Blueprint – Some Thoughts (Part One)

In just over a week’s time Blueprint will be performed in what is its finished version. That will be almost three years from when I wrote the first lines of the play and there’s probably quite a lot I, as the writer, could say about the time between those two points. But, given the timescale, possibly the most important thing were the reasons why I wanted to write this play – and why I kept on writing it over this period. Some are sensible reasons and some are verging on the ridiculous. They’re all important.

Some things you should know in order for this to vaguely make sense: Blueprint tells the life story of a character named Kate as filtered by her dying brain. It consists of ‘an intro’, forty-four moments (originally minutes) from her life, and a ‘conclusion’. The moments are not linear, though (in our version) we have set an order.

I wrote Blueprint because…

I was set a challenge:

In 2011 I wasn’t doing much any creative writing (though I was doing a bit of arts journalism); I was mainly producing and project managing and didn’t feel like much of a writer. That Edinburgh Fringe, where I was producing a show, general agitator Christopher Brett Bailey set me a challenge: I was to write a play that August. Obviously, I didn’t actually manage to do that because, hello, producing a show at Edinburgh Fringe (and also: all the vodka). But I came up with concept for Blueprint, and plotted out the first fifty minutes and, in November, once I’d finished producing the Edinburgh show’s London run I started writing Blueprint.

I had an image for a play:

It was of a woman on a stage, surrounded by pieces of paper. I knew these pieces of paper had something to do with her identity, and her keeping hold of them was important. I now think that’s maybe a slightly different play, but the feeling that conjured is really important to Blueprint. In Blueprint each moment (as the minutes became) is both part of the jigsaw of who Kate is and the moment that brings her closer to her death.

I wanted to write in styles I didn’t normally get to write in:

The structure of Blueprint, with its forty-four moments, combined with the idea that the play is the product of Kate’s dying brain automatically gives room for different minutes to be different styles. And, in draft one I had such fun with this, parts of the play reading like my list of people who’ve made things I love. There’s a moment that’s a homage to Bryony Kimmings, one for Alan Bennett, there’s a particularly niche homage to Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, one for Deborah Pearson, one for Ben Moor, one for any performer I’ve ever seen attempt something physically preposterous on stage, a couple which are more ‘spoken word’, and several that are a loving nod to Martin Crimp (but, Attempts on her Life is probably my theatrical bible so in some way I suspect all of Blueprint is a loving nod to Crimp). A good chunk of these exited the play when I realised what I was actually writing about (it took me a mere four drafts, two weeks of workshop development in a theatre and three years to discover this properly). Also, and this bleeds into one of the other reasons (one which I only discovered at the Bike Shed in October), this play is ultimately written by me and not anyone else so it should be written only the way I would write it. But allowing me the freedom to try things on for fit was brilliantly liberating and important for where Blueprint has ended up.

I wanted to write a text that encouraged – indeed demanded – the director and performers play with it:

Blueprint is so-called because it was, right up until the Bike Shed’s print deadline, known by the title ‘As Yet Untitled Blueprint for Performance’. The title has stuck for other reasons (it’s become Kate’s blueprint for her life) but the text itself retains the earlier intention. We’ve chosen particular ways of staging it, but you could make a whole different set of decisions (from how many performers there are, through how lines are assigned, right down to the order of the moments in the play). If Blueprint were to be made available for other people to perform then there’s even some text we haven’t used that would probably go in an appendix, as an optional extra depending on interpretation. It’s incredibly fun – and liberating – as a writer to do this.

I wanted to write a great, complicated, funny, poetic role for a woman:

Because I so rarely see great, complicated, funny, poetic women portrayed on stage in what is termed ‘new writing’. It makes me despair. The last two large scale character pieces I’d contributed words to – Beneath the Albion Sky and Reasons for Listing – gave (I think) two great, complicated, funny, poetic in one case, resolutely not in the other, roles for men. So I wanted to give an even more complicated, unusual role for a woman. Samantha Baines, who came on board having only read the mish-mash first draft, embues Kate with all those things. And, as I love knowing the actor I’m writing for, I wanted to write a character which lived up to all the things that Sam can do.

