Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chrissie Gittins and Judy Kendall at Manchester Central Library

The lunchtime readings at Central Library have become a significant feature on the Manchester Literature landscape, and today there was a great reading from poet Judy Kendall and another new Salt short-story writer, Chrissie Gittins. Judy read beautifully from her aptly-named first collection The Drier the Brighter (Cinnamon Press), poems made sparely resonant by her own experience of living in Japan, and as delicately evocative as those of Edward Thomas whose letters she has also edited. Chrissie read from her fabulous debut story collection, Family Connections, and one of her wry stories prompted a spontaneous interjection by female audience members of a certain age on the ways to deal with broken stocking suspenders. Apparently at her Whitechapel launch Chrissie's writing was said to be a combination of Alan Bennett and Hyacinth Bucket. More like Victoria Wood meets Alice Munro, I'd say.

Judy Kendall signing copies of The Drier the Brighter

Chrissie Gittins reading from Family Connections

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Getting lucky

I am so thrilled! Last night, as I was slumped on the sofa and nodding off (the effects of two glasses of wine in the pub earlier), the phone rang and I jumped wide awake: actor Mary-Ann Coburn (left), to whom I sent a copy of The Processing Room a few days ago, has read it and would like to take part! Well, wow: Mary-Ann is a fantastic and versatile actress! Just remains to decide which part she should play, as there are three she could do! Oh, and also to find three more actors, a director and a stage manager... And of course I have to keep my fingers crossed that someone else taking part in 24:7 doesn't come along and make Mary-Ann a better offer, with, say, a juicier part...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Those gruelling auditions

Well, in my last post I was saying what unalloyed fun it was to have a play in the 24:7 Theatre Festival, but today one particular angst kicks in.

Auditions. I am going to have to audition for a cast once again. Agonising for actors, and agonising for playwrights if they understand what the actors are going through.

To initiate the process, Dave and Amanda have asked us playwrights (or exec producers as we're grandly called) for word-pictures of our characters, so that they can circulate them at a gathering of people, including actors, who would like to be involved. Or the Cattle Market, as we hopeful actors muttered last year (last year I didn't enter a play, so tried my chances as an actor), waiting in queues to sell ourselves to playwrights and flap our CVs in their faces. This idea of circulating character breakdowns is a good one: it will save people my last year's experience, in which more than once I waited for up to half an hour to speak to a playwright only to be told there were no women in the play or that all the parts had been cast. Towards the end of the evening, a weary-looking playwright saw me coming, said he badly needed a pee and disappeared never to be seen again. Not good for one's ego, unless one is determinedly taking it all with a pinch of salt.

Well, lucky for me that I could (and not mind that I didn't get a part), since I'm not a trained actor with a professional CV, and acting is not my main thing, but it must have been harder for any of my fellow self-touts (in the main, new drama graduates) who had not yet developed the necessary thick skin. Of course, you didn't catch the veteran Manchester actors going through the process. 'I can't be bothered with it,' Denise Hope told me with distaste and pity when I staggered back to the drinks, but then of course she didn't need to: actors like Denise, Sue Jaynes and Mary-Ann Coburn have playwrights begging them to be in their plays or writing parts specifically for them (and, in the event, Denise was brilliant in Colin Carr's comedy, Divas and Double Glazing).

The actual auditions are difficult things. There's always an air of tension and formality which is at odds with the informality which usually rules in the sphere of drama. It always amazes me, and I can hardly ever believe it, when I read that famous actors have auditioned for parts in films or high-profile stage plays. Some pretty well-known actors did come to audition for my radio comedy drama series, The Circle (and how brilliantly they read before the director decided against them!), though the even more famous ones who took the parts in the end were simply offered them by the director. As a writer I've sat in on a few auditions, and can never feel good about it, knowing the feeling of exposure in facing that critical lineup of writer, director and/or producer, judging you not simply for your skill but for things out of your control and indeed unknown to you: the fit of your face to their concept of the character, your build, your quality of voice, or the matter of simply how you'd combine with the other actors up for other parts... And the worst thing is having to break it to the actors you haven't chosen, which once, as a 24:7 playwright, it was my duty to do.

One time I attended a whole-day audition for a theatre showcase in which a play of mine was featured. It was a kind of workshop in which all of the actors' skills were being extensively tested; they were put through their paces as a (huge) group, given trust games and exercises, while we writers and our designated directors sat around and watched. At the time I was in awe, and thought it pretty cutting-edge and much better than the formal individual 'interview' style, but a few years on I met one of the actors involved, and he told me how humiliated and used (and exhausted) all of the actors had felt, and from the way he spoke he was still smarting.

