On Writing and Not Writing
I’ve just written a column for Exeunt Magazine. One of the playwrights I mention is Joanna Laurens. Her first play, The Three Birds was on at The Gate in 2000 and won her the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for most promising playwright, the Time Out award for most outstanding new talent and a special commendation from the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.
Her next two plays Five Gold Rings (The Almeida, 2003) and Poor Beck (RSC, 2004) were ripped apart by the critics. Charles Spencer wrote in the Telegraph ‘could she now do us all a favour by taking a prolonged vow of silence’ which is precisely what happened next. Her fourth play, Queen of Hearts is published but un-produced.
I was introduced to Laurens’ writing a couple of years ago during a writing course with David Lane. I immediately loved the way she uses language in The Three Birds and have been curious about her work ever since. I’ve discovered a few connections between us. We both started out as trained musicians. We’ve both been mentored/supported by playwright Colin Teevan. And we both play with language and form and find it hard to write to order.
After a lot of searching and wrong turns, I eventually found contact details and I thought I’d publish a section of our correspondence here, in case there are others who want to know what happened next.
You stayed in bed.
A mirror by the window
brought the outside in:
A refracted, fractured olive tree.
A single shoe left on cobbles.
A child’s music box;
in reflection, smashed.
The street in pieces on the floor.
And what did I say? What did I say, do you remember?
FATHER continues counting. (Joanna Laurens Queen of Hearts)
JL: It is hard to say anything about this subject, from the position I am now in. Anything I might say runs the risk of sounding embittered; resentful; hard-done-by. I’m not saying that I won’t speak out, just that it is hard to speak out in a way that people will hear…
The critical reception to my second play (Five Gold Rings) killed my career – ten years ago, when I was 25 – after my first play had won many awards, had been translated into many languages and had been produced in many countries. I’d already signed a contract with the RSC for the third play (Poor Beck), before Five Gold Rings opened – so that didn’t happen after Five Gold Rings: After Five Gold Rings, no one wanted to produce anything I wrote.
After Poor Beck, I went on to write two more plays – The Postman and The Queen of Hearts. We sent these out to many theatres. Sometimes, someone wanted to produce them – or co-produce them – but then, when it came to move forwards on it, some other person stopped it all – almost always because they didn’t believe the language would work, or because they thought the language made the play a ‘risky’ financial venture.
From the perspective of ten years on, I do think that Five Gold Rings was flawed. The plot was problematic and far too complicated. Not all the language worked. Some of it was naive. I also think: Like it or loathe it, it was not like anything else. I was stamped right through it and fully invested in the writing. I took a risk. I did something different. I learnt a lot. I wish I could have had a chance to use what I learnt – because it made me a better writer – but no one would give me that chance. I also think that Michael Attenborough was brave to produce it, and that it was a small miracle for it to be on a stage with the profile of the Almeida.
I am angry about the vicious quality of many of the reviews, which were decimating for a young writer. They mocked the language, belittled, and shamed me, publicly. Some of the reviews were bordering on slander. At the time, I read them alongside the reviews for The Three Birds and it was hard to believe they could be referring to the same writer. I mean, how can I be [quoting a selection of reviews] an ‘audacious, rigorous, talent’; a ‘distinctive new voice’; a ‘writer to treasure’; ‘an extraordinary voice that deserves nurture’; someone who writes with ‘murderous beauty’; with ‘depth and maturity’, in ‘an extraordinary new language’ – AND ALSO be a writer who produces ‘freshly squeezed bullshit’; a ‘piss poor’ writer, ‘immature’ – who produces work the same standard as ‘a bright sixth former’ – someone who should now do them all a favour and take a ‘prolonged vow of silence’…and so on?? I was only 25.
I struggled to integrate all of that and to make any sense of it. Everyone gets bad reviews – but there is a bad review, and then there is a review whose agenda is your annihilation. The latter is not common, not from multiple critics at once. (According to Damian Lewis, Helen McRory said it was the worst reviewed production she had ever been in.)
I was unprepared for it, especially after the raves for The Three Birds. I read the reviews standing in the newsagents at Gatwick, waiting for a flight. I was so ashamed, I buried my face in the paper to hide from other shoppers. In the coming weeks, I had several other writers contact me to express concern and support. But it was very hard for anyone to say anything to me which I didn’t experience as evidence of the publicity of my humiliation: If unknown people from across the UK were writing to me, everyone in the world of theatre had read these reviews. It felt like a public shaming – I was in the stocks, for the whole world to see.
