Local lad Nick Wood is an accomplished playwright whose works have been produced across North America and Europe. His play My Name Is Stephen Luckwell was recently broadcast on Radio 4, and he is currently working for the Drum Theatre in Plymouth. This month he’s leading a workshop as behalf of the Nottingham Writers’Studio on the art of writing for theatre. So why does Shakespeare piss him off?
You’ve written extensively for theatre and radio. What is it you love about those media?
Immediacy and simplicity. The right movement, look, or gesture can often do more than half a page of dialogue. One sound can place a listener right at the heart of the action. I love the collaboration, everyone focussing on their individual skills and insight towards making the piece work. Apart from anything else it’s nice to have some people to play with when you spend most of the time working on your own.
Of all your published works do you have a favourite?
If pushed I’d say Warrior Square. Getting the commission from Nottingham Playhouse gave me the final push to leave teaching and to write full time. It was the chance I wasn’t going to miss. I put everything I could into it, but I also had the most amazing luck in that it was taken to a festival in Germany by the Playhouse, was seen by a director who wanted to do it, and went swiftly from touring Nottinghamshire schools to a theatre in Potsdam. That was 10 years ago. It opened so many doors for me. It’s still playing in Zurich and a new production has just gone into rehearsal in Germany.
I understand you were an actor before getting into writing. How was that?
When I was working I loved it. When I wasn’t working I hated it. It was exciting, I was doing what I’d always dreamed of doing, but I wasn’t suited to being unemployed and all the carp that came with that. I had to admit I didn’t want it enough. I took a supply job teaching drama, enjoyed it, and when I was offered a permanent post I took it with very few real regrets.
Did acting prepare you for penning plays?
It helped me to develop an instinct about how things work on stage, but I found my voice when I stopped unconsciously imitating other people’s work in my attempts to write a ‘great play’ and concentrated on the needs of the kids I was teaching.
Theatregoers talk about the ‘magic of theatre’. Do you think there is such a thing?
That’s the kind of phrase that turns people off theatre. It implies there’s a wonderful experience waiting, but if you don’t get it, then it’s your fault. This is the bit where I have to be careful not to disappear straight into pseuds corner. Like all art, theatre is concerned with telling the truth about what it’s like to be human, to laugh, to suffer, to be frightened, to be ridiculous, to be humiliated, to be in love, to be heroic. And that applies whether it’s a pantomime or Shakespeare. It’s rooted in the same need for a shared communal experience of our ability to create and excel and affirm our existence that takes us to Trent Bridge or Rock City. Sometimes, despite everyone’s efforts, it doesn’t happen, but when it does work, when the story and the characters find that level of honesty that touches us and makes us empathise with them and laugh, cry, feel their joys, their pain and equate them with our own as we sit alone and together in the dark, it is special. But that’s not magic, it’s founded on talent, passion and sheer bloody hard work. If that sounds a bit overwrought then ask yourself if theatre is so peripheral to our experience, why has every despot worth their name closed theatres or dictated what is allowed to be performed?
You’re leading a one-day workshop on writing for the stage, and organised through the Nottingham Writers' Studio. Who is the course for?
Anyone who writes plays, wants to write a play, thinks they might want to write a play, is interested in the theatre and wants to find out more about how it works.
And what can participants expect on the day?
That they’re going to learn a lot from each other. We’ll look at some of the basics, structure, character, plot, dialogue, and so on, we’ll get people working, together, and on their own, and sharing that work, in a way that’s safe, that allows us all to see what works and what doesn’t. We’ll have a couple of meals together, there’ll be time to talk about personal aspirations, problems individuals are facing in own writing, the practicalities of how to get work read, or seen, by theatres, directors. I’m looking forward to it, as it should be a laugh.
What can a scriptwriter do in a theatre he couldn’t do on film?
There are no restrictions. The only limits are the imagination of the writer and the production team. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang can amaze us as it really flies above our heads, or Grusha, standing on a bare stage, can cross a rope bridge that only exists in our imaginations, and we’ll hold our breath lest she fall into the gorge or be captured by the Ironshirts.
What’s the difference between writing a prose story and a script?
There are too many words in a novel, I know I’ve tried. There are differences in terms of the tangibility of how we experience a novel and a play, the time element, the novel will always remain a constant we can return to, the play is a fluid two hours, but, no, same job done in a different way.
How is the East Midlands theatre scene these days, would you say there are many opportunities for newly emerging writers?
There are a lot of very talented people based up here. There’s good work going on all over the place. It’s not easy to take the first steps into any world, it can take time, and you have to learn your craft, but, if there is something there in your work, someone will spot it. There are piles and piles of unsolicited scripts but they do get looked at, eventually. Everybody wants to find something that excites them, nobody wants to be remembered like the man who turned down the Beatles.
The info on the workshop says ‘If in doubt, bring in a man with a gun.’ Why?
It’s a piece of advice Raymond Chandler gave to an aspiring writer. It’s a good maxim. When you get stuck, surprise your characters, surprise the audience, and surprise yourself. Writing isn’t about golden moments of inspiration, it’s about solving problems.
Which writers would you advise aspiring playwrights to study?
You could make a list, Miller for this, Brecht for that, but I’d say read everything you can, but more importantly, see everything you can. Be indiscriminate, you can’t soak up everything you need by limiting yourself, don’t worry, you’ll develop your own judgement.
What’s the best ever play you’ve ever seen and why?
King Lear. It has everything. I’m in awe of it. It takes you through every aspect of the human experience. It shows us at our most elevated and our most debased and it’s still life affirming. Shakespeare really pisses me off. You try and write something and the bugger’s already said it all. I’ve seen several productions, some of them brilliant, but the one that sticks is Northern Broadsides, with Barrie Rutter as Lear. It was supposed to be his friend Brian Glover in the part, but sadly he died with the tour already booked, so Rutter had to step in. It grabbed the spirit of the play and shook it. We’re struggling, we’re misguided, we’re stupid, we’re abused, we’re down, but we don’t ever give up.
Saturday 24 September 2011, 10:30 am–4:30 pm, followed by dinner at 5 pm.
Location: Nottingham city centre. The price (£75, or £50 for NWS members) includes a buffet lunch and a light dinner with the tutor and other participants. To book, download the booking form from the NWS website or contact Robin at the Nottingham Writers' Studio.