A Certain Confusion

Thoughts of a writer of sorts

#28PlaysLater: plays 22-28

Right, last instalment in my review of the scripts I wrote for the 28 Plays Later challenge in February. Surprise finding for me has been that they were not all entirely awful. I mean, the point of the challenge was to help get people writing, and it certainly did that – I wrote all 28 plays to the deadlines, often staying up late into, or through, the night and getting up early in the morning, and still going to work most days and trying to do family stuff, too. That was enlightening, and exhausting. I’m a very slow writer, usually – I like to dwell and mull before committing to the page. This was very different, and kind of exciting.

22: Antipasto
The prompt for this one was to “take the opposite view”, so for some reason I wrote an extended torturous metaphor for Brexit. Didn’t manage to sincerely embody the opposite view, though.
22. Brexit

23: The fly in the ointment
Looks like the prompt for this one was Utopia, which was great, because I’d already written about Thomas More and have been intrigued by utopias for years. And the bonus prompt was to let the stage directions go crazy. So I adapted More’s Utopia and set it in the future and in space, and added a crime and a solution that was, literally, perfect.
23. More

24: Four idols
Truth, reality, philosophy, theatre. Big ideas. Abstract concepts. A chance, therefore, to resurrect a play I wrote and produced in 2005 (not very successfully, it has to be said). This version was more fun. Favourite line: Theseus: “I love it when you talk hurty.”

25: Peep
Asked to go back and finish an incomplete script, I chose a short story idea I’d been failing to write and wrote it up as a play instead. Not much story, but interesting staging.
25. Peep

26: Torsten and Ethel
10-8-6-4-2-1. I guess that referred to numbers of characters or other elements, but I can’t discern them from the resulting script. I set it in a residential care home, for some reason, and although it’s rather cliched and by-the-numbers, the end is actually rather moving.
Favourite line: “Don’t you ‘young lady’ me, not today, I’m not in the mood for a lecture from a deluded old gent with a buttling complex.”

27: The Hydroalchemist
The prompt this time was to replay one of the previous challenges. I chose to revisit another unfinished script, this one dating back many years and based entirely around the title, which I liked, and the opening scene, which was a storm and you knew it was a storm because the opening two lines were the first and last lines of The Tempest.

28: Big Pacifism
Having started with brave little soldier, we ended with cowardly big pacifist, so I wrote a monologue for the kind of people who think it is their role in life to tear down what others have built. You know who I’m talking about. (It was a bit of an anticlimax, to be honest, but I was knackered by this point.)

And that’s it! 28 plays, a lot of dross, some potential gems – maybe my challenge next year will be to take the most promising seeds and develop them into something substantial. Wish me luck.

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#28PlaysLater: plays 15-21

Continuing the slightly cringey run back over 28 scripts I wrote in 28 days.

15. Cameos from English history
Ah, now the prompt here was for an epic saga, so I dug up a project I’d once conceived, which was originally meant to be a novel using the titles of at least 18 books by a single author, as cited in an old 1960s edition of the OED, as chapter headings. Chapters become scenes and voila! An epic saga of rural English life, genetics, secrets, and little green blue men aliens.
15. Cameo

16. More London, Very Utopia, Wow!
Site-specific, you say? Back when I was really trying to become a bona fide playwright, I had an idea for a walking play in London, which I wanted to adapt for other cities – I even went to Dublin to meet a theatre company about doing a version there. A whole series of these and it would have been some kind of theatrical version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. But none of it happened. So this was a chance at least to revisit the London one, which was about Thomas More, Utopia and feeling at home, or not.
Favourite line: “I met a stranger in the city of my dreams and she told me of a marvellous place, an ideal, unreal. And it was so obviously London, it was embarrassing to point out that we were already here.”

17. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine
There was a strict brief this day, with various elements to incorporate, but I didn’t note any of them down. There are lots of explosions in the script, so maybe that was part of it. And the banjo? Actually quite like this one.
17. Lever

18. Murder dot gif
Write a play in emoji. No, not a good idea. Sad face.

19. Do anything?
This was the Meat Loaf one. Only time I got a response from the person at Theatre Deli to whom we were all sending our scripts. So maybe it was funny? Or maybe it was just one that he opened to check I was living up to the task…
19. Meat Loaf

20. Perfect date
Almost a week after Valentine’s Day, we were asked to write a script for a perfect date. I based mine on an actual perfect date, spoiled only by the fact that it wasn’t a date.

21. Snowflake
Asked to be as offensive as possible, where would you go? My effort was actually a better Brexit play than the one ostensibly about Brexit that followed in the final week…

Speaking of the final week…. Only one more of these posts before we draw the curtain once more.

