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Added: Tuesday 16th August, 2016

From the Page to the Stage

Playwright and New Writing South 10 member Rick Lyons shares his experience of putting on his own work for the first time. His play This Man Right Here is on at The Hen & Chickens, August 22-25, for The Camden Fringe.

At 1.09 in the morning on April 16th I wrote the following in an email: “In less than four months I’m putting on the first ever public production of my own play over four nights to potentially more than 200 people, including friends, colleagues and family and I HAVE NO CAST.” I went on to describe the “adrenaline rush of panic” I experienced whenever I thought about it and the fact I was even tempted to “call it off”.

The person I was writing to was my wife. It was, I felt, one of the duties of a spouse to act as audience and sponge for all the anxieties and worries of their partner, and I was cashing-in. The cashing-in here though was more like withdrawing from a one-month notice account because she was fast asleep (hence the email) and wouldn’t read it until the morning. Even when she did respond it was hardly a sympathy windfall. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” she said yawning, before changing the subject.

Four months later, it seems she was pretty much right. A lot has changed. I have gained an excellent cast, a brilliant director, a light and sound designer a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a video trailer, posters and props. I have also lost a few things: money mainly. In fact I’m so poor I can’t afford to replace clothes that have worn out, forcing me to spend summer in black t-shirts and a pair of black jeans. I try to look on the bright side. I look just like a stagehand, which is convenient because I can’t afford to hire one.

I won’t deny that there’s been wobbles along the way, but with just days to opening night everything, slightly surreally, is falling into place. This state of affairs is all the more weird because in many ways I am the least likely person to produce a play. I have no prior experience of either being on stage or staging plays. I didn’t go to drama school, I am an introverted history graduate. I don’t know any actors, I am decidedly not a thespian. I write on my own, I email my plays to people I haven’t met or more likely anonymous ‘submissions@’ addresses and cross my fingers. (It may surprise you to learn that this has not been the most fruitful approach.) So how, I ask myself, did I arrive at this place and what have I learnt in the process? Below, if you’re interested, is a potted history as well as some of the things my experience has taught me.  

Why didn’t I do this before? That, perhaps, is the overriding message from the whole thing – why the blinking ***** didn’t I do this before?

The creative industries generally are full of gatekeepers (sometimes, slightly sinisterly, they even call themselves this) i.e. people who have the power to give someone a thumbs up or thumbs down, to admit people into the ranks of the successful or toss them back into the herd. If you’re in an unsigned band such a person would be a label boss, but for playwrights it's people like literary managers at theatres. As a writer it's very easy to develop a tunnel vision whereby it feels your whole life depends upon your script getting through the first sift at the BBC Writersroom. It turns out it doesn't. You can just put your work on yourself. Realising this is not so much like bypassing the gate as turning around and walking in the other direction. Or being Truman Burbank when it dawns on him there’s another world beyond the dome.

Plays are expensive. Even for a modest fringe production the costs quickly add up: venue hire, fringe entry fee, actors wages, sound/light engineer, posters/flyers, rehearsal venue hire, props… Naïve and keen, this time I’ve simply scraped money together every time there’s been a new bill. Next time, I very much hope, it will be different: funding applications here I come.

It’s fun to collaborate but it can be lonely too. Being a writer putting on his own play I’m working with other people as part of a team. But being a writer putting on his own play there’s a sense that no one else is quite as committed as me. This is unfair as I have a brilliant director who is working for free and who has gone to the ends of the earth as well as above and beyond. But I began the process alone, recruiting people along the way, and so ultimately it feels like I’m the one wearing the sheriff badge.

Actors are the hardest thing. Obviously you want brilliant actors, but if they’re brilliant they’re probably beyond the level where a fringe play represents something good for the CV. There’s not a lot of money in it either so you’ve got to hope they’re interested in the work. Even if they are, they need to feed themselves and so will sensibly choose better paid work when they can. This means it can be difficult to get people to commit until its obvious there's nothing more enticing in the offing. For the producer, this means leaving casting until what feels like the eleventh hour. It can be hard holding your nerve knowing the play is listed in the fringe brochure but you still don’t have a cast. (Even with casting seemingly sorted an actor jumped ship with three weeks to go.) Thankfully I have got brilliant actors and a director who knows how to get the most out of them.

It can be done. It’s an achievement to sit down and write a sixty page play. But it’s an achievement of a different magnitude to create something with other people, for which they give up a chunk of their life, which becomes part of their life story and which, when performed, becomes part of the audience’s. Imposing yourself on the world like this can seem daunting and, before you begin, it can be difficult to believe it’ll actually come about. And yet it does. And it’s not that hard. It turns out even the most unconnected person (me) will find people to work with. I know one director I met through an open submissions competition. Fortunately she, and her contacts book, came on board and things progressed (sometimes haltingly) from there. The hardest thing was, I think, taking the plunge. I began partly because of my own frustration and partly because of others’ encouragement. The theme of New Writing South’s 2015 Theatre Industry Day was ‘The Proactive Playwright’ and I took it to heart. I’m glad I did. A full-length play of mine is getting a proper production for the first time. We have an excellent cast and a wonderful director about to deliver what I hope is a good play. I count myself very, very, very lucky to have such a fantastic team (and, yes, I include my wife in that.)

This Man Right Here, 9pm August 22-25, The Hen & Chickens, N1 2NA. Tickets: camdenfringe.com