In this guest post, playwright Timothy Graves reflects on the journey of writing his first play: from the initial inspiration to producing it at the Courtyard Theatre for a four week run this April.
‘Never are we nearer the Light than when darkness is deepest.’
‘Among Angels’ is my first play.
I have written two novels before – ‘Homo Jihad’ and ‘Pharmakeia’ – both published by Paradise Press. ‘Homo Jihad’ was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize. I have also written a memoir, ‘Human Angel’ which is awaiting publication.
‘Among Angels’ was my first ever venture into playwriting. I had studied Drama and English Literature at Exeter University many years ago and, more recently, completed a professional actor training at The City Lit. I think both my actor training and rediscovering a love for live theatre later in life, helped prepare the ground for me to embark on the playwright’s journey.
My inspiration for writing the play came from various sources.
Many years ago, I guess you could say I had what those in psychotherapeutic circles might call a ‘transpersonal’ experience. Those more spiritually inclined would probably view it as a mystical encounter. All I remember at the time was just an overwhelming angelic presence. Writing ‘Among Angels’ was, in part, my way of honouring that experience.
Although ‘Among Angels’ is predominantly focused on the Chemsex issue in the LGBTQ+ community and the protagonist, Chris Johnson, is forced to deal with a set of traumatic given circumstances that would break many a strong-willed person, there are angels in the play – gay angels to be precise – who come to his rescue.
I also knew the playwright Sarah Kane quite well and was inspired by her writing and her ability, at times, to use personally traumatic experiences as a source of inspiration to create great art; the personal is also powerful and political. Kane explored the darker aspects of the human psyche and often communicated this to an audience in poetic form. In ‘Among Angels’ there is a chorus of angels who, at times, break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. When they do so, they often speak in verse.
But addiction and not psychosis – as in Kane’s ‘4.48 Psychosis’ – is the territory of ‘Among Angels.’ Addiction to methamphetamine or crystal meth to be specific. Theatre will always play an important role in reflecting and exploring what the lived human experience is all about. Narrative will always continue to explore, in different ways, the interplay between light and dark.
Other sources of inspiration come from various plays I have seen.
‘The Inheritance’ by Matthew Lopez, moved me to tears. The writing was heart-felt and like many other members of the audience at The Young Vic last year, I was deeply affected by the dramatic representation of gay men, towards the end of the first half of the play, who had died during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s.
The fact that these gay men were spirits – and of course there are the angels in ‘Angels in America’ – I feel added a further dimension to the work and was an incredible example of how theatre can transport an audience through crossing boundaries; in this case the boundary between this world and the next.
Granted, a Shakespearean audience would, on the whole, have believed in the fairies, the witchcraft and the magic. But despite our modern technology and scientific discoveries, I still feel there is a propensity for a modern-day audience to suspend disbelief and enter into that magical ‘what if’ state of mind. There is, I believe, still the need to challenge an audience’s ontological beliefs.
I wrote the first draft of ‘Among Angels’ during the summer months of last year.
I find morning the best time to write – after breakfast and a strong coffee. I generally feel refreshed from sleep and my mind is alert. I also may have had certain breakthroughs pertaining to certain characters, relationships or narrative structure through dreams – the wisdom and insight of which can quickly dissipate during the day; an early start to writing helps to minimise this.
In September, I participated in a short ‘Page to Stage’ course at The Arcola Theatre in Dalston.
Run by Rebecca Jones, this course proved to be a baptism of fire on the production side of things. Even though myself and other emerging playwrights on the course were often only showcasing the first few scenes of a full-length play, we were responsible for sourcing props, costume, casting the actors, hiring rehearsal space, finding a director and liaising with the sound and lighting designer.
This was an invaluable experience on two levels: Firstly, it gave me the confidence to produce my own play. So when the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton became interested in ‘Among Angels’, I was ready to take responsibility for producing the play In addition, watching the opening of my play at ‘The Arcola’ was an interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable experience. I realised that I didn’t want my play to open in the way that it did! One thing was certain – a major redraft was on the cards…
Attending a short LPW course run by Kimberley Andrews, playwright and playwrighting tutor at RADA, was invaluable.
Kimberley gave excellent feedback during the course and was incredibly insightful in respect to characterisation, themes and narrative structure. She went out of her way to read initial and subsequent redrafts and meet individually with students to help with the editing process; without her input ‘Among Angels’ would not be the play it is today. She recommended I take time to reflect on the inciting incident of the play which was excellent advice because now the play has a much clearer through-line for the audience.
With some initial reluctance, I also ‘killed off’ two of the characters and cut entire scenes from the second half of the play. I also added a final scene which was inspired by a short by Mark Ravenhill, ‘The Mikado’. An inanimate object in the second half of the play is also now deeply imbued with symbolic meaning and relates to the backstory and history of the two lovers – which gives a greater resonance and emotional depth to the play.
I think there is a time to work in solitude on a play and be protective of the unfolding creative process – usually during the first draft, when ideas are germinating and the creative juices are flowing. And there is a time for workshopping and getting feedback. In the latter part of the writing process, I also think it is important who is actually giving advice and suggestions and how they are doing it. If it is done well, constructively with insight and informed by a knowledge and understanding of what works well on stage, the feedback will strike a chord and give one the impetus to edit and reshape in a way that feels right.
Plays come in all shapes and sizes. Some are two-handers. Others more epic in scale. Some seek to entertain. Others, more to challenge. Naturalism may be the best vehicle for some material whereas different dramatic styles will be more appropriate to other material. A skilled dramaturg or consultant in the dramatic arts will be supportive of and encourage a diverse range and variety of different dramatic forms.
‘Among Angels’, to a certain extent, plays with theatrical form: The fourth wall is broken, the narrative timeline is non-linear, there is a modern-day chorus that raps about the dangers associated with methamphetmaine, most of the cast play multiple characters, and yes – there are angels! During the short course at LPB, I was made to feel that these were some of the strengths inherent in the work; and for this I am truly grateful.
My advice to anyone who is writing their first play…
You have to love the shared experience of live theatre and its’ potential to be a transformative experience in order to write for it. And yes, some theatre doesn’t quite hit the mark. But isn’t it interesting when it doesn’t?! What can we, as emerging playwrights, also take from these experiences, that will help us to write plays that will engage, empower and challenge our audiences even more?
I would also recommend that, at some point in the journey of giving birth to a play, it’s probably a good idea to get some constructive feedback from someone you trust and who knows their stuff! And finally – as with all forms of creative writing – don’t be scared to go to those places that a part of you might be reluctant to go to. Therein, often lies the creative power and the inspiration. After all, more often than not, what do we do as writers – of novels, poems or plays – do but dig deep down into our guts and serve up a portion of ourselves for the greater good of the wider community.
Timothy Graves is currently seeking publication for ‘Among Angels’ which opens on the main stage at The Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton, London on 3rd April for a four week run. It is directed by Peter Taylor, director of the award-winning play ‘Glitter Punch’, and performed by Seraphim Theatre Company. BOOK YOUR TICKETS HERE.