When I first set out to write a play, I envisaged it as the lone writing task, par excellence. I thought of someone like Henrik Ibsen, exiled and working alone with only his dramatic imagination to guide him. The prospect was uncongenial.
I called my friend Jo Hockley, who had once produced a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, and asked her to join me in the enterprise. She readily agreed to review my drafts, offer insights and comments and generally take an interest in the project. Quite soon a former student of mine, Erin Craighead, an amateur actor and budding playwright herself, came on board in a similar way.
Suddenly my playwriting ambition was housed within a team of three people, whose members were keen to work together. I was no longer on my own.
Separated by distance, the three of us decided to meet by Zoom. Quite quickly a pattern emerged in which we gathered round our screens every third Wednesday evening at 8pm, for just one hour.
Creating the synopsis
At first we considered the synopsis of the play. I was using this to map out my ideas for a story portrayed in three acts with numerous scenes and, in due course, about 15 actors. I was trying to shape the narrative arc of the play, to identify characters and plot lines that would draw in the audience and, if not create a sense of dramatic suspense, then at least foster moments of tension and contradiction that would make the actors and those watching feel a sense of concern and engagement with events on the stage.
The synopsis went through a few early drafts as we discussed its strengths and frailties. A big (though nerve wracking) leap forward occurred when Jo sent it to a former TV drama person who had directed the play Shadowlands for her in Edinburgh some years earlier. He came back with some simple tips – bring in a scene which is brightly lit, develop a strong and colourful argument between two of the characters, create physical movement on stage. The second of these I found easiest to include and soon had two people going hammer and tongs at each other whilst their professional colleagues looked on. I also conjured up a garden scene in spring and another with two characters walking along the Thames Embankment.
A few months into the process I felt I couldn’t take the synopsis much further. To cap it off, I wrote a single paragraph description of the play, the like of which might be used for publicity purposes. It was time to open a new folder on my laptop. One labelled ‘playscript’.
Now the real writing excitement got underway. There is almost a visceral experience in creating a dialogue between characters, even those who are actual historical figures. Likewise, capturing modes of speech from even the recent past is both exhilarating and troubling. Are the idioms right? Is the tone authentic? Have I slipped in a phrase or word that does not belong to the period in question?
Once such anxieties are curbed, there is the pure joy of scripting a passage and working the imagination, added to which, is a certain sense of omnipotence when literally putting words into people’s mouths. I found it was in this process that new ideas formed, sometimes departing from or in conflict with the synopsis. For a while I tried to change the summary accordingly, until it just seemed better to work on the script and to re-write the synopsis when a more finished text had been achieved.
Early readings on Zoom
Now our Zoom meetings took on a different mode. The three of us started to read parts of the script, playing different characters and testing out the story and the drama. To my immense surprise and delight, this brought moments when the hairs rose on the back of my neck and I really began to feel we had something in the making. I also enjoyed my experiences of acting for the first time, albeit remotely.
From the outset the idea for the play was something we hoped to take to the Edinburgh Fringe. Clearly this would not be in 2021, with the play still at an early stage of development . But we did sometimes think ahead to 2022 and whether we might be in a position then to get the play on stage. This had quickly become Jo’s ambition.
By September of 2021 we had a draft of a three act play, based around aspects of the life of one person, who lived in the years 1918-2005. There were 15 characters on the cast list. Our Zoom readings suggested that the running time might be about 90 minutes in total, with an interval after the second act.
Then Erin had the inspired idea of reaching out to her friends at the Dumfries Musical Theatre, asking for volunteers to take part in a reading of the play. There was an enthusiastic response.
A first full reading
One Saturday morning in early October we gathered together on the stage of the beautiful little Brigend Theatre. As I gazed out into the stalls, it felt like an epiphanic moment. There was no audience, but we were moving closer to a piece of drama. Erin had skillfully matched the characters in the play to the volunteers in her group. One person read out the stage directions for Act One, Scene One. We were off.
It was another pretty thrilling moment for me. New voices, people I had not met before were taking on the characters in the play and bringing them alive. There were times, few perhaps but no matter, when I was quite astonished at how something was working.
But of course there were plenty of areas for attention. The script felt wordy, too descriptive, with over-long speeches. Here and there the story faltered and even I, the playwright, found myself losing interest.
Nevertheless, the volunteers got to the end, sometimes with moments of great insight into what the script was trying to do, and by the close of the reading, I felt a landmark had been reached.
Then, to my astonishment, despite the fact that it was now noon on a Saturday, no one moved. First people gave their feedback. They highlighted the strength of the story and the life of the central characters, the need to get its message out to a wider public, They spoke of its weaknesses: a bit verbose, lacking action, perhaps somewhat ‘preachy’. Second, and more to my surprise, were the personal reflections on similar experiences members of the group had encountered at first hand and in relation to their own friends and family. I was beginning to encounter what I have come to think of as the fellowship of play-writing. Absolutely not the lone task, but rather something companionable, with camaraderie, mutual support, and exploration – in what was becoming an increasingly shared enterprise. I was deeply grateful.
