Unscripted Success

Declan Feenan profiles Lisa McGee, fast-rising star of Ulster writing

Over the last few years Lisa McGee has gently become one of Northern Ireland's most talked about up-and-coming Northern Irish writers. And this year has been her busiest yet.

Having signed to London's The Agency (who represent such writers as Brian Friel and Owen McCafferty) she has written television scripts for Channel 4's Totally Frank, has had work read in the National Theatre, has adapted her stage-play Jump! for film as well as being Tinderbox's writer in attachment in 2005/6. Oh, and she's also part of The 50, a programme for writers in conjunction with the Royal Court Theatre and the BBC.

With this then you'd expect her to be rushed off her feet. But when I meet her in a pub in Waterloo Street in her native Derry, she's incredibly relaxed. So, is she really THAT busy?

'This year I've really just been trying to find my feet I suppose. It's weird to think that this is what I do now, that this is how Im going to earn a living'.

In a competitive industry, opportunities dont come easy. 'With writing it's very difficult to get a break but when you get one, lots of offers come your way - it can be really tempting to say yes to everything.

'Its only recently I've been clear enough about what exactly I want to do, how I want to work and what I want to say. I'm able to judge now which projects will be right for me and which will ultimately frustrate me.'

Its difficult to see McGee frustrated, but she is human after all. 'In the last twelve months I've spent a considerable amount of time worrying, wondering "Is that good enough?" or "Am I writing fast enough?" But I've calmed down now a bit and Im just trying to find my own pace and routine.'

McGee's first stop was pub-theatre. While at Queen's University studying Drama, her play How To Get To Heaven From Belfast saw a student production upstairs in The Parlour Bar. After graduating there was JUMP! (Sneaky Productions) a tiny production funded on a shoestring and the surprise hit of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in 2003.

She inevitably began turning theatre-heads. At the moment she's still creatively connected to Sneaky Productions and is helping spearhead Northern Ireland's first Playwrights Network.

But with all this theatre experience, surely TV writing is the lesser art? 'I now have so much respect for writers who work in the medium of television drama - I think it's an extremely difficult discipline. Totally Frank was team-written so it was the first time I'd sat down in a room with other writers, with script editors and producers, and story-lined a series. It was great to feed off other people's ideas and watch them grow and develop.'

McGee isn't a one trick pony and it shows when names such as Jimmy McGovern, Russell T Davis and Paul Abbot are as important to McGee as Friel, McGuinness and McCafferty.

'Some of my biggest heroes write for TV. The drama they create is inspiring and brave. Some episodes of Cracker stick in my memory as my favourite TV pieces because they challenged and pushed boundaries - yet McGovern managed to make it entertaining enough to be a huge commercial success'.

So whats the real difference between theatre and TV? 'I certainly think in theatre you have more control over your script complete control in fact. In television Im not sure if thats possible. As well as that, TV seems to consume plot lines at an alarming rate. For example, whether or not a character will have an affair could drive an entire theatre piece. In television, however, something like this could only drive one strand of a series.'

Although hailing from Derry, McGee lives in Belfast but spends a lot of her time working in London. All this travelling is bound to up the stress levels, but for the moment McGee is happy enough. 'I have this irrational fear that if I left Ireland I would have nothing to write about - my circle of friends here provide me with lots of material!'

It was daunting at the beginning though. Knowing nobody, McGee regularly walked alone into rooms full of BAFTA-winning producers and directors. But now, a year later, things are different. 'I know who I'm going over to work with so I can just concentrate on coming up with some good ideas.'

Interestingly though, McGee manages to keep work as an employee and work as an artist separate. 'I never write in London. I'll go over and thrash out possibilities with my script editor. We chat about character, plot, episode stories and so on but whenever I write a script or a treatment, I do it at home.'

McGee is currently developing a new TV series and takes up a residency at the National Theatre Studio later in the year. Her foot is in the door and the work is coming in. But as we put on our coats and bounce onto Waterloo Street one drink too many, I go for something deeper. I want to know what inspires her to write, where does the spark light? 'People are always the source material,' she says. 'I could listen to anyone talk about themselves and their experiences. I never get bored. Put it this way. Everyone I meet has an interesting story. To tell you the truth, I've never met a boring person.'