The Writer  by Ella Hickson

ONE

A bare stage, post-show, worker lights are on. A Young Woman stands and walks on from the audience, takes in the space, there's something sacred. She breathes. Lights come up. Slowly. It's hers, for a moment. From the back of the auditorium an Older Man, forties, like he owns the space. She sees him, freezes. He sees her – stops.
Hi.Hi.Do I –I left my bag, I had to come back for it.Right. You were in the audience?Yes.You shouldn't be on stage.I just left my bag. Behind. I –She grabs the backpack and heads offstage. He's confused, watches her go a second.You saw the show?Yes.Did you enjoy it?What?If you want to get your bag in future you should ask a member of front-of-house to come in and get it for you. It's health and safety.Yes, that's fine.It's policy.That's fine.They're weird about it – you're not meant to be in the auditorium unless you're a member of crew, or we're liable.It seems unlikely I'd forget it twice but if I do – I'll make sure I ask.Beat.Did you enjoy the show?Small beat.Were you in it?You'd remember me if I was in it, no?I don't know, there were a lot of – guys like you. In it.You didn't like it? 'Like' isn't the right word, I guess.What is the right word?Did you write it?No.Did you direct it?No. Did you come on your own?Yeah. I have to catch the last Tube. I need to go.You've got ages yet.She checks her phone, even though she knows she's got at least an hour.How old are you?Twenty-four.What made you come and see it?Is this an audience survey?No.What is it?I'm on the board. I'm not in town a lot, I want to know why audiences like the work.You're assuming we like the work?You came to see it.You haven't seen it until you've seen it, though, have you? You didn't like it?She shrugs.Will you come up here? It's strange talking to you whilst you're down there.I've got to go. I'm going to be late.It's totally confidential, I'd be grateful for your candour.She gets up on stage.Pause.Two people walking on stage pretending to be two other people and saying – 'Hi', 'hi' – or worse – much fucking worse, walking on stage and –(Beat.) 'Phil looks uncomfortable in his skin, beat, Phil fiddles with his lighter but doesn't light the cigarette, beat' because we all know cigarettes need a licence to be lit and Cara enters – 'thunderously sexual, beat', whatever that fucking means, what does that even mean? 'Cara: the sky, this evening. Pass me the salt.' What sky? What fucking sky? This evening? It's all dark in here.I // A miraculous army of – builders, soldiers, scientists, fucking women in completely unnecessary hot pants move shit about and we're all meant to think, what? It's the magic hot-panted people that move fucking furniture around? With the carpet and the little bits of flesh-coloured tape sticking the mics on – it's like you actually think that we're meant to think it's real, like we're meant to think, with the current state of things that a perfectly charming front room with people being funny is motherfucking real life?I'm not sure that's /The world is imploding.I –And the actors, man, they've got nothing new, no insides, they just need the job – they know it's pretend so they're living on the applause and applause alone and that is fucking dangerous. That is a perilous way to be. Moving fucking tables about and living on applause for it. You're staring at them thinking 'do what you like', go on, stop saying those lines and doing what he's told you to do, do something you actually like, go on. Do what you want; do it to get laid or I don't give a shit, do it whilst galloping across the stage in a fucking thong pretending to be Bambi, do it HOW THE FUCK YOU LIKE – because at least then someone is actually doing it for real. But then you realise, you're like, oh yeah – fuck – you've been saying lines so long you've got no sense of it, you know – the way they make you so fucking scared of age and poverty and joblessness, that wanting things got way too dangerous a while back. So, you're watching all these people move around, moving tables and pretending, totally deaf to the sound of their own wanting. I can't remember the last time I watched a thing that looked even half-alive. Fake hair and new shoes and famous people doing boring things badly and you know, painfully, like in your bones it hurts – and you can smell the money, so you're not believing a fucking second of it.And of course, that comes with a woman in a tight skirt leaning arse-front over a desk for twenty minutes, for no fucking reason. Because it's all part of the same way of seeing so, you know, it's 'sexy' women and 'smart' men – but actually it's this woman being made to present, like some animal and entitlement just dribbling down the front of its suit – but how it's being given to you is old guys saying some fascinating fucking things about time and history. We're sick, you know that? We're sick to the back fucking teeth of hearing from old men, with flaky skin, at weddings, patting the back of your hand gently as they explain what they consider to be the truths of theworld, like I share