National Theatre Connections playwrights roundtable (1/2)
26th March 2008
FOCUS ON YOUTH THEATRE (1/2)
Heather Neill talks to Roy Williams, Dennis Kelly and Lin Coghlan about their plays – Baby Girl, DNA and The Miracle – which originated in the NT Connections festival of work for young people.
I’ve always been interested in magical realism and fantasy, and in different realities happening at the same time.
FOCUS ON YOUTH THEATRE
Heather Neill talks to Roy Williams, Dennis Kelly and Lin Coghlan about their plays – Baby Girl, DNA and The Miracle – which originated in the NT Connections festival of work for young people. 10,000 words approx.
Recorded: 26 March 2008
Transcribed by Keyboard Freedom. © theatreVOICE.
Heather Neill: My name is Heather Neill and I’m delighted to be with three award-winning playwrights who’ve joined me to talk to Theatre Voice. We’re in a rehearsal room at the National Theatre where Lin Coghlan, Dennis Kelly and Roy Williams each has a short play showing at the Cottesloe, usually two in an evening, occasionally all three together, all directed by Paul Miller. The plays were all commissioned for NT Connections – Lin’s in 2006 and the other two last year. And so they’ve already been performed numerous times by casts of young people, mostly but not exclusively in the UK. Now Roy’s Baby Girl, Dennis’s DNA and The Miracle by Lin are receiving professional productions here. So a quick explanation about Connections. For a decade ten new plays have been commissioned annually from leading playwrights to be performed by eleven- to nineteen-year-olds in their schools and youth clubs. Regional partner theatres mount festivals of productions in their areas and about twelve are invited to come to London for a national festival in July every year. Well this is the second time that Nicholas Hytner has chosen some of those plays to be presented with professional casts at the Cottesloe. Well first of all I’m going to ask each of you in turn how you got involved and what you thought when you got a commission from Suzy Graham Adriani who was the original producer of Connections until this year, when you were asked to write for a specific age group. Roy, were you delighted or did you think: oh my god?
Roy Williams: Well no, I was delighted, it’s work that I’ve always been interested in and kind of work that I started out doing when I got into theatre, because I used to act as well. So kind of youth work, youth theatre work and young peoples’ theatre is what I’m very much interested in. And I’ve written for other companies before, I’ve written plays specifically written for young people, so when I heard about the Connections thing I was very much sort of hanging around the theatre, you know, just sort of dropping hints to Suzy – oh yes, that sounds like a good project. So finally she took the hint and said, ‘Oh would you like to write?’, and I said, ‘Oh go on then.’
Heather Neill: Excellent. And Lin, you too have worked with young people before so this was something that wasn’t out of your range already, was it?
Lin Coghlan: No, it wasn’t. I mean I had, like Roy, years ago we’d met working for a company called Theatre Centre which commissioned work to be performed for young people and I’d had some experience of writing for youth theatres in the past. This is a sort of unique kind of commission though in that I think that kind of experience is useful and having an enthusiasm for young audiences and young people is great, but it’s also an opportunity to write a huge play which you normally would never get asked to do. So it’s great, it’s a gift I think.
Heather Neill: Dennis, were you equally enthusiastic?
Dennis Kelly: Yes, well yes. I wanted to say no just for a bit of variety. No, I didn’t want to do it, they just made me do it. No, I was, I was. You know, because I mean I’d started in youth theatre, you know, that’s where I’d sort of found out about theatre, is doing youth theatre and it just…
Heather Neill: As an actor.
Dennis Kelly: As an actor, yes, when I was sixteen or something, you know, and it just meant a lot to me at that time, you know what I mean. And so in a way it was, you know, being able to write something for people in youth theatres to perform was a very direct way of being able to talk to people who, like me, might have needed it at that time, you know. So yes, I was kind of looking forward to it. I was sort of scared though, you know what I mean, because I hadn’t really done it before.
Heather Neill: Right. Well Roy, you first simply because yours is the play one sees first when one comes to see all three of them. You’re very busy at the moment because you’ve got Days of Significance on as well which is an RSC commission at The Tricycle and Angel House touring, and you’ve been here before, you’ve had a play on here before, Sing Your Hearts Out For The Lads was the one, wasn’t it?
Roy Williams: That’s right, yes, that was 2002 and 2004.
Heather Neill: Yes. Now Baby Girl is about teenage pregnancy, thirteen-year-old Kelle under pressure to lose her virginity finds that, like her own mother at the same age, she’s expecting a baby. This is a funny play but it’s quite sad as well. It’s about growing up, and you use street language in it. I think you’ve said that you often get your ideas from things you see in newspapers or hear on buses, so was that the case this time?
Roy Williams: It was definitely the case for this time. I mean when I got the commission to write this play, at the time I was thinking very seriously about it, I wanted to very much write a play about kind of sort of what I would describe as kind of like the sexualisation of today’s youth, particularly in the media, and I very much wanted to write a play that addressed those concerns. But I was struggling, I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story. I knew why, but I just didn’t know how to tell it. And then like, as you said, where I sort of get a good sort of source of material is, you could say on buses, particularly on school runs when you see the kids come on and off.
Heather Neill: Is that something you do deliberately?
Roy Williams: Sometimes yes, but I’ve got to watch myself I’m not some sort of creepy, old man. So I do, I’m very discreet. And there was this one time I was on a bus and these two young girls, couldn’t have been older than thirteen, came jumping on to the bus shouting and screaming very, very loud and I was thinking, oh right, here we go. And when they got on to the top deck, which is where I was, they were shouting down at someone outside. So I looked down and there was this man, he was about forties or fifties, and he was just making very crude, obscene suggestions in a sexual manner to these young girls. And at first I was disgusted because I kind of felt, look, these girls are thirteen and you’re making some obscene gestures to them, what is the matter with you? But the two girls on the bus, they turned it around because they absolutely threw every comment he threw back at him, they absolutely verbally insulted him, they tore him to shreds with words. And it was like arguably the most funniest thing I’ve ever seen on a bus, of course their language was so crude and so loud but extremely funny, just the way they delivered it. And it stayed with me, and when I got home it made me think. I just thought, well those girls, as I said, couldn’t have been more than thirteen, but the phrases they were using and everything they were saying at this man suggested that they knew a lot more about sex than perhaps a thirteen-year-old should. And when they did that I thought, that’s my way in to the play. And yes, and so the story about the young girl getting pregnant at thirteen, that’s how it sort of developed.
