughed at me? Would there be anyone like me there? What if they made me sing? I didn’t articulate these questions, of course, that would have required me to have some self-awareness, I just dismissed the idea as stupid and carried on my friendless existence and weekly Job Centre meetings. More than once I thought about jacking it in, going back home, getting a job with one of my mates and never trying anything new ever again.
After another few months, desperation kicked in and I submitted to what I imagined was my step-Mum’s devious scheme to embarrass me. I’d flat out refused to do any acting - far too revealing - but I signed up to take part in a term-long playwriting course, led by dramaturg and playwright Adam Peck. I went along to my first session and my initial fear was realised. I felt old and out of place. I sat there amongst a group of friendly, keen, well-read 16 and 17-year olds. The class always started with a discussion about what theatre they’d seen that week. I hadn’t seen any theatre since I’d been to see my sister in Far Away and all I could remember about that, was there was loads of hats in it. I felt exposed and stupid as they talked eloquently about their ideas and critiqued plays I didn’t even know existed. But I kept coming back. It got me out the house.
In the studio of the Bristol Old Vic, Simon Godwin was directing a new play. I decided to go and see it so that I’d have something to talk about at the next session. That play was Faith Healer by Brian Friel. I loved it. The simple staging, the lyricism of the language, the unreliable narrators – I was hooked by it from beginning to end. After that I read Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa and then found a collection of Caryl Churchill’s plays (turns out Far Away is about more than hats) and so on…
For the sake of linear progression, it would be easy to say that this was where my passion for theatre was first ignited. And it was, sort of. I was inspired by what I was reading. But the more I read and, when I could afford it, watched theatre, the more I felt like writing an actual play wasn’t for people like me. I mean, lots of straight, white blokes have written plays, fair enough. But most of them had been to Cambridge or somewhere like it. Or so it seemed to me. They had an extensive knowledge of the classics and referenced it in their work. They wrote plays that used scientific theories as a metaphor for human interaction, or state of the nation political plays about some historical event I didn’t even know had happened. I didn’t see a lot of myself on stage or in the plays I was reading. Nothing of mine and my friends’ experiences of growing up.
Up to that point, whilst taking my first tentative steps into the social side of the theatre, I’d obscured my background. I didn’t really tell people where I was from and I subtly altered how I dressed, to mimic what I saw around me. I’d found this new world of interesting people and creative expression but I didn’t feel comfortable in it. I didn’t know how to square the circle of being a part of it all, and being myself. Then, two things happened. I met a young director called Jesse Jones, who was part of the young company, and I read a monologue from Simon Stephens’ play, Motortown – an assignment in Adam’s playwrighting class. I can’t remember in what order they happened, but I do remember them both having a big effect on me.
Jesse is someone who is unapologetically himself. He’s from Easton, an ethnically-diverse, working class estate in Bristol. He’d been a part of young company for a number of years but, unlike me, was entirely the same person he’d been when he joined. Well, not the same but you get what I mean. He wore trackies. His accent was distinctively Bristolian. He was both a part of the ‘theatre world’ and still totally embedded in his life outside of that. They weren’t mutually exclusive, as I had feared. As we became friends and talked about working on something together, Jesse gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me. He told me that what I perceived to be my weakness – my background – I should recognise as a strength. It made me different, and different is good. That I shouldn’t try to be someone else or write a play that isn’t me, because it just wouldn’t work. It might seem like simple advice but for me, at that point, it was important to hear. I know there are people who have probably felt even more of an outsider than I did, when entering this profession. Crack on. Be yourself. Write a play that only you could write.
Oh, and the monologue from Motortown. It was the first time I read something and thought… I could write that. The energy of it. I recognised the people in it. I knew them. I was told it had been on a few years before at the Royal Court. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded cool. So, I wrote a play about a mate of mine who was a boxer, trying to use his only talent to escape poverty, even though it might kill him in the process. It was picked as part of a submission competition, they did a rehearsed reading of it and I haven’t stopped since.