the same truths, like his truth and my truth are anywhere near the fucking same when it's you that gets to make the world and me that's got to live in it.She gets choked.Are you okay?Sure. I'm fine. (Swallows.) It's just you come here thinking you're going to watch something that makes you feel something for the first time in… The state the world is in, you wake up and hear the news and find yourself crying into your fucking cereal, I mean actual tears plopping into your Cheerios and so for some reason you come here – because you think here is where there's meant to be hope and you know what, fuck it. Fuck it.She picks up her bag and goes to head off the stage.Stop. Wait a second.What?Just wait.She waits. He doesn't speak.I watched an entire audience get on their feet tonight for a show that had a dog in it.Yes. I // Real-life babies. Like that's the only pulse we can find. Silent women in hot pants told to sing like canaries in this fucking day and age are you kidding me? With Trump in, with the monstrosities going down, the world is cracking open and what I just saw is meant to heal us? We should be screaming, we should be speaking in tongues, in a fit, in a fucking – rage, naked, raging, arms open, screaming at the sky – There should not be a dog. There should not be a fucking dog. Not unless you're going to cut its fucking tongue out. Silent women in hot pants? Are you fucking kidding me? What way are you looking at the world that that seems okay to you?Pause.I see.Not if you're sanctioning this shit, you don't see, you really don't.How did you know it was a male director?I watched the show. Why are you smiling?I'm not.You have a bend in your face.You just seem very, twenty-four. That's all.Don't be a patronising cunt.Jesus.Beat.It's done very well at the box office.Of course it has.It's going into the West End.Of course it is.The critics have loved it.And in what other realm of life would a twenty-four-year-old woman let a bunch of old white guys tell her what's good to do on a Friday night? Let alone what might defibrillate her soul.Defibrillate?Are you laughing?No. I'm not.You shouldn't ask somebody to tell you how they feel if you're going to laugh at them.You're just – very. Impassioned.And that's funny?No. It's not. It's… defibrillating.Long pause.He doesn't do anything – she doesn't know what to do. She picks up her bag and makes for the door.Will you wait a second? I'd like to talk to you.She turns back and looks at him.What do you do?I'm a student.Of?English. Books.Yes. I know what // Sure.Have you ever written anything? That isn't an essay?I'm not interested in writing for theatre.Why?It doesn't work.What do you mean?Did you see that play about the posh blokes? You know the one about those fucking horrendous unforgivably entitled Cambridge boys –I think it was Oxford.Where they were trashing everything and being cruel to people? I know the one you mean.I went to see it and I was surrounded, in the audience, by the same guys that were on stage and they were roaring, they were fucking loving it. I kept thinking this poor writer. All that rage, trying to fucking say something, you write your anger down to get it heard and the people that turned your stomach are loving it. How sure have you got to be of your power that you enjoy watching people taking a pop at you? That having people express their rage about how angry you make them is your idea of entertainment?Long pause.I suppose opposition can be invigorating.Sure, when it's a hobby.It was a comedy. I think –What else was she supposed to do? Shake her fist and be very stern? Because then they'd listen?I'm sure on some level they // I'm sure on some level they gave zero fucks and carried on doing exactly what they were doing before. Because that's what we let happen. That's how it goes.Who?You.You said we.The money, the systems, the secret longing to keep it all in place.Beat.Could you write something?What?For this stage. I think you should write something for this theatre. I think what you have to say is interesting and we should put it on stage.You get to decide that, do you?I can talk to the Artistic Director. We'd pay you properly, of course.You get to hand out money to strangers?Is that a no?It'd just be some show.What do you mean?People would laugh and give zero fucks and carry on doing exactly what they were doing before.What else do you want?I want the world to change shape.He laughs softly, half-patronising – half-beguiled.I'm not sure theatre can // So where am I meant to take that impulse? Because I'm very serious about the endeavour.Small pause.Maybe this could be a – step in the right direction?A couple of hundred middle-class folk, here to appease their soul for a few hours so they can enjoy the gin and trot on home?You're middle-class yourself, no?Aren't we all these days?No, I think there are some devastatingly poor people living pretty nearby.There aren't loads of them in here though, are there?Beat.You're also here, on your own, on a Friday seeing a show you purport // Purport?To hate. So, something's keeping you here.
