Saturday, 28 April 2012

Centre Stage on What's Peen Seen?: Ed Harris

We're excited to bring you the next feature on What's Peen Seen?, as playwright and poet, Ed Harris, has kindly taken the time to answer some questions about himself, his past, his experiences and of course, his writing. 

A little bit about Ed Harris... your training, working history, accomplishments...
I'm a playwright, radio dramatist and poet. I was commissioned to write my first play, Sugared Grapefruit for the Brighton Festival Fringe 2005, and became Writer-in-Residence at Chichester Festival Theatre sort of off the back of that. I've had national tours of a couple of my plays, The Cow Play and Never Ever After (which was, ahem, shortlisted for the Meyer-Whitworth Award in 2008). My play Mongrel Island was commissioned by Soho Theatre and it was directed by Steve Marmion as part of his first season as Artistic Director in July 2011. My first commissioned radio play, Porshia, was broadcast in 2007 and got a lot more press coverage than I was ever expecting (and then quickly assumed to be totally normal, until my second radio play). The Moment You Feel It, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Tinniswood Award - and had Richard Briers and Rory Kinnear in it, and is probably my favouritest radio of the radios what I've done. The Wall was shortlisted for the Prix Europa; and last year I won the Writers' Guild Award for my play Troll. I've also written a cheery little radio series about suicide bombing in 1940s Nazi-occupied London, which came out earlier this year.

How did you work your way into the theatre industry? 
Left school after A-Levels and spent some years drifting through various jobs - a carer, a bin man, a dog handler - as well as all those shitty office jobs and retail jobs you have to stomach at some point. To be honest, I never thought about studying to be a writer. I never wanted to be a 'career writer', as such. But writing was the only thing I'd ever taken seriously, it was what I'd done since I was a kid, so I spent several years travelling around various countries doing various dead-end jobs, and spending my free time either drinking, having misadventures, reading or writing. Somehow I ended up in Brighton, and was doing a sort of stand-up poetry gig there when I was approached by the theatre director Andrea Brooks (now running the MA in Acting at East 15) who'd been in the audience. So it was largely by chance that I ended up writing for theatre at all.  

When did you first discover you had a passion for writing? 
I'm dyslexic, and was quite heavily behind as a kid. Took extra lessons while all the other kids were doing Silent Reading, and everything. Previously, I'd always drawn, but as I got more confidence with the language, I started writing stories instead. So when I was about eleven or twelve, all the weird little comics I'd been making for years starting coming out as weird little short stories, or wandering, aimless, slightly pornographic novels (as I got stuck into my teens) or poems.
Are there any particular moments in your career so far that stand out?
Too many to count, but winning the Writers' Guild Award was probably the most terrifying and gobsmacking, dizzying and happy moment of my professional life. It wasn't just about the industry recognition - which was obviously nice - it was more about the fact that I was this weird little dyslexic kid with crap GCSEs and a D in A-Level English, and no qualifications or training, getting an award for something he loved doing, because he'd stuck at it all his life.   

You write plays, poems and for radio - can you speak a little bit about the difference when writing each? Where does the inspiration come from, and do you start out knowing which you are writing for, or do you find it takes shape of its own accord? 
Lots of theatre-types are snobby about radio drama - and, let's be honest, a lot of radio drama is crap. But then a lot of theatre's crap. And so are a lot of novels and a lot of TV and exhibitions and comedy and popular culture. But radio drama is, at best, a wonderful medium for proper, juicy, hands-dirty storytelling. It's a writer's medium and you work hard and, on the day, everyone turns up and works hard, and does it all with interest, good humour and no ego. For these reasons I love it.

But left to my own devices, I'll naturally prefer to sit down to write a stage play. Knowing that you're on your own, secretly plotting a little adventure that'll - hopefully - surprise people and make them laugh and possibly produce tears, and create space in the audience's mind for reflection and thought and contemplation... to be 'backstage', as it were, on a live experience like that is stunning and exhilarating and feels a little profound, somehow.

But poetry was my first love. And I find it amazing that so few people read it regularly. Poems can be some of your best, sagest, starkest, warmest mates. If you go on a date with someone and you find out they don't read poetry, don't f**k 'em. Or maybe do, but don't bother taking their calls afterwards.      

How important is British theatre to you, and are there any specific aims you have in mind when writing? 
That's hard to answer. How important British Theatre is to me fluctuates. As the 'end-user', I can often leave the theatre feeling a bit alienated by the experience I've had. Sometimes you see a play and it just seems like a series of 'things' put together in 'an order' - and the internal lives of the characters seem left totally unexamined. Which, as a writer, I'll usually blame the writer for. So, in order to hopefully avoid creating something similar, my aims are to be rigorous with myself and my play, to write plain and hard about what scares or hurts me most, to be playful and generous in my techniques and approach.         

What would you say is the most important piece of advice to aspiring writers? 
Optimism's a real time-saver.

What is your favourite theatrical experience? 
Being engaged in watching a play and - for a split second - when a character lifts a cup or drops a glance or finishes a sentence, something in your mind clicks. And you have a thousand detailed, analytical thoughts as you process what you've just seen and applied it to your own life - and something's made sense. Something that maybe happened ten years ago is suddenly given the space to come back to life for a second, like a ghost, and be understood afresh. And you are in three places at once. You're there, in the room in the present. You're there, ten years ago with your ghost. And you're there, in the play, engaged in this character lifting a cup or dropping a glance or finishing a sentence.  

What's next for Ed Harris? 
Well, I just had my first radio series aired, and I just found out at the end of last week that I've been commissioned by the BBC to write a play called Billions as part of a series on dystopia. Other than that I'm waiting to hear on several other pieces - some theatre, some radio, some telly. On tenterhooks... in a totally Zen way, obviously. But it's good. People are trusting me with bigger, dirtier, kinkier things now. Which feels like an accolade in itself.

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