I have started a theatre company and am writing comedy scripts.
Oh yes I am.
If you are a client who wants to commission me for serious work for the day job, don’t be alarmed. Look away now.
If not this was how it all began. Plus a few random moments from my so-called life as an ’emerging playwright'(hilariously apt term – evokes panicked mole). Also known as ‘a few old blogs I saved from a whole pile, for posterity’…
You should have seen how many I deleted forever.
At a rehearsal of my very first play (2013) I saw one young thesp staging some kind of fit with her forehead – like a toddler with nits.
I’d been watching the director direct, having brought three packs of biscuits to share and trying to do that mindfulness thing everyone bangs on about, by savouring the moment. Get me! In a theatre watching a rehearsal of my play! I thought. (It turns out actresses don’t eat whole packets of HobNobs in one go, which just meant more for me so all good.)
But I had to ask.
“Ahem, sorry… but d’you know why your eyebrows are moving?”
“No, it just says it here in the script…”
“It’s part of the pelvic floor exercise joke?”
She blinked at me.
“Do you know what pelvic floor exercises are?”
More blinking… maybe a touch of fear behind the eyes.
“Do you know what a pelvic floor is?”
And so I had stand there and explain the mechanics to the clearly-horrified gathering of Young People. By the end, they knew why the eyebrows were going up and down.
They’d lost that funny, lost look like the second Mrs de Winter and so forth. Me, I never thought I’d have to blurt out loud: “Not that we’re, y’know, incontinent, it’s just why you have to, y’know… The eyebrows.” This made me realise that as with everything else, if you want owt doing do it yourself – including crowbarring yourself into the casting process.
‘Full Fat’ (aka ‘eyebrows’) was my first stab at scriptwriting and when it was chosen for a one-act festival for new writers at a local theatre, I was cock-a-hoop. Though truly, I knew nada about getting my comedy from my page to a stage. I didn’t even know what a one act play was. Did that mean no interval for the loo and Maltesers? Yes it did.
Must keep my total ignorance under wraps, I thought. Must not look untheatrical. Very, very important not to let on I didn’t even know the theatre was there until this. It was my first introduction to the status of the scriptwriter – quite low.
Like the eager beaver I was, I turned up to the casting night. The creative director frowned when he saw me.
“Well… I SUPPOSE it’s okay for you to be here,” he said.
“But you invited me to come.”
I’d cajoled two friends into auditioning for ‘Full Fat’. Jo once unwisely told me she used to be in a circus and Hannah is a singer and that’s the same sort of thing, isn’t it? They’d lived the eyebrow jokes. Jo emerged from the casting exercises looking bewildered “I had to sing Hey Big Spender in pretend Russian!” she said. Eh? That’s not in my play. Hannah looked nervous, too. “I think they want me to be in one of the others…”
So they were cast in other plays, in direct contravention of my Comedy Writing Master Plan. Which was why, a few weeks later, I was breaking the terrible news about post-childbirth bodies to a host of youngsters with well-sprung nethers. The cast did a really great job, bless ’em. But I thought next time, why pretend I’m not a total control freak.
So I’ve created Narky Knickers Theatre. Just now, over my cup of tea. They can’t get you for it. I have not the slightest clue how this is going to work but one thing’s for sure, there will be plenty of biscuits.
TO THE BARRICADES!
God but 2013 was hard work, one way and another. I did, however, manage to attend a playwriting course at The Rose Theatre, Kingston, and meet a new friend. Jane writes scripts rather than just talking about it and I was slumped over a pub burger with her, moaning about how I’d no time to write around work and family.
“And you never will,” she said bracingly.
“You have to create space every day to write, surround it with barbed wire and defend it with machine guns. Do you want that gherkin?”
So now, when the school run’s over and before I sit down to the day job, I tootle to the café on the corner and spend a whole hour writing. It feels both wildly indulgent and absolutely necessary.
What also feels necessary is to tell everyone what I’m doing, so they don’t mistake me for a time-rich yummy mummy. I don’t give them the full ‘barbed wire’ speech but I somehow need to justify this thrilling new slot in my day.
I wonder if J.K. Rowling did that, when she was in that café writing ‘Harry Potter’? I don’t know, that might just be my way of getting in a gratuitous traffic-boosting link. Or Miranda Hart, she likes a bun… (Stop it. Ed)
Where was I? Oh yes, after three weeks inside the barbed wire I’d finished another comedy. A career as a journalist gives you one invaluable scriptwriting talent – speed. You can’t faff about with drafts when you’re on a deadline. Which is not to say I don’t rewrite all the time, but I do have focus when I am actually in front of a keyboard armed with a fevered brain and strong americano.
I’m not saying it’s any good, like, but it took shape as I wrote it. Inspired by a story I did as a cub reporter on the Keighley News donkey’s years ago, it’s rattled around my brain and finally come together… as a ghost story set in 1906.