Beat – she stares at him.
I don't trust it.What?I'm going to write books.Books?So, it's mine. So, you can just say it. And no one fucks about with it, with their fucking say-so and hedge-betting – I just want to be really clear.I think you'll find editors definitely have notes to give that will be keeping an eye on what people will buy. Either way what you want to say isn't going to get heard unless it can be sold.That makes me feel sick. That makes me want to die.I'm sure it does. But that's how it goes. That's how it is in the world. In this world.As I said. I want the world to change shape.It won't.She breathes heavy, livid.Do you think there should be artists that don't have to think about what people will buy? Do you think there were artists in history that didn't have to think about what people would buy and it made them the ones that saved us when our souls needed saving?Yes.And?Good luck finding one that's willing to run a building.Why?It's ninety-per-cent donor dinners, budget sheets and discussions about the toilets.Doesn't this place get given money by the Government, money that means it should be able to make art.Yes, some but not a lot these days. So, it's still, mostly, an attempt to get bums on seats.Do you think the guy that runs this place calls himself an artist?He laughs.Is that embarrassing?I –Isn't he an Artistic Director?I think he would refer to himself as a practitioner. He makes work.There is nothing mythic in this city, is there?
Pause – he stares at her, some quality shifts in the air.
I don't want to ask you again because if it's going to be any good you've got to want to do it.
Beat – she stares at him.
Do you?What?Want to? Write something for us?How do you know I can write?You can speak and writing is just speaking on paper. There are other people your age who would be biting my arm off for // So, ask them.I don't want to ask them. They're not angry. They just want the job. Every time they pretend to be angry you can tell they're secretly just doing it because they think angry will get them the job.Jesus.What?And so you're dismissive about their desperation? The job is all they're fucking allowed to want!They're not as angry as you.And my anger will get bums on seats.Honestly? Yes. It's zeitgeisty.It all feels impossibly defeating. In every direction. It's all so – fucking – (Looks away.) I'm offering you the stage. You don't think you could do anything with that?It's all so far inside the system – the whole thing is so co-opted that –I'm not sure I follow.There was an extra rape.What?In tonight's show. The director; tell him – from me, he added a rape. It wasn't in the script. I checked. He added a rape.And why do you think he did that?Middle-aged male director's go-to for dramatic intensity – I guess.I don't think he's middle-aged.I'm not sure that's the point I was making.You don't agree.With?Rape being an act of dramatic intensity?Sure. It's pretty intense.But you don't think it should have been included?I don't see an awful lot of blokes getting fucked in the arse for dramatic flair.You don't think – at some level, that's what people want to see?Excuse me?Well it's been a staple of successful theatre for centuries and people keep coming.You watch what you're offered.You don't think there should be sex on stage?I didn't say sex, I said rape.What kind of sex is okay?There was this one show where in the text, you read this moment where a woman pours a glass of water down her front, she's wearing a white T-shirt, and when you read it, it's this real power move, she sexually intimidates the guy by doing it.When you watched it on stage, she just looked humiliated. She was owning it the best she could, she committed like hell but a couple of hundred people staring at your tits, you can't be master of that. It's looking that does it. I walk on stage; first thing people think is – how old is she? How hot is she? How fuckable is she? You walk on stage – they think – what's he got to say? What's he going to do?So, what do we do about that?Dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy.I see. But in the short to medium term?Dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy.He laughs.I do wish you'd stop laughing at things that are perfectly fucking serious.It's a grand ambition.Do you believe in it?What?Do you believe that the patriarchy exists? That there is a power structure in place, in this society, that seeks to systematically oppress women?I –And that you are part of that?I –You don't think it exists?I think. I think young women are angry for a lot of different reasons and I think one of those reasons is that they feel disenfranchised but I'm not sure that that's any different from say issues with poverty or class or race or –But as a man, do you recognise yourself, in the mirror, as a power-holder?Pause.Do you have a boyfriend?Brilliant. That is brilliant.I just mean – I – I'm just interested how this position – your – how this political stance operates in – your – personal life.There are men that get it.And that's your boyfriend?She shrugs.Do you dominate him?You aren't going to answer?Should I be answering that?I thought we were having a grown-up conversation about sexual politics. You raised the subject of rape and now, suddenly, you're