Is the play the thing?... by Cally Phillips

Me, many moons ago, in a theatre!

My first experience of theatre came complete with plush red velvet seats at the Dundee Rep when I was about 6 years old. My mum worked in the costume department and one day (presumably to stop us running rampage through the costume store, which was complete with what my older brother convinced me was a REAL polar bear, presumably a relic from a production of A Winters Tale) I was allowed to sit in on a rehearsal for J.M.Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton.

Things got heated in the rehearsal process and allegedly (?) I got upset and confused between drama and reality (not for the last time) so I was taken backstage to see the Actor playing Crichton. As I arrived he was stripped to the waist removing his ‘slap.’ It was a very vivid memory which lingers today.  Suffice it to say I was ‘hooked’ on the theatre. And that J.M.Barrie has held a special place in my heart from then on.

The magic of theatre? 
Fast forward to 2002. I was in my first year of a three year residency (the first dramatist in residence for Scottish Arts Council, hosted by Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association – both now defunct organisations!) and it was the 100th anniversary of the first production of The Admirable Crichton. And I was based  in Dumfries – where Burns is lauded because he died there but Barrie is (or was) largely ignored even though he had his first theatrical experience there (in the Theatre Royal) I like to think of him in the wings having similar feelings to my own childhood memories.  I wanted to mark the occasion in some way.  Throughout my life I have discovered, to my bemusement that Barrie is not considered a ‘great’ playwright, which I find really odd. He’s funny, like Chekhov, his social commentary is worthy of Shaw and his mastery of irony in phrases such as ‘there are few more impressive sights than a Scotsman on the make’  which is in my opinion, unparalleled.  However, I suspect that this very ironic phrase has been misinterpreted and ‘used’ against him – and he fell out of fashion and has never regained it.  People ‘rave’ about Peter Pan, but don’t consider how less likely it is that he only wrote one good play than that we have ignored the raft of good plays he’s written.  Barrie is not a one hit wonder. But people don’t engage because they think he just wrote bog standard drawing room comedy. Think again! He was certainly a man of his time, but he was also a man writing about his time from a challenging perspective.  What Every Woman Wants is a play all feminists could do with reading, and Dear Brutus and Mary Rose stand up as fine examples of the craft, I’d say up there with Ibsen.

So, in 2002 my mission was to bring Barrie back to the people. But how to do it? I decided upon writing an updated version of the text which would appeal to young people (I was moonlighting teaching drama at the local college in my ‘spare’ time from the residency!) so I came up with DOWN THE LINE. 

Down the Line was first performed on 2nd November 2002 – a hundred years to the day after the original performance of The Admirable Crichton. It formed the centre-piece of a symposium day which saw a lecture by the esteemed Barrie scholar R.D.S.Jack (The Road to Neverland) and an exhibition at the local museum/library. I remember calling for the renaming of the Robert Burns Film Centre to the J.M.Barrie Film Centre – provocative in the sort of way Barrie himself would have been – and the play was performed by HNC students in the Minerva Hall of Dumfries Academy (where Barrie went to school.) We didn’t use the Theatre Royal for various reasons including that the performance, directed by Mona Keeling, was both promenade in style and included a lot of ‘recorded media’ input/ video screens and the like – and, as I discovered at the last minute – a huge amount of SAND liberally spread around one part of the hall! 

During my residency I was able to indulge my passion for theatre and embraced it wholeheartedly, but interestingly it was a process that took me finally away from the mainstream (I’d been teetering in black box land for a while, mind you) and into Boalian drama.  The door opened and I went through it and came out in a land as different as Narnia is from the Wardrobe.  I set up and ran Bamboo Grove Theatre Company, which saw me through the transition period from mainstream to ‘theatre of the oppressed’ and from theatre to drama (a distinction not obvious to many).  Its aim was ‘to take drama out of the theatre.’ both literally and metaphorically.

10 years on, I am in the process of epublishing my collection of plays from the first, written in 1990 to the last 2005 and including several unperformed plays which also add something to an understanding of ‘the journey’ I undertook.  I started with a cast of four in a black box, enacting the Battle of Waterloo and I ended with a play that should really be performed on an ice rink.  I’d say I ‘bent the rules’ of conventional theatre most of the way through.  I’ve played with form and content – employed flashbacks, had endings at the beginning of the play, engaged in quantum discourse, used the structures of the I-Ching, denied that ‘conflict’ is less central to drama than ‘change’ and generally had a ball challenging audiences and pushing the envelope of what is possible.