It features a walk-on part for my old friend Bob from our Keighley News days. He was thrilled when I told him. Not.
Bob: “You are mad.”
Me: “That’s as maybe, but can you supply your own top hat?”
If this is going to happen, it has to be hemmed in on all sides by steadfast pals and contractually-obliged relatives putting their shoulders to the wheel and heaving my comedy career uphill.
Yes I can be a burden but I like to think I repay in gratitude and the aforesaid Hobnobs. Think of the thank you speeches people. Now… mush!
FUNNY MY ASS
I’m waking up to Radio 4 Extra as usual when my eyes fly open like a horror film close-up. Graham Linehan is the same age as me! And he already has ‘Father Ted’ and ‘The IT Crowd’ under his belt!
Oh God, I need to get up and write comedy.
Graham says he looked down and he was playing ‘Zelda’ and he looked up and he was 45. Except he did the whole genius comedy writer thing in between. I looked down and I was watching Juliet Bravo and I looked up and I was 45.
I filled the decades with being a journalist. But that’s no good, is it, comedy legend-wise? I am never, ever going to be on Radio 4 reading my ‘ilarious articles from mags and newspapers to an appreciative audience. That only happens to Caitlin Moran. Mine are chip paper now.
Mind you, if it was Radio 4 I could read them ‘Hughie Green Killed My Granny’ and at least they’d have heard of him. Though the laughs are pretty much over after the headline, it being the vintage ‘Take a Break’ tale of what happens when you win a lifetime supply of tinned food and it brings out the worst in them next door.
“Shaz will pull something funny out of her ass,” my American boss would assure our glossy magazine editor (the magazine was glossy I mean – though, actually, so was she).
That’s not what gets you onto Bafta lists, is it? So it’s now or never. We’re a very arthritic family and there’s no way I’m riding a Stannah stairlift onto the stage to receive my gong for services to British comedy.
Why didn’t I do this years ago? Not that it matters. I’m doing it now and that’s part of my story. One day the blessed Jenni Murray will be using me as a beacon on ‘Woman’s Hour’ for ‘Never Too Late Ladies’.
I’ll make sure I’m there when they’re cooking so I can chuckle with my new mate Jen about how we don’t care about the calories in the Elizabethan lard cake. There’s no time to lose.
THE FUN IN FUNERAL
The Queen is never away from my mother-in-law’s room at the nursing home. I know this because she is mid-monologue about how she and Her Maj are getting on at the London Palladium, where they are both apparently enjoying a show together.
So when I try to interrupt with a sip of juice she says: “It’s her again! Oh good, the Queen has kicked her up the arse.” The Queen has kicked me up the arse and the dehydrated old lady won’t have a drink. It’s all desperately sad. So why am I laughing? Can you laugh at dementia? Well no, obviously. But can you use an unbearably painful situation to find release through humour? Well that’s different. You have to laugh or you’d cry. As a writer my darkest moments are often the richest source of comedy. That’s because discomfort and humour are powerful ways to unlock truth. That blurted belly laugh can cure a lot of ills. You think, “Yes, that is so true about how that feels or pans out or should have panned out.”
I do think women get this better than blokes, though. Women tend not to confuse this kind of writing with merely mocking people with problems. That’s never okay. The indignities of old age are not funny but the situations they throw up sometimes are. The gifted writers Jo Brand, Vicki Pepperdine, and Joanna Scanlan carefully mined the bleakest sit (an NHS geriatric ward) for comedy in the superb ‘Getting On‘ and who can forget the black belly-laughs of genius Julia Davis’ ‘Nighty Night‘.
I was at the Women of the World (WOW) Festival on International Women’s Day last Saturday (and will be for the rest of my life now, it was fabulous). My friend and author Dorothy Koomson arrived to take part in a panel discussion on female friendship.
It was inspiring and we were all reminded to stop saying negative things about our bodies to our friends. Dorothy looked vaguely in my direction and said firmly that our friends were perfect just as they were. Extremely good advice and I love her too. But is it funny? Ignoring the body madness that shoots through our lives is a bit of a waste of material. Things about our looks that preoccupy us even though We Know They Shouldn’t. Bringing them out into the light for a laugh can often do us good. (My first play is a case in point – if you want to know what happened, click HERE.)
Some things are so very, very unfunny at the time that weaving them into comedy writing is really the only way to diffuse the experience – and hopefully connect with your audience.
Take a morning about six months ago when I was sitting on the toilet floor of a Premier Inn, en route to visiting family, with my back to the locked door and roughly 23 minutes before a copy deadline. My son was throwing himself against the door, demanding to brush his teeth right now and I was gritting mine, thinking THIS, THIS is the truth about Mothers Who Write. I felt tremendously stressed and unamused. But now look, that’s another 100 words in the ‘Diary of a Comedy Writer’ so waste not, want not.
