In conversation with Jennifer Tuckett
Interview conducted by Tilly Lunken.
TL: What was it in particular that drew you towards the subject matter of Kidnapping Cameron, your recent play for young people at the Birmingham Rep?
JT: I wanted to explore how young people can be involved in politics. I think I finished school not really knowing anything about the political system and how politics affects our lives and how the political parties are different from each other and ended up voting based more on what the different leaders’ personalities were like than anything else.
I wanted to explore with the Young Rep, the young actors company at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, why it might be important for young people to have a say in politics and also how the cuts, which have been affecting young people in particular, were affecting their lives. I think, when politics and which political party is in charge has such an impact on our lives, its really odd political education isn’t generally taught in schools. It’s almost a way of disempowering people by not giving them the knowledge they need before they vote.
TL: Did you find that you needed to change your approach when you were writing with a specific target audience in mind?
JT: I developed the play over the course of six months with the Young Rep young actors company. We began by doing a lot of brainstorming – finding out what the company knew about politics, what they thought about politics, whether they thought young people can have a say. This is all went into the play, along with letters the company wrote to David Cameron, which are incorporated into the play itself. Its been the first time I’ve worked in this way and I really enjoyed the process – I think if you’re writing about how young people can be involved in politics and how they can have a say, its really important to be able to incorporate their views directly into the play.
TL: Was it fun to write a work described as “hilariously funny” or is it a serious business, writing political comedy for the theatre?
JT: It was fun and a serious business - Kidnapping Cameron is a comedy about a young girl who kidnaps the Prime Minister and the play is aimed at young people. I hope it will be a play that is fun to watch, for example its not just David Cameron who the audience might recognise. On the other hand, I hope the play explores some serious ideas as well, for example how can you have your say if you don’t agree with something the government is doing? There’s a chance for the audience to do a task at the end of the play as well, although I won’t ruin the surprise.
TL: You have had plays put on both inside and out of London, how important is it for new writers to consider regional options in staging work?
JT: I think regional theatres are brilliant. I moved up to the North West of England in September 2008 and I absolutely love working with regional theatres – the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Octagon Theatre, the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatre, the Royal Exchange.
I think there’s a real sense of writers being valued and a writers community at each of these theatres – I’ve been a writer on attachment at the Octagon Theatre for the last two years and I’ve worked with Caroline Jester at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre for the last two years and, in each case, its lovely to feel like you are part of a theatre or part of a family of writers working at the theatre. In Liverpool, I am the Chair of The Alligators, which is a group for professional playwrights based in the North West of England and which is an amazing supportive and proactive group who are always staging Question Swaps with theatres and Skill Swaps and whose new project, The Alligator Club, will be launching in September 2012.
I think a lot of regional theatres are producing truly fantastic work- the Birmingham Repertory Theatre have staged some of my favourite productions and, in my experience, I think it would be wrong to think theatre is all about London. I’ve worked with some amazing theatres in London, such as the Old Vic and Theatre 503, but I think there are plenty of equally amazing regional theatres as well (who maybe I wouldn’t describe as regional, just somewhere outside of London – regional feels like it suggests a theatre isn’t producing nationally important productions, which I think these theatres do).
TL: Your CV also lists credits from overseas work; can you elaborate on some of your experiences working, say in Australia?
JT: I’ve done a lot of work in the US, where I finished my MFA in Playwriting from Yale School of Drama in 2008. I think US theatre is great but also surprisingly different from the UK – I lived in the US for over four years and I was surprised about the differences; when I first went out there superficially things seemed the same and then you realise there are these different preoccupations and styles being explored, for example more exploration of fantasy and autobiographical drama. US playwrights I would recommend include Lisa Kron, Lynn Nottage, John Guare, Rolin Jones. As for Australia, I grew up in Australia and would love to explore Australian theatre more – so far, I’ve only had one show on in Australia which I wasn’t able to go out for but I’m keeping my fingers crossed I get to go back soon!