A student workshop
Over the next few months at our Zoom meetings we discussed the feedback from the Brigend Theatre, I shared re-drafts of the playscript and we tried them out, encouraged by the progress being made. One evening, Jo, who had been talking to friends in the theatre world in Edinburgh, looking for support and advice, mentioned she had been given a connection to the Drama and Performing Arts Department at Queen Margaret University. By late autumn she was in discussion with two members of staff there, who considered the play might be interesting to their students, as well as something that would resonate with their professional colleagues in another faculty.
In early December, Jo and I met by Zoom with Kate Nelson and Marian Scott, two lecturers in drama at QMU. They listened with interest to our ‘story so far’ and then gave good advice. The play was too long for the Fringe, where a one hour maximum is the norm. It should be, in effect, one act and not three. The cast was too large to be easily viable. The scenes and settings were perhaps too varied. It was the most invigorating of cold showers.
At the same time Kate and Marion were encouraging. The play was dealing with an important social issue. A piece of new work such as this would be an opportunity to involve students and create new learning opportunities. They suggested a one day workshop, in which part of the play could be read through and discussed in the morning, and then put ‘up on its legs’ in the afternoon, with some workshopping and experimentation around selected scenes and ideas. The opportunity would be good experience for their final year students, who would have to be ‘industry ready’ (as actors, directors, stage, sound and lighting people) by the following summer.
I also learned a new term from the discussion. Kate talked about the role of the ‘dramaturg’ in supporting playscript development. Such a person gives advice, identifies structural or scripting problems, suggests new possibilities. The dramaturg takes the play apart and then suggests ways to put it back together again. It was at this point I realised we were already engaged in such a process, not with one individual, but with several.
Over the following weeks I thought about how the play could be reduced in scope and size. I decided that the first, and longer act offered the most possibilities. I re-purposed some devices and framings from other parts of the long play, added some new scenes. Sadly much had to go, not least the ding-dong argument! My goal was to create a single act version that would take us on a journey, raise doubts and concerns in the audience and ultimately find resolution. Jo and Erin agreed this would be a way forward.
At the start of the new year, we sent the now one act play to the QMU team and fixed a date for the workshop. The new version had just four characters (one in earlier and later life), requiring five actors.
Then one late January morning I left home in darkness and drove the 100 miles or so to QMU, where the modern campus sits overlooking the Firth of Forth. En route, as the light came up over the Border hills, I felt very excited and extremely nervous. This could be a new or a false dawn for the play.
On arrival Jo and I met with the two lecturers. They were welcoming and engaged. This feeling continued as we were taken to the drama studio, where a dozen students were waiting for us, sitting in a circle. Here too the smiles and greetings gave a palpable sense of welcome to what could be a challenging morning ahead.
Introductions were made. I explained the motivation for the play and our progress so far. Then Kate handed out the scripts, allocated individual roles, asked others to take notes for feedback, check the running time, and think about lighting and staging possibilities. This was to be a ‘cold reading’. None of the students had seen the script until now. They were all alert, eager to proceed and looking like they meant business.
The opening lines grabbed me in a good way. Trained actors, the students seemed to inhabit the characters from the very start. From time to time they worked round or nuanced the written script in particular ways. The dialogue felt alive, the pace dynamic. Jo and I listened in amazement and made notes of things working and things not.
The whole reading took 50 minutes. Nicely within the suggested time limits, but with a bit of wriggle room. Everyone seemed excited by what had happened. Again the underlying social issue of the play was endorsed by several people as something important.
The technical feedback was detailed. There was still too much description – ‘telling not doing’. Two characters were underdeveloped and needed more elaboration. Another was seen as the ‘moral guardian of the play’ and clearly offered more possibilities. The students raised questions about the cultural and religious elements in the story and how audiences might react to them. There were discussions about regional accents and the linguistics of a non-native English speaker, portrayed in the play. Several people commented on the ambiguities within the plot and the space given for the audience to interpret its implications.
At lunchtime, Jo and I re-grouped, sharing our perceptions and taking notes of what had been learned. The morning had been like gold dust for me. Something to sprinkle over the script, making it shine, refracting the light of the text in ways that enhanced its possibilities. After this, I wondered, what would the afternoon bring?
We reassembled in a different, lighter, room. Now Kate had the students on their feet. She invited them to improvise parts of scenes, using their own dialogue. She got them to push some passages to the limit, testing out the dramatic possibilities. She worked on the final moments of the play, getting the actors to speak as one voice in a way that seemed to heighten the drama. This was the first time the script had come into three dimensions and I could see all sorts of potential, but also some bear traps.
When we gathered at the end of the day for a group photograph, I felt a real sense of affection for these people I had met for the first time only that morning. I drove home making further mental notes, and a few days later I started again on the script.
At our next Zoom meeting we had plenty to discuss and encouraged by the interest of the QMU students, Jo began looking at Fringe venues for August 2022.
