I was making theatre for theatre's sake. You see a lot of plays like that – clever notions – which think themselves smarter than they really are.

The purpose of a playwright

Otto English

Otto English on the inspiration behind his new short play 'Kill Them'

08 November 2018 12:17

Last year my neighbour died. She had been a lively presence in the years that we had been next door to each other. Rarely a day would go by that we didn’t chat on the doorstep or have banter over the garden fence. She was wrapped up in our lives. She never forgot a birthday, always had a story to tell. But sprightly as she was – we never heard her. Beyond the party wall she existed in near silence.

Some months after her funeral, the house was sold and new people moved in and a few weeks after that, the silent wall between us began to come to life. We would hear muffled shouts, snippets of conversation and laughter; feet on stairs. And there was a near constant grating on the other side of the wall. What were they up to? Scraping the wallpaper like that so late into the night? They probably felt the same about us. When you move to a new place one of the biggest paranoias is who you’ve got next door. They must have wondered about us; my son’s itinerant guitar practice or me raging at the TV about Nigel Farage.

I began to think a lot about that wall and how even as the world opens up we become ever more defined and divided by the partitions between us; enraged by the things other people say – or that we imagine them to have said. And then I found myself writing out lines and firing up my laptop and starting to jot down ideas. Two people in a room – baffled and increasingly paranoid about the sounds coming through their chimney breast and before you could say ‘Ernie Wise’ I’d knocked off a mini play.

“So why write plays?” My wife asked me the first time we met. I struggled to answer it.

I wrote my first when I was a 21-year-old drama student. I cringe to even think of it. It deployed the full arsenal of posturing drama student bullshit. There was a production on campus but no agents came calling. Indeed, very few people came at all. Why had I written it? I suppose in all honesty because I wanted to see if I could – and because I quite liked the romantic notion of being someone who wrote plays – ‘showing off’ in other words.

Two years later I found myself studying for an MA in Playwriting Studies at the University of Birmingham under David Edgar. One big problem with sticking a lot of nascent writers together, was that while everyone was very nice to each other’s faces, we bitched away merrily behind each other’s backs. At the end of the year we mounted productions and the main target of much of our collective badmouthing put on her play which, rumour had it, was preposterously and absurdly violent.

 

I clearly remember sitting in the auditorium, practically rubbing my hands in the lurid anticipation of watching it fail. But once the lights had gone up and the action started it was clear, much to my annoyance that we were in the presence of something outstanding. The play was terse, threatening, bleak – brilliant. We were watching the first staged performance of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. I’d spent hundreds of hours on my own play. I’d honed the lines to perfection but I was essentially regurgitating a derivate patchwork of other people’s ideas. Sarah – aged just 22 – was setting the agenda of what was to come. She was unique, raging, funny and unyielding. She was her art and her art was her. I on the other hand was just someone who ‘wanted to write plays’ – which really is kind of meaningless.

My work was picked up and produced at the New End in Hampstead. It was not an entirely enjoyable experience. I had loved constructing the piece in the silence of my bedsit – and in my head it existed as a sort of perfection – but theatre doesn’t work like that. Other people are involved. That’s why many properly great writers like Pinter and Beckett and even Kane were so controlling of their productions. The vision cannot always be transmitted by others. Or maybe that’s just an excuse. I would have hated to admit it at the time but while I could craft good dramatic situations and believable characters I still didn’t have that distinctive and all important voice – or much to say. I was making theatre for theatre’s sake. You see a lot of plays like that – clever notions – which think themselves smarter than they really are.

With my thirties rapidly approaching I thought it might be time to eat.

I got a job but carried on writing. Having staged a third, I hammered away at a fourth, a fifth, a sixth and the rejection letters piled up in their wake. Standard replies familiar to anyone who has ever failed to get a play put on or a book published. Why did I continue? I suppose for no other reason than I was determined to make the last ten years of life worthwhile. And that’s not a good basis for creating art.

I got married, had children and in the space in between I started writing other stuff – very little of it theatre. Very occasionally someone would tell me a story, or I’d hear a snippet and I’d think ‘that’d make a great little play’ and I’d write it and send it off somewhere and once or twice they’d get short runs – but a decade ago I stopped even doing that.

Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time in the raging atmosphere of the twitter cauldron. In many ways it has been very good to me – enabling me to get work published and nurture an audience. I am older and if not wiser I know who I am quite clearly and what my voice is.

So why write plays?

There is a stillness in the theatre – for writer, performer and audience. Maybe we crave that more as the world around us turns ever more clamorous and chaotic. Perhaps my neighbour’s death and the loss of that silent wall triggered something in me that made me want to return to that space in your head where you can conjure things up. What I have written is very short indeed. It’s being staged in a tiny venue – and alongside other people’s work. I have no control. Part of me is dreading it and hoping it will be safe in other people’s hands. Part of me is 21 again.

Otto English’s short play ‘Kill Them’ is part of The Twilight Hour running at The Canal Cafe Theatre from 21st – 24th November

I was making theatre for theatre's sake. You see a lot of plays like that – clever notions – which think themselves smarter than they really are.