I wanted to say some stuff about belief:

When I first started writing Blueprint I thought it might be (and don’t snigger here) a performative essay about character and how it’s created, then I realised that was an academic exercise and I’d fallen in love with Kate so I wanted it to be about her and all the things that made her Kate (albeit with the gaps of all the not-knowing we have to do as an audience). The day of the first work-in-progress showing, Andy asked how I was feeling given how much of me was in the play. I batted this away, there were only a few bits of my life in there. Only when I was sat watching the show that evening did I realise what he was actually talking about. Kate and I are very different people but the world view which seeps through the play is one we share. If it made me feel a bit naked, then it’s because Blueprint is me standing next to Kate, working out what I believe alongside her, and then attaching my name to it.

I wanted to learn about lots of things:

The play gave me an excuse to learn about bits of science that I hadn’t looked at since the early part of this century. That multiple people asked me after the work-in-progress showings asked me if I was a Physicist made my year. I’m not by some distance, but I should probably thank my A Level Biology teachers for equiping me with the confidence to think I might be able to understand at least a little bit of scientific thought.

It’s part of the ongoing conversation I’m having with Virginia Woolf:

So, yes, she doesn’t know that we’re having this conversation but that doesn’t make it any less important, because we all have one way conversations all of the time (I remember Carl Barat once being asked if he still had conversations with Pete Doherty and responding “only in the way you do with someone you no longer speak to, only in my head” and I think that sums it up perfectly). I first read Woolf aged 18 and I’ve been talking to her in my writing ever since, though I suspect Blueprint is the loudest conversation I’ve ever had with her. Charlie and I even talked about whether we could get the play’s epigraph (which is from Woolf’s novel The Waves) into the play. We can’t because Kate has never read Woolf so it wouldn’t be in her head. But I have so it’s one of my reasons:

“Life is not susceptible perhaps to the treatment we give it when we try to tell it.”

And in some way I think Blueprint is my trying to find a new treatment for telling it.

Regeneration Blogs: Doing Things That Scare You

A few weeks ago, when I was still bumbling through pages of research for Regeneration, I sent Charlie an email. It had one sentence in it:


There weren’t any more words because, as soon as I wrote that sentence, I had to breathe into a paper bag for a little bit.

(NB: I’ve googled to try and find a good concise definition of ‘state of the nation play’ but it seems everyone expects you to understand the term implicitly. There are longer explorations, should you wish to tread there, here and here.)

It probably shouldn’t have come as as much of a shock as it did. Unlike the other plays I’ve created text for for WBN this one didn’t come out of an initial character idea. It came out of a subject.

Or rather, at first it came out of a process.

Since we saw Architecting in the Barbican Pit back in 2010, Charlie and I have wanted to make a play like the TEAM make a play. We wanted to do a huge research process and have multiple writers and an epic scope and history and literature and music and now, now, now. Only, where the TEAM make theatre about the USA, we wanted it to be about England.

The desire to do this is something we’ve come back to, with varying degrees of scale. We considered writers we’d like in the room, how to get a balance of styles, how we might structure a very long research process, how we might collectively decide what the subject was going to be. Then, a couple of years ago, an AD invited us to pitch some ideas to him for work we’d like to develop and (along with the play which would eventually become Blueprint, about which you’ll be hearing more than you ever probably wanted to in the coming months) we pitched the idea of us undertaking this R&D process. We didn’t provide a subject matter for it – just that we wanted to do this process. As is the way, nothing came out of that initial meeting – other than a stay in touch, but it got us thinking about maybe, actually doing this thing. The same AD invited us to submit a proper proposal to him six months or so later, and another London theatre was doing an open call out for proposals at the time, so we did some further thinking and this further thinking led us to conclude that we’d probably better propose a subject matter. And, undoubtedly influenced by our own experiences working in Brixton and Walthamstow, simultaneously Charlie and I came up with: regeneration. Then we got excited because, for the first time, it felt we had a subject matter to match our process.

