|Errollyn Wallen and April de Angelis |
AA I have been writing for about 15 years, and I have
written for the Royal Court, the RSC, Hampstead Theatre, the usual kind
of new writing venues. I have just written a play that is in rehearsal
at the moment that is opening in the Lyttelton on the 7th of December.
So that is a project that I am actually working on at the moment.
EW you are rehearsing this week, arent you?
AA rehearsing this week, yes, here in the studio. It
is a play about – it is a play that goes on with a classic play, She
Stoops To Conquer. And I have written a contemporary play to go with that
play. It is for a director called Max Stafford Clark who has often put
a contemporary play and a classic play together and then runs them in
repertoire. So that is what I have been up to.
EW because I know you – you are very much my mate
April, and we met about 10 years ago on an opera course. I realised that
we talk about our work, but in between talking about things like sex and
clothes. There are so many things that actually I have wanted to ask you,
for so long, but I never have. For example, where do you work at home?
Are you a tidy person? Those are the two things I have always wanted to
AA I actually now have an office at home where I work.
I do kind of get up in the morning, sit down at my desk and work. One
of the things, I am sure it is the same with writing – I dont
know if it is the same as writing music, actually. But it is not just
about putting words on a page. There is a whole process, a thought process,
and a process of kind of gathering ideas and materials that doesnt
actually look like you are working. It always makes you feel really guilty
if you are just sitting down, and everyone else is going off to work.
You sort of feel that you are not doing anything, but actually that process
is – you cant – I mean I have in the past sat, and just
tried to write, and thought that that was writing. But you just end up
with a hundred pages of nonsense which you then have to throw away at
the end because it is not properly conceived.
EW so do you sit at your table and think? Is that what
AA or is just lie on my bed. I do a lot of research –
reading. That is often how – I mean, the play I have just done, I
had to read so much – I took the commission, it was about the 18th
century, I thought that will be fine, the 18th century cant be that
different, and it turned out it was just so extraordinarily far in terms
of thinking. There were huge characters, like Dr Johnson, who has ended
up being in the play, who I realised you cant write badly for, because
it is just going to really – he was the wittiest man who has ever
lived. And I just thought I have really shot myself in the foot now, having
to write words for him to say. I would read them back at the end of
the day and think, no, no. You have to just build up almost an alternative
memory for yourself that you can draw on. Lots of research. That can take
a long time. For this play, it has taken three years from the very beginning
of agreeing to it being in rehearsal, and I never would have thought –
I would be horrified if you told me it was going to take three years – a huge commitment to a project –
EW you have also written a couple of libretti for Jonathan
Dove, composer. How does that compare to writing plays?
AA it is different because you have to work with somebody.
With Jonathan, we wrote the opera, Flight, together. I remember, a couple
of months in, thinking, I dont like this idea any more, Ill
just phone up Jonathan. Jonathan said, no, we cant change now. I
thought, oh my god, I have committed myself now, it is not the same as
writing a play, because I can suddenly think, I dont want to do
this anymore, because you have someone else, and someone elses deadlines.
He has to have the libretto a year before for then to write the music,
obviously. So that was a difference, you are not in control in the same
EW I remember you were working on that opera and you
said, this is going to be bollocks because I have gone off the story,
that was awful. You had actually wanted to work on something else, and
then it turned out that the thing you wanted to work on was the thing
I have been dying to work on myself, so now we have Jonathans dregs.
AA Yes, so that is true, we have Jonathans dregs.
That is quite good. You can get an idea and save it for later. But you
definitely – I felt – I thought, I hope I can do this, because
it is Jonathans life, it is not just my life –
EW because that opera turned out to be a real turning
point for that composer. It went on at Glyndebourne, I was with you for
the premiere, I remember speaking to you and saying, that the libretto,
the words that singers sing, often that looks like nothing, it often doesnt
even look like a play because we composers we need as few words as possible.
It can look really bald, but knowing that Jonathan is going to make this
whole world, and actually he did.
AA yes, he did. it is strange when you read back a libretto,
because it is so condensed. It feels like a very different bit of writing
than look at text of a play. It is very sparse, a libretto.
EW do you mind that when words are sung, people cant
AA no, but the thing is, I dont really think that
I understood that people – they are not really going to be able to
hear much, everything of the libretto. Somehow you needed to hear things
to understand the story. I remember sitting at Glyndebourne, there was
a big man behind me saying, I dont understand what is going on at
all. I remember thinking, oh my god. So I think I would know that next
time, it is much more about emotion isnt it. Little jokes dont
– people spoke, shouted the jokes in that, so that people could get
EW your process of rehearsal is very different to mine.