I tell this in such detail because, if I had written a play using naturalistic language that had not been a success, I can’t imagine that the response would have been so extreme. And this is part of the story which doesn’t often get heard: We see the plays, we read the reviews – but then what? And what is the role of a critic? Can we say that they should have a duty of care? Do they play a part in shaping the direction in which theatre goes? Do they exercise their power responsibly? I am glad to hear that Helen thinks it is the worst-reviewed production she has been in – because it helps me to know that this was not me, distorting the reviews and experiencing them as harsher than they were. They really were that harsh.
I didn’t read the play for a long time after. I took on the perspective of the critics towards it. There were many of them – how could they all be wrong? I was ashamed to have written it, this awful, embarrassing and immature thing. Even worse: Not only had I written it, but I had then displayed it for approval, believing it to be good.
Then, after a few years, I picked the play up and dared to read it again. And, yes, some of it was naive and didn’t work. But, I made allowances for that – because I’d been so young and just been trying things out. The writing surprised me; I surprised myself. I thought it was interesting, curious and often beautiful. I thought ‘who wrote this?’ for a split second – before I realised that I had.
Strangely, this whole experience happened ‘in miniature’, when I wrote The Three Birds: I wrote it whilst I was a student at university. I brought it along to the (fantastic) Queen’s Writers’ Group which I was a member of at the time. Luckily the group was run by a playwright – Daragh Carville – and he suggested I do a reading of it, so we could hear it. So: I got together some actor friends and rehearsed a reading – as best I could.
But not everyone I wanted to invite could make it to the reading – some people I looked up to, and whose opinions I respected, couldn’t make it. So we decided to do two readings – one a small, private reading for these few people who couldn’t make the ‘real’ one. This private reading was first.
One of the people I’d invited said it was ‘too wordy’ and I got my first experience of that ‘pretentious’ ‘affected’ ‘conceited’ response which I was to encounter again – although, being kind, they didn’t use those words. I came close to cancelling the remaining reading and giving up on it. It was only because the actors had spent so long rehearsing it, and it seemed unfair to cancel at the last minute, that I went ahead. That audience responded very differently to the play. It reached them. And that was the reading where Colin [Teevan] saw it, and passed it onto Mick Gordon, at the Gate.
So, you know, perhaps I should have foreseen these extreme responses… they have been there from the start.
HS: It’s astonishing that with the success of The Three Birds the critical reaction to Five Gold Rings was enough to stop theatres commissioning you.
JL: Many critics sent to review The Three Birds were not the ‘number one’ critics of the various papers, but were probably ‘number two’ critics: I was an unknown playwright, the Gate does not have the same status as the Almeida, we did not have any stars in the cast… And I seem to remember there was another press night on that evening, where the top critics would have been. Whereas the Almeida was a much higher profile, with the all-star cast – and so the top critics were sent. They then had no experience of The Three Birds, or where I’d come from, as a writer, and were just viewing Five Gold Rings cold – with no sense of the evolution between the plays.
From my perspective, I’d ‘done’ Three Birds (Greek myth) and I’d intentionally taken a risk and done something more strange, what with the setting of Five Gold Rings being something much more naturalistic and closer to today – to offset the non-naturalistic language further.
It was a bigger ‘ask’ for an audience to swallow, and I don’t think I would have dared to make that ‘ask’, if it hadn’t been off the back of The Three Birds – you kind of bring an audience along with you. At the time, I made the mistake of assuming the critics at least would be vaguely familiar with The Three Birds, and would know where I’d come from – but it turned out afterwards that they weren’t.
I also think that unfortunately everything became about the language and that somehow gets in the way of seeing the plays in and for themselves. This took me by surprise, since, to me, the language was just part of what made the play – it wasn’t the focus. To remain so acutely aware of language itself, is to stand in the way of what it carries, so you can’t be reached.
Even here, we are talking about non-naturalistic language as a thing, in itself. For me, I just write plays. The language they use is part of ‘who’ they are; the flavour of the piece. I don’t intentionally or deliberately try to write something in non-naturalistic language. I wish this aspect had not become such a defining feature – overshadowing everything else. Just like any other aspect of a play, the language has to work to serve the whole.
HS: What happened with Poor Beck? Did it have a shorter run purely on the basis of the criticisms of Five Gold Rings?
JL: At the time, recovering from Five Gold Rings, I was grateful for being overlooked. I don’t think I could have dealt with public character assassination twice in as many years. After Five Gold Rings, I just wanted to crawl away into a dark hole and for everyone to forget about me. Which is close to what happened. I didn’t tell anyone I knew that Poor Beck was being produced; I didn’t want them to come and see it. I didn’t want to go through the shame of Five Gold Rings all over again.