Then, we pitched and got a polite no thank you. Which actually turned out to be a Good Thing, because we ended up making Beneath the Albion Sky instead and thus all is history. It also convinced us that no one was going to buy into the process, because there was – and we’d been honest about this – the possibility it might end in total utter failure. So, as is the way with WBN, we thought about how we might make it come about ourselves. And, as Charlie and I were so enthused by writing about regeneration (and we didn’t know if other writers we knew would be to the extent that we were) we thought we’d go ahead and co-write it. And, if we weren’t going to go all out on the writing process, then we were on the play itself. And, off of the back of Albion, we got a chance to do a paid scratch of 15 minutes of text at Salisbury Arts Centre last November. From which we all concluded: yes, we did have a play here.

Now, with Rich Mix providing development support, we’re probably a third of the way through the first proper stage of development for Regeneration. And, there is probably no way to describe the text currently other than: big. It’s got three major plot strands which, between them, run from 1903 to 2015. We see London grow from 1980 to the present day, but we also visit Berlin and New York and Newfoundland and, crucially, Yorkshire. People fall in (and out) of love, there are riots, a birth, a house which moves across place and time. There’s even some Spike Lee and Boris Johnson in there. There’s quite a lot of Lego too.

There are also times where the play gets proper, full-on angry. It’s the first time I’ve made a play which, even momentarily, does this (though admitedly I doubt anyone could see Reasons for Listing and come out being unclear as to my position on the importance of libraries). Somehow, the scope of Regeneration seems to have opened up the space for us to do this and it feels okay for us to include some of our anger. It’s also got space for us to be playful and funny and bemused and tell stories and make myths. But it’s maybe the fact that it can hold all of this – including the anger – that makes it the scarily official sounding ‘state of the nation’ (even when its form might suggest it is anything but).

I guess this blog post is therefore a dollop of writerly confession as we attempt to get the play up on its feet in the coming weeks. In Regeneration we’re making something that scares me. And that’s exciting.

(Co-)Writing and Directing Beneath the Albion Sky

Beneath the Albion Sky is the first piece of work that I have ever written (in this case co-written with Corinne) and then directed.

I must admit that there was a bit of fear in directing the show. Not least because I had written some of the words and maybe some of them were really precious to me and I hadn’t realised yet but also because I had lovingly crafted this script with Corinne. Now, Corinne is precious about certain lines and words. In some cases really rather precious. Far more than I am. Whereas I don’t have favourite lines to things I write I know that she does and that she did have special lines in Albion.  I knew that if I (or Andy) screwed up this line up, she would be disappointed. We would be getting one of her ‘It’s fine’ retorts that is so loaded with (potentially imagined by me) bile, hate and contempt that all you would be able to is say how sorry you are a million times over until you feel at least half way close to forgiveness. ‘It’s fine’ she would say… Over and over again.

But that’s enough about the fear of butchering the favourite line of Corinne Furness and my over the top imagination of how she might react. I had another fear in directing this piece in that I had written a bit of it myself. What if I shoehorned my writerly vision in to the piece at the expense of it? What if I couldn’t accept another reading of my words? What if any sort of ability I have to direct simply fades away as soon as we move from a line of Corinne’s to a line of mine? These were just some of the fears.

But it turns out – I was absolutely fine. I’m not being egotistical and saying that the directing is super awesome (you will have to come to The Yard, The Wardrobe or The BikeShed and decide that for yourself) but that I didn’t have a problem with directing something I wrote. I was delighted to find that I could take my writing hat off, put my directing hat on and just approach the play that was in front of me. Before I knew it, I was cutting lines, changing bits and seeing the play a-new. By the end of it all, I honestly couldn’t remember if I had written certain lines or if Corinne had.

