It’s a writing cliché that you should write about what you know and, in common with most playwrights, a chunk of my own experience makes its way into the work, usually heavily disguised, or so oblique even I don’t notice it at the time. Direct biography makes for very tedious storytelling (And sometimes dazzling verbatim theatre) but playwrights are people and informed by their own experience. My desire to extend the theatrical repertoire for learning disabled actors is certainly informed by my own life.
This is a photograph of me and my sister Fiona lounging about in our garden in Wilmslow when we were kids. What I later came to understand as a minority experience, growing up with someone (Who I was, and continue to be, very close to) with a learning disability, Downs Syndrome, for me was normality. Like all siblings my view of the world was formed not only by my own interactions, successes and challenges but also by my sister’s and I was aware from a very early age that although the terrain was identical we both had different versions of the human road map, and different obstacles to overcome. I knew we shared the same emotional spectrum; a capacity to make ourselves cry by pulling sad faces in the mirror, to laugh uncontrollably, that we both had an insatiable desire for chocolate, a love of music and that the Dr. Who theme tune kept us both behind the sofa for the whole episode. I also knew that some functions I mastered were impossible for my sister, especially using language, and that she’d always need assistance to get through each day, for all of her life. When I was growing up there was little representation of learning disabled people on film and TV and none at all in the theatre so my ideas about my sister, and her ideas about herself, were developed in complete isolation.
If the purpose of the arts and literature is to hold up a mirror to the human condition, in terms of learning disability there was just a blank space on a wall.
In the 70’s and 80’s where disability was examined at all it tended to be ‘issues-based’, pointing up (Quite rightly) social inequality and injustice and appalling prejudice (Marginally better today though lets not kid ourselves, any internet search around learning disability will throw up vile commentary and imagery).
The incarceration of people with all kinds of disabilities in large institutions was then the norm. It was the case, all the way up to the late 80’s, that people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and learning disabilities like Downs Syndrome would be ‘treated’ together. The use of drugs and restraint as means of control in these large institutions was commonplace.
I remember watching a seminal documentary on BBC’s Horizon when very young, ‘Tongue Tied’ about the experience of a man in a mental hospital (Joey Deacon) who couldn’t speak, he had cerebral palsy. Because of his lack of speech it was ignorantly assumed that he had a learning disability until it was discovered he was of ‘normal’ intelligence and was assisted to write a biography by using a pointer attached to his forehead. He bashed out his life story on a typewriter, letter by painstaking letter and his text revealed an acute intelligence and observation of the imprisoned life he’d led in the instutution.
The world for learning disabled people has changed for the better in recent years and most of the large ‘hospitals’ (Learning disability can’t be ‘cured’ its present from birth) have closed but it’s as well to remember that it wasn’t so long ago that people with all kinds of disabilities- usually on the pretext of economics- were dispatched to a second-class existence, out of sight and voiceless, where the most appalling abuses were able to take place.
The idea however, even in the changing 80’s and even 90’s, of people with Downs’ Syndrome being represented in the cultural sphere as anything other than the total manifestation of their disability- invariably depicted as a ‘problem’- was still considered difficult and it’s only been in recent years that writers have begun writing for extraordinarily talented actors with Downs Syndrome- and that compelling dramatic characters with learning disabilities have started to be written and developed in film, TV and theatre. Finally performances are being created in new drama that allow learning disabled people to take their place in stories for general audiences- rather than being seen solely as models for societal education in inclusivity. At the same time exceptional actors with Downs Syndrome have benefited from increased access to vocational training (The kind of training non learning disabled professional actors receive at drama school) via forward thinking companies like Dark Horse Theatre.
Sarah Gordy is a talented actress who’s appeared in Upstairs Downstairs and recently featured in an episode of Call The Midwife, a role written specifically for her by Heidi Thomas. Joe Sproulle has toured nationally twice to theatres including The Stephen Joseph Theatre and The Lowry Salford in comedy Sing Something Simple and with several other learning disabled actor colleagues worked on an episode of Shameless for Channel 4 written by Ian Kershaw and produced by Lawrence Till .