The play I’m taking to the Edinburgh Fringe has a lorra death. The comedy I’m writing at the moment opens at a funeral. Trust me when I say they’re supposed to be funny. In fact there really should be a sitcom called ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Funeral’ – and it just might be me that writes it.
It was a dark and rainy night in Haworth (aka Bronteland) and my B&B was showing a refreshing disregard for the existence of TripAdvisor. The owner was apparently to be found ‘in the pub’ so I was trudging across the cobbles, enquiring at every boozer.
In the last one these terrible words fell from my cold and tired lips: “I’ve come all the way from London!” Did I say that? Me? Born in Bradford, former reporter on the local paper saying ‘Do Something Immediately I Am From London’.
Luckily my host rocked up and did proceed to make me welcome. So why was I in Haworth, the picturesque West Yorkshire town made famous by the Brontës and all that wuthering?
Because my new play ‘Friller’ is based on a fabulous story I covered there as a cub reporter 20 years ago about a daring, doomed Edwardian parachutist called Lily Cove.
I was on a mission to ask the Haworth Festival if Narky Knickers Theatre could stage ‘Friller’ there in the summer. When I arranged to meet John ‘Mr Festival’ Sargent in the delightful Cobbles and Clay art café I was really, proper nervous.
What if he asked how many plays I’d had on stage so far? Er, that’d be one. What if he wanted proof I’d any right at all to be coming over all theatrical?
But John didn’t sit me under a naked light bulb and grill me about showbiz credentials. He was welcoming and kind and enthusiastic.
“Why not?” he said and that was it, we were off to suss out venues starting with a beautiful, 18th-century church.
I took off down steep, cobbled Main Street, lined with the sort of quirky shops that see you staggering back up the hill with armfuls of fripperies you just had to have and before long I was remembering why I missed Yorkshire. People are warmer and friendlier there. Don’t bother arguing because I’ve lived all over the shop and I know it for a fact.
There’s me, wandering back to announce I was bringing a play based on a mystery from local history and not one person laughed. The tourist information ladies were all ears – and not just because I’d nearly cleared them out of Lily Cove postcards.
The cherry was a tour called the Passionate Brontës with passionate historian Johnnie Briggs. I was with my cousin Vanessa and friend Jacquie and we grew up together. How many times had we been dragged around Haworth on school trips being given the distinct impression that the Brontës were a dreary bunch? Lots, that’s how many. Think that school trip in ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’.
Johnnie’s tale, on the other hand, was so gripping that by the end I think the three beaming women in the bobble hats (us) were freaking him out a bit.
The upshot is my first foray into booking a show as Narky Knickers Theatre was a success. The comedy ‘Friller’ by yours truly is on at the Haworth Festival on 21 June 2014. There I’ve said it. Bit scared, obviously.
We’ve started casting and let’s just say I’ve only been in the biz they call show about ten minutes and already I have a headache. I’ll tell you all about it when I’ve had a bit of a lie down…
I was sitting as still as possible in case I bashed knees with Jo Brand, comedy legend. That would be bad.
I hadn’t meant to be sitting on the front row of the show. I’m not a front row kind of person. I’m a lifelong back-row lurker. That’s why I’m a writer, not a performer.
But the compere shouted: “Sharon you’re short, sit here at the front” and I ended up virtually nose to nose with the great Jo Brand, thinking: “Life eh?”
I’d woken up that morning at my auntie’s in Bradford and hammered down the M1 through Saharan sand-smog with only a Morrisons fruit scone for sustenance and now here I was, in cool Soho at the Union Club with a proper celebrity.
Should I be here at all? With all these wonderful, talented women with fabulous dresses and confidence enough to bottle. Sharing their stories with Jo and listening to her generous advice on making it as a female stand-up.
What if you just liked to write? Quietly, like, just you and your odd brain and a keyboard.
Eventually I asked her. “Um, Jo, what if you waited until your twilight middle years to start scriptwriting. There’s no open-mic malarkey for that so, well, where do you start once you’ve written the things?”
She told the story of how she and her writing partner came up with the idea for Bafta Award-winning ‘Getting On’. She talked about the realities of the competition you face to get your script noticed and then she gave that big, warm smile and said not to give up.
“Should I just do it myself, through Narky Knickers Theatre?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
That sounded like a plan.
Afterwards she reminded me that Richard Wilson didn’t enter comedy until he’d had a bit of a life first.
“And Margaret Rutherford,” I said.
“And Margaret Rutherford,” she said. “Good luck.”
Jo Brand. What a star. I wish I’d saved her a fruit scone.
SPECS AND DEATH
“Where are my writer glasses!” I puff, having ill-advisedly tried to run up the stairs. “Where are they!”
“And which would they be, exactly?” asks my husband.
“The ones you hate, the Dame Ednas.”
“And what’s wrong with the ones on your face?”
What is wrong with them is they may give the impression I am not a serious playwright. It is rehearsal night for two of the key characters in my new play ‘Friller’ and I don’t look even remotely artistic in my sensible Silhouettes. Why would anyone take me seriously?
