Write on the Edge

Last writes for Ransom’s groundbreaking theatre programme

In the past three years, hundreds of ‘ordinary’ women across Northern Ireland have felt compelled to pick up a pen and write. And not (as idly occupies many of my more family-friendly daydreams) in order to draft en masse letters of complaint about how hilariously rubbish and unrepresentative Loose Women is. Rather, these women from all walks of life have been empowered and inspired to discover their theatrical voice through a new writing enterprise set up by Ransom Theatre Company.

The 'why did nobody think of it before' simple brilliance of the Write on the Edge programme resided in the singular fact that it asked women of all backgrounds and experiences a question: Do you have a story to tell? Turns out many of them did – all they needed was a little old-fashioned encouragement.

As a result of workshops across six counties, writers of varying abilities and inclinations came out of the woodwork, emboldened by the opportunity to gain first-hand support and expertise from a variety of industry professionals.

Last week’s swan song event at the Brian Friel Theatre - Over and Out… - saw one of the most innovative, inclusive (the exclusion of XY chromosomes notwithstanding) and downright pro-active writing programmes in Northern Ireland come to a natural, if unwelcome, conclusion.

The day consisted of heavyweight readings of three of the strongest pieces of writing to emerge from the programme – The Funeral’s Off! by Doreen McBride, Kitty Gulliver by Maggie Cronin and Visitation by Kristen Kernaghan. Actors involved included the estimable likes of Richard Dormer, David Ireland and Abigail McGibbon, with talented direction from such luminaries as James Grieve (more of whom in a moment) and the up and coming Patsy Hughes.

The talent on display was proof positive of the considerable goodwill and influence that a company such as Ransom can call on in the service of such a genuinely laudable social enterprise. It was particularly fitting to have James Grieve of Paines Plough as a special guest director and speaker for the last hurrah.

Paines Plough, for those unfamiliar, are the internationally-acclaimed, avowedly itinerant, and fiercely forward-looking theatre company who nurture, develop and produce new writing wherever it happens to spring from in the UK. Writing and writers are at the very forefront of the Paines Plough initiative, as Grieve explained to just such an audience during the day’s pivotal creative session.

Hugely enlightening, Grieve was clearly delighted to see a healthily diverse turn-out of Write on the Edge beneficiaries. He stressed the importance to aspirant and new writers of developing a DIY approach, 'an entrepreneurial attitude' to staging their plays.

'The big question for new writers is how do you get your play on? It’s really important to stage it in whatever way you can. Rather than waiting for someone to come along with funding or finance, beg steal, borrow, pull in favours or just ask people nicely for help. Grab a space in a pub and play to 30 people. That’s a brilliant start.'

On the subject of the recent rise of that old theatrical shibboleth 'The Dramaturge', Grieve was playfully scabrous.

As a prevailing (and growing) trend in modern theatre, the dramaturge does indeed occupy a shadowy middle-man role between writer and director and, according to Grieve can often leave a script in one of the lower levels of 'development hell'.

'I’ve seen what they do and I’m very aware of them but, I’m still not entirely sure what a dramaturge is exactly! I wouldn’t work with one myself – I value too highly the relationship I have with the writer.'

He added: 'I see writing a play and then having it reduced to constantly revised readings rather than staging it like a footballer who trains all week but never gets to play on Saturday afternoon.'

The Paines Plough artistic director returned again and again to the primacy of writing in the theatre and encouraged people to submit their scripts.

Both Grieve and Rachel O’Riordan agreed that what makes a script stand out is its 'line by line' quality and 'whether or not I’ve checked my watch once during the first 11 or so pages'. The point wasn’t lost on the audience.

Write on the Edge may be over, but in its wake it leaves a legacy, not of words or statistics, but of people, many of whom otherwise wouldn’t even have thought about writing let alone putting a play on. The good news for new writers of all genders is that while it may be ‘last writes’ for this particular pioneering initiative, Ransom will return with a new wider initiative to provide opportunities for emerging and established artists.

The long-term reverberations of cutting edge, socially inclusive writing programmes like this could be culturally significant. If, through planting these small seeds of creative empowerment now, it means somewhere down the line that NI audiences are spared one less meaningless adaptation or redundant reimagining, then job done.

The last word of the day should and did go to James Grieve, with a sterling piece of advice for budding writers everywhere.

'If you really want to be a writer, don’t even think about picking up a pen for six months. Just go out and see as many different kinds of shows as you possibly can in that time. Immerse yourself in dance, musicals, fringe theatre – everything, good, bad or impenetrable. It’s only through that kind of exposure that you start to tease out in your own mind what kind of play you have in mind and what you want to write about. The rest is hard work and brilliant fun, but once you’ve put your play on, that’s amazing.'

For further information on Write on the Edge or the forthcoming Paines Plough/ Ransom production Come to Where I’m From, email Ransom Theatre Company

Joe Nawaz