Thursday, 6 November 2008

Double your dramaturgy - The Lady of Burma

My memory of Writernet or the New Playwrights' Trust as it then was, goes back to the very beginning - I seem to remember a launch in the East End.
My next encounter was a meeting with Jonathan Meth. Jonathan had just taken over from Polly Thomas and I had asked for some help with a leaflet. The leaflet was designed to launch a new radio drama competition for writers on LBC Radio.
Jonathan had read my first stab at copy and was not impressed.
It was my first meeting with Jonathan and I soon realised that his direct and forensic approach to my offer to writers, was going to be very useful indeed.
From then on, New Playwrights' Trust was a key supporter of Independent Radio Drama Productions.
Many years later - I joined the Board. By this time I was working part-time as an Associate Director of Polka Theatre. My role included Literary Management and the dramaturgical work on new commissions. I soon realised that there was little or no professional development for people in these roles and over a few drinks at the John Whiting Award, punted an idea to the Arts Council: I wanted to set up a programme of events for Literary Managers.
I got some money and set up the Literary Managers' Forum. It was partly inspired by the Writers' Guild annual meeting but my version was to focus on very small groups and create the opportunity to share professional practice and real problems in confidence.
Once again, Writernet helped shape and inform the debate.
This loose grouping is now looking to join with the Dramaturges' net-work to continue and develop the work - using the Literary Managers' and Dramaturges of the Americas as a model.
During this time, I was also working as a writer and had finished my first one woman show - The Lady of Burma - the story of Aung San Suu Kyi. I had been prompted to write this piece by the seemingly endless oppression of the Burmese people, but also through a chance meeting with the actress Liana Mau Tan Gould at Polka. Liana looked exactly like Aung San Suu Kyi. This meeting kick started the idea that I should attempt to write a play on Burma.
My good friend, the writer, Brian Mcavera, immediately offered space and time at Stranmillis college, Belfast - to write. This space, in the depths of January 2006. was a vital start. Most of what I wrote was tub thumping political ranting; but I did complete one scene - where Suu's monther dies. This proved the key to discovering the emotional life of the play.
By this time, I had contacted the Burma Campaign UK. I proposed (not having written more than a few pages) that we put it on at the Old Vic - to raise money for the campaign. They agreed.
I now had a deadline. Everything had to be ready for November of that year.
I managed to interview many Burmese dissidents and some members of Aung San Suu Kyi's English family and gradually I was able to build the reseach base for the play.
But one major thing was missing - I had not been to Burma. I did not have the money to finance such a trip and it seemed impossible. Then an activist, who I was hoping to interview, challenged me - how could I write about a country I had never even seen?
I realised it was essential.
I then applied for and miraculously got, a grant from the Arts Council to make the trip and to buy more time to write.
And as critically, the grant also bought me the advice of two dramaturges - Paul Sirett and Hanna Slattne.
Both were, in very different ways, vital to the project. I knew them both as friends and colleagues and I felt confident that I could deal with what they would throw at me. I also realised I would learn a great deal about good dramaturgical practice at the same time!
Both were very encouraging, but rigorous and both approached the text very differently.
In a nut shell, Paul's approach tended to be broad brush stroke - after the first reading in Oxford we realised the first 15 minutes had to go; the lyrical writing (lovely but....) just held up the story. And it was essential to put the audience at their ease quickly - we found a joke for the start which did the job.
Hanna tended to look at the movement of energy in scenes and how each line either helped the flow of dramatic energy or held it up. One of her cuts released the conflict in a scene in a way I just couldn't have imagined.
I then showed the text to Jonathan. He seemed to like it - but...why was it all written in the past tense? Wouldn't it be be more powerful if I transformed everything into the present.
This key advice was reiterated by the producer who came on board after the opening at the Old Vic - Louise Chantal.
The performance at the Old Vic was a sell out and we raised a great deal of money for the campaign.
And thanks to Paul introducing me to Louise Chantal - the production went to Edinburgh, the Riverside and then a national tour. This time directed brilliantly by Owen Lewis.
The Lady of Burma has been published by Oberon and now I am hoping for productions in Italy and Poland and to take it to the European Parliament and the House of Commons.
There is no doubt in my mind that the text benefitted immeasurably from all the input along the way - and my two dramaturges and Writernet were very much in the mix.
Richard Shannon

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