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Notes to a Precocious Playwright

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It sounds a bit lofty and pretentious doesn’t it? And rather obvious? Like telling someone, Breathe to live! Drink to hydrate!

But it’s also the best piece of playwriting advice I’ve been given. Last Thursday was the final session in a spring playwriting class I took through Austin Community College. I’d taken classes with this brilliant playwright instructor before and was particularly excited about this semester because of the focus on full-length plays. Aside from my various solo shows, and two-handers, I’ve never completed a full-length multi-character play and it felt like a big stretch.

Our brilliant instructor gave us permission to be at our worst: Be messy. Embrace failure. Stop making sense. Chuck spaghetti at the wall. Throw your characters down the stairs. Obviously she would be a disaster as a primary school teacher. But her number one tip was always Write to Discover.

Now here’s the part where I reveal that I took her advice and surpassed all my own expectations to create a shiny new 70-page first draft. Except, I didn’t. I have about 35 pages that I currently feel quite good about and another 60 or so that I enjoyed writing at the time but which now don’t fit my plans. If I’m following my butchered version of Michelangelo’s advice to ‘chip away at all that isn’t David’ then that’s 60 pages of marble dust. Probably from David’s crotch region. 60 pages of crotch dust. Nope, edit that out.

All the pages are full of characters and plot points and left turns that I can’t quite believe that I created over the past few months. But I still struggle with seeing myself as a legitimate playwright. I have to fight the feeling that I’ve come to this too late, that at this point everyone else has a substantial body of work behind them. That I’ll never catch up. And I admire writers with expansive imaginations, who create whole new worlds and characters and layer in subtext and symbolism. And I think that’s not me. Even though I’ve dabbled with magical realism in a lot of my writing. And even though I’ve got anthropomorphized animal characters in almost all of my plays.

And, yes. Even though there was that time when I was almost eleven and I wrote the school essay ‘My Perfect Day’ about meeting my fantasy French Papa at the Eiffel Tower. You’ll know the one if you’ve seen my Hot Dogs show. That year, my school report said ‘Margaret has an overactive imagination’. I still have the Lenham Primary School exercise book that the essay was in and I carry it with me when I perform the show because it’s fun to show any audience members who stay behind/don’t leave fast enough.

Every so often I flick through the drawings in the book to remind myself that art has never been my strong point. But reading it again for this post, I realized that I started my creative writing journey 45 years ago. I really should put this fact into my playwrights’ resume.

So I thought I’d go back and see how much the ten-year-old me embraced writing-to-discover, and especially how precocious my playwriting skills were. Some of the pages in my book are missing but the following story is one of my favorites. I’ve transcribed the text in bold below or you can click the image and see it as the author intended. Oh and there’s no punctuation because who cares

‘As I walked down the long dark road something jumped out in front of me It was hard to make out but before I could do anything else I had a black hand round me then things started to happen’

Come on, what a way to start. One of the fundamental lessons we’re taught in playwriting is to start as close to the end as possible and throw the reader straight in. How expertly I achieved this. No boring exposition about why I was on a long dark road, nor indeed how I knew how long the road was given that it was dark. And that little teaser line ‘…and then things started to happen’. And yes, I’m assuming the black hand was a gloved black hand, probably leather. I watched a lot of The Sweeney.

‘A van came whizzing round the corner it screached and two men came running out and pushed me in the van they tied my legs up and then gagged me’

Love the great use of language here. Van’s are not generally known to whiz, especially not those awful 70s Ford Transit vans that I think I was referencing. And the fact that it just screached, not screached to a halt. Perhaps it screached like an owl? Or was the van perhaps ‘hooting’ its horn? Multiple layers of intrigue here. Bloody hell, they could have filmed this whole thing for the old Children’s Film Foundation and presented it as a grisly child safety awareness campaign. At the end, there’d be Tufty wagging an accusing squirrel finger – DON’T GET INTO TRANSIT VANS, CHILDREN.

‘I heard the siren of the police We swerved and instead of taking the road to Rickety House they took the country road I was nearly dead already. They said ‘come on let’s run and tell boss’ and left me’

We’re at the bottom of page one and if this isn’t a cliffhanger then I don’t know what is. Love the decision to swerve and take a different route. Perhaps a literary nod from me to Robert Frost and the road less travelled? And Rickety House? From this we know exactly what the house looks like. No further details needed. But we can’t move to the concluding page without analyzing that line ‘I was nearly dead already’.  Is this in a physical sense? A sensation of the body shutting down? Or a premonition of what was to come on page two?

‘2 hours later the boss came back with a gun’

This is starting to feel a bit Reservoir Dogs. This long wait contemplating your own mortality. But I’m also cheekily bringing in Chekhov’s gun – a playwriting concept that if a gun appears onstage then by the third act it must be used. In my short fiction it means fire the gun before the end.

“What’s your last request?”

Put that gun down (‘I said’ – added by teacher. Unnecessary in my opinion)

Okay, okay, some of this analysis has been a bit tongue in cheek. But I’m not denying my own brilliance in this penultimate line. Shades of Martin McDonagh? An early indication of the dark comedy that I would become so drawn to? Or just a very logical response to the question?  And I could have gone a couple of different ways with the ending. Could have ended with the boss being so taken aback by the response that he does indeed put the gun down. But no, I wasn’t going to let my characters off this easily. Throw them down the stairs, remember.

‘Bang. Ah I was dead’

Okay, I don’t know if Alice Sebold is still alive but I’d like to point out that her novel, The Lovely Bones, in which a child tells the story of her own murder, was not so original. Let’s just leave it there.

I can also see that the stories I wrote at the are a good indication of the Gallant family dynamics. For example, I have illustrated a story that was apparently Christmas-themed. In addition to my self-portrait, I also included our Christmas tree which seems to be adorned with presents for my brother, Miles. All of them are for him. I appear to be extremely proud of my table – though sadly not yet able to understand perspective when it comes to drawing table legs. I’m uncertain of what’s on the table, it could be some bizarre piece of sewing or perhaps a display of more presents that will soon bear Miles’ name.

Of course, typical of the British fear of overpraising a child, the teacher marking it gives me a ‘Good’ and a merit badge but can’t just leave it at that. No, she has to bring me down by telling me to get back to my unfinished work. Had she been around in Franz Schubert’s time he’d probably get the same feedback.

Stay tuned for updates on the royal-themed full-length play as I rediscover my childhood imagination. I may be adding to the cadre of talking animals with an owl that sounds like a Ford Transit van, and I may rename Buckingham Palace ‘Rickety House’.




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