TL: You write not only across the dramatic mediums (theatre, film, radio) but also prose. Are there challenges to writing across these different forms?
JT: I think these days it’s important to write for different forms – its very hard financially to sustain a career writing solely for the theatre. I’m just beginning to write for film and radio but its been an exciting process to discover the similarities and differences between the forms – for example last year I participated in Drafted, a feature film development programme run by Vision and Media (the North West film agency, now part of Creative England) and it was a steep learning curve to learn how to think in a much more succinct and visual way than the way I’m used to writing for the theatre.
I think beginning your career by writing for the theatre is invaluable – there’s so many brilliant playwriting training programmes, such as the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme and the Old Vic Theatre’s New Voices company, that I think there’s more of an opportunity to learn your craft and for people to take a chance on you when you’re starting out in the theatre. Film, television and radio writers like Jack Thorne have come out of the Royal Court Theatre’s young writers programme for example.
TL: Do you find that teaching has become an important part of your creative process? Or do you see teaching and writing as quite separate strands in your career?
JT: I’ve found for me that it’s very important to teach as well as write – not only financially, but also as a way of developing my craft and giving back the brilliant advice that people gave me whilst I was training.
One of my favourite training programmes is the Old Vic New Voices company, which is run by Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic Theatre. When I got a place on this programme, I remember doing a workshop with Kevin Spacey and him saying he was running the programme because he wanted to send the elevator back down. I think that’s amazing – for someone of his standing to undertake such a generous programme like that. Whilst I was a member of the Old Vic New Voices company, I had two productions on the Old Vic main stage and I was the joint winner of the Old Vic New Voices Theatre 503 Award which included a production at Theatre 503. All this happened whilst I was still at University and I think the way places like the Old Vic Theatre are willing to invest time and resources in young writers and take a chance on them by giving them actual productions is amazing. The Octagon Theatre, the Royal Exchange, the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, the Birmingham Repertory and writer Fin Kennedy are all doing amazing work in this area as well.
TL: Were there any specific skills that you developed during your time on the UEA course?
JT: Whilst I was at UEA, I ran a Scriptwriting showcase and this is something I would encourage everyone to do. It was a brilliant experience – for all of the writers on the course to come together and for us to work together to organize the showcase, cast it, have rehearsals, and then see our work staged. It was a great bonding experience but also an important opportunity to see how our work was working onstage. The tutors – Val Taylor and Rob Ritchie when I did the course – were also the best. Both the plays I wrote with Val and Rob – Ron’s Pig Palace on Wheels and How to Make an English Heroine – went on to win national awards straight after I graduated and gave me my first two productions. I think grabbing everything on offer is the key – I was the Scriptwriting editor of the UEA Creative Writing anthology, the Scriptwriting representative on the student government, the founder of the showcase. I also was a script reader for London theatres whilst I was completing my MA.
TL: Do you have any immediate advice for those writers finishing up the course this year?
JT: I think the best advice I heard recently was from Kate Rowland, Creative Director of New Writing at the BBC, who I worked with this year on a joint project I ran called “Write by the Quays”, which was between the University of Salford, where I teach, and BBC Writersroom, the BBC’s new writing department, to celebrate the launch of Media City UK in Salford. I remember at the launch Kate said “resilience, determination and a passion for something always shines through” and when I was marking my students work at the end of the project they all referred to how inspired they were by this.
I think resilience is the key – everyone has times where they’ve had a good show and everyone wants to work with you and then times when something has gone badly and suddenly no one wants to take a risk on you or know who you are. Its about keeping on going and focusing on what you want to do – its easy to take on productions just because you’re offered them and, at the start of your career, its quite important to say yes to lots of things because you don’t know where they’ll lead. As you go on, the important lesson to learn is not to say yes to everything – its better to say yes to one thing and do it well than divide yourself into a million pieces and for everything to be substandard because you haven’t had the time to develop it properly. That’s a hard lesson to learn!
Jennifer Tuckett’s Kidnapping Cameron played recently at the Birmingham Rep and will be published soon.