Katherine Mitchell - Writer on Attachment 2013

So, you're writer on attachment, what has that meant for you and your practice?

I lived in Bristol for 20 years and though I've moved up to Stroud, Bristol Old Vic still feels like my local, so it was hugely exciting to get the attachment. Writing can be lonely and insecure at times; you're scribbling away in the vague hope that you might get somewhere with it one day, despite the massive odds racked up against you. So anything positive that comes your way is a big confidence boost, it helps knowing that someone else thinks you can do it. And I seem to get far more done when I'm in the building, there are fewer distractions; no housework, no cat trying to sit on my laptop and I don't dare waste time on Facebook in case Sharon catches me at it.
There's been an element of self-induced pressure to write something of ginormous genius, which wasn't a great frame of mind to start out with on a first draft. I'm aware that the stakes have gone up; I can't just hide the play under my bed if it's a mess, I need to have something I can show people. But at the same time there's a lot of support being offered and the feeling that the team want me to succeed. Which is nice. I'm questioning myself and my process a lot more this time around; what is the best way for me to write this? It feels oddly liberating - there's a real sense that I'm happy to start from scratch again and again in order to get the play down right, there's no preciousness about what's on the page.

Who have been the main inspirations for your writing career so far?

We read Ibsen's Hedda Gabler at school and I loved it, even though the rest of the class thought it was some kind of hideous torture. That and The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Those were the first two plays I'd read that gripped me and felt incredibly alive even though both writers had been dead a long time, so I think they got me started. My inspirations now -there's so many amazing writers around. Saying Jez Butterworth feels like cheating, but there you are. Polly Stenham, Bryony Lavery, David Greig. And a few mad choices like Phyllis Nagy or Sam Shephard, just to challenge what's possible.

How did you start your playwriting career?

I started aged eight, with a spectacularly successful version of The Princess and the Frog which I wrote, starred in, and directed my friends in, in front of the whole school. God, I was an obnoxious child. Skip forward a few years and I'd entirely lost my confidence, and after what felt like a very confusing degree in Drama I felt like I didn't really know what a play was any more. Everyone was into physical and devised theatre, so I slunk away and immersed myself in feminist film theories instead. I was always writing something, but I was jumping around playing with different forms and genres and not finishing anything. I spent several years writing a novel, then for some reason decided to adapt it into a play - by this point I was in my mid-thirties. That brought back my love of theatre and I decided to really focus on trying to be a playwright. I made it my New Year's resolution in 2010 to do everything I could to make it happen, wrote and sent off a couple of short plays to competitions, and managed to win. One of those competitions meant I became Associate Writer at Salisbury Playhouse for the year, and they nominated me for the BBC Writersroom 10 scheme - getting a place on that felt like a huge validation.

What have been the five major lessons you've learned so far in being a writer for theatre?


1. Focus. I'd spent years writing this and that - prose, short stories, attempted screenplays, chasing competition deadlines for anything under the sun. It's only when I stopped all that and decided to focus on theatre that it started to happen. There are writers who manage to succeed in more than one form, but you can't do it all at once, especially when you're starting out. You have to put in a lot of energy, not only writing but reading, watching plays, developing your craft.
2. Always stay for a drink after the show. And talk to people. It's that old adage, it's not what you know but who you know... So get to know people. They're just people. Really lovely people, in fact. Turn up for their stuff and before you know it, they'll be turning up for yours.
3. You're never as good as you think you are. This one hurts. Start welcoming feedback, particularly from professionals in the business; it means people want to help you make better work. Go on every workshop and course you can. Read everything, watch everything, stay humble.
4. Get into rehearsals. That's where you're going to learn. Nothing teaches you faster than having an actor ask you "Um... why am I saying this?" Or watching them read your delicately crafted speech that you worked on for three whole weeks, and realising that they don't need any of it.
5. There's no point in being precious about the words on the page - theatre is collaborative and a script is a blueprint rather than a Bible, so be prepared to make changes. However, don't forget that the play is going to have your name on it, so it's your reputation that's at stake. Voice your concerns and don't wait until it's too late, hoping that it'll all sort itself out. Sometimes writers are so grateful to be getting their work put on that they'll put up with anything, but it doesn't do your reputation any good to have lousy work going out in your name.

You can make a show anywhere in the world and work with any director and actors. Where would that be, who would they be?

I'm so focussed on working in the UK, I haven't really thought about anywhere else. That's maybe dull of me, but then I think we've got the best actors in the world right here anyway. Bristol Old Vic, obviously - it sounds a bit teacher's pet, but it's my local and I love it. Beyond Bristol, my favourite theatre is Manchester's Royal Exchange - it's an incredibly exciting space. As for the rest, it entirely depends on the show and what it needs. I love watching a play and being blown away by an actor - I'm always mentally filing actors away for future use. It doesn't matter whether they're well known or not, it's that sense of someone truly inhabiting a character and being fully committed moment by moment, having that extra spark that lights up the stage. I want to work with people who are bloody brilliant, who are going to make me up my game. Work-wise I like playfulness, enthusiasm, honesty and a willingness to explore and take risks. I'd love to tour a show - to have something bold, original and gloriously anarchic and then take it to pubs and village halls all over the country, going places where theatre doesn't normally go.

 

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