Working with school pupils
Then just before Christmas another breakthrough occurred. I decided to email Vickie Simpson, head of creative arts at Wallace Hall Academy, a local school in Dumfriesshire that I have come to know well over the years. I explained the project and was soon invited in at the start of January to meet with Gerry Griffin the school’s drama teacher. Both members of staff were keen to hear about the play and I asked if it might be possible to run another workshop, this time with pupils studying for the Higher Drama qualification. The teachers were highly receptive. A playwright and actor herself, Gerry suggested another cold reading, followed by a short workshop. We would have just over two hours in total. It was another great opportunity.
Over the Christmas holidays, I made further edits to the script and we fixed a February date for the school workshop. Again, there were over a dozen people in the circle, in the well-appointed drama studio. I explained a bit about the process so far, including the previous workshops. Then the scripts were handed round and the cast assigned. I was gratified to see my attempts at improvement working their way through in the reading. But some of the more obdurate problems were still present, and were picked up perceptively by the pupils.
Particularly exciting though was the students’ enactment of the closing scene. This was done in two different formats, but in each case playing a piece of music already referred to earlier in the play and now audible over the dialogue, to create a dramatic conclusion. We all loved that, so it was duly written into the script when I got home. I was also left with a real feeling that some of the pupils would like to stay involved with the project, eager to broaden their experience of script development.
I reported back to the next Zoom meeting, hesitantly suggesting that we were perhaps ready to start planning in detail for the Fringe. Jo had maintained dialogue with some of the QMU students and we found ourselves getting commitments to some of the five parts in the play. On this basis she looked at a couple of venues and settled on one of them, through her links in Edinburgh, with the Arkle Theatre Company.
A fourth reading
Meanwhile, Erin and I got back to some of the readers from the Dumfries Musical Theatre Group and Wallace Hall Academy. We put together a group of people willing to give up another Saturday morning, ths time in my local village hall, reading through the latest script and acting out parts of it. A fourth workshop.
We met one bright day in March. Things had now progressed another notch. For the first time we had readers who already knew the play and had participated in a previous reading of it. This seemed to make a huge difference. It was an opportunity for more acting, even in the reading circle. I found this gave something of the feel of a radio play. A couple of scenes, despite my earlier revisions, remained rather stodgy. These are going to need more work and dramaturg-style critique. But other parts generated real excitement in a way that pleased us all.
After the break, we tried out passages from three particular scenes, building up a sense of how things might start to look on stage, what might be possible and what might not.
Throughout the whole morning I was deeply impressed not only by the enthusiasm and energy of the readers, but also their insights into the developing script, the feedback they gave, their awareness of the changes I had made, their endorsements and suggestions – all things that continue to make the writing process so interactive and rewarding.
Erin, Jo and I came away from that fourth workshop more optimistic yet about the possibilities of staging the play at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. No doubt, the playscript will go on evolving, but for now we feel it is sufficiently robust to commit to the detailed planning of a five night run in August. Quite a thought!
David Tasma and Cicely Saunders
So what is the play actually about? Well those who know my academic work will not be surprised to learn, may even have guessed already, that it focuses on an aspect of the life of Cicely Saunders, whose biography I published in 2018. Cicely sparked a quiet revolution in triggering the modern hospice movement, which over the last 50 years has been doing so much to improve palliative and end of life care all around the world. This wider movement has been my main fields of academic work for many years.
The play is an attempt to tell part of her story to a wider audience. But also – and absolutely resonant with the times we are living through – it shows how a migrant from Eastern Europe, escaping war in his own country and dying here at the age of 40, came to have such a formative influence on Cicely and on what became a global initiative for change.
The summary of the play currently goes like this:
A Polish émigré David Tasma is dying from cancer in post-war London. Estranged from home and family and feeling his existence has had no value, David develops an intense and elusive relationship with his social worker, Cicely Saunders. They share thoughts about compassion, faith, love and the meaning of a completed life. An idea grows in Cicely’s mind about a new way to care for someone who is dying in distress. This fleeting encounter between two very different people sets in train a process of change that neither could have foreseen in a busy London hospital ward in 1948.
The fellowship of play-writing
Over a year after embarking on this venture, there is still much to do. Four workshops in I am beginning to see more of the deeper meanings in the the play, how they can be drawn out, suggested, nuanced. I believe this real-life story has many implications, some of them going beyond my initial thinking when I set out, some of them resonating with the times in which we are living.
Our ultimate goal will require huge commitment from many people. Jo and Erin will be the producers. The three of us will do all we can to bring it to the stage. We are already getting tremendous interest from actors, theatre people and sponsors. We are looking for a director. Further down the line, I hope others will be tempted to read and perform the play in different contexts. The playscript will be freely available on this blog for that purpose.
But for now, and at this juncture, there is a feeling of satisfaction in the process, no matter its outcome. For someone who loves the craft of writing, but who is completely naive about theatrical matters, to collaborate in this way with so many people of varied ages and backgrounds and such experience, is a singular privilege. If the play’s the thing, then the play-writing is a fellowship.
The play will be performed by the Pennyland Players 16-20 August 2022, at 29-31 Abercromby Place, Edinburgh EH3 6QE. Tickets will be obtainable through the Edinburgh Fringe booking service.