Granted, the Writer’s Glasses (aka ‘Ednas’) do make me look a bit like those women in Gary Larson ‘Far Side’ cartoons but that is at least a comedy reference.
I used to live in Crouch End in North London so I know what kind of glasses are needed in order to look arty and important. And until I can stop flinching and screaming and making the optician drop the contact lenses, I am stuck wearing specs.
Jenny Eclair is, of course, the poster girl for fabulous frames and the WOW Festival was thick with statement black glasses and red lipstick. Unlike Jenny, I can’t wear red lipstick without making people spill their tea because they think the room has suddenly gone all ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’.
I bought the Ednas online. The website didn’t call them that. No, the site implied they would make me look all 1950s siren from ‘Mad Men’ but it’d take more than a bit of plastic and glass to pull that off.
Anyway, I arrived at the rehearsals space on Monday feeling hot and bothered and fake.
Then the director Adam arrived and I started to feel better. He really does know what he’s doing and radiates infectious confidence and competence and encouragement.
A really wonderful and quite moving thing happened next. I watched enormously talented actors bring my writing to life. Right there in front of me my characters left my page and became flesh and blood.
We were all grinning and there was a kind of energy in the room that was new to me. Finally I started to hear the people telling me it was a cracking play. It is funny and it is going to Haworth Festival.
I really am a playwright, even in my boring specs.
AS DOROTHY PARKER ONCE SAID
So I’m doing some Easter mooching in paradise – paradise being Barter Books in Alnwick – when I see the play section. Ooh, a lovely little blue 1966 edition of ‘The Odd Couple’, a comedy in three acts by Neil Simon from The Samuel French Theater Bookshop. That spelling means it might have started life in New York so already there’s that tingle of wonder when I reach out to make it mine.
Where has this faded, well-thumbed play been since it rolled off the press before I was born? Has it been owned by lovers of great comic writing, maybe resting in many theatres (I’m sorry, I’m not so blinded by love as to forsake English spelling) to alight after almost half a century on my own playwriting hand? Maybe, maybe, maybe it once belonged to Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau before they made the fabulous film version!
I’ll have it.
Then things become even more exciting. A shell-pink ‘The Ladies of the Corridor’, a play by Dorothy Parker and Arnaud d’Usseau is there, right before my eyes. Almost like it’s waiting for me. I’ve never heard of the play and there’s the small matter of it being £15.60 because it’s a 1954 first edition.
But I’ll have it.
These two books are beautiful things and now they are mine. Objects that speak actual volumes in the foolish ebooks vs real books debate. There really is no contest.
My favourite is the 60-year-old ‘Ladies’. I research it quickly (okay, okay, computers have their uses…) and discover it is a study of the plight of women who were widowed or divorced in the days before feminism could offer a few escape routes from lives of excruciating loneliness. Not sounding that funny? It is though, in the wincingly-accurate way these characters are brought to life by the woman who once wrote: “…guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, gas smells awful. You might as well live.”
One of the things I particularly love is the scene-setting notes at the beginning of both plays. When I’m writing I’m never sure how much I’m ‘allowed’ to spell out to place my characters exactly where my writing wants them.
So how about a snippet from the start of ‘Odd Couple’?
“The only cheerful note left in this room is the lovely view of the New Jersey Palisades through its twelfth floor window. Three months ago, this was a lovely apartment.”
And from ‘Ladies’…
“She is a small woman, admitting to sixty, who frequently has been compared to Dresden china … Over an arm she carries a mink cape by which she recognizes the autumn.”
Scenes and characters are drawn beautifully in precise and evocative sentences such as these. Aren’t we already there, reading them? In that messy bachelor pad? Beside the proud widow in that stifling hotel?
Reading these plays makes something inside me relax (nothing biological, don’t worry) about owning my writing. I see the worlds and the people I am creating very clearly – I just have to make sure I can tell everyone else about them even half as well as do my faded and venerable blue and pink books.
“Am I an impresario?” I ask, pausing from pouring the teas at a rehearsal of my play ‘Friller’.
There is widespread hilarity.
“A what?” asks Adam, the director.
Well I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking. It is just such a fabulous word isn’t it? I’m new to the lingo of theatreland. I now know that ‘off the book’ means folk have learned their lines and ‘on its feet’ means we’ve moved on from read-throughs and that I’ve as much chance of understanding ‘stage left’ as real left (it took me nine times to pass my driving test).
But what I’m doing, now I’ve done the writing of the actual play, what’s that? Organising the venues, advertising, checking licences, sourcing props and costumes, what’s the name for the one who does the frantic running around?
“Producers do the ‘jigsaw’ of bringing everything together,” Adam explains, when he sees I’m serious about turning up a fancy new title. That make sense. It brings instantly to mind images of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder looking completely unhinged in the original 1967 film version of ‘The Producers’.