#28PlaysLater: plays 8-14

Week two of the #28PlaysLater challenge included a musical, a time trial and a play about body parts… Here’s the rundown.

8. Theatre of jeopardy
The prompt was sport, with a bonus if you followed the form or structure of an actual sport. Must have been down to the girls’ bedtime reading, but I chose quidditch, and felt like drawing attention to its preposterous rules.
8. Quidditch

9. Having a Blue Whale of a Time
Darker territory as the suggestion here was to start with the urban-mythlike game of blue whale, in which someone leads another person through 50 tasks, starting small but culminating in an act of self-violence. I wondered how far you could take an audience along this road…

10. The Pit and the Pendulum in Liquid Days
A musical, you say? The actual prompt was to build it around K-Pop songs, but I felt this was too far outside my experience to do in a single day, so I chose a story (Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum) and music (Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days) that I’d thought about putting together before. It’s not a cohesive result, but I’d quite like to see it on stage…
10. Pit and Pendulum

11. Conic sections
Maths. Yay! By this time, I was planning the plays late the night before and then getting up at 5 or 6 in the morning to start writing before work or family commitments – what do you mean, it shows?
11. Conics

12. Contagious city
This was the time trial – I forget how long we had, maybe an hour? It shows. I do not like to rush and this is why… Best forgotten, this one.

13. Lessons
I didn’t note the prompt for this day, because I ignored it – don’t worry, this was totally allowed under the rules. Actually, this script was based on an idea I’ve been fermenting for years, and it was good to work on it with a sense of purpose – although I’d like it to be a more substantial piece at some point…
13. Lessons

14. Little Coccyx
Body parts. I turned your bones into characters and made Gluteus Maximus the emperor of your body. Not a classic, in case you were wondering.

So that was week two. Come back after the interval for an epic saga, an emoji play and a dramatic ode to Meat loaf…

#28PlaysLater: plays 1-7

In February 2018, I wrote a whole new play every single day for the entire month. Theatre Deli run #28PlaysLater each year, and it was intense. A prompt would arrive at 10pm each night for the next play: I was usually still working on the current one (they were due at 10am the following day, so you had 36 hours for each one, though of course the overlap meant it was tough to keep pace with the daily task).

Now, nearly nine months since starting the challenge, I’ve dared to go back and look at the 28 plays I wrote. They’re a mixed bag…

Here are the titles of the first seven, in order, a line or two about the script and, if I’m feeling brave, an excerpt. It’s far enough ago now that I don’t remember the reasons for most of the decisions I made, and there’s sufficient distance that I can allow myself to be impressed by good things and not overly embarrassed by the bad.

  1. 40,000 balloons
    The first prompt was “brave little soldier”, and I actually had some fragments of a script about two soldiers from two decades or more ago, so I wrapped those fragments up into a play structure and there we have it. This is the opening of the first scene of the first play in the month:
    01. 40000 balloons
  2. Meet me in Canana
    We had to start from something we had seen outside. I used a small black leather notebook I’d seen on a wall (and a dead fox on the railway tracks to boot). It turned into a pale imitation of the X-files, which I’m not going to share…!
  3. Engagement ring circus
    This was to be based on a dream. The dream I chose was one I’ve written about before, in my discreet dictionary, but this time I had to find a way to make it into a complete story. Not sure it’s all that complete… but the dictionary was a good source of elements to throw into many of the plays. Favourite line: “I’ll need two thousand cups of coffee”.
  4. Victory
    Oh lawks! This was the first weekend challenge from Theatre Deli and they made it a humdinger – an adaptation, no less. In hindsight, a short story would have been smart; instead, I opted for “Victory”, by Joseph Conrad and spent most of that day and all of the night constructing a three-act, 22-page, 8750-word play out of dialogue from the novel (probably too much dialogue) and scenes that would add up to a coherent drama. Reading the book always makes me cry; my script has some of that tragedy in it, too, I think – with an edit, this could be worth pursuing.
    04. Victory
  5. I, Robot Lawyer
    We were given the first line of this one – and the last line, too, if we were up for it. I found it hard to get away from the oblique specifics of the supplied lines.
    05. I Robot Lawyer
  6. Office politics
    The prompt for this one was about equality, and since I was working on my employer’s Gender Pay Gap statement at the time, I wrote a play about that. It was not good.
  7. Dreaming driers
    Last prompt of the first week was to write a really bad play. Like I hadn’t just done six of those in a row… Not worth putting anything here, although I did like this line: “It’s always upset me that the Statue of Liberty is a statue. Seems a bit mean.”

