Write Hard – Barney Ashton

Barney Ashton

Barney Ashton represented the UK as a young playwright through the Royal Court Young People’s Theatre on 2 occasions. He has had 13 plays performed on the fringe since 1986 including Queer Dorset Bastard, The Bacchae, Born Angry and Torsten – The Bareback Saint which was written to be performed predominantly in the darkness of a basement nightclub.  

Barney is a powerful and outspoken writer who recognises the increasingly urgent need for new voices and new writing in theatre.  Although now the Managing Director of a documentary video label, he is adamant that he will never write drama for television or film, saying that he simply can’t be bothered to be bland enough. 

Here are some of his thoughts on writing.

Write Hard

Theatre Is Important

We exist at a time when global corporatisation of mass communication tends to formulise narrative to an ever greater extent or subsume narrative to the ever more awesome special effects in action adventure films like X-Men 2, Independence Day and Matrix Reloaded.

Such films are undoubtedly a spectacle and are immensely popular. However, we as theatre practitioners may feel that they are often style over substance and that the art of story telling is somehow lost in the wow factor and immediacy of the visuals. So where does the humble and ancient craft of play-writing fit within the constellation of available entertainment sources in contemporary society?

Theatre only seems to register with the masses as even existing when the newspapers can whip up a moral fervour about the shock value of brutal, usually sexually charged works such as Sarah Kane’s ‘Blasted’, Mark Ravenhill’s “Shopping And Fucking”, the Marquis de Sade inspired ‘XXX’ at the Lyric Hammersmith or Terence McNally’s ‘Corpus Christi’. And yet, cinema and television are at a disadvantage to theatre in so many ways. For a start, I don’t believe that film and television writers have any real freedom of expression; films and programmes are the product of giant corporations and as such are subject to rigorous board-level discussions, compliance lawyers, commissioning editors and, first and foremost, subject to market forces. My contention then is that the imagination is not overly exercised in cinema or television, because the writer is subject to so many restrictions. Also, if a film or programme is successful or ground-breaking witness the number of pale imitations, spin-offs and sequels that will log-jam the schedules in their wake. The ambition of television companies and film studios is to deliver predictable profits commercial risk reduction (in everything from storyline to the star name that gets attached to the project) and this tends to mitigate against experimentation.

As young theatre writers, you should know this, the power is yours. Contemporary theatre is alive and well, if you want it to be. The diversity of dramatic art in future generations will be there if you believe in it enough to work very hard at shaping competent pieces of theatre that inspire, inform, entertain and educate. You needn’t aim even to do all of these things. In this world of overly proscriptive critics, self-help play-writing books, correspondence writing courses, over analytical English Literature key stages and reams and reams of advice about what constitutes a good play, my only advice would be…. have the confidence to tell them all to fuck off.  Use your own intuition, your own intellect, your own experience! Do not write to a formula, television does that – in fact all the mass media do that – and writing to any kind of theoretical formula can only engender the kind of mental and spiritual ‘dry rot’ and ‘chewing gum for the eyes’ that the wonderfully prophetic Richard Hoggart was writing about in the 1950’s in his seminal Cultural Studies text The Uses Of Literacy.

Say What You Want To Say

The wonderful adventure about writing for theatre for me is this basic truth, that in creating a new work, you start with a blank piece of paper and a vision of an empty stage.

I believe you have the right to make your own mistakes, your first plays may well contain clichés, second hand jokes and an appalling sense of structure….. but keep writing! The rinse cycle of experience (and a few honest mentors along the way) will develop you into a watchable and worthwhile talent. Do not expect overnight recognition but also be open to the fact that directors, literary managers and theatre producers (fringe and mainstream) depend on discovering new talent. The world of theatre is as bureaucratic an environment as any industry, but there are a great deal many more visionaries working in it.

Theatre is a medium that is set apart from all other forms of communication. You might well pay in terms of career development for the privilege of working in this more writer-centred medium but you have to decide what is important for your soul as an artist. Remember, live performance is a bit of a wild card: beyond the ticket price theatre is not a tangible physical product that can be wrapped up and sold. It exists only at the moment it is watched.

You have the freedom to do whatever you feel compelled to do. If it is writing for theatre, take that responsibility on. Nobody owes it to you to read your work or perform your work….but this also means that you have the absolute freedom of choice to write what you like, send finished plays to whoever you like and to bloody well stage them yourself! Sadly, if you prove to be any good, you will have to network with some pretty condescending theatrical types at some stage, some of whom aren’t above that grim cliché of suggesting sexual favours, some of whom might be brazenly looking for their next vehicle to sustain a flagging career and some of whom will become inspirational, collaborators and friends. 