Ben Langford played Oskar in major theatres across the country- a role written especially for him in Hypothermia (Published by Josef Weinberger) and talented young actor Ruben Reuter is carving out a TV niche for himself and is currently playing a leading role in CBBC’s Dumping Ground.
These actors are just part of an extraordinary, in many instances vocationally trained, cohort of acting talent rising up which deserves material to support its work. In pockets in film and TV doors are opening for actors with Downs Syndrome and I’m very happy to be assisting that representation in theatre. It’s only by more and more writers and directors- and drama schools- commiting to take the leap and broaden their palette that actors with learning disabilities in general and Downs Syndrome in particular will be more readily seen- and learning disabled people in auditoriums and in living rooms will see themselves in plays and on TV- not as saints or victims but as people with all the failings, ambitions, and character quirks that make drama compelling.
The character of Clarence in I Love You Baby is a man with Downs Syndrome at a crossroads in his life and the aim is for the play to provide another- extraordinary, surprising and central- leading role for an actor with a learning disability, which plays out to mainstream audiences across the UK…And hopefully inspires, entertains, and represents.
I Love You Baby examines love and relationship in the context of the family.
As the songs go love makes the world go round, is all you need, hurts, changes everything and needs to be justified. It can be endless, crazy, part-time and something that just can’t help being fallen into. Granddad can be told he’s in receipt of it and it’s what the world needs right now. There’s love for partners, parents, friends, children, and the universe and everything in it. What’s done with this extraordinary emotion and motivator leads to all kinds of triumphs and disasters in all of our lives.
In the world of the play I want to explore love in the context of sibling relationships, friendship, sexual attraction, the desire for children and between adult children and elderly parents.
In chewing over a framework to pattern these different kinds of love, and to provide a ready reckoner for my character’s individual emotional landscapes, I’ve discovered you can’t do better than the ancient Greek model which isolates 6 fundamental and different kinds of love.
EROS is all about sexual passion, lust, heat and insatiability, craven physical desire and a blinkered need to scratch that itch at all costs. The Greeks viewed this kind of ‘losing your head’ falling in love very negatively and some would say it’s a phase of falling for someone that’s acutely painful in its stomach churning delirium and obsessive relentlessness.
In this painting Eros is so hot and bothered by his overwhelming lust he’s having to cool down under a fractured water pipe.
PHILIA is deep friendship, a feeling of care, concern, respect and a desire to sacrifice and share with another person. The Greeks valued it far more highly than the Eros brand of love, which is more focused on the physical aspects of attraction to another person. This is the kind of love that soldiers talk about for their battle comrades and the depth of feeling that provokes protestations from two single friends of ‘you’re my soul mate its like I’ve always known you and that’s an amazing thing’ after a bottle of champagne and a solitary sway to Sade’s ‘Right By Your Side’ at a wedding. Its not necessarily romantic but it is profound, and can also relate to the selfless love a parent feels for a child.
LUDUS in all its flirtatious glory is clearly at play in this painting. I’d hazard a guess that she’s saying ‘Don’t’ and he’s saying ‘Go on’ and that they’ll both do this in very high voices, eyes locked and without any embarrassment at all for hours on end.
Then he’ll tap her on the shoulder and pretend it wasn’t him and they’ll both giggle a lot and run to an olive grove pretending to be donkeys, chase each other, catch each other, tickle each other, run away from each other shrieking and then go home separately skipping and snorting.
That’s Ludus for you.
Funny faces and practical joking, joshing, arm punching, showing your bling off, dancing like Olly Murs, wearing your hat backwards, doing a comedy lap dance, whatever it takes to get him/her at least looking in your direction, getting the ball rolling, casting wide and reeling it in, kind of love.
AGAPE however is a completely different packet of love hearts.
