RISING STAR: Susan Jones
A product of the Write on the Edge theatre course, the 21-year old writer on audience feedback, her frustration with Troubles plays and the benefits of many hot baths
When did you know that you wanted to write for the stage?
You could call me a late developer. As a child I started, but never finished, countless novels, most of which cheerfully plagiarised the works of Enid Blyton. I always saw myself as a writer of prose. I didn’t go to the theatre very often – just the token middle-class child’s yearly dose of Shakespeare - and I never read anything but novels. So I suppose I was a fairly unlikely candidate for a playwright.
How did you get involved in the Write on the Edge project?
I had stopped writing fiction in my early teens. I think I felt that I had grown out of it. When I started university I had a go at writing short stories, all of which were unspeakably awful. I began to feel as though I couldn’t write any more and, not being one to accept my own shortcomings gracefully, I decided to do something about it. I had seen a flyer in Clement's coffee shop advertising the first Write on the Edge workshop and I decided to go along. At the outset I didn’t fully appreciate that these workshops were focused specifically on writing for the stage. By the end of the day, however, I was left in no doubt that this was the genre for me.
How did working with industry professionals help you to develop as a writer?
I learned where I’d been going wrong – by believing that to write you just need to sit down, look abstracted and wait for the Muse to descend. Yes, to be successful a writer must have his or her own distinctive voice, but it doesn’t end there. Writing is a craft, and I had to learn how to shape and mould my story into a piece of theatre. Of course every practitioner has their own views as to the best way of working, and that’s what makes theatre so varied and exciting. Although I’ve learned a lot over the course of the project, I still go to every workshop I can because I always learn something more: a new exercise for unlocking a character, say, or even just a different way of looking at something.
Quite apart from the standard of the workshops themselves, which are consistently superlative, the calibre of some of the facilitators I’ve been privileged enough to work with has been extraordinary – Tessa Walker of Paines Plough and Nina Steiger of the Soho Theatre, to name two – and that’s incredibly inspiring. In addition to these more general peripatetic workshops with outside practitioners, the project’s development director, Rachel O’Riordan, holds monthly meetings - in her own time - in which a core group of women meet to discuss the plays we’re working on. Having someone of Rachel’s experience and ability on hand to provide feedback is a massive privilege and this regular contact has helped me approach my writing in a more structured and focused way.
You produced a work, Transition, as part of the project. What is the play about?
At a micro level, as the title suggests, Transition is about four people whose lives are in the process of deep, permanent and difficult change: a young woman from London determined to create a new life; another who has struggled to make the leap from Jordanstown to Belfast; two parents learning to see themselves as husband and wife again. However, the play is not only about personal growth, but also a city in a state of social and political upheaval. Belfast is really the fifth character of the play; the other characters have to realise what a 'new Belfast' means to them, and what their role is within it. Essentially, Transition is four coming-of-age stories juxtaposed against the coming-of-age of Belfast.
Transition debuted as part of the 2009 Pick 'n' Mix Mini Festival at the Old Museum Arts Centre. What was the response like?
Pick 'n' Mix was fantastic. The atmosphere was brilliant. As part of a festival, audience turnout was probably higher than it would have been for a one-off reading, which was both enormously exciting and absolutely terrifying. The audience was very generous in their response, which I think probably derived from the nature of the festival as avowedly devoted to work in progress. It was lovely to be approached by people afterwards, all of whom were very free with their feedback – positive and otherwise!
What did you learn from seeing your work produced professionally?
I was delighted to have Transition chosen for a rehearsed reading, especially because George Perrin agreed to direct it. I got so much out of his workshop in October and this Easter I was lucky enough to travel to London and develop Transition further with him by means of workshops with actors.
The prospect of being produced really upped my game; if a company like Ransom was willing to put on my work, I was going to give of my absolute best – despite sitting my university finals three weeks before the performance. Despite this bravado, I was very nervous at the beginning of rehearsals. There are few things guaranteed to make you feel amateurish like watching an acclaimed director and four brilliant actors dissecting your play.
It was an incredible experience, however. In three days the actors developed an astonishing depth of insight into the characters – at times, they understood the play better than I did. Sitting in the audience watching the play was also an education: I saw that parts of the play which worked - to an extent - on paper didn’t work onstage. Overall, the week raised myriad issues to consider and develop as I redraft.
Is Northern Ireland a responsive environment for young theatre writing talent?
At the moment, I have to say no. I’m well aware that I have been extremely fortunate in being produced at this stage, and it’s entirely due to Write on the Edge, which seeks to promote female, rather than young, writers. I think it’s very telling that Northern Irish writers like Lucy Caldwell, Stacey Gregg and Declan Feenan work almost exclusively in London. I believe that that derives from a certain lack of imagination which characterises much of Northern Irish theatre: whilst it might be safer to commission established writers and revive old successes, it isn’t particularly interesting.
For instance, I’m very tired of the regurgitation of (to use Daragh Carville’s rather brilliant phrase) ‘balaclava drama’. Whilst there are gems amongst the Troubles plays, most have little resonance with someone born in the relative tranquility of Carrickfergus in 1987. My frustration with that kind of theatre inspired Transition.
Having said all that, things are looking up. I think we’re more than ready for something fresh. The next few years will be a very exciting period for Northern Irish theatre when the new Lyric and the MAC open. I’m confident that the improved resources will make braver artistic decisions possible, and that’s a window of opportunity for young playwrights to seize.
What piece of advice has helped you most?
Rachel once told a group of Write on the Edge women that if we wanted other people to take us seriously as playwrights, we had to begin by taking ourselves seriously. On a personal level, this is a bit of a counsel of perfection – I have a horror of appearing pseudy and I don’t feel comfortable discussing what I do with many of my friends.
Professionally, however, I do my best to immerse myself in the UK stage industry. I see as much theatre as I can; I read all the new plays I can get my hands on; I try and keep up to date on who’s doing what where. Hobbyists don’t get professional productions (another Rachel dictum!); if I want to make a career out of writing, I have to put this work in. Fairly painless work for an avowed theatre geek, it must be said.
Are you working on new material?
Transition is only on its second draft. On George’s advice, I’m taking a break from doing any actual writing. This is because I feel that the most recent draft was rushed; I tend to measure my productivity by quantity, rather than quality, and consequently some aspects of the play aren’t sufficiently well thought through. So at the moment, I’m doing a lot of thinking in order to try and get to know my characters better. This is an arduous task, involving a lot of long walks, many hot baths and drinking copious amounts of wine. In all seriousness, however, I’m finding all this reflection difficult because it doesn’t come naturally: I’m very much looking forward to the day when I feel ready to start writing again.
Click here for more information on Ransom Theatre Company's Write on the Edge programme.