pretending you're coy. It feels a bit – tricksy.Do you dominate your wife?Very good.I imagine you do. I imagine she's younger, less intelligent and heavy into her aesthetics. So that the majority of her status is tied to the ever-ticking time bomb of youth making it feel confusingly inevitable for you when you fuck someone ten years younger in five years' time… if you haven't already.You're above aesthetics then?I try not to place my value there.You could try a little humility.You're right, I don't think young women have enough of that.I'm not sure they do these days.Jesus Christ.Being oppositional to everything, all the time, being so aggressive – all the time, undermines your argument. Take the note.I'm not putting together a 'convincing argument'. I'm saying what I believe to be true.You don't find older men attractive?What?Indulge me.You are nothing but indulged.Why don't you find older men attractive?I find the fact that they're attracted to younger women – repellent.That's politics, that's not desire. What we want and what we believe to be right are different things.No. It's desire.You can find something sexually attractive even when you find it politically offensive.I don't find it offensive. I find it pathetic. The vanity and ego of older men needing the attention of younger women to prop them up. It's pathetic and it's very hard to fuck someone out of pity.You've spent a considerable amount of time with me.You asked me to.That didn't mean you had to, I didn't restrain you.You said you could do something about what was on stage. That's why I // I'm just saying there's obviously something about sparring with older men that you clearly enjoy or we wouldn't be here.If you want to get anything changed in the world it turns out, sparring with older men, is part of the fucking deal.Doesn't mean you don't enjoy it.Trust me, if there was any other way to get things done – I'd do it that way. (Picks up her bag and heads for the door.) I'm going to get my Tube. You tell the director of that show, fromme, that theatre is sacred, should be – these spaces – communal and civic and made to heal us when it's – when it's – and he's using it to reinforce his – he's using it to get off on things. And it makes me –Angry. Yes, I can see that.She starts to storm off. She stops. She turns around.You don't recognise me, at all, do you?Should I?Yes.Student drama festival in Hull. Six years ago. I was eighteen. I'd written one of the pieces. We were on a panel together at the end of the week.You and I?You and me.And?I spoke about how we'd marketed the show I'd done. You said – 'The idea that the next generation of theatre-makers think theatre should be entertainment, a product to be sold, is evidence of the cultural death of a country. Theatre must speak in opposition to the dominant cultural or ideological forces of the time. It must be insurgent, at best, a revolution.'It stayed with you.That's why I keep coming back to watch shows here. I keep hoping you might stick to your word.You know I directed tonight's show.Yes, I know you directed tonight's show.And you think that's okay? To speak to someone, like you just spoke to me, about their work, about the quality of their work?I wasn't talking about its quality. I was talking about its politics.It felt like you were talking about its quality.That's because you see the show as a representation of whether you personally – are talented or not – rather than seeing a play as a statement of politics. A formal expression of a political statement. You are not skewed toward a systemic awareness. I'd say. You're more a – good-night-out – kinda guy.Pause.After the panel, you asked me if I wanted to go to the pub and of course, you being who you are and me being eighteen and totally fucking in awe of you – I said yes.Hm.And we sat, in this incredible pub, with dark wood and red wine and you told me that writing has to be about truth. That it's holy fire – that these spaces are where we come to scream the things we can't find a way to say in real life.I said that?You said that and I felt like… from that day on – I made it, writing, my religion.Beat.He takes a step towards her.You asked to see a bit of my writing, in the pub, and you read it and you said it was good. That I was the real deal, that you could tell with writers, that they either had it or they didn't and you said I might, just, with enough work be good.And you offered me a job. You said I could come and work in your theatre. That you'd find a way for me to get a bit of money so I could develop my voice, that I could write my first full-length play and you'd do everything you could to help me get heard.Why – um – why – didn't you, you never. You haven't worked here.No.You didn't take up the offer?Why?Because right after you offered me the job – you tried to kiss me. Mid-March. The King's Head. You ate duck. I ordered Scotch to look like a grown-up and never touched it.Your hair was different.Sure.Pause.And you asked if I'd go back to your hotel with you. And you explained that you were married but that wasn't a problem as there was some sort of arrangement – as if your being married was in any way the devastating thing about what you'd just done.Pause.What do you mean, devastating? You turned me