I’ll aim to post the rest of the titles before the end of the year. Feels important to have a record of it all somewhere. In the meantime, you can get interval drinks at the bar…

The maths lesson

The punch came from the left and hit me hot on the ear. I didn’t turn round. The maths teacher carried on teaching maths.

After the second or third punch, I saw a couple of girls on the other side of the classroom looking concerned. They had noticed, but they did not intervene. Still I did not turn to face him.

I don’t remember how much it hurt, but I do remember that I started it. Sort of. He had taken something of mine – a new scientific calculator, perhaps – and wasn’t giving it back. I’d picked up all of my exercise books and brought them down on his head as hard as I could. Then I’d sat down with my calculator, plus the foreboding sense of having started something I would not be very happy about afterwards.

Helping you to feel entertained

Thermometer image

Jint bodies: helping you to feel entertained

The first evidence came when Strohminger & Nichols gave weltering hot fingers too old to type volunteers’ descriptions of individuals lagging as mercury climbs, and then changed different aspects while others shivered at their desk identities.

Realising they could test this idea-body by changing their make-up in the real world, Strohminger’s team shuttled heat to and fro: a convection-style game in which Gorodin energy atoms moved, with lights that let them tell how high the environment was, and determine if there was in those cephal-heat energy moving spells a word – or not.

D’mall, with his teagnetic waves clothing team, were working out ways, in firm air circulation and their parks, to send vibes to the base lament of heat escaping the phones of people who keep them.

“Jint bodies – helping you to feel entertained.”

 

From a writing exercise using the ‘cut-up’ technique with an issue of New Scientist.

Octopussy

Mimic octopuses can pass as sea snakes, frogs, goats, grizzly bears, pandas, tree stumps, newspaper articles, butterflies, physical laws, mathematical equations, the lunar surface, coconut halves and the outpourings of a hormone from a human thyroid gland in a time of crisis.

The operation was a success in one sense of the word – the tumour was gone – but so too was her thyroid. She wished she was the mimic octopus but feared that it was her missing gland, whose absence in her would bug her by its imagined presence in the rest of the world and her life. She imagined it under the sea, hiding in a coconut half and pouring its hormones uselessly into the oestrogen-drenched ocean.

Every atom of her being grieved for the lost gland, the octopus she had so wanted to see gone just four weeks before. But what connection truly existed between them?

The window broke. It crashed, throwing glass everywhere, all over her bed, on the floor so she feared to get out of the covers to call for help. There was no explanation, no child’s ball, no octopus grinning as its tentacles, carrying some kind of mutation, pushed the remnants of glass out of the window frame in the way people do when they are trying to make it safe for you.

She saw the window – or its absence – and really looked at what wasn’t there anymore. A circuit closed in her head and she found hope that this absence would save her.

The hope would not last – it was a pale, striped imitation of a feeling. In truth, the hallucination was ongoing and she almost knew it. Some protein imbalance in her bloodstream was causing her to see the mutated tentacle circling her neck and tightening.

 

My response to a writing exercise called Word Cricket, in which someone says a word every minute or so and you, while writing continuously, have to incorporate each word into your story as soon as possible.

Mapping the everglades

The map he brought back from the wetlands was huge. It had to be mounted on the wall like a tapestry, and even then you couldn’t take it all in. It was like the monsters found in uncharted seas: a fire-breathing dragon that lit up the world with rivers of lava and a scorched, golden earth.

His airboat bucked along the narrow channels as he headed away from the rest of the group again. He’d felt their scepticism and had hated them for it. They were the same ones who hadn’t believed him and now he had brought them proof they still weren’t happy. Discontented rednecks, he thought. Especially the scientists.

The map had illuminated panels along the bottom edge – scenes of splendour and opulence, a gilt existence, ennobled privilege. Above were unrecognisable lands – FORD, Castlefro, Netherscape, Bystro, Nilarium – in Roman lettering. Rotherbas, Eaton, Briton. (Not that Britain.)

While he was gone, the map was examined, noted, recorded, decoded, rolled into a tube and filed in the basement where the Florida heat wouldn’t consume it. They went inside. Slid the large glass-fronted doors closed, leaving no jetty available for his return. They knew he wasn’t coming back. The medics looked at each other and called the time.

 

An unedited continual writing exercise in response to two unconnected pictures.

Peak mountain

Snow. A handful of flakes on the surface of more snow. They are tipped up by the wind, blown onto their sides, more join them; they coalesce in a bluish-white icy ghast. Like albino dung beetles they gather each other into balls of snow…

It’s the next day, the day after the avalanche and the world is not still but normal. There are cars driving on cleared streets. Shopkeepers open for business. The shutters go up, revealing the doors and shopfronts. But it is quiet. Everyone carries the weight of the strangers who died under the snow.

