Sunday, 22 July 2012


The empty set waits for actors and words
Non writers are always interested in the process of writing; 'where do you get your ideas from?' is the commonest question asked at book signings and author events. Team writing however elicits curiosity from writers and non-writers alike. Whatever odd and varied perceptions people hold about the nature of writing, nearly all believe it to be a solitary, even lonely process. The following piece was written to answer the many questions I received after heading up a team of writers who produced a script for our local theatre group. The production was a sell-out success.

Sharing a pencil?

How do you condense 750 years of history into a two hour play? How do you make it entertaining and celebratory while not forgetting the hardships and tragedies of many of those years? How can you give a sense of the broad sweep of history, while making characters and incidents particular to the place? Above all, how do you target an enthusiastic but conservative local audience without being patronising or over intellectual?

These were some of the questions we asked ourselves as we went through the team-writing process.

"It'll be the death of Wigton, you mark my words"
The Throstle's Nest was performed by Wigton Theatre Club at The John Peel Theatre in Wigton on the 7th, 8th and 9th of June this year. I am still surprised and humbled that between us we managed to produce a play which packed the small theatre three nights in a row, and received nothing but positive comments and thunderous applause from the audience.

Normally the writing process starts with a little inspiration, then generally speaking, we write what we want to write- and go where our passions and interests take us often following where our characters lead us. Despite the need to revise and re-write it seems to be a relatively free and unconstrained process. Often we are then left with a play which has fulfilled our ambitions and satisfied the brief that we set out for ourselves but we have to find actors to act and an audience to watch it. This is often dispiriting.

This was different. This was the other way round- Although we didn't realise it at the outset, we were writing an exactly targeted piece within tight parameters; Our writer's journey was learning and defining those parameters and targets. I now believe that the success of the Throstle's Nest was mainly due to tightly targeted writing, writing which told a coherent story despite a cast who in some cases were totally inexperienced.

Liz Bell, Martin Chambers, Connie Jensen, Heather Larkin-Jones, Julia Newsome and Rick Thomas- all members of North Cumbria Scriptwriters- met initially for some brainstorming sessions to consider the overall form of the play. After our first session, we went away to research the history. The amount of detail available in books and online for the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was as expected, overwhelming; while the information about ordinary folks' doings from the early years was scant.

Achieving a balance between national and local history as well as between early and later years was an additional challenge. We also had to include the current concerns of the townsfolk, and link them to those of its past.

We decided on an episodic structure: a series of cameos or sketches set in or around the market place, each illustrating a particular period and the external events which would have impinged on Wigton people. An early decision was to have the same characters in every era, expressing similar views, and illustrating recurring themes.

"No men, no beasts, no children, no food ... no hope"    
The early stages were both fun and crucial. As well as the problems and pleasures of working with each other, we worked with the actors and director from the outset. When I sent a few early draft scenes to the director, his comments meant that some of our characters had a quick sex change. As with most amateur theatre groups, Wigton's had more female than male members! This suited those early turbulent years on the border- years of warfare between Scots and English when most men were away fighting or dead, and it was left to the women to keep the community going. Meeting with the players also meant that both sides were reassured- they knew they weren't going to get an unworkable script and we were reassured that our ideas would come over when the actors read them and started to bring the words to life.

As well as characters, we wanted themes to run through the play; the major one of these being that change is a constant in our lives, and that it always causes stress, but is eventually assimilated. The way we incorporate new things into our life gives our society a sort of dynamic continuity.

We clearly needed some sort of narration between scenes to help the audience orientate themselves in time. We worked our way through comic monks, and members of the cast carrying billboards across the stage, to characters traditional to Wigton- the Lamp and the Pump. These evolved into a pair of old gossips, who would be on stage all the time, commenting as well as narrating. As is often the case with any project we ended up with the simplest possible solution: a rhyming couplet at the start of each section, ending in the year.

Of course, discussion, argument and brainstorming are enjoyable and creative, but then words have to be hammered out and midnight oil has to be burnt in lonely garrets.  Meetings were to decide general structure and trends, and to allocate writers to scenes and sections. Emails flew back and forth and each time we met, we would read scenes, comment and criticise, then go away to write individually again.

Accommodations had to be made and, as with all writing, some favourite bits had to go. The main difference is that in this case someone else told you that such and such a line, scene or precious idea didn't work- and sometimes that was hard. Interestingly, we often ended up writing additions and amendments to each other's scenes, and looking back now, I sometimes find it hard to put a finger on who wrote what.

Individual contributions

"Six acres for a l'all railway!"
Martin is a prolific and witty writer and after our initial discussions went away and produced several scenes from the 18th and 19th centuries, about the impact of new communications- roads and railways- on a conservative community. This is where our main character- Seth, emerged. In Martin's mind, and then for the rest of us, Seth became the character who represented Wigton- a bit grumpy, and very resistant to change, but good hearted. Seth grumbles a lot, but then gets on with his life, eventually accepting change and incorporating it into the fabric of his life. This character helped the rest of us build our own stories. I wanted Seth's stoicism to be reflected in other equally representative characters; and so the three market women were born. In the early scenes these characters were archetypes. Their roles in different situations and times added to our understanding of them so that they became real people for the actors and I hope for the audience.

