The first modern play I ever read was an Oberon one. I was 13 on the National Youth Theatre course and we’d been taken to Samuel French to try and find a monologue. I wasn’t looking to read a play. I didn’t really care about them; I just wanted to find a good speech to show off with. We’d been told to look at plays rather than monologue books and I hadn’t heard of any modern playwrights, so I randomly picked out one by a man called Dennis (Kelly) solely because of Dennis Rickman off EastEnders. The cover had broken bird wings, which I thought looked kind of dark and edgy, and I flipped to the back to look at a play called Love and Money (again I thought ‘dark and edgy’). I was about to flick on once I saw that it started with a man’s speech, but just glancing over it I saw it was an email. I’d never seen that before in a play and then I saw the word ‘coz’, never seen that before in Shakespeare (the only playwright I knew the name of).
And then, what seemed to be to be only a few minutes later, we were leaving and I was reading it along the street, even stopping (they tell me in the middle of the road) and swearing loudly (at page 216 if you are interested). By dinner I’d finished the play and I was in love, not just with the play (which I still love) but with the whole idea of plays. Plays about stuff I knew about, plays with references I understood, plays I didn’t need a teacher to explain.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare. My best experiences in the theatre have been Shakespeare but I’d never realised that there was anything else out there. I’d been to the theatre sure, I’d acted in stuff, but it was all Shakespeare and musicals and The Crucible. It was good, it was fun, but somehow the thought that there were people out there writing plays NOW had never occurred.
I’m not saying it was just a small step from that to what I do now; I still hadn’t thought writing was something I would ever do, that came much much later. But still, it was that night in the hallway of the dorms that I found myself sitting on the floor drinking Smirnoff Ice and having an argument about how comic the first scene is meant to be. And I say ‘argument’ in its true sense. It was not a debate; I was having a real fight because this stuff mattered. It wasn’t an English class; it had all just got serious.
I’ve always used to think that the best moments in reading are when you find something you’ve always wanted to say and find it written down somewhere. To quote The History Boys ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something — a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things — that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’ And I still believe that a novel should nail the inexpressible to the page but plays, especially new ones, should do the opposite. Plays should release a feeling that you always forget you have, something elusive that you can’t quite express, and you look around the room and know everyone is feeling it too, you are all united in your sense of... well you don’t know what, that’s the point. No word will quite define it. It’s about immediacy and strength and you want to send other people to see it just to pass on that thing you couldn’t express. For vindictive spite you have Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Edward Albee), for isolation Osama the Hero (another Dennis Kelly), for suffocation Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams), for entitlement Posh (Laura Wade). It came to the point where someone would say ‘Why don’t you like the Conservatives?’, and I’d say ‘Oh, go and watch Posh’. And the greatest thing is that many people could read that and say ‘That’s not right, the play is about THIS not THAT’. Because though a play ejects the collective experience, the individual audience members will always hoover it back up and it becomes personal once more. It’s that process of collective togetherness and individualism which is unique to theatre, plays and live performances, it’s the reason you stay awake late after a show trying to stop thinking about it and the reason that you sit on the floor with a Smirnoff Ice arguing about it. A play will always be everyone’s but at the same time always be yours. That’s what I found out in Samuel L French when I was 13 and that’s the reason I write today.
Anya Reiss is published by Oberon Books.
For Spur of the Moment click here - http://oberonbooks.com/spur-of-the-moment.html
For The Acid Test click here - http://oberonbooks.com/acid-test.html