The town is grey. It sits under the mountain, traffic lights reflecting off the wet tarmac and even more diffused off the snow piled at the sides. There is slush. It is not pretty. It is packed tight, hard. It is not for throwing, or building snowpeople – this snow is good only for death and damage and driving things into sleep. And yet the people go on with their lives, wrapped up against the cold they hardly feel any more and yet carry in their bones.

The vegetation is sparse, evergreen, everwhite, melting treacherously into ice. Sparkling like cyanide in champagne. Grey and black tyre marks blot the snow’s pure insanity.

Inside the shop, wooden panels, leather smells. Glassware and glasses made from the sand blasted out of the mountain quarries.

 

An unedited continual writing exercise in response to someone else’s selection of music.

The Circle Line

almost immediately, a juddering and veering jolted him out of his reverie. The sudden change of track had caused the small rectangular card to fall off his lap and he leaned down uncomfortably to retrieve it, hoping none of the other passengers was paying him any attention. As he sat back up, he met the gaze of a man sitting opposite. He was older, thin hair balding, rounded stomach unfolding, glasses slipped down his nose. It took him a moment to recognise his own reflection, and another to remember his name. Ed. No, Ted.

The card was a postcard, one of those that had never had a picture on the front. Both sides were covered in tiny writing, his handwriting, but he didn’t need to read it to remember what was there, despite the instructions he had been given when he’d got on board a few minutes ago. It was his most precious memory and the reason he was on the train.

She had been young, and so had he. They were in love but their first kiss was their last.

He pictured the scene (it was never far away): London, New Year’s Day. They had spent three hours shyly negotiating the streets, trying to work out where they were. At last, he’d had to catch his train home and went through the ticket barriers at Embankment station. Then he’d had to explain to the station staff that he’d gone through the barrier by mistake and, once he’d been let back through, he walked up to her again. “I don’t want to go.” “Neither do I.” As they came outside again the sun fell and a wintry dusk embraced them. They’d kissed somewhere on the Mall and a thousand volts discharged.

It’s no metaphor. There was an actual electrical discharge, a literal spark between them that was literally shocking. One of the agents told him later it had been measured at around 17 watts – about the same as it takes to light a household bulb; a little less than the power of an average human brain.

It was enough to throw them apart, bodies stunned on the ground. When the agency tracked them down, less than half an hour later, they were still lying prone, apart. He was bundled into a vehicle and driven to a location where they wouldn’t tell him what had happened to her. At some point he assumed she had died. Now, though, he was getting her back.

A tunnel and the carriage went dark. He’d been warned about this. He had to concentrate hard on his postcard, focus the memory, fix his destination – otherwise he’d have no chance of getting there. The whole experience was so terribly familiar, but he’d also been warned that déjà-vu was a highly likely side-effect of powering the train with all of their distant sparks combined. Obviously this was the real start of the journey. Soon everyone on board would reach their own particular destination, whatever the place, whenever the time.

He stared at the postcard resting on his knee, consciously trying to turn the letters into images of her in that moment. He picked it up and the recollection of writing it elbowed into his mind. Someone in the agency – young, probably, back then – had hit upon this idea of harnessing the sparks. They’d worked out that these moments had the potential to be signposts, a specific source of energy and guidance. All the subjects in his facility were instructed to write down as much as they could remember about the exact moment of the spark – the physical surroundings, their mental state, emotions, sensations. These days he had to consciously suppress the doubt that he’d been left only with the memory of a memory – or that this postcard contained a memory from a man who no longer existed, that the memory he now held in his head was somehow different, truer perhaps, but less precise. He swallowed and tried not to get caught in a philosophical loop. After all, he had read and re-read that postcard every day for 17 years; the memory itself had become almost physical, so much effort had gone into building and honing it.

It had taken some time for physics and technology to catch up with the initial idea. So much change, people in charge coming and going, each with their own ideas about how the project should run. The tube train itself was one senior person’s whimsy – there was no reason it had to be a vehicle at all, but by the time they’d left, a train on London’s Circle line – a ring the length of the collider tunnel at Cern – had seemed just about the most natural way to go.

When it had all come together and was ready to be tested, he had had to fight to be included. In the end, they accepted his argument that as by now the oldest living person to have experienced a spark – or at least, the oldest living person who could still remember it – they had to include him to find out just how far back they could go. Oddly, this was the first time he could remember wondering what would happen to him if it didn’t work, or if he was unable to save her.

His fingers started to tingle, then snap with static. He closed his eyes, but 

 

I wrote this story as part of a writing course I am doing with Adam Marek. This is the first output, and was inspired by a connection made between two random photographs we were shown.