It‘s the kind of love that exists on a higher plane, it’s spiritual and universal and is often encapsulated in tree of life images like the one on the right, found in heavily stocked shops which sell incense and dream catchers.
That’s not to do agape down because this love is for everyone and everything as a matter of philosophical egalitarianism. The Latin translation of the word is caritas which is the origin of the word charity. It’s generousity and selflessness. Agape is the belief that by giving out kindly a bit more- universal justice, karma, reap what you sow, call it what you will- then the world will be a better place. And you can’t argue with that- can you?
PRAGMA is the kind of love you enjoy when you’ve nailed long termpartnership, when the significant other’s sentences are completed before they’ve even rustled up the beginning of them in the frontal lobe and not knowing where one starts and the other ends.
You know where you’re going on holiday each year and that it’ll take forever because he won’t drive over fifty on the motorway but you’ll suck it up- be pragmatic about it- for the sake of the long term view.It’s all about the concessions made to keep the love train on track.
Hard work, challenging but at rainbows end the contentment and stability of being committed- forever- to the one you love wins the day.
PHILAUTIA is exemplified by this painting of Narcissus, the icon of self-love who is clearly enjoying himself very much indeed- and who can blame him? He’s having one of those mornings where he’s caught a glimpse of himself, recognised just how darn hot he is, and can’t pull himself away.
However Philautia isn’t all me me me- the Greeks believed a less negative version exists which Whitney Houston summed up very well in her ’ Greatest love of all’ identifying the amazing love she found inside herself. In a nutshell the noble end of philautia is that it’s only by loving yourself that you are able to love others, and this can extend beyond revelling in your own perfectly shaped eyebrows and and six pack to intellectual and philosophical qualities- if you so wish.
It’s said that the perfectly balanced love package for the 21st century human involves elements of all six kinds of love; physical satisfaction, close friendship, flirtatious, spiritual, long term and for yourself- a quick tot up of your significant, and less significant relationships should reveal your areas of ‘strength’ or ‘weakness’- where you need to bolster your friendship group or find someone to make funny faces at…
All of this magazine style relationship analysis however does have a purpose in the context of the play.
There are 6 characters in I Love You Baby. 5 real- CLARENCE, SAMANTHA, SADIE, GRACE,TYLER and 1 virtual- BABY.
Using the 6 Greek love identifiers I have a map of the characters principal drives which will inform their relationships with each other and the world, as I move through the plot.
I’ll refer to this map (It’ll be stuck on the wall behind the Mac) as I work on the characters, and later as I develop the play through the first draft.
As I’m writing and forming the shape, content and characters for the play (More about that next week) I’m thinking more broadly about the other means which will be used to tell the story- particularly the aural landscape, what the audience will listen to.
I Love You Baby isn’t a musical but music will feature heavily, as an original composed soundtrack and score, and ‘Can’t Take My Eye’s Off You’- with it’s irresistible central chorus of ‘I love you baby…’ (Try listening to Andy Williams below without joining in) will be a central thematic song especially arranged in various ways for the production.
It’s a song most of us of all ages have heard in various guises, it featured in a Bridget Jones movie, it’s been covered by Lauren Hill, the Killers and Shirley Bassey to name just three and was beautifully and unforgettably worked to add poignancy and pathos to the bar scene in Michael Cimino’s The Deer hunter, on the night before a group of young men go to fight in the Viet Nam War.
During the development period I’ll work with composer Loz Kaye to find different ways of adapting and weaving this extraordinary song into the score for I Love You Baby- alongside the rest of the soundscape, finding arrangements which will offer scope to explore physical storytelling.
For now research is all and listening and absorbing is an absolutely valid process (Wonderful).
This phenomenal Radio 4 documentary is really worth a listen. It starts with a space shuttle astronaut’s account of playing the track in space…
After a few days doing other things I’m back with I Love You Baby, pondering space and time. The play’s been there in the background like someone extremely attractive and interesting at a dull party, who you know you’re going to talk to later, but who can be confidently left to emit pheromones next to the buffet table until it’s time to lock on. Today I’ve swooped in on the play, set down the stuffed olives, shed the financial expert who doesn’t come up for air, and pushed us both onto the liberating veranda to ask cautious questions, flirt mildly, and make tentative decisions about the future.
