David Lane - playwright, dramaturg and lecturer
How long have you been writing plays?
Since I was about 15, badly, and for the last seven years slightly better. I used to write short spoof revue versions of local amateur musicals I was in as a teenager, for the last night parties, basically taking the rise out of people in the cast by changing the script and lyrics. Those were the days I wanted to be a wannabe West End star (which thankfully for everyone else never came about). Then at 17 I wrote half a terrible original musical about Irish nationalism that was basically Les Miserables set in Belfast, and decided I'd probably best wait until I had something I really knew about to write rather than insulting an entire nation. I put on a play a few years later at Exeter University - three Alan Bennett-rip-off interwoven monologues, panned by the National Student Drama Festival adjudicator (not bitter) - and then out of the blue I suddenly won a one-act playwriting competition when I was 20 at a little theatre in New Malden. At the same time I took both a Dramaturgy and a Playwriting module in my second and third year, and started to get really interested in the process of writing and the patterns of existing plays: how they were written, why they were written like that and all the different shapes and sizes a play could be. I kept writing plays when I left, sending things out, getting encouraging (and helpfully damning) responses here and there, finally getting my first commission in 2007 from Half Moon Young People's Theatre. I think of them as my writing home really; they were the first company to trust me to have a go, testing me out on little half-term and schools projects for a couple of years. I've continued a working relationship with them for seven years and am just starting another commission with them now.
What made you want to write them in the first place?
I can't pin it down to one thing really. I did loads of acting and singing as a teenager, liked theatre, liked plays, and then found that I could write things down and when people said them they didn't sound too bad. I suppose the earlier non-commissioned plays stemmed from pretty average personal experiences, the usual angsty growing-up stories where you think your normal life is actually of interest to other people when you put it on stage; a lot of working out what I felt about myself, pretty narcissistic stuff! On the other hand I'm really glad that I got that out of my system before I really knew what I was doing. I soon learned that if you were going to write a play and people were going to take an interest, then you'd better have either something exceptional to say about the world, or an exceptional way of making the everyday seem engaging. The first time somebody paid me to write was transformational: it really changed how I went about selecting and working on ideas. I took it more seriously because I knew at the other end of the job somebody would be paying to watch whatever it was I had to say for an hour, and that had better be something worth saying.
When was your first play and how did it come about?
I suppose my first play was the one-act one that won the competition in New Malden. It was called Burn and was about three teenagers who think they're going to score drugs in a warehouse one night with a local dealer, and he ends up toying with them and playing with them psychologically, before setting the warehouse on fire with them inside. It was naïve, derivative in-yer-face recycling of what I thought a play was meant to look like, but there was something genuine in there about being forced as teenagers to behave the way the world expects you to, rather than the way you really want to inside. I've always been interested in that conflict and can probably identify it somewhere in most of the plays I've written since. Everyone wants to feel at home in the world, but the world can seem to continually deny us that - especially for teenagers, the audience and age-range I've written for most - and the stakes dramatically get very high when you realise it's you against the world and your contentedness depends on you fighting it in some way.
If you could work with one actor who would it be?
Maggie Smith. I seem to have written parts for older actors a few times, and am working on a play now with a character in her late sixties / early seventies, so she'd be very helpful! Actors with experience are incredible - actors with life experience on top of that can be out of this world, particularly if you're developing characters and ideas.
The space in which you write plays - what does it look like?
A coach seat, a train seat or a seat in a café. I spend a lot of time travelling as a freelancer, and a lot of my thinking and writing time is spent on the move or in random locations. I like that because nobody can get at you - no internet, often patchy phone signal, and the classic British transport privacy rule that means you're rarely interrupted. However right now I'm at home, at an IKEA corner desk, with a mug of coffee and various theatre books and current projects on the shelves, a stack of scripts to read and past workshop materials on the top shelf. It's racy stuff, after all.
Desert Island Plays - which five plays would you take to a desert island?
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, Hamlet by Shakespeare, The Wooden Frock by Kneehigh, Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht and Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth.
Why theatre and not film or TV?
The live communication with an audience, the communal aspect, the fact that as a writer you can (if you want) have control over things beyond words, the fact that it keeps evolving as a form. I love the collaborative nature of development and rehearsal, and the fact that we live in a theatre culture that respects writers and plays. Most of all it's amazing to sit in an audience that is watching your play and feel it communally responding to what you've put out there, to witness how it's engaging them - or not. You don't always get it right and audiences are honest in the moment. You learn a lot that way.
What or who or where is your biggest inspiration?
I don't really rely on just one thing. It shifts for me depending on the project. My wife inspires me to get started because I know she'll always read my first drafts and say useful things in a no-nonsense way; I find designers inspiring for making me think about the visual aspects of storytelling in a unique way; I find teenagers and children inspiring for the freedoms in their imagination and the fresh way they can look at the world. I suppose quotations are probably the things that I always come back to, nuggets of writing that seem to encapsulate why we're all breaking our backs in a competitive, over-crowded, often introspective art-form when most people would probably choose to spend their spare time at the pub or watching the football rather than spend twenty quid to sit in the dark and be told a story. So here's one that's doing it for me at the moment:
Helen Nicholson: ‘Lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted or experienced electronically or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demanded. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all. They are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.'