Heather Neill: So did you feel that you wanted to be a little bit didactic or were you trying to avoid that, I mean is this a warning? Because I know there have been social workers who’ve come in and said, ‘Oh I want everyone in a school, who goes in to a secondary school at the age of twelve or thirteen to see this.’
Roy Williams: Well, that’s good, I’m glad they do. It’s, I sometimes think that’s the trick to writing a play, is because I think in a sense I suppose I am being a little bit didactic, I am kind of waving my moral finger, but I think the trick is to do it in a way that the audience, particularly a young audience don’t see it that way, they don’t see it coming. Because if you kind of wave your finger in their face, they’re just going to tell you to eff-off.
Heather Neill: Yes.
Roy Williams: And so I just think it was my duty, you know, particularly writing this play to be more subtle, but basically just tell a good story and a heart-warming story about a young girl and her relationship particularly with her mother who was pregnant with her at the same age.
Heather Neill: And did you find the length, because all these plays are about an hour, aren’t they…?
Roy Williams: Yes.
Heather Neill: Was that something that was difficult to fit it all in?
Roy Williams: No, not really. I mean that was the challenge set out right from the off, it was an hour long so I just worked towards that. And actually it was good because you really had to trim the fat while you were going along and it focuses you, I mean I felt it really allowed me to be much more focused on this piece than probably I have on other plays where, you know, if it was a two-hour or whatever you can afford to indulge yourself a little. But with this one, no, I couldn’t. I just felt right, an hour, that’s all I’ve got, so I’ve got to tell this story in an hour.
Heather Neill: Yes, good. Well we’ll talk about whether you’ve seen other productions when we have a bit of a discussion afterwards, but let’s go to Dennis now as…
Dennis Kelly: You surprised me there, I thought you were going to go for Lin. I’m not ready, I’m not ready.
Heather Neill: Well Dennis, you’ve been saying you started late, I don’t know how late that was writing plays, but you have now written quite a large number of them including Osama the Hero and After the End. But you’re also known for television comedy – Pulling is on at the moment, isn’t it?
Dennis Kelly: Yes, it started on Sunday.
Heather Neill: Yes. Well you’ve chosen this time, in DNA, to write a kind of psychological thriller which begins with a group of young people ganging-up on a vulnerable boy, and the play is about the effect on the group as they deal with his apparent death. One person, Phil, seems cool, amoral, clever, but unemotional and able to control things until things go wrong and the plan fails. And it turns out that Adam, the victim, isn’t after all dead. Well first of all were you tempted to make your contribution a comedy, I mean or not that there isn’t anything humorous about it because all these plays have some humour in them, but it’s not what you’d call a comedy, is it?
Dennis Kelly: No, no, I mean I’m never tempted to make, I mean even the comedy I write I’m not tempted to write a comedy. I think, you know, comedy is something that sort of happens on the way to something, you know what I mean? And I mean in all of the plays that I’ve written there are parts that are funny or are supposed to be, you know, and DNA was no different from that at all. I mean even when we write Pulling actually and we sort of, I mean maybe you do kind of think a little bit about sort of, you know, funny and bits up here and there but I think, you know, I’m not, you know, I’ve written six plays and I’ve written one comedy, you know what it means, so it’s not… I mean I think these days, you know, as a writer you can sort of, you can do different things. You can write, it’s strange that I can, I write a comedy yet I’m not a comedy writer, but I think you can sort of do that these days, you know. But no, I wasn’t tempted to, you know.
Heather Neill: Where did the idea come from, was it a young person you’d seen or was it police reports or what?
Dennis Kelly: No, no, not at all. I mean it was, I just had, I wanted, I mean really the heart of the play for me is it sort of right to do something, is it right to sort of sacrifice the right of the individual for the sake of the group? And I think that was just sort of stuff I was thinking about at the time, you know. I mean we’d just come out of, you know, Iraq was turning really bad and, you know, I mean these were questions that were sort of floating around in the air at the time, you know, and I think I just wanted to sort of, I mean I didn’t want to sort of write anything moral because I believe that I’m ultimately quite an immoral person so I’ve got no right to teach anyone any morals, you know what I mean?
So, and also I don’t really believe, you know, like Roy, I didn’t set out to write a didactic play, you know, because I don’t really believe you can, personally I don’t believe you can teach anyone anything. You can teach people dates and stuff, you know, but even at, I mean the girl that I write Pulling with, you know, she’s got a four-year-old girl and ever since she was about, I’d say about eighteen months, she’s been able to suss me out instantly. She can just look me up and down and she knows when I’m lying or not, you know, she’s amazing, you know what I mean, and kids can do that. And so to think that I know anything more about morals than a fourteen-year-old boy or girl is just preposterous. So I didn’t want to sort of put any of that in it, what I wanted was what I do with a play normally which is to have maybe a moral question, you know.