I remember, back during my BA, Howard Barker came in to one of our Playwriting sessions. I was very excited (as I think Howard Barker is brilliant) and one of the things he said (amongst others) really stuck with me. He said something along the lines of ‘It is important to direct one’s own work because then you understand it better. You understand how it, and drama, work’. I can’t remember if that is exactly what he said but I remember the sentiment. I also remember the fear. I thought to myself ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I can’t direct’, ‘I’d end up blocking myself’, ‘Don’t try it you silly boy’ etc. Well, I finally had a go (admittedly with a piece I half wrote) and it was really rewarding.

I’m definitely going to try and direct my own work again (some, not all – let’s not be silly) and I would recommend that other people give it a try too.

Just please don’t blame me if, for you, it is the disaster we all fear. But I reckon there is a good chance it won’t be.

Charlie of WBN


Cold Writing – Meet The Writers: Caro Dixey

It’s safe to say there’s been quite a bit happening at WBN in the last couple of weeks. And only 20% of it has involved heavy lifting. Which is, y’know, a positive step. But in the midst of All Of The Stuff the fact that next week – NEXT WEEK – we’ve got our first Theatre.Jar has crept up on us. But we do! In five days time! And, to hold back on the exclamation points for a sentence or two, in only two days time our group of intrepid writers will be taking part in the Cold Writing workshop and Charlie can stop being secretive about the theme and we can tell you all (I’ve been sworn to secrecy, even though there’s a moderately amusing story I want to blog from the theme-deciding committee meeting).

But, for now, we asked our writers if they’d like to write something for this very blog and (drum roll please) first up we have Caro Dixey, complete with something of an analogy first for this blog…

This is the second blog I have been asked to write about my writing and I can’t help pointing out the paradoxical nature of this task. I’m not sure how to write about my writing, my process, my experience as a writer. If I’m honest I’m dying to take the easy way out and tell you to come and see my work and you’ll know everything you need to know about me as an artist (and you should, come and see my work). But in the spirit of ‘doing one thing every day that scares you’ (advise that should never be ignored) I shall persevere if you will afford me the time.

Without sounding trite or “arty-farty” (for want of a much better word) what I’ve said above is true, anything you need to know about me you can find out from my writing. This is because I can only write with the voice, the opinions, the emotions I have experienced and the challenges I have faced.

That said what I write is not solely the concern of a 28 years old single woman, struggling in the arts. Of course not. I delight in transposing  the voice I have been given and the things I have seen, as best I can, into universal issues that will captivate an audience of 75 year olds just as much as an audience of 30 somethings. More over I was recently very flattered by an audience member at a recent play of mine who was most surprised the piece was written by a woman.

I started writing before I can remember: writing poems – “angsty” poems of an average “angsty” teenager. Never in a million years would I have thought I would ever share anything I had written, but now I even share my poetry on my blog.

I decided I had to write for the stage in my third year studying Music with Drama at Anglia Ruskin university as a result of reading  Sarah Kane’s Blasted for my contemporary writing module. Now I know that the hype for Miss Kane’s work has long since passed and she became so fashionable that she is now, in fact, terribly unfashionable.  However, the 21 year old me read Blasted, read about Blasted,  read about Sarah Kane’s dissection of form and content and I began to understand a new way of looking at the world through the theatre, and from then on, I wanted to write for the stage.

It took me a long time to have the confidence to share my writing with the theatre world – despite training as a dramaturg and championing the writing of others for years. I saw my first solo piece of writing at a London showcase last year and this was enough to break free from the shackles of my insecurity and push my writing in front of anyone who would watch/read.

The best piece of advice I was given at the time was:

“Don’t think of your writing as your baby, think of it as sperm – shoot out as much of it as possible and see what happens.”

On the back of this advice I launched a personal crusade (personal because no-one else seems to be getting on board) to submit a piece of writing to a different competition, theatre, agent, writing opportunity anywhere, every single Monday. This is fondly known to my facebook friends and twitter followers as #SubmissionMonday and since I have been religiously #SubmissionMonday-ing I have seen six pieces on my work staged at various London venues this year alone.