Maybe the independent film world is simply different, but I feel I should count my luck that I had such an easy time when I went for my first screen test last summer (for a small community film). I walked in, was greeted by a jolly crew (not one of them over 30), matily handed a cup of tea while I scanned the script and then shown through to the camera to read with another who turned out to be a member of the company, while the others settled down comfortably to watch. They put me at my ease and I didn't feel a twinge of nerves. (And to cap it all, they offered me the part!)

So now I've got to bite the bullet and organize auditions again. And here's my first call: the meeting for people who would like to be involved in 24:7 is to be held at Pure (in the Printworks, Manchester) on Monday 30th April from 7pm on. Anyone who would like to be involved - as an actor, director, stage manager or in any other capacity - is welcome. Personally, I'm looking for all of these. (No payment, I'm afraid, just a share of box-office profit.)

Thursday, April 19, 2007

24:7 Theatre Festival 2007

News this morning that the play I wrote in January, The Processing Room, has been accepted for this year's Manchester 24:7 Theatre Festival.

Now this is no doubt not very professional or grown-up but I am very excited! 24:7 is a really exciting project to be involved with. Begun in 2004 by enterprising actors David Slack and Amanda Hennessy, it's gone from strength to strength and in the last year or so has become a significant event in the Manchester Arts calender, with the best plays going on to a run at the Bolton Octagon and participants winning prestigious Manchester Evening News Awards. Writer-participants in 24:7 act as executive producers of their plays and are responsible for getting together a production company - it's hard work, but how I love it: the cameraderie and collaboration after all that isolation at one's desk, and the chance to do those things like designing flyers and generally flexing one's publicity muscles, and contributing to the production itself. (Not to mention of course the fact that from the age of eight I've been in love with the theatre...)

I've been involved with 24:7 as a playwright twice before, the very first year with O'Leary's Daughters and the second year with a satirical monologue Drinks with Natalie which was adapted from one of my radio plays, and which I performed myself. Like O'Leary, The Processing Room is a play about identity, but like Natalie it's a comedy: three women, separately lost in a hospital, end up in a strange, indeed unearthly room and receive shocking news about themselves...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Proof positive

My page proofs came through for my collection of short stories, Balancing on the Edge of the World, and for the first time ever I didn't use the British Standards Institution proof correction marks.

It felt like a kind of loss. I'll never forget the first time I ever used them, on the proofs of an early short story, using the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook: that exciting sense of learning a new code attached to an extra expertise, that of the printer, and of communicating directly with him/her.

Not so long ago, though, a young relative of mine was asked to edit a journal, and I offered to buy him a book containing the BSI marks. He looked at me with pity. He said, 'Oh we don't use those. We mark everything up on Word.'

Well, of course, I knew that the BSI marks had been dropping out of use. When I edited the short-story magazine Metropolitan, by which time the job of typesetting had moved away from the printer to the desktop publisher, very few of the authors used the old marks on their proofs, they simply wrote in their corrections in whatever way they saw fit.

And when my proofs for Balancing came through I thought: well, why don't I use the software markup too? And I did, and was thus able to send them by email, as well. Jen at Salt is happy. It just remains to be seen whether the typesetter is too...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Reading group: Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn

Reading group last night, and to Hans's for the first time, where his huge window gave a view of everyone looking tentative as they came down the road, scanning the houses for the number.

Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn was my choice, Booker short-listed and the recipient of rave reviews for its scintillating prose which I had pounced on when I scanned the first page in the bookshop. The novel begins with the perspective of five-year-old Robert, holidaying with his parents and his newly-born brother Thomas in the Provencal family house which his grandmother Eleanor has signed over to a New Age cult. As Robert's father Patrick agonises, or with savage wit tries not to agonise, over this disinheritance which symbolises the poor mothering he has always suffered from Eleanor, the child Robert observes the symbiotic attachment between his own mother Mary and his baby brother, and through this 'remembers' and grieves his own once-symbiotic attachment to her, and the traumatic separation of birth.

