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The Accidental Playwright by Philip St John

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Photo on the right is of The Sylvia (2016) Italian translation, Teatro Pedrazzoli, Fabbrico, Reggio Emilia, Italy featuring Davide Pedrini, Fabrizio Carredu and Carolina Migli Bateson and courtesy of Philip St John

Jesus, what are these people doing to my words? It’s common for a new playwright to feel bewildered on seeing the initial, real-world manifestation of a play that, until then, has been staged solely inside their own head. Eleven years ago, at the age of fifty-three, as I sat in a beautiful old theatre in Bremerhaven, I felt especially confused. My first play Maxine (which I’d scripted in a larkish spirit, as a break from writing fiction) had won an international award. Now seven actors were giving it a rehearsed reading—in German. My play, and I had no idea what was going on.  

            Still, on the flight home, I thought, Foreign professionals performed my work. Maybe I can get it staged in Dublin?

            During the Fishamble playwriting course in which I had written Maxine, I had also written a series of intersecting monologues, and all of its characters were Irish. So I sent that off to various places and a few months later flew over to the 24/7 Festival in Manchester where the piece was to receive a rehearsed reading. At least this will be in English, I thought, taken aback to find myself among an audience of nine in a venue that could have held two hundred.

Within minutes I felt as weirdly dissociated as I had in Germany. The director, Chris Bridgeman, had warned me I mustn’t expect deep performances. Actors need time to absorb a text. But the problem wasn’t text-absorption. It was text. My elaborate construction had trapped the characters. They had no room to grow and the piece was as tedious as only mediocre drama can be. 

Afterwards, numb with disappointment, I was walking with Chris through the warm Manchester evening to another show when I heard him mention a workshop he’d be running for new playwrights in a few weeks. He seemed to be suggesting I apply for a place.

We stopped to watch two buskers perform Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door. The end-of-life ballad started me thinking: Nearly half-way into my fifties and here I am messing around with theatre. I need to get on with my novel. The Arts Council gave me a bursary to write that.  

‘And like, when do applications close?’

‘Day after tomorrow.’

‘What?’

‘Short play, Philip. Ten minutes. Have a go’

That night in my stuffy hostel room I woke up with a vivid scene playing in my head. A couple of sinister art collectors arrive at the remote home of painter Barry and his troubled partner, the would-be writer, Sylvia. Unspeakable events ensue.

            Back in Bray, I quickly wrote five and half pages, as much to get the material out of my head as to script a piece of drama, and emailed the scenes to Chris and a few weeks later, in mid August, I was in a rehearsal room of The Theatre by the Lake in Keswick. Four of the rep company who were performing in Noel Coward and Joe Penrose plays in the evenings spent the day testing my script, The Sylvia, with Joyce Branagh directing. Questions, questions, questions. The air was dense with them. By late afternoon, I was exhausted but satisfied I knew what to do for the second, final workshop. A radical rewrite. 

‘Well, last night my partner said to me, “Goodness, Joyce, you are sighing a lot.’ This was Joyce Branagh at the start of Workshop Two conveying her shock on reading the redraft. And she wasn’t wrong: somehow I’d managed to extinguish whatever sparks of drama I’d kindled in draft one. So we launched into another day of questions, suggestions, speculations. Though smiling and courteous, I was deep in endurance mode: get through the day, get out of here and get back to fiction. In fiction, the page is the full show. The writer is everything: scribe, director, the characters, the weather, the tea-pot, the leaky ceiling. And in fiction strangers don’t butt in with opinions.

Yet as the bruising hours passed, something inside me changed. Everyone was working so hard. They think that somewhere inside this embarrassing muddle there’s an actual play. 

As I was leaving, Chris Bridgeman, who’d been running another workshop, came over to say goodbye and offered to act as dramaturg.

‘Oh. Right. God, thanks, Chris.’ Like, just what I need: more support. At this rate, I’ll never get back to the novel.

In Bray, I opened the folder containing the book. I’d hardly looked at it in a month and had trouble concentrating on it now. I kept wondering what had happened to the characters in my play, Sylvia and Barry. After the drugs (and the orgy), did they split or reconcile?

I closed the folder. Okay, okay, I’d turn The Sylvia into a full-length show. And do it fast—sure, Maxine had taken only ten days. 

