In September 2011, UEA welcomed playwright Steve Waters to the School of Literature, Drama & Creative Writing. Waters is the author of a number of distinguished stage and radio plays including Little Platoons (Bush Theatre, 2011) The Contingency Plan (Bush Theatre, & BBC Radio 3 adaptation, 2009), World Music (Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 2003, transferred to Donmar Warehouse, London, 2004) and, most recently, he took part in the Bush Theatre’s Sixty-Six Books project in which 66 writers each interpreted a book of the King James Bible. Waters is also the author of The Secret Life Of Plays, an elegant dissection of the tenets of playwriting exploring the technical and emotional aspects of the craft. Steve conducted this interview with NewWriting.net in October 2011.
Q: Steve, you’ve written of your nostalgia for a certain kind of 20th century theatre practitioner who “flung out manifestos and visions of what theatre might be” – people like Artaud, Copeau, Piscator, Lorca etc. Now that you have arrived at UEA, do you have your own version of a manifesto?
A: I think we all shy away from manifestos these days because they sound so bossy – but this can be disingenuous, as we carry our values around with us articulated or not. I would never as a teacher want to define too closely or clearly what I value because that might preempt being surprised – but I do think the Academy offers a space for writers to think more deeply, take more risks and place themselves in a larger context. As a writer? I suppose I think theatre writing should embrace the relative marginal position of the theatre as a kind of liberty – to say complex things, to say things that seem unsayable elsewhere; so much of reality is trapped under a hard crust of ideology – theatre in particular and writing in general should earn its keep by working that loose, through shock, through laughter, through revelation.
Q: There’s a wonderful Gerard Manley Hopkins quote you have used in your writing use to describe good work:”all things counter, spare, original, strange…” What new theatre has excited you recently?
A: All the time – if I ever stopped having those encounters I would probably stop writing. This year I loved Simon Stephens’ play Wastwater, the Iranian film A Separation directed by Asghar Farhadi; I’ve just surfaced for air from Matthew Hollis’s brilliant book on Edward Thomas – work in all media which makes you hungry to get on with your own stuff.
Q: In 2009, you adapted ‘The Contingency Plan’ for BBC Radio 3. What happens when a play loses its visual dimension? Did you make any new discoveries about your work during the transposition from one medium to another?
A: There are problems with adapting stage work for radio – mainly that it has to be done so fast that you can’t sufficiently re-imagine it for the new context – but having steadily transformed The Contingency Plan into a film, making it work for radio was a great first step structurally. Sometimes the exigencies of radio force the dialogue into a more expository mode; what I enjoy when I write original work for radio is exploiting its incredible properties of intimacy. Losing the visual is of course a problem but you gain imagistic possibilities the stage can only dream of.
Q: If, as Tony Kushner claimed, even the most successful playwright can’t make money from theatre alone, then writers who chose to make their home in the theatre must take on additional work beyond the stage. Recently, you remarked how lucky it was that you had your ‘place in the academy’ but do you think there are opportunities for writers to be ‘counter, spare and strange’ within the television industry, for example?
A: There are – take someone like Hugo Blick whose excellent ‘The Shadow Line’ existed in its own world, shaped by him as writer and director It’s important to keep faith in television given the huge resources there and certainly there are fine writers out there; but I do miss the days when TV was more open to experiment and play, which was the sort of TV drama on which I grew up, from Dr Who to Dennis Potter – now it is too keen to emulate the shiny surfaces of mainstream entertainment production values. But nevertheless the Americans have reminded us what can still be done in this form…
Q: You’re part of the Bush Theatre’s Sixty-Six Books, which features sixty-six playwrights, poets and novelists each dealing with one of the books of the King James Bible. What drew you to your book and the overall project ?
A: How could you turn such an offer down – sharing billing with the Archbishop of Canterbury! I had the book allotted to me but was honoured to get a Gospel as it were; and was gripped by ‘Mark’s urgency and the sense of the heat coming off it; it felt like news.