I’m quite good at unhinged. How I like to work is this: I discover some new thing that has to be organised. Then I panic a bit and think it’s all too much to sort in the time available.
Then I get on and sort it. Then I give myself a little pep talk about how everything always works out in the end. Then I go have a little lie down in a darkened room.
Panic du jour on Tuesday was the music licence. I rang PRS for Music prepared to learn that it was a choice between all my worldly goods to Burt Bacharach or pull the song and sink the show.
Which turned out to be completely ridiculous, as the nice man at the PRS explained. The music licence sorted, I thought I’d put another niggle to bed. My play is a ghost story and the venue is in a church. Do Baptists mind about that sort of thing? Will bringing historical figures back from the dead for some cheap laughs offend their sensibilities?
I rang the rev…
“Hang on a sec, I can’t find the booking…”
“Oh here it is, don’t worry.”
“Phew. Er, sorry about the ‘God’ there. While we’re on, as you’re a church… this is a comedy but it’s a ghost story so er, is that okay?”
“As long as it’s funny,” he deadpanned.
The artwork was keeping me awake too. I wanted Miss Lily Cove, the Edwardian heroine, on a parachute and wearing bloomers (Friller – you see now?) and the whole thing to look sort of music hall-y.
I looked at graphic artist Emma Wood from Dialemma Designs pleadingly. Did she know what I meant? Yes she did. When she produced a fabulous illustration and poster in less than a week I was practically high-fiving the milkman.
Even finding the right sweeping brush for a key prop was a bit of a palaver, but you know what? I’m having a ball. Seeing my play come to life like this is keeping me cheerful.
Still, ‘producer’ isn’t doing it for me. Nope. I’ve looked up impresario and I’m ‘aving it, thank you very much.
It means a person who ‘organises and often finances concerts, plays and operas’. Mainly operas in 19th-century Italy but who cares – ‘Sharon Wright, playwright and impresario’ could well add a bit of panache to the bankruptcy hearing.
So if you spot me sweeping about Waitrose trying to find a Victorian-looking whisky bottle while wearing a velvet cape and monocle, you know why.
Exit stage left. [Crash]. Right! I mean right..!
THE RIGHT KIND OF FEISTY
I am having the most enjoyable conversation with Alan Cattell, local history researcher and author of the fascinating Bingley and Surrounds: Forgotten Moments from History.
If you don’t know where Bingley is I don’t know why I bother with you, I really don’t. It’s between Bradford where I was born and Haworth where I’m taking my new play ‘Friller’ next week (June 2013).
The West Yorkshire market town might have other ways of defining itself other than how it relates to yours truly but there you go. Angry young man John Braine, author of original kitchen-sink drama ‘Room at the Top’ worked in Bingley Library and there’s Five Rise Locks on the canal if that actually does float your boat.
Anyway, Alan is kindly helping me find the Hansard entry about Edwardian daredevil Lily Cove, the heroine of ‘Friller’.
When she came a cropper in 1906 Gladstone told the Commons that right, that was it! Women were not allowed to do parachute stunts any more. Not men, naturally. Just women.
Alan is an expert on Lily’s derring-do and has unearthed other feisty females from her heyday.
There’s Bingley suffragette Nell Kenney who came out of prison only to get herself straight onto a train in the south of France to confront the Prime Minister and actress Muriel Aked, the daughter of a mill owner who ended up a film star.
There’re two plays waiting to be written right there, but back to our Lily.
“Anyone who can get on a trapeze and go up to 700 feet and let go was just so, so brave,” marvels Alan.
He’s not wrong. In fact at the next ‘Friller’ rehearsal when Hannah White as Lily says, “I was brave, yes I was!” I’ve a bit of a lump in my throat.
“The Lily Cove story is amazing,” Alan agrees.
“We have all these ways of communicating now but how did that story end up as a leader in the New York Times?”
Did it? Crikey. Well I did not know that. You live and you learn when you’re talking to a retired university lecturer.
I could talk to Alan for hours and frankly, he might regret buying ‘Friller’ tickets after I’ve been badgering him for more stories of fabulous feisty females from yesteryear when we’re in town for Haworth Festival on 21 June (yes, that’s 21 June folks).
That word ‘feisty’ comes up a lot during our conversation. Feisty Lily, a working-class aeronaut before we even had the vote, infuriating parliamentarians by jumping in her bloomers.
Dauntless Nell chasing the PM up and down a train demanding the vote. Amazing Muriel giving two fingers to respectability and heading for the footlights.
“I gave a talk about them all to Bingley Women’s Institute,” says Alan.
“Actually they’re a feisty bunch too. You should get in touch.”
Oh I will.
Yes we do like a bit of feisty at Narky Knickers Theatre. The right kind of feisty, mind. The ‘up for anything and don’t try to stop me’ kind.
Not the alternative meaning, which is ‘aggressive and touchy’. As in ‘the audience turned a bit feisty when it saw some liberties being taken with local history in the name of comedy and ran me out of town’.