down.What?You rejected me?I wanted to believe that I was a good writer.You were good, that's why I offered you a job.You also tried to kiss me.They're separate things.Not to someone that isn't sure why they're in the room.It wasn't a room, it was a pub.It was your suggestion to go there.We talked about sex. We talked about – I remember there being a conversation about – I wouldn't have just, I would have had some sense that // as a – as a thing to do with the work. As a – the human condition – that's what artists talk about. Writers can discuss sex without // Well you can forgive me for getting confused? No?I was eighteen. You were thirty-odd.I didn't know you were eighteen // It was a student // So what if you were eighteen? There's nothing wrong in that. You're clearly mature for your age, you're high-handed enough that I probably thought you were fucking fifty.I wanted to get that job because I was talented, not because I was fuckable.You can be both. You'd think someone might be grateful for having so many strings to their // You don't see it? You don't fucking see it, at all, do you? The guys that sit in the meeting and get offered the job don't ever, not for one second do they have to doubt why they're being given it – they just know it's because they're good.The guys wouldn't make it to the pub. I wouldn't read their writing. I wouldn't offer them the job. They're at a disadvantage.If they do get the job they don't walk around for the next decade wondering whether their entire career was based on some married guy wanting to get laid.Move yourself out of the child position – stop playing the victim – that I'm not even sure you were – and prove me wrong for underestimating you. You should have taken the job.I would have been compromised.Why?The women that call you a cunt behind your back are the same women that wear the short skirts into your meeting room – I can't be one of those women and make work that feels true to my bones.You were excited. I could tell – in that pub – you were excited.Of course, I was excited.Was that true to your bones? Right. So, you could have written about how excited you were. That's a play I'd watch.You can't write from a place of – of – of –(Tries to catch her breath.) That's your own lack of confidence, that's not my // That is the systemic problem with women not feeling like they have anything interesting to say. They think, and god knows why, they're much more valuable for being pretty and fuckable!I don't see what the problem is with finding a smart beautiful woman attractive?I could have written things in the last six years that might have changed the world. And I didn't. I didn't because the one person that told me I might be a real artist – also tried to fuck me.I don't think you can lay your failure at my door. You need to take responsibility for your own insecurity. You shouldn't need my approval.
Pause – she doesn't speak.
Writer and Director enter. They should be older and slightly less attractive versions of their stage selves. The actor that previously played the Writer becomes Female Actor, the actor that previously played the Director becomes Male Actor.
Everyone gets chairs.
All four sit silently for a second – they look to one another – who will start to speak.
Writer Uh – yeah, shall I?
Director Yep, yeah.
Writer Uh – so this is just a – work-in-progress. It was something I wrote – and uh, we did this reading just to get a sense of whether it has legs or – um. If it might be something – I might take forward or… uh…
Writer looks to Director who doesn't say anything.
So… so we thought we'd do this short Q and A afterwards, just to uh. Get a sense of that. We don't want to take up loads of your time, just if there was anything. Anyone. I guess.
Female Actor I thought it was great. I really enjoyed doing it. It sort of did something to my body.
Director You know, obviously, it's got real punch – I think we, I mean I really commend it for that. I think it's got real – uh. It's urgent, but I guess the question is, you know – that's not a play unto itself – that's not enough of a play, just like that – so we'll need to get a sense of where it's going next. It's maybe not enough to just – you know, scream and shout.
Writer It needs to affect change.
Director Right.
Writer That was a big worry in writing it, in fact. You know that concern about being, I mean she's twenty-four, she's you know, young – but still the anger – is pretty relentless.
Director Certainly is.
Nervous laughter.
Writer You get stuck between this – you know moany-victim place or angry-woman place – and it doesn't feel you can get heard anywhere in between.
Director In its defence, there's some pretty well-structured argument in there too.
Writer Right, so argument is where it's heard but if you wanted to be impassioned, there's only two positions available. Argument, you know, formally – is pretty, it's his side of things. They're the terms he wants to be on.
Director But as I said, the argument is good. We had to work hard on that. It was a real outpouring when we first got it.
Writer I guess that's how anger /
Director / And we really had to knock it into shape. It desperately needed rigour and logic – the parts where it gets – you know, ranty – it can become insufferable.