And I think what was interesting was, I mean years ago I’d written this play called White Pig, it was the first, I think it was one of the first plays I’d written and at about the time when I’d written a play called Debris. And I used to have lots of these really odd meetings with theatres where I’d go in and they’d tell me how much they loved the play and then tell me they weren’t going to do it, you know. And I always sort of liked that play, you know, and I kind of, I suppose I sort of went away from writing a little bit like that, you know, just because that’s what you do. And I wanted to sort of, there was something in that that I liked, you know, and it is nothing to do with the actual plot or story that’s in DNA, but it’s something to do with the tone and to do with this kind of… I mean White People was about a teenager who kind of sees these kinds of crazy things and, you know, no one quite understands him, but there’s something in the tone of it that I wanted to sort of capture, you know what I mean, and there was something in the tone of DNA that I wanted to sort of… it was about the mood, you know what I mean, so you get lots of moments when Lea sort of looks back and, you know, she’ll have this big rambling monologue that kind of, you know, to her means everything at that moment, and then she’ll sort of look back and sort of say, ‘Look at that sky’, and then talk about something that’s very present and in the moment. So there’s something…
Heather Neill: This Lea is Phil’s would-be girlfriend, she’s always trying to get his attention?
Dennis Kelly: Well yes, yes. I don’t know whether it’s, I don’t know whether it’s, I’m never sure whether it’s about a sexual thing or a relationship thing, you know, but she’s obviously kind of a…
Heather Neill: But she wants his attention though?
Dennis Kelly: She wants his attention, definitely, yes. So there was something of that that I kind of wanted to get hold of, just because I thought it would be interesting for, you know, say a young audience. Not audience, sorry, because it’s not really written for the audience, it’s written for the performers, but I just thought it would be interesting for the performance, you know.
Heather Neill: Yes, well there’s a lot of information in the play by the by, isn’t there?
Dennis Kelly: In what sense?
Heather Neill: Well in Lea’s speeches, I mean she talks about all sorts of things.
Dennis Kelly: Yes, there is, there’s lots of, I mean she’ll just go, but that’s because we all, I mean we all think a lot, you know what I mean. And like Lea will, one minute she’ll be sort of talking about what’s happening, the next minute she’ll be talking about, you know, the connection between sort of global warming and happiness, you know what I mean, or Bonobos being our nearest relatives than Chimpanzees. And when we were on the big work, you do a big workshop with Connections, you know, and all the teachers come, and there was one teacher that saw…
Heather Neill: Yes, this is a residential weekend, isn’t it?
Dennis Kelly: Yes, that’s right. There’s a weekend and you do a big workshop and all the teachers who are going to, and usually they’re sort of going to direct the play come so that they’ve got some sort of connection with the writer. And I remember one teacher said to me, ‘You know, I remember sort of saying to one teacher, you know, I like the way that Lea thinks because actually we all think like that, you know, we all think about these things.’ And she said, ‘You know, this teacher sort of said well you do’, you know, and I just thought, no, that’s not true, you know what I mean, just because, you know, but I mean just because it’s weird, I mean we all do, you know what I mean. And, you know, before I was a writer I worked in an office and before I did that was working in a, I worked in a supermarket, you know what I mean, and before I did that I was at school, you know what I mean. And all of the people at school think about, it doesn’t matter what class you’re from or what social background you’re from, people can think. It’s the one thing you’ve got, and people think and they like, and people love to think, you know what I mean, we love it. We love having a good, old think to ourselves, don’t we, you know what I mean, a nice ponder.
Heather Neill: Well you’ve got Phil who sits there thinking a lot and not saying anything…
Dennis Kelly: Yes.
Heather Neill: Until he comes out with an amazing plan for covering up what they think is the death of Adam. I worried about your brain then, and you worked out that plan, it was such a clever one although they did mess it up. But, you know, did that take you long to work out? Because this is where the DNA of the title comes in, of course they get…
Dennis Kelly: Yes.
Heather Neill: They point the finger at someone who’s not supposed to exist, but then someone finds a postman with bad teeth who does meet your…
Dennis Kelly: The description.
Heather Neill: The description.
Dennis Kelly: Yes, yes. I don’t know, I can’t really remember, I don’t think it did. I mean I think actually it’s not as complicated a plan as I’ve made it look, but…
Heather Neill: Right. Well I was taken in.
Dennis Kelly: But actually that’s deliberate in a way, you know, I mean actually if you really strip it down it’s quite a, not an obvious thing to do but it’s, you know, it’s you just figure out what you need to do here and there. But I’ve kind of made it look, in the tone of it I’ve kind of made it look a bit more complicated so there’s an effect, you know, there is an effect of Phil kind of being this kind of mastermind. But actually the…
Heather Neill: And the others are very impressed?
Dennis Kelly: And the others are very impressed, yes. And actually, but what’s actually sort of more interesting than the plan itself is his will to do it, you know, is his will to sort of, I mean, you know, it’s the, you know, because he actually sort of, they don’t know what to do. This boy has been killed, they’ve got no idea what to do, they’re running around like headless chickens and suddenly he steps forward with this plan. This plan involves covering it up, it’s an elaborate cover up but he actually has the will to do it, you know what I mean? So that’s kind of what’s more interesting, I think, than the plan itself.
Heather Neill: Yes. OK, well we’ll come back to yourself in a minute, but next Lin. Well you too have come to this from a variety of experience including working with young people before at Theatre Centre, I think you and Roy knew each other then.
Lin Coghlan: Yes.
Heather Neill: But last week you also took part in an amazing experiment, writing a radio play which is also a film…
Lin Coghlan: That’s right.
Heather Neill: Called The City Speaks, which just shows how, what variety of people who come to Connections have on their CVs. Anyway, The Miracle, which is your play for Connections, involves Ron, which is short for Veronica. She’s a young girl who’s a bit of an oddball, an outsider, but she reckons that she has special powers when a statue of St Anthony is washed in to her bedroom by local flooding and, again, her whole community is seen to react to these circumstances. And in to the middle of it comes a young soldier returning from Iraq who is greeted as perhaps a hero, perhaps not, and certainly the community think he is to begin with. And so the effect of someone believing they have special powers on other people and they then also believing it is what we observe. But we see a whole community and in your case, you have a play where there are far more adult characters than the other two, haven’t we? So The Miracle, does this, does the subject matter fit neatly in to your writing generally?