Not that kind.
An email arrives. Apparently our lifelike rubber lobster should arrive today.
I am not perturbed. Even though I know it’s for my husband. Even when he calls to ask: “Has my lifelike rubber lobster arrived?” I don’t bat an eyelid.
It’s about par for the course round our house these days. Despite a lifetime of being militantly anti limelight and hiding steadfastly behind a keyboard, our place is now a hub of creative genius. Creative something anyway.
Husband does the publicity for the local farmers’ market and is mocking up a film poster starring the lobster. It stares at me balefully as I stand up to my elbows in suds trying to get the labels off some wine bottles – props for my play ‘Friller ‘at Haworth Festival on Saturday.
Once a week the cast of ‘Grim’, the new musical from Untold Theatre Company, make full use of our piano and tea-making facilities as part of rehearsals.
We do call them the Kids From Fame – in a loving way – and did accidentally let them know that but they don’t seem to mind. When Friller director Adam Wollerton mentioned Grim was looking for rehearsal space I thought why not?
“Let’s do the show right here, right now,” I said. “I’ll get the kettle on.”
So fake lobsters littering the house, a musical about love and death being rehearsed in the living room, the fluffy dog on the sofa watching and it’s all a bit worryingly ripe for a reality TV show.
Nothing puts those legendary female multi-tasking skills to work like being a comedy writer and a working journalist and a parent and, oh, all the rest.
That’s why a weekend chez vous is full of moments such as shaking out many smelly male socks so the washing machine has a fighting chance while checking the first name of Mr Gladstone for a Friller script tweak.
Fact-checking some copy to file before downing a big coffee to check travel to Haworth into the night (how many people can you pack in a Fiat Panda, d’you reckon?)
It’s no wonder I’m having all the mad dreams, really.
A lot might happen in the next seven days but I’m fairly confident being chased across the Yorkshire moors by a giant rubber lobster in Edwardian bloomers won’t be one of them.
Then again, you never know.
COUNTDOWN TO CURTAIN UP
48 hours to curtain up…
Narky Knickers Theatre is heading for Haworth Festival 2014 with my play ‘Friller’, the story of Edwardian daredevil Lily Cove. It has bloomers, balloons and Brontës and we’ve been rehearsing every night.
So now we’ve packed me, director Adam Wollerton and actors Barry Rocard, Charlotte Knowles and Olivia Cole into my Panda and we look more like some clown car stunt than thrusting thesps.
We buckle up but are wedged in so tight it’d take falling off a cliff to dislodge us. Still, it’s not that far to Haworth is it? TomTom says about four and a half hours so we can cope.
Oh yes, we’re in high spirits as we set off from Surbiton.
Nine hours later we’re older, wiser and some of us can’t feel our feet.
What are the chances of a lorry fire closing the M1 and sending us off on some wild goose chase round the country lanes of Leicestershire?
Oh we laugh at first. Then there’s a bit of hysteria. Then a period of silent gloom. Charlotte may have fallen asleep or may have lost the will to live, it’s hard to tell.
The Panda peeps go a bit dark. Olivia tells me some scary ‘facts’ about how a certain fizzy drink can mummify your insides. Then the pins and needles set in. Then we have to stop for another Costa because we feel a bit like crying.
But eventually we hit West Yorkshire, land of my birth. I point out some landmarks from my youth with lengthy anecdotes attached and like rats in a trap, they have no choice but to listen.
Then all of a sudden we’re sweeping down a moor road and we’re here. No-one has ever been more happy to see Haworth.
I’ve set up a command centre in Cobbles and Clay cafe, haunt of Haworth Festival folk and lovers of good coffee. Wherever I go I always need to locate a fab cafe for when I’m writing or bossing.
Right now I’m doing both and maybe gallons of caffeine aren’t helping my mood but this is not the time to go herbal.
The play is tomorrow and the programme is still unprinted. Being a producer should come with headache tablets. I’m furiously pulling together bios and headshots while my husband designs it back home before running to the print shop and then heading north for the show. He is also, to put it mildly, a bit stressed.
My crazed air dates from the moment we skipped into Haworth visitor information centre earlier to enquire about ticket sales.
“We’ve sold three.”
“Let me check the book. Yes three, see?”
Three tickets. The show is tomorrow. I contemplate a swoon. “But they’re selling them lots of places so don’t worry,” she says, possibly alarmed for her Brontë postcard display if I keel over.
Adam clocks the deranged look on my face.
“They’ve sold loads online and you always sell last minute at festivals, don’t worry,” he says, steering me carefully past the crockery shelves.
So this is at the very front of my brain as I sit in Cobbles, trying to proof and edit while also sending unhinged texts and tweets to festival chief John Sargent.
“John! Is that you at the top of Main Street in the beige top? I’d run up but I might be wrong. Are you near Cobbles for a catch-up?”
That kind of thing.
