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Susan Elkin as playwright?

So what makes a good subject for a play?

A historical footnote? (Emilia, Our Country’s Good). A major bit of history? (Six the Musical, Henry V, The Madness of George III).

Or what about murder? (Macbeth, Thrill Me: the Leopold and Loeb Story). Then there’s old age (King Lear, The Seagull). And familial dysfunctionality permeates almost everything from Death of a Salesman and The Glass Menagerie to The Taming of the Shrew and Ghosts.

Sometimes play topics are really quirky. David Haig’s wonderful play Pressure is, among other things about a weather forecast. And Mary’s Babies by  Maud Dromgoole is about the troubled and brave new world of not knowing who your siblings are if you owe your origins to sperm donation.

The field, of course, is wide open. Witness some of the entertainingly whacky things which get to Edinburgh or The Vaults. I wouldn’t, for instance have missed for anything Natasha Sutton Williams‘s one woman show Freud the Musical with its hilariously outrageous, outspoken songs which I saw last year. And I admire the originality of anyone who can spot a subject with legs, however unlikely.

But there’s no copyright in ideas so it probably makes sense to keep it under wraps when, you’re successful and a good one strikes you. I interviewed David Haig recently for Sardines magazine. He tells me he’s under commission to Bridge Theatre for a new play – probably in 2020 – and that the first draft has gone down well. He said cagily: “I think it’s quite a good idea so I don’t think I’d better say any more about it at present.”

Meanwhile I often think about play writing myself. Since I began professional writing nearly 30 years ago I joke that I have churned out (sorry – written) the equivalent of War and Peace every year. And much of that, for various reasons, has been focused on performing arts, drama and theatre. A logical progression occurs to me.  Should I now write a play?

Part of me is so utterly humbled by the fine quality of much of the work that I see that I feel I couldn’t possibly contribute to this genre. On the other hand I have IDEAS and things which permeate my life: my experience of living with Alzheimer’s might make a workable three hander, for instance. That’s the Alzheimer’s victim, the carer and someone to play everyone else. Could I make it work?

Then there’s my teaching memoir Please Miss We’re Boys which is due out in paperback this summer. It tells the story of my first five years in teaching – 1960s Deptford which was never short of drama. In my more positive moments I think it would make a good 60 minute for theatre or TV but whether or not I’m the person to dramatise it is another matter.

I heard some rivetingly good monologues at Chickenshed a few weeks ago. Perhaps, I thought, as I travelled home across London from Cockfosters, I should have a go at working some of my material into a monologue or two? Would that be a better place to start?

Then I go and see another impressively well written show and my confidence sags. Again. When I first wrote fairly regular columns for The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Independent and Daily Mail back in the 1990s I didn’t let the fact that other very well established people were already there put me off.  Somehow play writing seems different.

For a start you need dramatic talent, flair and an ear for dialogue as well as ideas and a good vocabulary. And I’m still not sure. But, as always its probably a case of nothing ventured nothing gained. Perhaps later this year …

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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