Lin Coghlan: Well that’s an interesting question. I mean it’s interesting you hearing about how the other two plays began because when I started on The Miracle I had no idea what I was going to write. And I think with hindsight, looking back, I’ve just written two plays which had come out of doing about three or four years’ work in prisons on and off, working with Clean Break and then with the British Council, and I’d written two quite harsh plays about the fate of young people getting into trouble with the law. So when Connections came along and I was given the opportunity to kind of write whatever I wanted to write, it was, I think I needed to go somewhere else, and what I picked up on and went back to but I didn’t, I mean it’s interesting that Roy’s idea, you know, he can trace it back to that moment and those girls on the bus, I had no idea what was going to come out. But I had done a play for the Dennis Potter, a film script for the Dennis Potter Award in 2000 and I’ve always been interested in magical realism, fantasy, and also I suppose writing that people like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the idea of having different realities happening at the same time, and it’s something that I haven’t used a lot in my theatre work but I have used it in film and television work. So I think I just wanted to go to another place, and what I discovered through putting the characters together and seeing what would happen was that it would turn out to be a play about longing and missed opportunities, but I hadn’t realised that at the time. And in fact what’s been quite interesting about it is that it is basically an urban fairly tale, although it’s disguised as a contemporary play and it’s both those things, it’s really an urban fairy tale so it’s looking at that community and ideas through that community.
Heather Neill: There are some quite magical moments, aren’t there?
Lin Coghlan: I think there are and I think, you know, it is absolutely not a play about religion or about miracles or holy statues, although all those things are in the play. It’s much more I think, and it was funny when I finally read the other two plays which I hadn’t read and sort of seen what they had in common, they all have, I think, the possibility of some of those characters crossing over in to each other’s worlds. Roy’s Kelle is, you know, a year older than my Ron and Kelle’s coping with and trying to make her way, I think, through sexuality, whereas my Ron is an isolated weird kid who I suppose is closer to what I was like at that age, not knowing how to be in the world or how to fit in. So although lots of strange things happen in the play which tip the play into a kind of magic and spirituality, I think that became a language for the play but it’s really about some quite kind of commonly recognisable things that happen to all of us.
Heather Neill: Yes.
Lin Coghlan: And the key patterning even when we get older although we might not talk about them, but that sense of not knowing who you are and not knowing what to do and not knowing whether you can change doesn’t necessarily get easier as you get older, but those are the things you find yourself maybe thinking about a lot when you’re twelve or thirteen or fourteen – who am I going to be and, you know, am I going to be the way everybody tells me I’m meant to be? Whereas I think when, you know, when you’re forty you’re still asking the same things, or I am anyway, but those questions don’t go away – have I done the right thing?, can I still do something different?, can I change?, do I want to?, you know, who do I want to be? is a useful question to keep kind of asking yourself. And in a way the genre and the style of the play is just, I thought like Dennis was saying, it would be a lot of fun and a big challenge for a big youth company to wrestle with rivers and magic and narration and a whole community and older characters and lots of kind of quite complicated stuff in terms of the way the story’s told.
Heather Neill: Did you all see young people doing productions? Roy, did you see?
Roy Williams: I saw two.
Heather Neill: Right.
Roy Williams: The first one I saw was up in Cambridge and they…
Heather Neill: Were they the ones who came to the festival?
Roy Williams: They’re the ones who ended up coming to the festival.
Heather Neill: Yes.
Roy Williams: And so Suzy and I, we went up there, spent a day with them, they did a run-through and then we talked scenes through and characters, any questions they had for me. And it was quite, it was really wonderful to see them go at it and I mean they are, they couldn’t be any more different from the cast that are doing it now other than the colour thing. Because I mean I wrote the play in a way that it can be done, it doesn’t have to be done by black kids, it can be done by white, it can be done by mixed, it’s all down to, you know, whatever the company feels they can do. And the company in Cambridge, you know, they were all white, very middle class, very posh, but did the play wonderfully, yes, and very truthful.
Heather Neill: And they had a couple of very funny young actors there, didn’t they?
Roy Williams: Yes, they were very gifted young actors and I made a point of remembering their names because they were just, they were that good.
Heather Neill: You might hear them again, yes.
Roy Williams: Yes.
Heather Neill: And Dennis, did you see any young people doing your DNA?
Dennis Kelly: Yes, I didn’t see as many as I wanted because I was a bit busy at the time. I did see about, I mean I saw three or four groups I think, you know, but I mean it was great experience. I mean I sort of stipulated it on the front of DNA that all the genders could be changed so that, you know, it could be, you know, Lea could become Lee, John could become Jane, you know, and I never really believed that, I mean I thought that that could happen to some extent but I never, I sort of thought it was being a bit cheeky there, you know, and there would be one or two characters that you definitely, that you couldn’t change. But I mean I saw a company in Gillingham do an all-boys version and it was great, like within about ten minutes you just forgot, you know, you forgot that they were, that the character had ever been a different sort of gender. And that was the most amazing thing, was seeing the different kind of, you know, different permutations of it. And actually that wasn’t, what was the most amazing thing, I think, was just seeing how much people got into it. I mean actors are, I mean I deliberately made the play hard because I think whether you’re a youth actor or a professional actor you’ve got the same instinct. And actors are amazing, they’re the only people on the planet, if you make their job harder for them they love it, they really love it. They love it, the harder it gets the more they like it. So I thought, you know, I’d make it a little bit difficult, you know, and they are, I mean there difficult sort of, you know, there are these massive monologues and inter-cutting dialogues, it’s hard to deal with but I thought they dealt with it really well.
