Interview with Chip Shop Chips playwright Becky Prestwich

Becky Prestwich

What is Chip Shop Chips about?

After his father’s death, Eric, a 60 something drifter, has come home to re-open the family Chip Shop. He wants to re-vamp the place and turn it into the kind of trendy chippy that serves Halloumi as the veggie option. On the restaurant’s opening night, Eric’s childhood sweetheart, Christine, turns up. They haven’t seen each other in over 40 years. Christine’s a Grandma – and a widow now. Neither she nor Eric has lived the life they imagined they would, and she’s wondering if there’s still time for one last big romance… Alongside Christine and Eric, we see Lee and Jasmine – two eighteen year olds who may or may not be about to kiss for the first time. So, really it’s a play about memory and possibility and first love and nostalgia.

 Why Fish and Chips?

I think fish and chips are brilliant. They manage to be both totally ordinary and a treat at the same time – I guess because they’re cheap but bad for you. They’re also strangely wholesome – I feel much less guilty feeding my kids fish and chips than I would giving them a McDonalds. For most British people, fish and chips are rich in memories – sharing a bag of chips with your first boyfriend because you can’t afford to actually eat out or windswept, rainy holidays in the Lake District or the first night in a new house before you’ve unpacked the pots and pans. Fish and chips are about comfort and family. They conjure a kind of instant nostalgia – and that kind of nostalgia seems to be everywhere at the moment from retro beards to vintage everything. I thought a Chippy might be an interesting world through which to explore ideas about tradition and family, nostalgia and aspiration and how the world has changed (and how its stayed the same).

What inspired you to write this play?

The idea first came to me when I was pregnant. For the first few months of the pregnancy, I could only stomach chips and the occasional cheese sandwich. So, I was spending a lot of time in chip shops. And one night – before a Box of Tricks production actually – my husband and I ate at the Olympus Fish and Chip Shop opposite Bolton Octagon. I was immediately struck by what a fantastic place for people watching it was. It was a place where people come together. I liked the idea of the story playing out while the audience ate. And straight away, I knew it would be a story about family and falling in love.

 How does the play fit in with your previous work?

I write about food a lot. I come from the kind of family where if someone is feeling low, you offer them a sandwich. So, this play definitely connects with that. I’m also really interested in every day drama, stories that seem small but which are somehow exploring what it means to be alive and part of society. Also, I used to work in the participation team of a theatre and I think this play connects to that – I wanted to write something that anyone could come and see and enjoy, including people who might never normally dream of stepping inside a theatre. It was important to me that the play felt truthful and was about lots of memories of fish and chips, not just my own, so we worked with community groups and youth theatres from both the Bolton Octagon and the Royal Exchange as part of the development of the play.

 What do you hope audiences will get from watching the play?

Well, Eric fancies himself as a bit of a showman and he is determined that everyone is going to have a good night. So, there’s a quiz, a bit of Northern Soul and some terrible fish puns. Alongside that, you’ll have these two love stories unfolding, which will hopefully capture something of what it feels like to be young and falling in love for the first time. I hope audiences have a good night out and come away with a full heart. And you get to eat chips.

How did you get into writing?

My Mum’s a writer and for years, that made me very determined not to be one. I saw myself as a creative person and just doing what my Mum did for a living didn’t seem to be a very creative choice. I worked for a long time as the Young People’s Programme Leader at the Royal Exchange. It was an absolutely brilliant job. It was incredibly rewarding and creative and I learnt a lot about how theatre works from my time there. But I couldn’t resist writing. I wrote bits for the young people I worked with and in my spare time, I wrote for myself too. I sent my first full length play to Box of Tricks Theatre and loved the experience of seeing something I’d written come to life on stage. So, I kept writing. I did more theatre projects, including more work with Box of Tricks and I also started engaging with the Writersroom at the BBC which got me into writing for radio and then TV. Eventually, I realised it was time to leave my job and admit that I was a writer whether I liked it or not.

How does it feel to see your work on the stage?

I write a bit for telly and for radio too and it is always a revelation to see what actors can bring to a script. But there is something uniquely brilliant about being in an audience, and seeing and feeling people around you respond to something you’ve created. It’s magical when the audience laugh in places you hadn’t anticipated or gasp at something you didn’t realise was quite that shocking. It’s also completely and utterly terrifying and with theatre the fear never quite lifts because even if the audience clapped last night, tonight they might hate it. But that’s the risk you have to take. My favourite bit is afterwards if you overhear the audience talking about what they’d have done in that situation or reminiscing about a similar story from their own lives – that’s what you’re looking for, to create something that connects.

 How involved are you in your plays?