John comes to find me and exudes kindly calm as we talk while answering texts from the world and his wife. John has pulled together a fab arts festival in the teeth of the Tour de France, which is due through Haworth in July 2014 and has quite literally taken over Yorkshire.
There are yellow jerseys and knots of cyclists everywhere. ‘Tour de Yorkshire’ is a big deal and pretty much all anyone can think of tourism-wise. So the fact the festival is thriving and pulling in good audiences alongside all the pedal power is a real feat.
The programme has to be finished so I go into deadline mode. I’ve been a journalist all my life so I actually feel calmer. Once it’s achieved – as it always is – a weight lifts. It’s time to start enjoying this.
Adam arrives and we find the others to tootle around the gorgeous shops and spread the ‘Friller’ word.
It’s just as well it’ll be 48 hours before I spot that Branwell Brontë has suffered a typo…
I’m loving how much Adam, Charlotte, Olivia and Barry are loving Haworth. Everyone here is so friendly and supportive and Lily Cove is as much a Haworth heroine as the Brontë sisters. Time to visit West Lane Baptist Centre, the beautiful 18th-century venue on the edge of the village.
“Do you have anything we can use as a bar?” asks Adam.
“We have a bar,” says the minister.
“An actual bar?” I gasp.
Yep, an actual stage bar. And bar stools and Edwardian-looking chairs. He takes us to an Aladdin’s cave of props owned by the amateur operatic society and I just stand and stare.
I’m torn between being delighted and thinking, could anyone maybe have mentioned this. It’s a simple set but the era is 1906. At one point I was going to hare off to the National Theatre props hire people and attempt to pack a vintage camera on legs into the Panda.
“Don’t suppose you have an old-fashioned camera?” I say.
“Will this do?” he says, producing the perfect prop.
I decide against kissing him as a. we’ve only just met b. he is a reverend and c. this is Yorkshire.
“Told you everything always works out,” says Adam. “Stop worrying!”
So I do… for a bit.
It’s evening and the ‘Friller’ cast is all here with Hannah White, Jeremy Preston and Emma Rose now safely in God’s own county. My old mucker Bob Smith from the Keighley News joins us to rehearse his lines as local celebrity cameo.
He’s only doing it out of friendship (I started out on the KN, where I discovered Lily Cove) and didn’t even complain when I sent him off on an 11th-hour costume hunt in Barnoldswick.
We run lines and I love how confident and word perfect everyone is. I’ve suffered some bleak moments in rehearsals, wondering if my writing would survive intact. It has and they’ve brought it to life.
It’s the day of the play and I watch Adam and the cast get serious. Their warm-ups and focused dress rehearsal make me realise they don’t need me around. I’m impressed every single time I watch Adam in action as a director and this is where it all comes together.
They’re pros, so I leave them it and go for a cuppa with the rellies and friends who’ve come to support me. They don’t realise they’ll be hefting scenery and flogging tickets to the unwary too.
We regroup for something I’ve wanted to share with the cast, The Passionate Brontes.tour led by gifted storyteller Johnnie Briggs. He kindly plugs ‘Friller’ then leads us through the village and has everyone mesmerised by the story of this extraordinary family. I’m inspired again by the power of writing to transform our lives and the need to keep on writing, whatever life throws at you.
Then I go back to worrying about ticket sales.
Adam and the cast are in the auditorium and I’m downstairs on the ticket desk with my right-hand woman and chief cheerleader Luci. This is where I find out whether the world premiere of ‘Friller’ by Sharon Tracey Wright has an audience of more than three.
I’m getting ready to hyperventilate when people start coming through the door. There’s Johnnie Briggs and the ladies from the visitor centre. Alan Cattell arrives, the historian who helped me with research, and the lady from Cobbles and Clay.
Well that’s more than three, I think. Then I look up and there are actual crowds of people arriving. Crikey!
I follow them in and take my seat. Every row is full. Well look at that folks, I think we can call that a sell-out. But will they find it funny? The lights go down and all that’s left to do is find out.
I can’t blink but I can chew my lip. Try not to look terrified, I think. That’s not good for morale. Then my play happens in front of me and I’ve never seen it performed so well. Something happens to actors when they step out in front of an audience – something a bit magical.
Hannah brings Lily Cove to life as the feisty, funny, almost-forgotten heroine of history. Olivia plays Lily’s friend Peg with perfect, deadpan delivery. Charlotte’s absolute gift for comedy shines out as Charlotte Brontë and Emma pulls off hilarious on-stage histrionics as Emily.
Jeremy makes Branwell his own and Barry was born to play the irascible Ulsterman Patrick Brontë. And Bob? Well Bob’s a revelation.
The best thing though is the laughing.
The audience is chortling in all the right places and all too soon clapping madly at the end. Bows are taken and then bang, it’s over.
I look at Adam and Adam looks at me. That, we know, was bloody brilliant.