Heather Neill: Yes. Well in the case of all three plays, there will be plenty to talk about when they’re doing their rehearsing, when they’re rehearsing I should think they all enjoyed the process a lot. Did you see something?
Lin Coghlan: I did, yes, I saw five or six and, again, they were completely different and wonderful. I mean I think looking back on the thing that it reminded me of because that there were people out there like me, because I think I wanted to write something that would be fun to do and I found that the young companies just had a whale of a time, you know, they loved telling the story and they loved that it was insane. And it is kind of insane. And it just reminded me that there’s, because sometimes you can feel very isolated in terms of what you’re writing and whether anybody else is getting it or not, and it reminds you that there’s an enthusiasm for, you know, telling a story.
And also I was very moved by how much those young companies cared about the older characters, because even though the parents in the play are probably only in their mid-thirties, that seemed a long way away to a thirteen-year-old. And yet they had a lot of compassion for the older characters who hadn’t done what they wanted to do and hadn’t gone where they wanted to go. And I thought that was very interesting because originally I wondered whether there was a sort of unwritten rule that you weren’t meant to write older characters and I’d looked at the canon, you know, some of the canon of work and they’re mostly young parts for young people to play themselves. And Suzy had sort of said no, if you want to write older characters, do. But I think that sometimes can be a bit problematic in that this, you know, sometimes I think some youth theatres or drama groups have this idea that young people should be playing something close to themselves. And I think I’m quite glad that I took that risk with it actually and I saw, you know, some really moving performances where you would see very young actors just being someone who’s old enough to be a father or to be an older person in the community and just do it really honestly, as if it’s just another facet of themselves.
Heather Neill: Well one of the wonderful freedoms of writing for Connections is that because originally they’re not meant for professional casts, you can have as many people as you like.
Lin Coghlan: Absolutely.
Heather Neill: But one of the difficulties is sometimes language. Did any of you encounter any problems, because sometimes a school runs into difficulties, you can’t use certain words: did you have any problems with that, anybody?
Roy Williams: Not as far as I know. No, I didn’t have any problems with that, no.
Heather Neill: You didn’t have to change anything?
Roy Williams: No, no.
Lin Coghlan: I think I did because there’s definitely, Lorenzo…
Heather Neill: He’s the returning soldier?
Lin Coghlan: The returning soldier uses the F word and that was definitely a problem, I’m pretty sure, for one school. And having worked in schools before, it does depend on the school but there are some schools that literally can’t take the play unless those things can be adjusted and others who seem to be in a different relationship with the Board of Governors or whatever, so it wasn’t a complete shock to me. And another thing that happened actually in my play that I’d forgotten about, that after we did the residential weekend with the teachers, was the play is set in a sort of strange amalgam of kind of city and rural community and it’s intentionally somewhere that any company can make their own. A lot of the young companies wanted to change the place names to something that was recognisable, because there are a lot of place names in the play. And we came to a sort of accommodation about it that we could change place names but that the music of the place name had to work with the language already in the piece. So we couldn’t just substitute A with B, it had to be a B-like place that sounded good in terms of the play. So there were adjustments that were made around the schools and these clubs.
Dennis Kelly: I had, yes, I did have some problems because I’m quite rude and like my play was, there was a lot of swearing it. And I went through it and I sort of de-swore it, but it still had a lot of swearing in it, you know, and it was really filthy originally. But, so I mean when I was doing the workshop a couple of teachers did come up to me and say that they were going to have problems with it, you know, and it wasn’t really that, I mean, you know, it’s always a difficult thing because you think well should I change it or shouldn’t I? But then you sort of, I kind of realised that it wasn’t them, they were going to have problems with their Boards, you know, their Boards were going to…
Heather Neill: Yes.
Dennis Kelly: That would be like, you know, these kinds of schools that they just, you know, and there were some school that I sort of recognised that the Boards didn’t even want them to do the bloody plays, you know what I mean, they didn’t want them to do plays at all. There are schools out there where you’ve got these drama teachers who are fighting tooth and nail. So I kind of thought, so I did a de-swore version for people but I also made it very clear to them that this was a lesser version of the play because you can’t just take the word ‘fuck’ and replace it with, you know, what can you replace ‘fuck’ with?
Damn or gosh or, you know, the English language is so varied that words we use, you know, not just the rhythm of word becomes very precise and those words can’t be replaced and you are… I made it quite clear to them the unfortunately they were performing a poorer version of the play. But I mean what is weird though is that sometimes you’d meet, which was, I don’t know if you found it, if you two found this, but occasionally you’d meet somebody in a workshop who you kind of knew was kind of, you know like, because they get used to sort of doing a Shakespeare or something and they think, oh we won’t do that be or we’ll just do this. And you kind of meet someone who had the idea that they were just going to change a bit, you know what I mean, and you’d have to sort of point out that wasn’t really the way it worked.
Heather Neill: It’s one of the few rules of Connections, that it’s a way for people to learn how to use a script. And it’s not to do with improvisation, it’s to do with responding to a writer.
Dennis Kelly: And also there is a danger that if you, the desire to change a script is because you encounter a problem in a script and if you change the sort of what’s on the surface, you actually still leave the problem there, you just can’t see it anymore, you know what I mean?
Heather Neill: Yes, yes. OK, well the style of the language, putting aside whether there are any four-letter words or not, that your styles are all very different. Now Roy, you told us a bit about how you get yours, I mean is it difficult to keep up to date, I mean are you consciously listening all the time, sort of?
Roy Williams: Well yes, that’s pretty much what I do, and I think I’ve always been that kind of person, I like to listen, I don’t like to talk much. So I suppose that makes me, you know, a good writer.
Heather Neill: Do you have a notebook, I mean when you go on the bus you don’t sort of…?
Roy Williams: No. Well I do have a notebook but I only use it when I really, really have to. Like I said, I really like to listen, I like to let it digest in to my head and let it run around in my head and then I’ll write it down.