Writer I think she's just trying to get heard.
Director Right, and we've had to do quite a lot of work on it structurally, to make sure that is the case.
Writer raises her eyebrows slightly, tense smile.
Writer Sure.
Director You don't think?
Writer I'm not sure it's better – I think it's just – I guess there are different forms of expression and some of them are more easily – understood than others.
Director You think what you originally sent in was more comprehensible?
Writer In a sense.
Director You're out of your mind.
Writer Its structure was formed through instinct. It might not have been logically /
Director It was a mess.
Writer According to your idea of structure.
Female Actor I liked the first draft. It was – mad. It was fucking great to do. It was all over the place.
Director Exactly.
Male Actor I really liked it as well.
Writer Horses for courses.
Director This is a better piece of writing.
Writer Depending on your definition of better. Shall we take another question?
Director If you think this version is self-indulgent you should have seen the first draft.
Writer I'm not sure emotive, personal expression and self-indulgence are necessarily the same thing. I find fifteen pages of finely wrought, cold, rational, academic dialectic self-indulgent. Just because it's a woman standing on stage saying how she feels /
Director / How she feels, exactly. This entire movement at the moment is so fucking self–
Writer As opposed to how he thinks. You don't think we're saturated with how 'he thinks'. I mean the entire structure of the Western world is organised on the principle of how 'he thinks'.
Director Exactly 'the world' – it's a broader perspective, it's accessible to – it's not just one person's endless, self-involved perspective on their own anguish.
Writer Hamlet.
Director Which uses the personal as a political /
Writer / So why can't the same be true here?
Female Actor It doesn't feel like a rant – to play it.
Weird – long pause – no one seems to have an answer.
Director Any more questions from the audience?
Audience Plant Have you been able to have the conversation you have in the play with any of the practitioners you work with in real life?
Beat.
Writer Is that for me?
Director Obviously.
Writer It could be for you –
Director I didn't write it.
Writer Um – there, uh – most of our conversation has been dramaturgical. I mean – that's the /
Director / The work is the thing that matters. That's what we're here to develop. Any more questions?
Audience Plant This is for – well, I guess everyone. Do you think it's weird that your character talks about power so much and being a woman but doesn't mention race?
Director Good question and it's something we consider in every show we do – we make sure that casting is representative of a level of diversity that – you've worked here before, haven't you?
Female Actor Uh-huh. Yeah. I – love working here.
Writer But I totally acknowledge that the play doesn't really deal with it. Like, I didn't want to be glib but – also – um, it's not about race. Although power – I mean, is always about – I take some – I admit that – sorry.
Female Actor It's a great part. It's a better – I'm just glad we're having the, I really love the play.
Male Actor I think it's really fascinating. We've been really mindful in the room. We've had a lot of fascinating conversations about intersectionality and voicelessness and how little people feel they can say – I didn't actually.
Female Actor (smiles at him, she's taking the piss) Yeah, I know.
Director Shall we take another question?
Audience Plant When you were trying to turn it from the sort of outpouring into the more logical argument – how did you decide what stays and what goes?
Writer looks at Director, Director looks at Writer Pause.
Writer We had to make it about what was happening between the two characters. We had to interrogate what they were doing to each other.
Audience Plant And what are they doing to each other? Do you think?
Male Actor I think it's complex.
Female Actor There's a lot of shifting about I guess. MALE ACTOR. But on the whole. I think the idea is /
Writer / I think the director sees the potential in the writer for a good show and I think he exploits that potential. Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt.
Director And the writer wants to be heard and yet isn't doing any listening herself.
Writer I think she's done her fair share of listening.
Beat. Then everyone looks to the Writer who doesn't say anything.
Female Actor I'm just thinking who actually gets what they want? In that sense, who is the protagonist. I mean she can't put the play on by herself – so /
Writer / She needs his permission.
Long pause.
Director Okay, great – that's great – there's a man at the back waving his hand in the air which I think is our cue to shut up.
Everyone clears their chairs away.
Female Actor and Male Actor clear the space. Director goes to leave, Writer stops him.
Writer What shall I…
Director Hm?
Writer What's the – will it, um. What's next?
Director When can you get the rest of it to me?
Writer Uh. I –
Director The sooner you can get it to me.
Director exits.
Show table of contents