What Writers ARCADE means to me

In 2002 I made my sister Laura go and see a play called Noir at (what was then) the Newcastle Playhouse. I was 23 years old and I’d never chosen to go and see a play for myself before. It was a revelation. It was dark and tragic and foul-mouthed and hilarious – and it was set in Newcastle. I listened to the psychopathic security guard ranting about his job in Fenwicks, and I realised that plays weren’t just things that came into Newcastle from other places. A person from Newcastle could write a play. Maybe I could write a play?

So, I tried to write plays. And it was like the first time you ever go to an exercise class, but spread across 3 painful years. Loitering at the back, making small movements then chickening out, keeping your head down, hoping nobody is watching. Not wanting to embarrass yourself in front of people who actually know what they’re doing. Not wanting to look stupid.

It was also 3 years of trying to track down a copy of the ‘Noir’ playtext online, because I so desperately wanted to revisit how that play had made me feel. When I finally received my dog-eared secondhand copy through the post I discovered that the producing company was Live Theatre. I discovered they taught an Introduction to Playwriting course. I applied, and was accepted, and spent ten weeks learning the basics of structure and character and dialogue with a huge group of other people from Newcastle who also wanted to write plays. We spoke our lines aloud to each other. We began to think of ourselves as playwrights.

I finished the course fired up with enthusiasm to learn more. I was lucky enough to get some ten minute plays read at Live Theatre. I got a commission to write a thirty minute play as part of a performance by Northumberland Theatre Company, which made a tour of the region. A fifteen minute play became a finalist in a London short play festival. I wanted to build on these things, but I didn’t really know how. I had a full-time job and limited free time. I enquired about the possibility of doing a part-time MA in creative writing but, because I’d already done one MA as part of my job in design, I was told the fees would be uncapped. They could charge me whatever they wanted, and it would probably be at least £8000. I didn’t have £8000. I looked for other development opportunities but they were all aimed at new playwrights, and I wasn’t really new any more. I had just a bit too much experience. There didn’t seem to be anywhere for me to go next.

In 2012 I saw an advert for a New Playwrights Laboratory program run by writer Andy Willoughby at the ARC theatre in Stockton – a course designed specifically for people with some experience of playwriting who wanted to stretch themselves. I’d never been to Stockton before, didn’t even know there was a theatre there, didn’t really know what to expect – but I’d never seen another opportunity like this advertised anywhere before. I had to apply.

Over 10 weeks I met and worked with a group of writers (many of them recent graduates from Teesside University’s Creative Writing MA) who forced me to up my game. We explored theory and structure, style and form and used our new knowledge to write ten-minute plays. We worked closely with actors and director from ARC’s Arcade network to craft these plays for performance at our own new writing festival. The play that won the festival, Toast by Alli Davies, was developed into a successful touring production by local theatre company Odd Man Out. Our ambitions grew. Scratch and script-in-hand was great, but what came next? We asked ARC to help us find out, and they supported us in making an Arts Council application to fund access to professional playwright mentors who would help us each to craft a full-length play that stands up against the best new writing in the country. We were thrilled when the Arts Council saw value in our proposal and gave us part of the funding – on the provision that we raise the money to stage rehearsed readings of the 8 new plays ourselves. (Events like this are important as they help us to find collaborators, performers and directors who are inspired by our work and want to work with us to stage it in full)

I don’t always understand the way the world works. I don’t always understand why people do the things they do, or don’t do. I don’t always like the way my mind works and I’m not very good at talking about any of these things. I write plays to make sense of them, and in the hope they will make some sense for others. But I wouldn’t be writing plays at all right now if it wasn’t for Writers ARCADE and ARC Stockton. I wouldn’t have met Mhairi, Alli and Nicola and started Meerkat Theatre Company, or staged our cake-themed scratch show last week. I wouldn’t have had 3 plays staged in an historic church in Sunderland last month as part of The Canny Space New Writing Festival. I wouldn’t have spent the last year developing a new full-length play called The Frights with Alphabetti Theatre. I wouldn’t have spent yesterday at the Young Vic and The Gate theatre in the company of award-winning playwright Alexandra Wood, pulling apart my new play and working out the best way to bring its pieces back together again.

Some of our mentors can’t quite place Stockton in their theatrical map of the UK. Some theatre industry professionals have told us to be more ambitious, to forget where we’ve come from and look beyond the North East. Please help us prove to the Arts Council that North East playwrights are worth investing in and that there are voices outside of London that deserve to be heard. If you’ve ever seen one of my plays and enjoyed it, or asked me when my next play is going to be on so you can come and see it – please make a contribution, however small, to our WeFund campaign by signing up to WeFund here: http://wefund.com/login/ and then entering ‘Writers Arcade’ in the Find a project… box.

At our last Writers ARCADE meeting our lead mentor Fin Kennedy encouraged us to share the stories we’d told him of what the group means to us – this was mine. Writers ARCADE members, anybody else got a story to share? Very happy to post them here on my blog for you!