Friday, 17 August 2012

Centre Stage on What's Peen Seen?: Dan Rebellato

Dan Rebellato is “a playwright and an academic and stuff like that”. He writes plays for the stage and the radio, academic articles and also spreads his knowledge amongst the students that he teaches at University. Here, you can find out what he’s up to now, how he got to where he is today, what he did find and indeed what he might have found (had he known) useful along the way.

Tell us about Dan: who you are, and what you’re up to now?

I have two lives. I'm a playwright and my current projects are writing a play about the death of a language for Plymouth (who did my last play Chekhov in Hell), a trilogy of plays for Radio 4 about the Arab Spring, and reworking a two-hander about war and justice for a tour next year. 'About war and justice' sounds very pompous. It's a kind of thriller, kind of a debate, with classical touches; it's called Whistleblower. 

In my other life, I'm an academic, and currently Head of the Department of Drama and Theatre at Royal Holloway. I'm running that, opening a brand new theatre, launching a new curriculum, while also trying to keep things afloat despite the Government's endlessly stupid Higher Education policy... 

Did you train/study to a high level? If so, where? What sorts of things were you involved with at College/University?

I did a degree at Bristol and then a PhD at Royal Holloway, so academically I guess that's training to a high level. When I was at Bristol, I did Drama and, like a lot of Drama degrees, spent most of my time working on shows. I acted a bit, directed a bit, and did quite a lot of lighting design. I did a bit of playwriting while I was there but that really came later. Bristol was also a great music city at the time, so I saw a lot of gigs. It was the beginning of the Bristol trip-hop thing. Massive Attack used to hang out in the cafe round the corner from the Department (not that we realised what they would go on to be).

How do you think those have helped you throughout your career?

Oh it's endless. Things that happened at Bristol - both on the course and off it - stay with me and I think of them all the time. I made great friendships there that are still strong. I remember great breakthroughs, emotional, intellectual, creative, that happened and of course I sometimes think of moments of awful embarrassment and wince at them still. The course was good; it was very different from a degree now. You were kind of given space to get on with things yourself; I don't remember seeing any assessment criteria or particularly detailed feedback. You just chose things to write about and shows you wanted to make and you were given space to do it. That sense of openness, creativity, working with like-minded people, being challenged by your friends, that serious scrutiny, I guess I still always look to recreate that.

In your career now, are you influenced by people/travelling/arts/books? What influences are you most thankful for?

Yes, enormously. I'm influenced by everything. As an academic, your influences are direct: you read books, you respond to them, you're absolutely situated in a community of scholars from whom you draw, with whom you're in dialogue. Artistically, it's more complicated; you're always influenced, but the aim is to develop your own style out of those influences. People who have been particularly important to my writing would include Pinter, Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp. I love those writers. More recently Dennis Kelly, Simon Stephens, Linda McLean. David Greig is a friend from Bristol but I've always loved his writing and his influence is undoubtedly in there somewhere. 

Throughout your career, can you remember anything that has influenced you most/most profoundly? Are there any “stand-out” moments in your career to date?

The most important moments are often seeing your own work, seeing where it works and where it doesn't. There's nothing like seeing your work performed. It's a whole-body experience. The intensity of seeing it on its feet being performed by really good actors; it's like having a year's worth of thinking about your play fed into your brain in 90 minutes. It can be exhilarating and devastating and usually both. 

As a playwright, do you have a specific writing process? Is there anything you can tell us about this? Do you ever struggle with the infamous ‘writers block’ and how do you deal with this, if so?

I wouldn't dignify my haphazard writing as a process... I think about the play for ages, do some research if that's appropriate. I keep notes - I used to carry a Moleskine notebook around but now I use an app on my iPad that creates index cards that you can organise, move around, stack and so on. I was on holiday a week ago and we stopped for a coffee one morning and I had a thought about one of the radio plays and in 30 minutes I had figured out the structure. Those moments where the thing unlocks are very precious. I often use actual index cards and stick them up on the wall in my back room; it's a great thing to be able to 'see' the whole play at once. The downside is my back room can end up looking like the secret lair of a serial killer. The actual writing is the last thing to happen and it usually happens very quickly. I can draft an 45' afternoon play, for example, in a week. But lots of mental work has to happen before that to get you to the starting line.

I'm lucky, I think, that I've never had writer's block in a serious way. There are days when the writing doesn't seem to be coming out right, but I often find it's worth just carrying on regardless. Sometimes I look at it the next day and it seems better than I'd realised; writer's block in that sense may not be a problem of writing but a problem of internal criticism. I also think you can swap into doing something else on your play; if the dialogue isn't working, do a bit of planning of character, or tinker with the structure.

Although a parent isn’t supposed to have a favourite child, do you have a favourite piece of work? Or one that you’re most proud of, perhaps?

That's hard to say. I saw strengths and flaws in most things. There are two fairly recent radio plays, Cavalry and My Life Is a Series of People Saying Goodbye, which I'm immensely proud of. There's loads I love about Chekhov in Hell. There's an unpublished play called Here's What I Did With My Body One Day which was a huge breakthrough for me, a really complex text that came out of a devising process.

When passing your work to actors/directors, how easy is it for you to hand over ownership?

Easier and easier. The more you get stuff on, the more you work with good people, the more I see that my job is just to write the play. A good play MUST be open for actors and directors to collaborate with. I keep a close eye on first productions of course, but I've seen multiple productions of some of the plays and you always learn something from a new company's take on what you've done.

How easy is it to see/hear your own work played back to you?

The worst point is usually the first run through after a week or two of rehearsal. That's often the point where it feels most perilous: it's not your play any more and the actors haven't yet got full control of it. It feels like no one's in charge and the play can feel paper thin. Experience helps you get through that moment. The best thing is the first time it goes before an audience. That's the point where you discover the play. I often have that thing where you suddenly realise what your play is about and whether it matters at all.

Have you ever seen any disastrous interpretations of your work?

Well... I've seen interpretations that I don't necessarily share. I'm lucky never to have seen a completely incompetent production, but anyway you can learn about the play even from very, um, 'original' takes on it. There was a Spanish production where the cast spent the play running through the auditorium and screaming that I didn't feel was particularly related to what I'd written but, in fairness, the audience seemed to be enjoying themselves.

You write for radio and the stage: can you tell us a little bit about how this differentiates for you? Do you work differently, when writing for each?

I don't think I do write all that differently. Obviously you have to take into account the medium; so on radio you can change scene in a second, put a scene on Mars, have 10-mile-high Gods of Energy as your characters, which is trickier on stage, but they are both great media for writers and - unlike TV - there are very few people telling you what you can and can't do. Everyone is interested in something new and weird.

Is there any advice you’d give to your 20 year old self?

Don't be so defensive. It's okay not to know stuff. Attitude isn't a substitute for being smart. Being smart isn't a substitute for being kind. Relax and take a moment to think what really makes you happy. 

What reminds you on a daily basis that you’re in the right line of work?

Allow me a moment of cheesiness: our students. My colleagues are great of course but it's one of the great blessings of working in a university that you get to work with students, who are the smartest, funniest, most generous, thoughtful, quirky, interesting, creative and articulate bunch of people I've ever known.

How can we keep up to date on everything Dan Rebellato?

Well there's Twitter, of course @danrebellato but I also have a website if you really want the minute details...

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