Fringe productions can be niche.  You can and others often do write exclusively for niche audiences safe in the knowledge that a fringe theatre is more likely to be filled in this way, particularly if you target your marketing and publicity at the appropriate magazines, social groups, web rings and meeting places for your target audience. Here are some niche groups that have recently been written for : Homosexuals, Asians, Lesbians, Recovering Drug Addicts, Rock Music Fans, Rugby Fans, Yardies, Ex-Cons, Bored Middle Class Housewives, Prostitutes and West Country Fishermen; write these down! Can you think of any others? Whatever niche you can think of, the Royal Court, that self-styled ‘national theatre of new writing’ will have done a play about it at some point in its illustrious history: ask their literary manager for details!!

What I’m saying really is don’t necessarily try and write a play that will appeal to everybody. The term ‘general public’ as used in many an earnest sixth form debating society doesn’t really exist. The limitation of writing for a niche audience should be your stimulation and often the more specifically you write about emotion, (whoever your character might be and in whatever context they might be) the more universal in terms of communicating you will become.

Believe In Your Talent

You have a great deal of agency as a theatre writer. You must believe that everything you write can be staged, even if this is ultimately through symbolic means. The audience, if the trajectory of your story is adequately signposted, will make those leaps of imagination with you, so don’t be afraid to make bold story and location decisions.

Now I have rattled on for some time about what you can do, this is because I firmly believe that so-called rules are only ever guidelines which the brilliant writer and born communicator will instinctively break. Be prepared though to hear, accept and learn from others. Be aware though that any guidance offered to you will come from people who will vary widely in their qualifications to give it. For example some failed writers or mediocre directors, might simply like the sound of their own voice and be fond of appearing more than they actually are. But smile at everyone anyway, they may be useful.

Never back-bite other writers, directors or producers as everyone in theatre is connected in some way. Ignore all the people who cajole you into writing for a mass audience, unless the articulation of the bland and anodyne is your chosen career path. It may well be and I make no value judgement, if this is what is written in your mind, soul, spirit and heart go with it, we will need the next generation of Tom Stoppards, Alan Ayckbourns, Andrew Lloyd-Webbers and Ben Eltons (god help us), just as we will need tomorrow’s Steven Berkoffs, Mark Ravenhills and Sarah Kanes and their canons of highly worthy, highly articulate filth! (Interestingly all of these latter writers survived the wrath of a calculatedly ‘incensed’ press at some point and all of them are now marketed as modern classics!)

Always be aware of the creative limitations of writing to order or, indeed, writing too closely in the style of a playwright who has inspired you! Oh, and do get out and watch theatre won’t you.  It shouldn’t inspire you to write in and of itself – your own interests and concerns outside of the theatre world should do that- but watching theatre will always give you plenty of ideas as to how to write words with impact and how to channel meaning in the peculiar alchemy that is shifting theatre from the page to the stage.

One last tip. Choose an in-yer-face title for any play you produce yourself and think about the immediacy of the image on the all essential flyer. There should be no illusion that you are in anything but ultra competition for the attention of any passer by so make your flyer’s image a visual hook that will encourage passers by into the theatre. Flyers should never be remotely subtle in any way!

I’ll leave you now with a little verse I dedicate to all the talented, sussed wannabe young playwrights of Britain :-

The Playwright, The Star You Are

You shit-stirring agent provocateurs!
You smutty little daubing troubadours!
Yo! You dirty little writer-fucker’s are
Tomorrow’s playwright pioneers!
Enfranchising the blacks and queers,
The ne’er do wells
And modern miscreant man;
The sum total of the stories you’ve told
Historicise your time so go be bold,
Write out the angst, the fear and hell
And shape it so it’s fit to tell!
Get actors who will act it well
Break prejudice and take the piss
Out of those to whom life does gift
Every chance that many miss.
The words you write will when heard,
Be seeds that might help change the world
In time,
If the heart and mind
Of you and those who watch your plays
Leave dreaming of their future days
Not lives of chance, but of real change.

Finally, be poetic, be brassic, be angry, be you! Chart the uncharted, say the unsayable and you’ll connect, connect and connect again. And you’ll be the best of playwrights my friend!

Lots of luv,
Barney Ashton