When you go into rehearsal you do lots of rewrites.
AA do you not do that? I suppose you cant because
you would have to change the scores.
EW that is one of the bad things about opera I think.
You work on the music and then once you see it in the dramatic situation,
obviously some things are wrong. For instance, it takes somebody longer
to walk from there to there, so you will need more music. You tend to
just stay with it, you have to make it work. But with you, once you are
in rehearsal, you can tweak things.
AA thats right. We do loads of cutting and –
but whats tended to happen in the Garrick play, A Laughing Matter,
it's very long, it's the longest play I have ever written, it's about two
and a half hours, and the director keeps saying, its too long, were
going to have to cut it. So we panicked and we cut it. And now we are
back in rehearsals and he is saying, I think well just put this
back in, so things are kind of creeping. It is very much about finding
out what works, with the actors, on the stage.
EW when things are cut, do you ever fight that?
AA I honestly like it when things are cut because the
worst thing in the world is when you are sitting in a play, you are sitting
in your play and people are going – that horrible feeling, an audience
starts shifting around particularly when they are bored. You have to keep
the momentum going, the pace. So cutting often is about making sure the
pace is right, so I dont mind cutting at all.
EW you trained as an actress. I wondered – in fact
that is how you met Euan (husband). Did you get any jobs as an actress?
AA I tell you, writing - it has been so much – I
work with people now I would never have been able to work with as an actress
because I wasnt very good. Max Clifford Clarke is a fantastic director,
and you work with him as a writer, sometimes I do think I would never
be in this room if I was an actor.
EW has it shaped the way that you write? You know you
were talking about pace.
AA there is a way, if you are acting a part, it is obvious
in a way, but you are looking for your journey through something. That
is very helpful. When you are writing, you are aware that you are not
just writing an emotional state. You are writing a journey for somebody.
And also, knowing what would work on a stage from the point of view of
an actor. Actors are really good at knowing, they will read a part –
one of the actors came up to me and said, you wont cut that speech
will you, because I only took this job because of that speech, because
it is a really good moment and I am going to be really good in it. That
is how they often connect to – they know what is going to work. And
the other thing, because I was an actress, I think I always think about
women, writing good parts for women, that is always –
EW you wrote a play based on an 18th Century actress?
AA I wrote a play called Playhouse Creatures, that was
about, I was given a commission and it was about the first actresses in
England. Women werent allowed on the stage until the Restoration.
And actually –
EW what were the women doing before that, were they acting
AA no, they werent. They were on the continent,
France, women were acting, but that was a lot of research. I had to research
that – what was interesting about that process was that the books
I could find were written in the 50s and the 40s and they were really,
they really had a sort of – these pioneering young women
– I had to really read between the lines to get their stories. There
was just one line about one actress, she wasnt very good and
she sank into the underworld of London. I thought, oh my god, -
I thought, that is really good, that is the sort of thing you are always
looking for. So I made her character quite an important character. You
are not always going to get the story, particularly if you are researching
history thats, womens history or whatever – it is more
intriguing, isnt it, any process, finding a little thing you can,
EW tell me about the plays that have not been based on
AA the last play – I dont know why I seem
to have got into writing history plays because I dont – I am
aware that I dont want to be put in that sort of box. But I did
write a play called The Positive Hour that was at the Hampstead Theatre,
that was about the womens – you know, what had happened –
I had been very involved in the womens movement when I was a, you
know, young woman, and it was just about 1997, and I was thinking, what
has happened to that energy, that organisation? So I wrote a play about
that. So that was much more coming out of personal experience and – but it has apparently the worst title, The Positive Hour, the worst title
EW so where do your people, your characters come from?
AA I was thinking about that because you said you were
going to ask me that question. I think it is as if you take one part of
yourself and you sort of magnify it. So it is almost as if you might take
the paranoid part of yourself, all the sadistic part or whatever, and
you push it as far as it would go. So you are watching one – it is
really pleasurable to do that. I dont know, because you can really
– it is just a good way of looking at that quality. Masks in theatre
– those masks are always often just an abstracted quality of something.
So I am sure that that is what you are doing, you are chasing the insecure
part of yourself, just kind of seeing how far it will go. I think that
is one place that characters come from.