While I was away, in moments I could snatch to tantalise myself with the play, I settled on five characters, a place and a plot and these things can all sit dormant and quietly inform other decisions for a while as the two major lynchpins of dramatic construction are honed- Where is it? And when is it? (Including when’s subdivision- how long is it?…)
Being a director as well as a playwright has it’s advantages, though I try not to hold the big cone too often while working in the imagined activity as pragmatism has it’s place, but it can’t all be about ease of entrances and lighting bars.
Similarly producer mode, in cliché form a hard-nosed, cigar-chewing, bottom line-citing, bums-on-seats ‘lets talk about billing and profile’ machine isn’t that helpful either in the early stages of creative development. However both of these roles lurk in the background of this early ideas formation landscape providing the occasional whisper and nudge to the playwright.
After an intense debate between these three job roles in the board room in my brain (Somewhere between the swimming pool and vegetarian restaurant, I don’t stay there long) the following first round key decisions were made and actioned by all departments (There’ll be some more along at a later date when the board meets again and they’ll be dutifully followed):
The play will be in one place (No set changes)
This place will have flat white surfaces in it (For digital projection purposes)
The play will be made for end on performance in middle scale venues
The play will happen now, today, it’s contemporary
The play will be two hours long including an interval
The board took these decisions because:
This is cheaper to get in to theatres and to tour, saves a lot of work for stage management in an interval and also conserves an audience’s valuable patience. Unless you can do a National/West End/RSC fly the scenery in and/or have a huge chorus of singer/dancers/supers on (And run the risk of bettering the show itself) or deliver a stunning performance poet doing something amazing in the bar, probably naked and with fire, to take your mind off the furniture being moved next door it’s the road to nowhere. Scene changes are rarely interesting or necessary unless Ibsen or Chekhov or Shakespeare insists and there’s a not a clever way of getting around it. So decision made. One dazzling set which can be transported in a long wheel base transit van will suffice.
Self-explanatory. A key part of the plot. All will be revealed in time…
There’s a recognised dearth of work on the middle scale and I have spaces in mind and early conversations have been had.
It’s very now. To tell the story in a different time frame would make no sense. Generally the more compact the time frame the tighter the drama so I’ll aim not to be too rangy (Days and weeks at most rather than months).
Long enough for an audience to feel satisfied with the bother of going to theatre and to carry five ‘real’ actors and one virtual character, a lot of plot, music, physicality and visual spectacle.
And so on the other side of all that we now know where we are and how long it will take.
Below is what I will be looking at inside my head while I’m writing (Or something like it) and this is the space that the characters will come in to. Eventually I’ll communicate this to a designer, but for now, it’s mine and the characters’.
I Love You Baby takes place in Samantha’s penthouse apartment in Manchester.
But we won’t bring the characters or plot forward just yet, as I said they’re there, in the background, ready to enter when the world of the play has been explored, what Stanislavsky would call the ‘given circumstances’ (The things the actors work very hard to unravel when there’s no playwright around).
Many years ago I developed an interest in Second Life (It became vaguely addictive so I uninstalled the app). Second Life was, around the turn of the millennium, the premiere virtual reality interface for the casual on line gamer and offered the opportunity for individuals to enter a user-created world, and influence it. This concept of influence and creation was the driver and it began with the ability to create your own avatar.
The player is empowered to create a version of themselves, transgendered, taller, shorter, with completely different characteristics who arrives in a new world, runs, flies, crosses oceans, build houses, trades and makes and loses money, interacts, has sex and commits crimes (Some very shady and frightening areas exist). The raw excitement, adventure and breathtaking novelty of these ‘games’ and concepts is plain to see. There’s escapism and amazing creativity here- an opportunity to feel both skilled and creative- you are the designer, the writer, the architect and prime mover in your own universe, you are a polymathic genius ruling your own pixilated Olympus.