I said that I found this beginning absolutely brilliant, perhaps the most stunning psychological fiction I had read. Unfortunately, however, I did find that the rest of the novel failed to fulfil this promise. This strikingly innovative narratorial approach is lost as the novel moves into the adult Patrick's perspective (and later into Mary's). The prose never fails to be both excoriating and limpid, the searing observations and biting wit keep coming, and I never stopped relishing them. On this level I had only one real criticism which was that although I could take five-year-old Robert's verbal and intellectual precociousness, I found it unrealistic in Thomas at two (and everyone nodded). I could see that adult Patrick was potentially annoying in his self-absorption, but his wit prevented me from being annoyed with him, which I felt was a great authorial achievement. Finally, however, the novel somehow felt to me strangely empty. There's no real story, but I didn't think this was the problem (nothing much happens, except that the old lady deteriorates over the four August holidays examined in the book and the Provencal house moves into the hands of the cult, and the books consists mainly of people sitting talking or thinking about the situation). The real problem, I felt, was that the novel had no subtext: there are no connections to be made and no meanings to be had other than those spelled out by the characters themselves, and the novel thus ultimately lacks resonance, leaving the reader outside the loop in a very subtle but fundamental way. (Although later Hans's wife Jan said she much prefers it when things are spelled out.)

Sarah said that she more or less agreed: she liked the descriptions and, like me, the beginning. There had been a strange atmosphere in the room as I had been speaking, and now there was a silence. Then Hans broke it by saying: 'I thought it was terrible.' He said he hated the beginning, he didn't believe a word of it: how on earth could a five-year-old mimic the Nanny with a page-long satirical replication of her speech - for god's sake, you'd admire a twenty-year-old for being able to do that! And what about the Nanny: she falls over carrying the baby and breaks his fall and the others are simply angry with her and walk off 'leaving her still talking on the ground!' These were just horrible people!

At which point Trevor, renowned in our group for liking most books, but who had been looking strangest of all, now jumped in. He said he just HATED this book! He said he couldn't stand the people. He said, what is this upper-class man doing whinging about his inheritance - he's a barrister for god's sake, and he (Trevor) had worked for enough barristers to know they were rolling in it!

He was very worked up. Nothing any of us could say could change his mind - that the loss of the house is a symbol of Eleanor's unconcern with which Patrick has been battling emotionally all his life (as Patrick indeed spells out in the way I find unsatisfying): Trevor thought he should simply get a grip. He said he couldn't stand the precocious children, or the way Patrick and Mary wanted in this way to make them better than anybody else's children, and look what a bad mother Mary was, wrapped up in Thomas to that extent and spoiling him. But, we said, isn't it (once again) spelled out that this is a tragic pattern: by consciously trying to avoid for their children their own bad mothering, Mary and Patrick are, ironically, repeating the patterns, Mary by overcompensation with Thomas, Patrick by hot-housing Robert intellectually and thus denying him his true childhood.

Trevor would have none of it, and Jenny joined in with her own objections: if Patrick was so resentful of his mother why did he keep going along with her wishes, executing the handing over of the house etc, - and what was wrong with her, too, the way she let herself rot away more or less wilfully? Why didn't they just get her sectioned? Clare and I said, but the point is that people get locked into these emotional patterns in which rationality has no play, as exemplified by the almost final words of the novel shouted with tragic triumph by the infant Thomas: 'Do nothing!'

All this time Doug had been quiet, and John who knew that Doug had liked the book unreservedly asked him to say why. He said that he just LOVED it - its observations, its wit, which had made him laugh out loud, and he had no problem whatever with the seemingly unrealistic precociousness of the children, as he hadn't read it as naturalistic. To strong agreement from John, he said that any novel which begins with a description of birth from the baby's point of view has to be taken on a non-realistic level, and once you do this the whole novel novel takes off and you lose all those rational objections.

However, Trevor went on chunnering, and when it emerged that St Aubyn's series of novels about this family was autobiographical, he cried in triumph: 'I knew it! That author is just having a self-centred moan!' As we walked down the road afterwards he continued his theme. We got to the corner where we had to part. 'Well, I do know the house is only a symbol of his mother not loving him,' he said, conciliatory. 'But then when you think of all the problems in the world today: people homeless, refugees wearing rags. I still hate that bloody book!'

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Salt authors Neil Campbell and David Gaffney

Salt Publishing have just launched their new and innovative short story list, in which I'm thrilled to be included, and on Friday lunchtime at Manchester Central Library two of my fellow contributors, David Gaffney and Neil Campbell, gave a great reading from their debut collections. Lunchtime it may have been, but the room was packed, latecomers standing, to hear their two very contrasting styles. Firstly, in suitable deadpan mode Neil read from Broken Doll, ironic and moving stories of urban loss and confinement, and then David bounced on to make us all laugh with the short-short stories in which he specialises, collected in Sawn-Off Tales.

You can see from the pics below how appreciative the audience was, and how keen to snap up those striking Salt editions. (Neil is on the left and David on the right.)