And that pretty much brings me up to date. Applying for Cold Writing with Write By Numbers was a #SubmissionMonday affair and I am itching to get started on it. Writing for a brief, to a tight deadline is tough (I recently did exactly this with the fabulous Pensive Federation) but in my experience it can lead to some of the most exciting, challenging and honest work you can imagine.  I just can’t wait.

My website is a great place to start for anything else you might want to know about me or my experience as a writer and dramaturg or you can follow me on twitter @carodixey. Otherwise just make sure you are there on 10th July at Babble.Jar – you’ll probably find me in the bar.

(And if you would like to join Caro – and probably the rest of us – in the bar you can get your name on the all important list by emailing tickets@writebynumbers.co.uk and we shall let you in for £4, which works out at 67p per play)

Beneath the Albion Sky: On Scratches

Things I have never done before as a writer (or indeed any type of theatre-maker): taken part in a “scratch”.

Oh, I’ve done “rehearsed readings” and “script-in-hand”. As befits the turnaround of some of WBN’s work I’ve also done “make a play in just over a week with a couple of theatre lights and some string”. But an actual scratch-scratch. No.

So it’s probably a nice thing that my first ever scratch was with the BAC – who, I found out recently, invented the term “scratch”. As part of their ethos, they’re very open to the idea of things failing as part of a scratch.

And, well, when we scratched Beneath the Albion Sky at Latitude it did fail.

This is quite a thing to throw out, but it just didn’t work. Maybe we’d been too complacent – we’ve made work for market in Brixton, in getting-people-to-listen and work to, well, work I hold that quite high up as a challenge. After that how difficult would a festival be? I’d been to Latitude three times prior to us taking Albion Sky. We were doing direct address (which I, with a careless swish of my hand, have been repeatedly heard to state is the only type of performance that properly works in a festival setting) after all the swapping and swapping some more Charlie and I were convinced that, though undoubtedly needing a little bit of audience commitment, we were on to something.

It was an odd feeling, and, amongst the mud with a consolatory cider in hand, we picked through with the realisation that we hadn’t actually provided ourselves with any sort of get-out-plan for the failure scenario.

I know it’s a cliché to say that failing was an important part of developing the play but, in this case, it was. Once we’d had a few days, a shower and eaten something that wasn’t bought from a van in a field we could draw some lessons:

* We’re doing something slightly discombobulating with Albion Sky in terms of where it sits with reality/fantasy and how far this is a real-person-telling-a-real-story and how far it is an-actor-doing-some-storytelling. We set it up as one thing then it becomes something else. Before becoming something else again. We need to take the audience through this with us because if we lose them early on then really it’s difficult for them to get their footing again.

* Genre. We’re writing in the styles of multiple genres that, quite simply, you don’t really see on stage that often. With my literature BA hat on I’d argue that what we’re doing in parts is a descendent of oral storytelling, but it remains that our familiarity with this type of material is from a written rather than oral tradition. And even then, familiarity is often from a modern adaptation standpoint. So maybe, somewhere, one person will get that I’m aping Thomas Malory’s sentence structure in a particular section, but that in itself isn’t enough. Words on the page vs. words for performance. But that doesn’t mean we need to lose that entirely, we just need to make it new.

* Related to both of the above, we need to be brave and a little uncompromising. We have to push the setup all the way and not retreat – for if not why should an audience stay with it?

* Paul has to be Paul and not an-actor-playing-Paul. In the way that if I were to get up on stage (Lord help us all) and deliver a piece about, I’d don’t know, all-the-places-I’ve-had-really-good-cake I would be Corinne being Corinne (albeit a heightened, edited and, hopefully, slightly funnier version of Corinne) not an-actor-playing-Corinne. This is what we have to achieve with Paul.

* No one, not even David Tennant performing a script by Jez Butterworth and directed by Danny Boyle, can compete with Rhianna’s S&M turned up to 11 from the tent mere meters away.