Heather Neill: So it’s kind of, it’s a language we recognise but it’s filtered through Roy Williams.
Roy Williams: Yes, yes. But, you know, but I mean I was in a shop the other day and heard these two boys in front of me and they used sort of really sort of, some new kind of street talk that I really, really liked, and I thought, oh I’ve never heard that before, yes, that’s going in to my next play for when I need it. But I mean for me, it’s just being a good listener.
Heather Neill: Yes.
Roy Williams: I also treat it like, it’s like, you know, like a singer when they hear a tune being played on a piano, they’re able to hear the tune and able to repeat it through their, and they use their, you know, their mouth, you know.
Heather Neill: Is there any danger that you’re doing to link it too much to a particular year or going to set the date too much by the language, or does that not bother you?
Roy Williams: No, that doesn’t bother me, that doesn’t bother me. I think, if it’s a good enough play I think it will stand the test of time. I think I also feel, you know, the more specific you make a play then I think the more universal it will be. I think, you know, if someone, say, wants to do this play again in three or four years’ time, if the debate about teenage sexuality is being still being spoken about as it was three years ago…
Heather Neill: I think it will be, yes.
Roy Williams: Then I think the play will stand up well.
Heather Neill: Yes. Lin, what about your style, I mean you talked a little bit about the music of the language?
Lin Coghlan: Yes, I mean I suppose this may be a slightly different situation because for years I didn’t feel confident writing characters who weren’t Irish, it took a look time before I was able to kind of… they either felt very neutral in sort of inhabiting some sort of no man’s land or they were coming out Irish whatever I did and people would read it and go, ‘Are these characters Irish or going on?’ Oh no, they’re not meant to be. But you realise that you probably tend to start writing from what you sound like and what you grew up with. And then I think something happened which kind of, through a lot of the youth club work that I was doing, working with theatre companies that were working with young people coming from different parts of the country, where they were devising and I would be writing down what they were devising and working with them, where my ear got a bit better. And I suppose some of what I write at the moment, especially because I’ve had to do quite a lot of TV where you’re writing the voices for other characters that you are learning, is there’s a sort of general kind of youth speak twang in what I would say that the way they’re speaking in The Miracle, which is a kind of Londonese, a sort of generalised Londonese that’s kind of shared between all sorts of different cultural groups which, you know, has a sort of general feel to it but isn’t very specific. And that’s why strangely when it was picked up by companies in Manchester and Leeds and Edinburgh, there is a sort of kind of slight street twang to it that lends itself even to those different kinds of rhythms.
But I think it is, Roy is right, whatever you’re using, whether it’s a mixture of where you come from or where you’ve been listening or hanging out or living, there’s a musical feel to it and that’s why you can’t just change things, which I think is something that’s sometimes hard for other people to understand. Because there’s a feel to it even if the, the kind of character to it, I think the character to my dialogue is very different from Roy’s but there’s also kind of overlaps in places as well. So if you pick something out and change it, suddenly the whole thing judders, and you think, well no, that doesn’t sound right.
Heather Neill: And Dennis, yours. You said you deliberately made things difficult, and some of the dialogue is difficult, isn’t it?
Dennis Kelly: Yes.
Heather Neill: Because you have fragmented sentences and overlaps and long speeches.
Dennis Kelly: Yes, yes, I think that’s all, you know, it’s funny because we did an interview and Lin sort of, and in the course of the interview I said, ‘It’s because people don’t ever finish their sentences, do they?’ And then afterwards Lin said, ‘Now I know why your plays are like that, because you don’t, you know,’ and it’s true, you know. I probably don’t, and that’s probably the way I talk. Unlike Roy, I’m not a good listener, I’m more of a talker I think so, you know, I kind of I don’t really, I’m sort of just talking I suppose in the plays. But also there is a kind of a brokenness to it, but I sort of deliberately try to write something quite general as well, you know what I mean, I sort of went a different way and went to something that was quite general. And what was, you know, I don’t quite know why and maybe I just sort of think like that, you know. But what is interesting, I think, is people bring their own accents to a play anyway, you know what I mean? So if you’re going to have a play that’s going to be performed all around the country, you know, you kind of, you know. It was interesting, you’d see people bringing, you know, I saw it in really, I saw it in like this place in Gillingham which is the southeast of London and it was very kind of, the southeast of London, it was very kind of, you know, that kind of a slightly Londony accent. And then I saw it in Peckham and it was kind of, you know, again a very different accent, you know, that you kind of speak when you’re talking about it. And then I saw it in Barnet which is quite sort of, and it was quite middle class, it was just a middle-class accent, you know. And actually you sort of, it kind of works I think in all of those, you know what I mean, because I think people sort of, you know, you bring your own stuff to a play in a way, you know. But also I’d kind of deliberately sort of made it quite general, you know what I mean? But I mean for me it was more about making just, you know, the way that language can… I mean I always like it when you sort of, because we all do this, you sort of, you say a sentence and you don’t actually say the most important word in a sentence, you know, instead you say all this stuff around it and yet the meaning is kind of delivered, you know, and English is brilliant for that I think.
Lin Coghlan: I saw, it’s funny you’re saying that because I saw a production, a Newcastle production with the kids, the really strong Newcastle accent and that’s so rhythmic and musical, and the production with Cottesloe has got quite a London feel to it. And yet it worked really well with the Newcastle accent, I mean really, really well and really enriched it. But there are some times that that doesn’t work quite well. Because I think if you write Irish dialogue which often has kind of odd words in the middle of sentences and then you do that in an accent that has kind of contrasting rhythms, it all comes out as quite kind of broken up and odd and it feels like somebody’s forgotten what they’re saying in the middle of a sentence, which isn’t the sense of it at all. So it’s a funny experiment, I mean I didn’t know how it would work out and I think in this case it’s worked out really well.