In the age of communal isolation when we’re all empowered by technology why not fill the gaps for ourselves?
I was attracted to Second Life during a period of tedious recuperation from an insignificant illness when being rendered immobile meant the on screen activity made long days bearable and often thrilling.
Samantha’s brother Clarence, during a period of change and uncertainty, creates and develops a relationship with an avatar called Baby.
But, as already stated, the characters will come later…
Not infrequently I’ve sat in front of a post show Q and A audience mid run and been asked ‘So how did it all start? Where did the idea come from? Has it changed much along the way?’ and experienced a complete and total, slack-jawed ‘eyes on vacation’ hard drive wipe out. In that tense moment of inquisition- you wrote the bloody thing you’re supposed to know- fragments of memory might pop up, an early production meeting, an image, talking to a designer, the tea-ringed top page of a an early draft amid filmic shouty echoes of chewy financial conversations with banks, funders and unyielding cash machines (One sided and expletive riddled) but never a clearly delineated concise, witty and entertaining outline of how a title became a bunch of creative people, became a rehearsal process…And became a show. At that point generally I look down the line of -much more ably loquacious- actors on the stage and ask for a take from one of their points of view while I consider a check up for early onset Alzheimer’s- and hide behind a post show ginger beer and feigned cough.
Writing, developing, directing and producing a play is a constantly moving and changing process, engaging many different voices and inputs, in an intrinsically collaborative yet highly disciplined process. Theatre-making is socialism, communism and utopianism all rolled into one (With the occasional rogue tyrant and revolution thrown in as you would expect) all rounded off with lights and sound and clapping at the end. It’s a big fat idea rolling down a hill with lots of people giving it a good whack for momentum. As the originator in this instance I’m a playwright, but there are all sorts of ways to do it, the letting go of the idea is as important as the coming up with it in the first place, and this duality, if it’s working well, leads to the kind of amnesia highlighted above.
I have a very good feeling indeed about this play.
I don’t always, but I like the fundamentals of this one. I’m going to be very happy to live with it for a while. A play about transition, life, death, love and what it means to different people because from where I’m standing (And occasionally lying flat on the floor exhausted by it all) it means so many complex things to so many people and yet we’re all supposed to share an understanding of what ‘it’ (Love) in its romantic/sexual/familial/spiritual form is. We’re all increasingly isolated (We’re told) because of our new-found love for technology, and yet we remain desperate to conform to ideas which at least one other person in the world shares. What does love mean in the age of political and personal fragmentation?
So if I were somehow transported into that future Q and A that question is, I suppose, where I would start. That’s where I am right now. Asking the question, looking through the window, walking, thinking, gently interrogating it while pretending to be listening to conversations about other things, watching box sets, swimming, eating early summer ice creams, and driving.
At the same time I’m framing and shaping- because that’s what playwrights do, we’re idea and emotion wranglers, coraling all the feelings and thoughts around the themes, into character-shaped gated folds in imagination fields, ready to drive them forwards into the structure, the shape of the play- and a plot worthy of carrying it all, and an audience, along.
If this blog does nothing else it will provide me with a record of a process which I generally forget, as it’s very much a moment by moment experience, just as the dialogue in the eventual play patterns moment by moment thought, and exists in the ‘now’.
Because currently the work is only mine, I’m just pre draft one, this is the sole point in the process where I’m working as an individual artist. It’s calm and quiet and wonderful. Just me, thought and ultimately words on page.
I Love You Baby is just beginning its life. The plan is for the play to move through research and development, be nourished by the input, technical skills and creativity of fantastic partners, actors, theatre companies, venues, all kinds of individuals into full production and a national tour. I’m recording every step in that journey and I hope you’ll come along with me. These pages will be populated with people, a vast range of opinions and the sound of many people whacking ideas down hills.
It’s going to be an amazing journey. I’m determined to remember it this time.