Al Smith’s plays include Radio, Enola and The Bird, but having ventured into writing for flagship programmes such as EastEnders and Casualty, Smith now returns to theatre with his first new playin seven years.
Harrogate received a rehearsed reading at the HighTide festival in 2013 and is about to receive its full world premiere at the Suffolk festival. Smith stepped out of final rehearsals to talk to Glen Pearce about the play.
Harrogate is receiving its world premiere at HighTide, what can you tell us about it?
It’s a new play and I haven’t written a play for about seven or eight years, so it’s great to have a play on and great to have it on at HighTide as they’re a great organisation. It’s a play about a family, about a crisis in a family, and about controlling relationships within a family. It’s quite a small piece, a chamber piece, it all takes place in one afternoon and is an exploration of a traumatic memory within a family.
When I spoke to HighTide’s Artistic Director Steven Atkinson about this year’s festival he mentioned that he thought Harrogate might be slightly controversial. Why is that?
It’s probably not an easy watch but I think he’s possibly better placed to answer that than I am! I don’t want to pre-empt the way it’s received but, broadly speaking, it’s about a man who questions if he’s inappropriately close to his daughter and, while nothing bad happens in the play, the topics aren’t particularly comfortable so I can imagine describing it as controversial.
Is making an audience uncomfortable something that appeals to you as a writer?
No, I would say not. Most of my pieces have been quite warm so this is unusual for me, but it was a topic that just caught my imagination and I went for it. I think sometimes that’s just what you have to do. I’m not sure how it will be received, it’s a bit of a risk but, if you feel you should go for it, you do it and you don’t worry too much about if it’s controversial or not.
Harrogate itself had a reading at HighTide it back in 2013 what has the development process been?
It was great to actually hear it. It was always a three-act play but I swapped two of the acts around and scrapped one of them and re-wrote it. The rehearsed reading process are always, if you can get one as they are hard to come by, extremely useful ways of testing material within the working process before a draft is done. It was a great opportunity HighTide gave me a couple of years ago.
What’s been great about HighTide is they’ve said we like this play and are going to go with it and they’ve supported me hugely. It’s a real privilege to be able to a reading of it before going away to rewrite it to make it better
You’ve talked about the support from HighTide, how important do you think festivals like HighTide are?
Essential. Essential. The opportunities to present new work are getting slimmer and slimmer and HighTide has a long and rich history of backing new, often challenging work, so they are essential.
You mention the opportunities for new work are getting slimmer – how do you view the state of the industry for supporting new writers?
It’s filled with many people who want to get new work on but I think budgets are tight everywhere and the opportunity to have new work performed are slimmer than ever, so anyone who backs new work are to be treasured.
Each director and writer has a different working relationship, but what’s your involvement in the rehearsal room as a writer?
I’ve worked with Richard [director Richard Twyman] on this project since its very first draft, so he’s been on board for the last couple of years. So while every play is different, for Harrogate I’ve worked very closely with Richard. I’ve been changing the script as we go along according to the way that he feels a shift is needed and the way an actor changes the rhythm of a line. On the whole we’ve really worked this script before we got to rehearsal. I think we were in quite a lucky position where it was ready to go by day one of rehearsals, which is quite unusual.
You mentioned this is your first play for a number of years and you’ve written for other media such as TV and radio; do you think it’s a necessity now for writers to be able to write across various media?
It wasn’t my intention and I can answer that several ways. Firstly, writing theatre is a very different beast to writing television and you’re much more exposed writing plays just by virtue of the fact that your place in the creative pecking order is very different in both. I find it very exposed writing theatre. I love it more than any other medium, but I didn’t have the confidence for a long time to know what I wanted to say. I think there were psychological reasons why I didn’t write a play in the last few years. But to answer your question more directly, it has been my experience, that in order to make a living writing, I haven’t been able to do it just writing plays and when the opportunity to help the work on shows such as EastEnders I grabbed it, it meant I could keep a roof over my head and I learned a new box of tricks for writing.
What inspires you to write?
It’s very simple, I like sharing ideas with people. I read a lot and if I ever come across something that has the nuts and bolts of becoming an interesting play I like sharing those ideas with people.
What would be your advice for would-be writers?
Just pay attention and read as much as you can, see as much as you can and try to be as honest with yourself on how you think about things – and that’s a very hard thing to do!
Harrogate will be performed at the ninth HighTide Festival -11 -20September.
For more information visit www.hightide.org.uk