The story of Poor Beck’s production is that it was originally supposed to have a full run, for a full season, at the RSC in Stratford – as new plays did. Then the RSC created a ‘new writing festival’, which meant that instead of being the only new play on at the time, it would be one of many – all the other venues in Stratford would also be running new writing. Then, a few months later, it emerged that the run would only be for a week and at 2pm/3pm in the afternoon. (I think there might have been a couple of evening performances, but most of them were afternoon.) So it kind of got whittled down from this full scale production for an entire season, to a week of being at 2pm.
Of course I was disappointed, especially on the back of Five Gold Rings. When I protested, I was told that I could pull it. But, after Five Gold Rings, I didn’t think anywhere else would want to produce it – so I didn’t really have a choice. It did later transfer to the Soho in London and ran in an evening slot, but by then I’d just emotionally walked away, the goal posts had been moved so many times.
I don’t believe any of this whittling down was due to the response to Five Gold Rings, it was just circumstance. However, I got pretty cynical about the whole business side of writing and I would not trust anyone I could perceive as having any industry-related agenda. I would meet with them and of course be polite to them, but I would watch them very closely.
Being creative involves taking risks. And not all risks work. You can’t know if something will be successful before it is produced. You need to feel safe, to take risks – both the writer and the theatre/producer – and when the funding of a theatre is jeopardised, that undermines that needed basis of safety for the theatre.
Any new play is risky, but there is a widespread belief that something in non-naturalistic language is even more risky, in the Riskiness Stakes. Is it?
HS: Did you ever look into other ways of getting your work performed?
JL: No, I’m not sure why. I think perhaps because I hadn’t struggled starting out, I just had no idea how to do all that. I had no idea who to approach for funding, why anyone would want to give me money for free, who would want to be involved in producing anything I wrote (or why), how it all worked and so on. Everything had fallen into my lap with The Three Birds and I didn’t even know the difference between a director and a producer at the time, so understanding the vagaries of funding was far beyond me. I don’t come from a theatrical background and I hadn’t grown up being involved in amateur theatre. It was just all so foreign to me.
HS: It’s interesting, because in the world I make my work in – with funding, without big audiences….my work doesn’t make anyone any money. Hopefully everyone gets paid, but it’s really not a commercial model.
Another thing I’m doing is writing librettos – with contemporary opera, there is much more space for playing with language and writing non-naturalistically. Is this something you considered?
JL: I would have been very interested in this, yes. Given the way I write, many people suggested writing librettos. However, I wasn’t asked and I had no idea who to approach or with what to approach them. After Five Gold Rings and Poor Beck, and the critical responses to them, coupled with being unable to get the next 2 plays produced, I didn’t have enough optimism to keep trying in the face of so much rejection. I just concluded that there was no market for what I did.
HS: It is genuinely upsetting to read this. I think it’s a fear that many writers/artists have – that if it doesn’t work out, at some point we’ll have to make a decision to try and do something else…
JL: I don’t think that writing hasn’t worked out, so much as it’s very quiet at the moment. I would turn back to it, given the right circumstances. But I am also happy not to turn back to it, if that’s how things pan out.
HS: There are other ways of writing outside of the new writing theatres, for instance I’ve just written a play with Colin Teevan for Radio 3, and I’ve been commissioned to write a play by a girls’ school. Surely with the success of Three Birds there would have been opportunities you could apply for?
JL: Well, in my eyes, writing a play is really tough. It is a slog and it is hard work to nail something of yourself to the page – to invest yourself in a piece of writing. It hurts, to write. And the payoff, for me to do that, needs to be some sort of acknowledgement and to know that enough people are going to hear what I write. I did write a piece for The Verb on Radio 3, a very experimental piece which was a hybrid between music and language. (It was called ‘Exodus’.) And it aired. And that was that. No whisper of it in the press. No one I knew even heard it. I’m sure they have gazillions of listeners, but if I don’t know any of them and if I can’t be alongside them to experience their listening to it – if there can be no personal contact – and if there is then no repercussion or public acknowledgement or (dare I say it) review, then it is as if it never happened. And all that slog feels like it was for nothing. (Since the money is nothing in radio, too – as for writing for the stage – it’s definitely not for that!).