EW I was thinking of the 18thC play, Playhouse Creatures.
You had a lot of characters in that play. The only thing similar that
I can think of in music is in counterpoint, or writing for an orchestra,
you are trying to get each – each instrument has its own characteristic,
its own journey, but you get them to collide.
AA Yes, that is exactly the same, I think. You are looking
for those collisions, I think. If you are doing a kind of score, you dont
want two characters to be the same, doing the same thing. That is not
rich for a text to be like that.
EW you know the piece I was talking about yesterday,
where there is a lot of unison writing, there was a point when people
were playing the same things, but for a particular point. But, this idea
of collision in music can be quite tricky to handle. Is it the same in
AA the thing about – I dont know if it is
the same in music, but in plays the kind of rule of drama is that everything
has to develop through conflict, you have to have this internal conflict.
I know that sounds like quite an old-fashioned idea, but I cant
see, if you are not writing through conflict in some sense, you are never
– you cant make a situation or moment progress or change or
– you are always looking for collision in a way. I dont know
if that –
EW the piece I was talking about yesterday, there is
a particular interval which, there is something like a kink in it. It
sounded a bit wrong, a bit edgy, and that always draws me into a bit of
music, to be honest. Something that doesnt quite fit, things that
dont go together. I am interested in that more than say consonant.
Do you have an idea of an ideal audience?
AA I dont actually. Anybody who would want to come
is my ideal audience. Really grateful for people to – not grateful,
but I cant imagine – it is really hard to think of an audience
as separate people anyway somehow.
EW do you feel you are writing for – you are writing
for yourself? Do you see yourself in the audience, for instance?
AA I think that probably, when you are writing, you shouldnt
be thinking about the audience. If you are thinking outside the piece
you are doing, you are not in it. I always try not to think about what
anyone else will think of it. What an audience is going to think. Because
I know that means that I am bored with what I am doing, thinking ahead,
on the first night I will wear this frock. No, get back to the –
EW I have to say I usually have the outfit before –
I wrote an opera once, I loved that opera. And the director, before the
first night, about two weeks before, sent me a fax saying I have made
27 cuts because I think the audience is going to be bored. So I said,
well you cant put this opera on. Actually, he was worried what the
critics would say.
AA outrageous. In a contract with a writer, he wouldnt
be able to do that without your permission anyway.
EW do you invest the director with the power to think
about the audience?
AA yes, I think the directors probably are thinking about
kind of – they are taking something on another stage, thinking about
presenting it to – putting it on a stage, I suppose you have to then
– embedded in a structure of a play, you have got to think about
an audience, in the sense that drama – you know, sometimes, they
have knowledge that the characters dont have on stage. You –
they are in the position of watching, that is always going to be the case,
so you have to take them into consideration in that way. What is the experience
for them? Why are you asking them, how are they going to enter this particular
world you are presenting, what is it that you are asking of them? Really,
that is where writing – it has taken me ages to work that out, but
you have to think about their position. because that is all you are doing
a play for – creating this kind of experience in that way for an
EW I wonder if we have ever had this experience. The
same opera that I am talking about, which was written ages ago, 1995 or
something. To this day, I am in situations where one of the characters
sings one of their lines.
AA the new line you mean, or an old one?
EW somebody will say something like, that wasnt
an accident. But this character, through music, has become a living character
who still lives with me. Does that happen to you? Do your characters come
back and speak their lines to you.
AA I dont think they do actually. I think when
you are with them. The play I wrote for the RSC was based on a lot of
testimony of people who lived in Warwickshire. When I first was given
all that material, I just couldnt write it for a year and a half.
I was going to write to the RSC and say I really cant do this. But
after a year and a half had passed, suddenly what happened was the characters
came alive, and I then found it quite straightforward to write. And then
I was in rehearsals one day, and I thought, these people really remind
me of somebody, and then I realised that it was my family, my grandmother
and my mother arguing away. And I thought, thats why – it took
ages for that material to go into my sort of unconscious and connect with
my personal back history, and then they really came alive. Now, I dont
think I could read that play without seeing those shades of people I know,
but I didnt know it when I was writing it which is really –
EW did your family recognise them?
AA no, they never do, which is good. I can still go home
at Christmas. Which is also curious, that they dont ever recognise
themselves. The first time I ever did a play and my mum came, and I thought,
thats it, she is never going to speak to me again. She came back
and said, it was lovely dear.
[end of recording]