"It's been in our family for hundreds of years"
Not all of us managed to get to every meeting, and so we all made different contributions. Heather could only manage a few early general meetings but felt that we should have a Romeo and Juliet theme- a pair of lovers who were thwarted by circumstances and families, and who only finally came together in the 21st century. During our discussions it emerged that they would need  a symbol- a ring or piece of jewellery to pledge their love and hand on down through the generations. I believe this was one of Rick's ideas, and it proved to be an important and unifying theme in what would have been a disjointed story otherwise. In folk stories and traditional song the lover always gives his lass a token to remember him by when he goes off to the wars. Our token is a heavy silver brooch, the design loosely based on the penannular (broken circle) Viking brooches found in the Penrith Hoard, but with the addition of a stylised thrush and her eggs to symbolise Wigton.

Julia was to be absent for large chunks of time, so took a discrete chapter of Wigton's history- the Civil War, and wrote our second young lovers' episode. With a Puritan girl from Wigton (which was known as "a nest of Roundheads") falling in love with a wounded Cavalier officer, Julia created our most touching love story.

Liz and Martin visited an old folk's care home in Wigton and basing their characters on some of the people they met, evolved a story of a wartime love affair between a local lad, and the teacher who came with the huge number of evacuees who landed in Wigton in 1939. This could have developed into a full length play in itself, as the characters were more developed than in shorter and earlier sequences. Because the material was more familiar and close to us in time,  we knew this would capture the  audience's imagination. Liz worked particularly hard on these scenes, working closely with Martin whose character Seth was central to them. Gradually though, other characters emerged- Jeannie's brother John, seen as a young lad and as an older, saddened and wounded war veteran, grown up evacuee Michael and his feisty but bitter wife, John's unknown daughter.

I began to see it as my job to balance the alluring and often funny scenes of the second half, with some drama and comedy in the early part of the play, periods which were least familiar to the audience, and about which very little was written. This was in addition to my primary role, which was to liaise with the players, drive the project along and coordinate the scenes into one script with consistent formatting throughout to make it readable.

In the early stages, Rick mainly kept us on course and added ideas such as the brooch theme We had some heated discussions, for example about whether to run the whole play in strict chronological order or to get dramatic and comic effects through playing with time and having anachronistic elements. In this as in other areas, Rick's clear sighted and incisive judgements kept some of our more fanciful ideas in check. As with the linking/narration we fixed on the simplest structure in the interest of helping the audience stay with us over our 750 year trip, and then Rick was able to write parts of the early scenes and our two last ones.

Previously he had written some dialogue for the two old gossips, Lu and Flu (short for Lumen and Flumen- Light and water- from the lamp and pump) and we regretfully abandoned these as they were very funny. Fortunately some of their dialogue was recycled to other characters.

I had thought the job would be done when we handed the script over, and beyond attending the odd rehearsal out of interest that might well have been it. But, having mustered the writers (the whole thing was my idea) and coordinated what turned out to be a lot of effort and hard work, I could not abandon script and players when it looked as if it would be impossible to cast all the parts, despite the fact that the core players of the club loved it. A change of date meant that people who would not have been able to act in it could be involved, but the director would need to be away for that last week. I offered to oversee rehearsals during that last week and that was it- I was then involved to the hilt and spent time and energy trying to recruit actors and source props, making the throstle brooch and even painting scenery, and, as I was at every rehearsal, being consulted by actors about what we meant or could we change this or that wording. Other writers attended rehearsals from time to time- especially Liz, but Rick's visit, along with Liz's,  the week before the dress rehearsal was crucial: he identified a real dramatic weakness in two scenes in the World War Two sequence. Like it or not- they had to be beefed up. Although this caused me huge distress and worry- I felt it was a terrible imposition on the actors concerned to change and add lines at this stage, I acknowledged the weakness of the scenes, as did Liz who had written them after discussion with Martin.

"Life was hard after you'd gone- no lads left to work the land"
There was no time to be lost, so we short-circuited our usual methods: Liz and I met the next morning, and sat with our computers side by side. It was almost as if we were sharing a pencil. We hammered out some changes and added a small amount of extra dialogue, acting the scenes out as we went. Then the same evening, I had to present the actors with a partially new script, and take them through the new dialogue.

"Why did you do it lad- run off without saying anything? Jeannie cried for days"
The guilt I felt at putting them through this was only assuaged by the real improvement. They were amazingly good-natured about it, but it was not what they were used to. In fact the acting became easier for them, as the emotions rang truer, so I suppose this compensated for having to learn some extra lines.

However, we realised that this was our fault as writers- we had worked too quickly, and in a somewhat haphazard way. We should have been more efficient and ruthless with the text, and perhaps we should have asked Rick to do even more thorough read-throughs than he did. When the actors asked me if we could swap the order of the last two scenes, I reluctantly agreed to try it - and this was the night before the first performance! But they were right, and we had been wrong- an illustration of how theatre is so much more than the script, and how, as writers, we can't afford to be too precious about our work. Ultimately it's the actors who deliver our ideas to the audience, and we need to listen to them!

Lessons learned? Probably fewer writers would have been better. Some were more committed to the idea of team- writing than others and there were genuine, though not insurmountable difficulties, which led to inconsistencies. Would I do it again? Oh yes- in fact the club have asked me for a play to celebrate their 60th anniversary next year. I/we have learnt by our mistakes, and I can't wait to get stuck in!
"Fiona lass- if this throstle could sing, she'd have some tales to tell!"