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Friday, March 8, 2013

The Inadvertent Playwright

Last weekend I finally got around to watching Cloud Atlas. I say finally, because I’m still none the wiser why we had to wait several weeks for its release in the UK, when it was on in the USA in September 2012. I expect the precise reasons for this are depressingly dull, dry excuses to do with scheduling or budget or whatever, but still: it was somewhat unfair, I thought. Especially as the book was written by a British author and the film had many British actors.

But it was well worth the wait. David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors, and Cloud Atlas one of my all-time favourite books. (It’s worth noting he wrote Cloud Atlas at the same age I am now. Makes one sick, frankly.) I like it not only due to its sheer ambition, scope and myriad of genres and themes, but also because it’s essentially six short stories, artfully meshed together. A real genre-bender, and gripping tales to boot.

But what I was really looking forward to, much like I do every time I see a film based on a book I’ve read, is to see the director’s - and the actors’ - own interpretations.

I’ve always wondered what it must be like as an author to have your work given new, independent treatment. Mitchell himself, in the preface of the re-issued Cloud Atlas, puts it well. If I may borrow his words briefly:

"... First off, there’s a primal kick to be had from seeing and hearing your word made flesh... before your very eyes, actors are speaking dialogue you wrote in your back bedroom years ago... all these non-existent people are now real... they find flashes of humour and menace which you never spotted..."
Four days after watching the film - and just as the circulation began to return to my legs (nobody told me it was THREE HOURS LONG) - I got the merest glimpse of what Mitchell must have felt. One of the short stories I wrote last year was a 2,000 word piece called "Me, Robot". It’s a comic, somewhat sad tale of a man who finds himself out of work, cannot bring himself to tell his wife, and decides to spray himself with paint, busking in public as a human statue/robot to top up his dole money. I was delighted when it was picked up by The Fiction Desk - you can read my original blog about it here, or my guest post for them about the background to the story here.

However, there was more to come. Rob from The Fiction Desk sent a copy of the book to the Berko Speakeasy, a Berkhamsted-based theatre/literary group who put on “short story cabarets”. They were looking for stories to perform at their event on the 6th March, and soon identified my tale as one which would work well as a performance piece. I had an email from them. Was it OK to use my story?

Too right it was.

Before the evening, I was eagerly anticipating seeing how my character would be portrayed. Previously I’ve had work read out before, but each time they’ve been straight readings, usually done by and for other writers for the purposes of workshopping or critique. This was the first time I would witness a story of mine read purely for entertainment, interpreted by a proper actor. More to the point, would he dress up?

Completely inadvertently, I had become a playwright. (Well OK, not exactly, but I like the phrase “inadvertent playwright”, so I’m sticking with it).

And what an evening it was. Taking place in the Greene Room of the Kings Arms Hotel in Berkhamsted, the room had been decorated according to the themes of the stories; tiger print tablecloths, flies, a severed hand hanging by the bar. Even the tables had little trinkets related to each tale. (These included dog biscuits, paper flies, pairs of swimming goggles and a tiny pairs of metal handcuffs). For the next couple of hours, the audience of approximately a hundred people were treated to enthusiastic and vividly interpreted tales by Guy de Maupassant, Rajesh Parameswaran, Carys Davies, Toby Litt and Miranda July.

My story was on last. Huge kudos to the actor Will Harrison-Wallace for – huzzah! – dressing the part: he’d actually attired himself in silver clothes, donned sunglasses and painted his face. All because of me. Top marks, that man.

He strode on, sat on a chair (as per the police station setting of my story), then started to read all those words very, very familiar to me, an experience both surreal and wonderful at the same time. Just like David Mitchell had said: I was seeing and hearing my words made flesh; the non-existent person made real. I’ve heard of writing characters which “leap off the page”. Here, I was literally seeing it happen.

My Robot! (Click for more photos).

It’s an immensely satisfying feeling. All writers, I’m sure, want to see their work read, appreciated, enjoyed, understood, remembered. When a piece is published, you hope it becomes all of these things, but of course there is never any guarantee. If you’re lucky, someone may drop you a note online, or be nice about it in a review, but that’s about it. But thanks to Will Harrison-Wallace’s interpretation and the audience’s positive reaction, I was able to witness this first hand.

So, huge thanks to Julie Mayhew and Ian Skillicorn from the Berko Speakeasy, Will Harrison-Wallace for being such a convincing and engaging “robot” (click here to see "Boss Boot Camp", a brilliant short film he was in!), and also thanks again to Rob Redman from the Fiction Desk for publishing it in the first place.


Postscript: the very evening following the Berko Speakeasy, I found out that another of my short stories, “True Colours”, has been selected from hundreds of entries to make the shortlist of the 2012 Ink Tears Short Story Competition. What an excellent week!

1 comment:

  1. Outstanding stuff, Mike - I didn't know about Ink Tears. Nice one. Don't forget us when you're turning down millions in advances 'coz you're too busy adapting Mitchell's latest novel for the big screen...