A worry nagged at me. I hardly knew anyone in Irish theatre. What would I do with a completed script?

A friend suggested I contact director Paul Meade who pointed me towards a festival of new writing, Collaborations, in Smock Alley Theatre. One of the producers, John Delaney, agreed to meet for coffee and I handed him the draft. John was friendly, interesting, enthusiastic, and clearly in love with what he was doing. At least people in theatre are fun, I thought. They work together towards a common goal. In the world of fiction, there’s so much rivalry and paranoia (myself included).

Next morning, John phoned. I had a producer (Collaborations) and a director, Liam Halligan, and two performers in Anna McNamee and John himself.

‘Oh marvellous!’

Well, no going back to the novel now, not with a guaranteed production only five months away. In a frenzy equal parts excitement and resentment, I worked many hours a day but progress was slow. With Maxine, I had an idea where the action would lead. With The Sylvia, I groped forward line by line. Often, I ended up in the wrong place and had to retreat and feel my way forward along another route. By the time Collaborations 2012 came, I had a script but it was, at the very least, rough. 

So we tested it as a reading.

‘Can I be honest?’ someone said, after.

No.

‘Of course, absolutely, I’d appreciate that.’

‘All I could hear in the second half was the shuffling of feet.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Feet, shuffling.’

‘Are you saying people were bored?’

She patted my arm and walked away.

I can still feel the pain of that moment. It was searing but clarifying. I had lost touch with the drama. Characters may have said interesting things. There might have been jokes and insights. But once the story slackens, so does the attention of the audience.

            For months, I couldn’t bear to think about The Sylvia. Then one day, out for a walk, an idea popped into my mind. The second (feet-shuffling) act needed to be a mirror image of the first—this play about a visual artist could work as a darkly comical diptych.

The Sylvia ran for ten nights in the main space in Smock Alley in February of 2013. Audiences were small but responded warmly and towards the end of the run three good-to-excellent reviews came in. Then it was over. Months of writing, workshops, pints, phone calls, debate, laughter, and after a couple of handfuls of performances, The Sylvia was history. 

Okay, adventures in theatre over—back to fiction. But some bug was in me now. Soon after, I woke up with a scene playing in my mind. Two men meet on a hill overlooking Dublin to plan a horrible murder. Another play.  

By 2016, five years after straying into theatre, I noticed people were referring to me as Philip St John, the playwright. It unsettled me. It was as if I was being accused of something I hadn’t done. Except I had. Without intending to, or really being aware of it, I had started a parallel career: four plays staged in Dublin, a translation of The Sylvia performed in Italy, and even Maxine receiving a production as, of all things, a radio serial, in of all places, The Philippines.

So I was a playwright.

This amazed me, still does. From the age of 22, when I’d first published a short story, I’d believed that within me was a single Creative, an introvert who shut himself away to conjure a story purely through the agency of words on paper. But in the room next to that Creative, and undiscovered for over five decades, was Creative Number Two, a more outgoing, quasi-entrepreneurial man of the theatre. And in the last few years I’ve been shaken to uncover another hitherto unrecognised artist, the prancing Creative Number Three. 

Back in 2020, with theatres shut and lockdown limiting us all to a radius of a mile from home, dancer and choreographer Karen Gleeson and I re-opened a conversation about working together. Karen had just had a baby and had retired from dancing after a cruel history of injuries. Yet somehow we felt we might be able to put together a show exploring how physical trauma affects creativity. Along with performer Michael McCabe and director Matthew Ralli, over Zoom, emails, phone calls and a couple of workshops in Civic Theatre, we put together the opening minutes of the show in which I performed and had it filmed in Mermaid for Culture Night 2020. 

Lately, we’ve received Arts Council funding to further develop this piece in 2023. So there’s a possibility this show might at some point be performed on stage. If so, I won’t be in the audience appreciating what the performers are doing with my words. Jesus, I’ll be on stage, pretending to be my ten year-old self.  

 

Artist's Biography

Philip St John’s plays include the international award winning Maxine; Temptress, the rights of which have been sold for a movie, and The Sylvia, which was the centrepiece of Dublin’s Collaborations Festival and toured Italy in translation. His short fiction has been published in New Irish Writing and journals abroad and shortlisted for major awards. He is currently writing two theatre scripts and a novel, all supported by Arts Council funding.