The anniversary collection will total 10 plays. So far in 2012 I’ve published  Chasing Waves, PowerPlay, Bond is Back, Down the Line and Men in White Suits.  2013 will see the triptych plays:  Love is an Urban Myth, When Time Stands Still and The Other Side of the Mountain epubbed as well as my updated version of Lysistrata, War in Seven Easy Stages and finally, that first play from 1990, We Wove a Web in Childhood.  I’ll go to town on that one in August with something ‘special’ as well as an ebook.  (There’s your suspense.)

When it was all 'before' me
as it is now all behind me. 
The journey from the plush velvet seats of Barrie, through black boxes and residencies to the land of Boal has been quite a journey. I’ve had two plays performed at the Scottish Parliament  - one on healthy eating (Life’s a Pizza) and one on recycling and waste (The End of the Age of Oil) and written plays with Fairtrade and Social Policy at their core.  Beyond the ‘anniversary’ collection is a period of nearly 10 years of commissioned drama as advocacy ,which is playwriting in a completely different style and this is much less conducive to published form because they have an innate ‘flexibility’ and do not render themselves easily to a publishing ‘format.’ All theatre is ephemeral but process drama is more so than traditional forms.  Several of these plays feature in the comic novel ‘A Week With No Labels’ also published this year in both ebook, and now paperback formats.

I’ve finally hung up my playwriting boots. That’s why it seemed a good time to take the opportunity afforded by epublishing to get my oeuvre into shape and ‘out there’ as The Anniversary Collection.   A last hurrah, looking back at a very productive and enjoyable time of my life before finally setting it aside and moving on to new challenges more suited to my health and personal circumstances.   Theatre (or drama of any kind) is nothing if not time and energy sapping.  And through it all, J.M.Barrie plays his part. Which is why I’m particularly pleased to be publishing the OMNIBUS ebook edition of Down the Line and The Admirable Crichton so that readers can enjoy (and compare) both plays in the one place.  It’s a BOGOF if you like. I believe Barrie has been overlooked as a playwright (maybe I think I have too!) but all I can do is put the work out there. The rest is for the reader to engage with and decide.

Maybe you don’t ‘read’ playscripts. Don’t worry. I don’t write ‘ordinary’ playscripts, so you could do worse than take a chance and delve into The Anniversary Collection at a point of your choosing. Down the Line and The Admirable Crichton would be a good ‘entry point.’ But there’s a vast range of work and I’m sure something for most tastes (for the price of a cup of coffee) I have published these because I believe the plays a value as something to read as well as something  to see.  And ebook format makes it cheap and easy to engage with plays for people who would never think of paying nearly a tenner for a written playscript.  I have rehearsal recordings of several of the plays and in the future when enhanced ebooks become ‘the thing’ I may revisit the collection again, putting in recordings so that you can ‘see’ as well as ‘read’ them.    But for me, now, the novel is the thing.
Not sleeping but dreaming! 

 Or if you must know more about me, my website is HERE. 


Susan Price said…
I read this with great interest, Cally! It makes me want to find out more about Barry, and read Down The Line.
Dennis Hamley said…
Great post, Cally. As you'll remember, I expressed disbelief when you said how much you admired Barrie, but that was based purely on P Pan. I've now read the Admirable C and in the process remembered seeing years and years ago a film version with Kenneth More saying the wonderful line 'Clement weather, my lord.'

'Down the Line' is great. I hope to interest the local Youth Theatre, the Pegasus, in it.
Kathleen Jones said…
Lovely post Cally. I don't normally read play-scripts, but you've changed my mind!
julia jones said…
I'm currently reading Bond is Back - and you;re right of course, it is very readable
CallyPhillips said…
Thanks for the comments folks. I expect Bond will leave you shaken and not a little bit stirred Julia!

I suppose that since like Jan I've spent a lot of time reading playscripts I never really think of them as 'hard' or unaccessible. But of course those who haven't read plays since Shakespeare in school might find the concept a bit odd. But I say - pick a cheap ebook play on a subject that interests you and 'dive in' If the writer is doing their job properly then you SHOULD as reader be able to 'imagine' what's going on - it's just a stylistic difference and I think can allow your mind to be a bit freer in some ways than reading prose fiction can do. It's NOT the same as seeing a play on stage of course, but only in the way that reading an ebook isn't the same as reading a paperback. I think it's more transferable to read a playscript than to watch a recorded performance where you TOTALLY miss some of the importance of the play. I'd rather read a playscript of a play than watch a recorded version (unless it's been adapted) of a play. Horses for courses of course, but my aim's just to make stuff AVAILABLE for folks to choose and maybe choose to take a risk and try something different!

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