This week a guest blog by writer VIVIENNE FRANZMANN.
Viv was one of the 12 writers on the 2011 Channel 4 screenwriting course. The script she wrote to get on the course was her first stageplay, MOGADISHU. Viv worked as a teacher for 12 years and this play is inspired by her experiences. It won the 2010 Bruntwood playwriting prize. It’s a powerful and brilliant piece of writing.
In summer 2012 her 2nd play THE WITNESS was on at the Royal Court theatre upstairs and, although totally different, was equally gripping.
In the process of the Channel 4 course Viv wrote another wonderful script, ‘THE BEES OF BETHNAL GREEN’, a thrilling, funny but dark story about a girl-gang of Victorian pickpockets. This script has yet to see the light of day but it’s so good I’ve no doubt it will eventually get made.
Here’s a link to information about how to buy Viv’s 2 playscripts – I really recommend you get hold of them – I’d be amazed if you don’t find both very inspiring.
I’m delighted that Viv has written this blog about the genesis and writing of THE WITNESS. I think there’s a lot that any writer can take away from this – about the inception and development of an idea, the importance of research, the planning of your story, getting feedback from people you trust and much , much more…
I was looking through the Sunday Papers one morning and I came across a series of images that had been nominated for a press photography award. There were three photographs of a man being stoned to death. I hadn’t really been paying attention to what was in the magazine and the photos stopped me in my tracks. I was utterly shocked by them. My reaction made me think about how unshockable I am generally and how we are used to seeing images of death and destruction everywhere. There was something so brutal and extreme in these images that I couldn’t shake off. I started thinking about the person that took the shots, how that must feel, what it must be like to not to intervene and stop violence, but to record it, to show it to the world. I was interested in what that does to someone psychologically and what drives him or her to keep on returning to war zones, to leave their loved ones behind, to keep on confronting the horrors of the world time and time again.
Shortly after seeing the photos, I had a meeting at the Royal Court. The literary manager had read my first play ‘ Mogadishu’ and asked if I had any idea what I wanted to write about next. I knew it was going to be about a war photographer.
I started reading everything I could lay my hands on about war photography. When people asked me what I was working on, it seemed that everyone had something to say about photo-journalism. I heard some amazing anecdotes about war photographers, but also listened to lots of responses about images people had seen. Somehow, and I’m not sure how, I decided that my play would include an adopted child. I’m really interested in identity and the sense of self. I decided the adopted character should be from Rwanda. I read a tonne of books, newspaper reports, watched films and eventually, as I began to write the second act, I realised I had to go to Rwanda to see the country and the people for myself, so I did. I flew to Kigali and travelled round. I went in the Easter Holidays as I was still working as a teacher then. It was the 17th anniversary of the genocide so there was a lot of mourning and grief, but also hope for the future. I toured churches where the massacres took place. I spoke to local people, but was very careful who I spoke to and how I approached the subject. Rwanda is an amazing, weird, beautiful, scarred place and you feel it all the time. When I came home, I felt confident about writing the second act. As a writer, I do a lot of research, because, for me, I am always aiming to be as truthful as possible. I fret over details that feel inauthentic, so I would rather put in the time digging deep into a subject or character in the early stages than guess it and have to go back later.
The writing of the play was relatively straightforward. I made notes of plot ideas whenever I was researching and then I collated them all before I started writing. I knew roughly the direction it was going to go from the start, but not everything that was going to happen. For me, it works to have a sense of what might happen, but equally it is important to be fluid and respond to the writing as I go.
I got the first draft to a stage where I felt happy for it to be read. I sent it to four good friends and asked for their opinions. This is a great way to gauge your work, but you do have to be prepared that you might not like some of the responses. It’s hard to hand over work and then get criticism in response (no matter how supportive or constructive the criticism is), but it is always very helpful.
After I had responded to my friends’ comments, I sent the first draft to the Royal Court and a month later they said it was going to be produced in the next season. We had a rehearsed reading, so I could hear what worked and what didn’t. It became clear that there was repetition and reinforcement of plot that was unnecessary.
The production experience was great. It was really relaxed. There are only three characters in the play and the director, Simon Godwin, is a very thoughtful, fun, relaxed director. I was in rehearsals for the first week to respond to any questions about the plot, character, etc and then I left them for three weeks, popping in occasionally to see what was going on. I knew the play was in safe hands with Simon and the actors and I trusted them completely.
People always say to me that it must be amazing to see your characters brought to life on stage, but to me the characters are already alive in the text. They don’t feel anymore alive on stage than they do when I’m writing it and imagining them. I think that this is testament to the skill of the two directors that have worked on my plays, Simon Godwin and Matthew Dunster, as well as the actors. All my characters have been realised on stage in just the way I imagined them, so rather than feeling amazed when I watch them, I feel satisfied and comfortable that they are right.
Thank you so much Viv.
Until next week,
All the best
Jan 18th 2013