After mucho hugging of anyone and everyone from me (I blame the relief) we walk across the cobbles to the post-production pub celebration, planning the next show.
‘Friller’ has arrived and already people are talking about booking us for other festivals.
As my lovely Lily says: “Up the blessed bloomers!”
THE KEY TO HEAVEN
“So is wife-swapping the same as that swinging, then?” I ask.
“I think so,” says Andy.
“You live and you learn,” I say, taking a sip of cappuccino.
These are the kind of zeitgeist lingo discussions we playwrights enjoy in our salons. Well I say salon, this writers group consists of me and Andy Moseley in the Rose Theatre cafe in Kingston.
We met via the oneACTS Festival in Tolworth last year and now enjoy regular coffees to discuss matters theatrical.
We’re talking about his play ‘Casual Encounters’, which is at Surgeons Hall at the Edinburgh Festival from 1-16 August. It’s a dark comedy about a couple who go for marriage guidance and end up with a bit more than they bargained for… [insert your own modern phrase for shagabout-shenanigans here].
I really admire his work so I can’t wait. I’ve booked my tickets and so have a good many other people and it’s only July so understandably, Andy looks quite happy.
So back to me.
I bring the conversation back to my Prob du Jour. These are usually of a practical and beginner’s nature and Andy always has the answer. Sometimes, though, I can still amaze him with my stupidity.
“So where IS the tab key?” I wail.
I’ve been going mad with the quest to find the simple solution to formatting my scripts. I cannot stand things not to look clean and correct on a page. It’s my journo soul. My iPad Pages app has a helpful button that says ‘Tab’ so even I worked that one out. But on my MacBook?
I’ve faffed with Celtx, I’ve tried to follow lengthy Google-supplied guides to creating a Word template, I’ve almost cried in the failed attempts to create hanging idents, I’ve looked in books, I’ve combed the web.
“Er, mine’s next to the Q key,” Andy says. “Try that?”
Oh my giddy god, that’s it. So now I’m looking at it thinking, how could I not know that? Anyway, it’s the key to heaven. Heaven being me getting my new script and formatting it properly with the right tabs. Now it looks right. Now it looks professional.
Now I can see if anyone finds it funny.
IS THAT NORMAL?
We’re in an L-shaped black box upstairs at a London pub, the lights are down and my friend Katie is waiting to go on stage. I’m listening to The Antipoet delivering a fantastically furious rant when I see Katie rummaging in a sequinned purse.
“What are they?” I whisper.
“Vagina magnets,” Katie says.
Of course they are.
Fuzzy Felt-style fannies are the absolutely perfect prop for Katie – aka Mama Tokus, extraordinary performance poet, singer and puppeteer. Then she’s up on stage and I’m laughing out loud at a poem about eating people and another about new words for one’s women’s area.
You have to be there, really, but you get the gist from her website. It’s the perfect finale to a fabulous day.
Three hours earlier we were to be found at the British Museum being appalled at ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’. The drawings are beautifully done but basically hysterically bad news for women – especially old women.
If you were that Albrecht Dürer, say, and wanted to make a lady dead devilish you simply made her old. He did one called ‘Witch riding backwards on a goat’ just for the avoidance of doubt about what gobby grannies get up to.
“A pair of sagging knockers doesn’t make you evil!” I huff.
Which is just as well.
“This is an awful way to portray women!” Katie says.
Well yes, that’ll be why they were all burnt to death or drowned. You only had to know to rub a dock leaf on a nettle sting and they’d be setting fire to your knitting and putting your cat down.
We try to be amused but actually it’s a bit depressing because in 500 years demonising women has never really made it off the table has it, so we bugger off to the cafe.
We’ve been to lots of cafes to chat, something Katie attributes to being really close to our respective grandmas. We grew up getting cosy over cups of tea and this has been the best bit of her flying visit.
I met Katie when we were reporters on the Evening Herald in Plymouth back when my boobs didn’t make me a candidate for the ducking stool. She’s an energising, inspiring, funny woman to be around and a tonic at the fag-end of a tough year.
We talk about how we write and where we want our creative work to take us. It’s okay to admit how serious I am about my writing. I even screw up courage and ask her to read my latest script.
Katie is nothing if not honest. When I pulled on my lace-up Clarks ankle boots she said: “Where are your callipers?”
So if my play gets a cheerfully blunt thumbs down I’ll know it’s the truth. I try not to chew my nails when she comes back into the room.
“It’s a bloody laugh a line!” she says. “Love it, Love!”
Hurray! We settle down for our last shared teapot before she heads for the train and I go to the doctor’s and Katie has an idea.
“I dare you to bung a magnet under your skirt and say ‘Is that normal?’”
We fall about laughing. I think about it for a minute. Sip my tea.
“Better not,” I say.
(Enjoy some “saucy swing, fruity funk and rude blues from the ladies’ perspective” with Mama’s new album, called ‘On The Ragtime’. Naturally.)