Heather Neill: That kind of Londony accent you’re talking about is actually influenced by the way young black people speak, isn’t it, because doesn’t, isn’t there a sort of feeling that that’s what’s really cool, you know, and…
Roy Williams: Well it’s, I mean it’s, I’ve written about, you know, the way that this kind of dialogue, I mean I suppose it is, you could say it is sort of derived from sort of, become a sort of black speak. But I think that in itself comes from a hybrid of Jamaican sort of patois and very kind of American phrases as well, and I think it’s going to be sort of meshed together. And I don’t think you could class it anymore as black street talk anymore, it’s youth street talk.
Heather Neill: Yes, yes.
Roy Williams: And it’s been claimed by the whites, the blacks and the Asian kids, it’s not…
Heather Neill: Oh absolutely, that’s what I mean, it’s become general.
Roy Williams: Yes, and it’s, it’s great. It’s great in one way, slightly trouble in another, because I just think OK, it’s great you’re speaking this way, you’ve all found this dialogue for yourself but, but that still doesn’t mean you should ever, ever limit yourself and still, and it shouldn’t ever stop you from embracing, you know, the way other cultures, the way other people speak as well. You know, embrace that and learn from that as well, don’t just limit yourself and say OK, this is how we speak and that’s it, and think the door’s closed. The door should never be closed.
Heather Neill: No.
Dennis Kelly: It’s interesting, language is really interesting I think as well, because when you speak you actually, sometimes you take, I mean we’re all actors and when you speak you sometimes, you take on a character, you know what I mean? And like I know like, you know, for me, I’m from quite a working-class background, but with very middle-class people I tend to talk a little bit more middle class and I start behaving like that. And then if I get a bit more working class, I suddenly, I’m a bit more, you know, suddenly I’m talking about football. I don’t even like football, suddenly I’m talking, you know what I mean, and it’s sort of, but it’s interesting.
Heather Neill: I think this means you’re a writer, doesn’t it?
Dennis Kelly: Oh yes, maybe it does, maybe it does. I think this means I haven’t got a personality myself but, you know. But it is interesting really because you, you know, it’s interesting what you’re talking about, about limiting as well, because your voice kind of, we adopt the character of how we speak and what we think that character should be. I mean you see, like if you’re in a, I used to work in a, I used to sell things in a gallery and I’d suddenly find myself talking in sales speak and I’d suddenly become a little bit salesy, you know what I mean, and a little bit flash, and I’m just not a flash person, you know. But, you know, you do, you find yourself in jobs actually sort of adopting the character of, and sooner or later you become that person, you know. It’s really interesting, I think, with language.
Heather Neill: Yes. But do you all hear your characters speak, I mean is it, do they speak in their voices before you write them down?
Lin Coghlan: Well in my case I think definitely yes, and I did a rather mad thing on the day of the press night when the company got together. I wrote for the company a little, a short scene of what happened to the characters twenty-five years later and, because people had been asking me oh, you know, what happened to Ron, how did she grow up, and stuff like this. So I thought I’ll just write a short scene where they’re all getting together and I put some of the other, like I put the director in there and what had happened to him and he’d gone on the road with one of the characters in the play and they were buying dodgy cars at auctions. And we had in, some stage management were in there as well. And it was quite interesting because it made me realise, it was probably two years since I’d written the play, I could just sit down and they could speak immediately in a totally different situation. And although it sounds like a cliché with some plays, I think you feel the loss of them, I feel they’re still out there somewhere still living their life and that I could tap back into them at any point and find out what they were doing now. And so I think it has, for me it has got to the point that they do speak and they do have a life that’s independent of the play, and you’re just kind of tuning into them.
Heather Neill: Is that the same for you, Roy, you get that sort of sense of them going on? I mean I’d love to know how Kelle manages with the baby.
Roy Williams: No, no, so would I, so would I. And I don’t know, maybe I might write, I’ve never written a sequel before so who knows, maybe. I think when I’m writing I do hear the characters in my head and they come very much from, when I see people on the street I just kind of thought yes, that’s a Sam, that’s a Kelle, and that’s the image that stays with me as I’m writing.
Heather Neill: That’s another thing of course, where the names come from.
Roy Williams: Yes.
Heather Neill: I mean sort of do they, does the name spring in to your head when the voice does?
Roy Williams: Yes, sometimes. I mean Kelle, in the back story Sam named Kelle from Kelle from Eternal, it was just like sort of a girl group in the mid-90s because I just, that would have been the period when she was born so I named her after that, yes.
Heather Neill: Yes. So even at thirteen she’s got quite a back story.
Ron: Exactly, yes.
Heather Neill: OK. What about you, Dennis, do you hear yours?
Dennis Kelly: Yes, well I think you have to really, I think you have to kind of hear them fairly clearly, don’t you? I mean you kind of, if you don’t hear them clearly you can’t really understand how they talk and, you know. I think what’s really interested though is that they, is when characters take, become independent of you and they sort of have to… I was reading the Harold Pinter’s Nobel, it’s brilliant that Nobel acceptance speech, it’s brilliant. It’s lovely the way he talks about his characters because I mean I’m wildly paraphrasing now, he said go out yourself and get the DVD. But he talks about it and he sort of says, ‘You know, I was writing a play and character A asked of character B, you know, do you know where the scissors are. It was reasonable to assume that character A wanted to scissors and that character B didn’t know where they were.’ You know, it was really nice that he kind of talks about them instantly as if they’re really, you know, and I think that sort of happens. I think it’s also interesting that a play becomes independent of the writer quite quickly, you know, once the play is, once it’s on and once it’s in the hands of the actors it’s not yours anymore. The moment when you’re actually writing it and making it and it’s just yours, there’s no one else, you know, you might get feedback from this humanities or whatever but there are, there’s a lot of it, but once it starts getting, going to actors and directors and stuff and especially with something like Connections when it gets performed by lots of people who you’ve never met. And there’s loads of productions out there you’ve never seen, you’ve never met, you’ve had nothing to do with, and I kind of like that, I sort of get off on that a little bit in a weird way, I don’t know.
