Thursday, November 30, 2006

Whose writing is it anyway?

In yesterday's Guardian Maddy Costa writes about an 'extraordinary' collaboration betweeen five women playwrights at the Royal Court Theatre this week, instigated by outgoing artistic director Ian Rickson and echoing a similar experiment in 1971 with seven young men including Howard Brenton, David Hare and Stephen Poliakoff. Well, the play does sound exciting, so maybe it's extraordinary in that sense, but it's a little amusing that the concept of collaboration should be considered so innovative once it's applied to mainstream theatre, when it was of course a commonplace with alternative theatre in the seventies and eighties, and often still is to this day.

It puts me in mind of the time I took part in a similar exercise. Two other playwrights, Sue Ashby and Janet Mantle, invited me to join them in writing a play for Theatre in Education on the subject of child abuse, It's OK to Say No. I was interested and excited to find out how such a process would work, and what it would be like writing someone else's concept rather than my own, and something so very research-based.

First off, we did the research by talking to professionals. Next, we mapped out a story and a structure for the play. This was easier than I'd imagined, sitting swapping suggestions and coming to a consensus - partly, I suppose, because our aim, teaching children how to deal with abuse, very much dictated a structure. Then, like the Royal Court group, we divided up the scenes between us and went away to write them. It was a good experience - I liked the learning process, I loved the companionship and sharing, but I have to be honest and say that it felt more workmanlike than writing usually does for me, without that thrill of inspiration that comes from somewhere deep.

Halfway through the writing period I dropped out. After we had talked to one of the professionals I began to have doubts about the professional methods and ideology for dealing with child abuse which she was describing and which our play was endorsing, and I left Sue and Janet to it.

At least one of my scenes remained, however, a pretty crucial one, and it was a very strange experience to attend the first performance of a play over which I no longer had any claim and no longer felt any ownership, and to witness that scene being acted out. I'd written it, but it was no longer mine; I didn't even feel the need to claim it. Weird.

It's OK to Say No has toured schools all over since, mainly with Action Transport Theatre Company, who probably know nothing of my early involvement with the play. Maybe my scene has long gone anyway, but whenever I hear of another production I get that strange mixed feeling of disconnection and ever-so-vague connection.

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