Plus, as I’m sure you know, you have to put something forward to be commissioned for radio. Which means submitting plans and ideas and concepts and all of that. And I can’t do it. I’m really crap at that kind of thing. I can’t sit down with a detailed, sale-able plan before I begin to write. And if I try to do that, what I write will be dead. It will be dead because (for some reason) I won’t be invested in it, at the moment of writing. I’ll be too busy following a pre-decided plan – someone else’s agenda has impinged on what I’m making, too early in the process. I’ve failed to complete commissions, in the past, because I’ve known that what I’m writing is dead and, after repeated attempts to make it come alive, I’ve given up.
The other alternative is to ignore what I’m asked for and to write the play I have inside, anyway. That doesn’t usually please the commissioning theatre, though: My last commission was to write a play with a strong female cast – strong in terms of numbers and in terms of presence – and a ‘big’ play with a large cast, happening on an epic scale. God knows why I accepted this commission, but when you’re a struggling writer and this is what you’re offered… Anyway, I wrote a play with one female character and four men – and a small chorus – of more men. All the action takes place in only a couple of locations. No sense of anything ‘epic’ (however you define that).
I can’t make myself write something my heart isn’t in – I know it won’t be emotionally true, that I won’t be invested in it, that I will be ‘going through the motions’ and that this will show in the result.
Some writers manage to survive and thrive and write-as-a-business. I think you know if you can write-as-a-business or not.
HS: How much of a struggle was it to stop writing?
JL: It was difficult in that I continued to struggle along for far too long, hoping that it would all come together again at some point. After the success of The Three Birds, it was even harder to stop trying than it would have been without any success at all. But when I finally turned elsewhere, it was strangely liberating.
HS: I tend to think, if you’re a writer, you have to write, there’s no choice, and if there is a choice, if there’s something else you can do, then go do it.
JL: Yes – in some ways. When I write, from the right(!) and passionate place, then I am driven: It has to be done and it gives me great pleasure to see the result. Sometimes it feels as if something is writing through me, as if it’s not even me who is doing it or responsible for it. (And so, I shouldn’t be praised or blamed for it.) It can come very quickly and very fast and easily. Things come together and feel right –without me even knowing consciously why they are right. (I might realise it, looking back afterwards. But if I tried to work from this conscious point, I would only make something dead and overly thought-out.) Yes, this is the sort of writing which I have no choice about and I will actually want to stay up all night, producing.
However, that sort of writing doesn’t happen on tap. It is not there when I reach for it, always, on any subject someone gives me to write about. Sometimes I may just have nothing to say. Yet writers have deadlines and they have to produce work….
It is said that you need discipline to be a writer – you need to be able to write, despite not feeling like it. I can’t do that. This is not self-indulgence or some sort of Romantic notion of waiting for inspiration to strike: Will, intent or effort, on my part, make no difference. And I’d rather write nothing than dead writing.
The truth really is that I try to be faithful to the way that part of me feels – the part which wants to make something, the part which gets inspired and wants to put something inside me, outside. I think it is most similar to a child, playing. Try to make a child play, when they don’t want to. Even if they want to please you, and they try really hard, the play will be clunky and self-conscious and artificial. This is what happens if I try to make myself write for the purposes of earning money or meeting the deadline for a commission – I will write crap. It is not laziness on my part, I have no control over it. When a child really is playing, they lose track of time, are fully absorbed in what they are doing – which is putting elements of their inner world, outside themselves. And the child isn’t in control of when they want to play.
HS: Did you ever try writing differently? Did you ever attempt a ‘naturalistic’ play? – Just curious, I’ve tried it, got bored and gave up….
JL: Yes, me too. There was a point when I decided it would be great if I could write a couple of TV episodes a year, and that would pay the bills and then I’d have the money to write what I really wanted to write. However, for the reason mentioned above – I can’t make myself get invested, at will – I couldn’t.
HS: …People sometimes tell me – just write what they want, just write them something naturalistic.
JL: If you can, kudos to you. I don’t think everyone can do this, though. And I think you know very fast if you can. And, even if you can, you may not want to – you may want to earn your living some other way and only write when you have something to say.
I used to believe that I couldn’t be a writer unless I could write to order, get invested at will, and so on – I don’t think that anymore. I accept it is a process I’m not in control of. Like fish stocks, for fisherman. Sometimes you cast your net down, and nothing comes up. Sometimes you look inside yourself, and it’s dead in there. I accept that.
He continues counting.
When I go to sleep
I know that I’ll not know
if you are still counting in the dark:
Weighing each number. Designating its emphasis.
Like the women in the market weigh oranges
to price them.
When I go to sleep
I know that I’ll not know if
one, one. One, one. Has faded to
Or when you’ll talk with me again.
(Joanna Laurens The Queen of Hearts)