But it was clear that we needed to scratch again before we could take Albion Sky further. However rational and circumspect you may be – your new play failing on its first outing is a bit of a poke in the ego. So, with a slightly amended script we decamped to Exeter for a couple of days in November to take part in SCRATCH! at the BikeShed. This was different in a a number of ways – not least in our ability to control the surroundings in terms of things like: lights, where the audience sit and not having pop songs playing throughout.

If this reads a bit breathless and lovestruck then I make no apology, but SCRATCH! was exactly the sort of environment that you dream of putting your fledgling work out into. It’s a compliment to both the BikeShed and its audience that they’ve created a space where you can test something, and not only does the audience come with you but they stay in the bar afterwards to talk about it. And, possibly as a result of some of the stuff we’d learnt from Latitude, the play worked.

Not perfectly.

But it worked; it was funny in parts and sad in others and I could see where we were going and why we were going there. And I got that other people could too.

And, maybe most importantly, people asked questions. Who was Paul? Why was he doing this? What was the thing with the dragon? What had happened with his Dad? And then some lovely thematic questions that got my head spinning: what is modern mythology? How far is the structure representative of what’s happening in Paul’s head?

As it turns out, I like working through questions. It’s one of my ticks that I write questions to myself down the side of my scripts. I think it’s cute rather than a sign of self-involvement.

And at the start of March when Charlie and I sat down in earnest to put together the play the first thing we did was to pull the 20+ feedback forms from that night and either answer, attempt to answer or work out how we might answer the questions asked on them. I’m hoping that by the time we get to June we’ll have found good answers to them all.

Albion Sky: Some Writing Backstory

Things I have never done before as a writer: co-write a play.

The decision to co-write Beneath the Albion Sky happened somewhat haphazardly (as I’m sure many of the best decisions do) in a phone call from a Canterbury to London train. The phonecall pretty much went along the lines of:

Corinne: Hi Charlie, I thought you’d better know – we’re going to scratch a show with the BAC at Latitude. Next week.

Charlie: [displaying an impressive amount of fortitude in the face of me Springing Stuff On Him At The Last Minute] Crikey.

Corinne: It’s about a man who walks the St Michael’s ley line which runs through Henham Park where Latitude is held. It’s sort of a fantasy travelogue – with stuff like dragons and Boudicca. Definitely Boudicca. But also, I want the audience to think this is actually a real travelogue. Also, there’s a thing about Paul – that’s the man’s name – a thing about Paul’s Dad.

Charlie: Have you thought about the writing of this?

Corinne: Not really.

Charlie: ‘Cause we could co-write it.

Corinne: Brilliant. Let’s do that. Seven days to write enough for a scratch. And, erm, rehearse it.

Charlie: I’ll get us an actor.

I am sure this will not go down in history as me being my most professional or measured when it comes to WBN projects. But what is the point of indulging in this if you can’t make a 15 minute piece of theatre in under a week because you want to go dance in a field to boys-with-guitars?

Given that we were most definitely On A Deadline we decided to go about the initial writing process by: talking a bit about Paul, discussing which bits of the walk we wanted to cover, doling them out, writing separate sections, swapping sections, swapping the sections again, indulging in minor line quibbles and then probably repeating these things a couple of times before we realised that we actually did need to sleep at some point in the week prior to Latitude.

If we exclude a minor panic (on my part) about the use of expletives, it all went well and we made a 19 minute script masquerading as a 15 minute one which we were both happy with. And, possibly fuelled by all the caffeine and the lack of sleep, we decided that i) we were both still interested enough in the script to continue writing it to full length and ii) we wanted to do this together.

And, on and off over the last year, that’s what we’ve been doing. After our initial scratch at Latitude we did a second, slightly longer and slightly less interrupted by sounds of Rhianna, scratch at the BikeShed in November. We then embarked on getting together a full-length script. Which culminated last night, at around 10.23pm, with my sending the We Promise To Make No More Changes To This Without Your Rehearsal Room Consent Draft to Andy, our actor for this incarnation of Albion Sky.

And then, because we’re cool like that, Charlie and I high-fived.