Heather Neill: Well all these plays, as you’ve said, were actually written to be performed by young people, so presumably that was in your mind when you were writing them. So now you’re seeing them performed by adults, except in the case of Roy’s where there really are a couple of fourteen-year-olds in there, which is quite shocking to see when you’ve got adults around them, isn’t there?
Roy Williams: Yes, it’s shocking but…
Heather Neill: It’s quite different from when you see all fourteen-year-olds doing it.
Roy Williams: Yes, it’s, I think that strengthens the power of the play, when you see like a young girl who’s the same age as the character and you see her with each scene getting more and more pregnant, you kind of feel, oh god, no, no. A friend of mine saw the show last week and he observed my, he noticed there was a lot of mothers with kids there and at the end of the play a lot of mothers were holding on to their kids or holding their hands and sort of saying, ‘Please tell me that’s not you, you’re not doing what they’re doing.’
Heather Neill: Yes, yes. Do you think that in some ways you might actually prefer to see young people doing? I mean not that you want to say anything against the actors doing them here, but since they’re written for young people, is that the optimum?
Lin Coghlan: It’s, I think… oh it’s very difficult to know the answer to that because also with this company, it’s a unique company because it’s an ensemble company covering all the three plays.
Heather Neill: Yes.
Lin Coghlan: And although there are a couple of actors who are only in one play, most of the actors are in all of the plays in one way or another. And that’s a unique situation too because they are also not quite the right age either for the parts. So again there are, you know, you’ve got twenty-year-olds playing forty-year-olds in my play for instance, so that again is a different situation to casting the play in terms of casting the characters with actors of the right age to play the part. So I think it’s a bit of a mystery, I mean and my feeling about it is that it’s different again each time. You know, if you cast these players with exactly the right age, characters for it, it would be a whole different production and I don’t know quite what that would be like. But I suppose there’s a part of me that is very attached to the idea of seeing young people telling the story themselves. But that might be that that is the genesis of its own, it’s hard to let go of that image and to allow it to go off and be different.
Dennis Kelly: I think that might particularly, with yours particularly because you’ve got older characters and there’s something that happens when you’ve got a young person playing an older, you know, that you sort of, you kind of can’t get in a, when you’ve got an older person, a person of that age playing it. So that’s particularly, sort of might have a resonance there, you know what I mean?
Lin Coghlan: I think that’s right, yes. You can’t avoid the feeling no matter how brilliant the actors are, if you have a twenty-year-old playing a thirteen-year-old you can’t avoid a sort of feeling of the actor commenting on things. And if you have a twenty-year-old playing a forty-year-old, you’ve got a, you’ve just got another layer there.
Heather Neill: Yes.
Lin Coghlan: And that has something in common with when you’ve got young people also playing people who they, you know, aged ones who they are not.
Heather Neill: Yes.
Lin Coghlan: So it’s a bit of a puzzle in terms of the way a project is conceived, but I still think it’s very interesting that that extra layer could, you know, could be intriguing and would be different again if you cast it, you know, with everyone cast to type.
Dennis Kelly: I think as well the other side of that, I mean is that the, you know, these plays also aren’t, well they are for young people to perform but they’re also not written for the Cottesloe to be performed in Cottesloe. They’re written to be, you know, they’re much smaller, they’re halls or, you know, and it’s a big space and actually you do need, it’s a hard space for a young actor to fill. And I mean there are actors in Roy’s plays doing it incredibly, I mean they do it magnificently. But there’s, you know, in Lin’s play you’ve got how many characters, how many actors? You’ve got like sixteen/seventeen actors, you know. So I mean personally I felt kind of, I was glad that they were a little bit older, you know what I mean? I mean I’d seen it being performed with younger actors and they were brilliant, you know what I mean, and they were absolutely great, but knowing it’s going to be in the Cottesloe and knowing it’s going to be under that kind of, you know, and knowing that we had to find fourteen actors of that age range, I kind of thought to age them up a little bit wasn’t such a bad thing, you know. And also it’s different for each play. Like, you know, with Roy’s play there is something, I mean you think you need to see a fourteen-year-old girl pregnant…
Heather Neill: Yes.
Dennis Kelly: You really need to see that. Whereas in my play it’s a less, my play is kind of not…
Heather Neill: They could be fourteen or sixteen and it wouldn’t matter too much, yes.
Dennis Kelly: Yes, they could have been twelve, you know what I mean, well they could have been eighteen equally, you know, so it kind of doesn’t really matter too much. And also that, you know, it’s kind of, the world of it is a little bit odd anyway so you sort of, you know, you kind of don’t mind it so much.
Heather Neill: Well great, thank you very much. If another commission came along from Connections I get the impression you wouldn’t mind. Is that the case, you’ve enjoyed the experience enough?
Lin Coghlan: No, it’s been great.
Dennis Kelly: Never again. (Laughs.)
Lin Coghlan: It’s been terrific and really, really positive.
Heather Neill: Yes. Well thank you very much, and I think that it’s great that there are other audiences able to see your plays because that is one thing that does happen, they tend to, if they’re not seen professionally they tend to just get forgotten about perhaps by the mainstream theatre. So I’m going to tell people where they can buy these plays. They are all published by Faber in volumes for each year and they’re available at the National Theatre Bookshop, and if you want to find out about tickets or any information about buying the plays, go to the website which is www.nationaltheatre.org.uk, and the phone number is 020 7452 3000.
Thanks very much to all of you.
Roy Williams: Thank you.
Dennis Kelly: Thank you.