This was a fantastic process because it was very collaborative from the outset. I went to Box of Tricks with the seed of an idea and we worked on building the world together. Even so, I still feel that when the final draft is in – you are kind of done. I like to be around rehearsals, partly because it is a genuine joy to watch actors work their magic, but I think there’s a point where you have to step back and let other people own your script. It’s good to be there to facilitate the process – to tweak anything that isn’t working and to answer any questions but often I think the answers I have are less interesting than the answers the rest of the creative team go on to discover for themselves.

Which playwrights inspired you?

I saw my first Chekhov’s The Seagull as a teenager and have never got over it –Chekhov writes real people who are funny and flawed and heart-breaking and for me, that’s the holy grail. It’s also difficult to be a Mancunian playwright and not be inspired by Simon Stephens.

 What do you hope Box of Tricks will bring to your play?

I love working with Box of Tricks. Adam directed the first full length play that I wrote and they’re a fantastic company for new writers. They care about every word of your play as much as you do.  They’re also a company who care deeply about their audiences –and about finding the right way for an audience to experience each play. When I first talked to them about Chip Shop Chips I didn’t know quite what I wanted the play to be, they immediately saw the potential for a tour to unusual venues, engaging new audiences.  They also have a real knack for bringing together talented people – they always find the actors and creatives who will really get your play.

What was the best bit of advice you were given when you started out?

It isn’t really advice about writing directly but… As a person, I’m not great at going outside of my comfort zone and as I got older and started having to take part in more grown up, social activities against my will, my Mum would say to me, ‘it’s all good copy, darling’. I think there is something in that… We get a bit obsessed with this idea of writers as reclusive artists – tucked away reading plays and working on their craft, but really for me being a writer isn’t about language, it’s about understanding and empathising with people – trying to get inside what makes them tick. To do that you have to properly engage with the world – even if on one level, you’d rather be at home reading a book.

Why should people come and see the play

People should come and see the play for a good night out. Hopefully there are moments which will make you think but ultimately this is a warm-hearted play which will leave you with a full belly and a bit of a smile.

What is next for you?

I’m working on a new theatre project called the Girl from Ward Four. It’s about a teenage girl who is in recovery from anorexia, who falls in love with a boy she meets at a Child and Adolescent Mental Health unit. So, another love story – and in a way another play about food too.

Finally two very important questions –

 Where is your favourite fish and chip shop?

It has to be the chip shop down the end of my road – it’s less than 2 minutes from my front door. Life-saver.

What is your favourite sauce to go on your chips?

I like chips with salt, vinegar, mushy peas and absolutely nothing else. For me, putting ketchup on proper chip shop chips is sacrilegious.

Playwright Emma Reeves – Snow Child

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Q&A with playwright and television writer Emma Reeves.

How did you get involved in writing Snow Child for tutti frutti?

Wendy Harris, the director, very kindly asked me – I was thrilled to be involved. I’ve seen some of Tutti Frutti’s shows and they’re delightful.

 

If you have to sum up the play in 3 words what would they be?

Family, magic, snow. It’s for families, obviously, but it’s also about family and what having a family means, for children and for parents. Magic is an important element too – I want the show to feel magical, in the way that it feels magical when you wake up the morning after a snowfall and the world has changed. And yes, snow’s the third word. I know it’s obvious but I just can’t miss out the snow! It’s what the story’s all about…

 

How does Snow Child stand out in a crowded children’s show market?

I know there are a lot of brilliant children’s shows out there but Tutti Frutti are a very special company. They really want to encourage children to develop their imaginations. It’s not about massive sets and budgets or Hollywood names, it’s about brilliantly talented actor-musicians telling a story with loads of charm and heart. 

 

Why should audiences come and see the production?

I hope that it will encourage children to see the enormous potential of story-telling, and inspire them to play and tell their own stories. And I hope adults will enjoy the clever theatricality of it all – seeing the story told by a small cast of actor-musicians on a simple but brilliant set.

 

 

Why did you mainly write for children and not adults?

I was a fanatical reader as a child, and I’ve never forgotten how important my favourite stories and characters were to me – well, they still are! So getting to write for children is the greatest privilege, really.

 

What are the challenges of writing for children?

I know a lot of children’s writers say this, but when I’m writing I’m thinking about myself as an audience member – what would entertain me, what’s funny, what’s dramatic, what’s interesting, what’s boring? Obviously there are strong rules about appropriate content, especially when you’re writing for children’s TV, but in general the challenges are the same as writing for adults – keeping stories and characters feeling fresh, meaningful and engaging. Giving people a reason to keep watching!

 

What are the difference  between writing for television and theatre and which do you prefer?

Theatre is much more immediate – you have a lot more contact with the actors and you can try things out on the spot to see if they work. You also get to experience audiences’ reactions, night after night. It’s very visceral and in the moment but when it’s gone, it’s gone. Which is part of the joy but also a bit heartbreaking – recordings of a theatre performance are never quite the same. TV exists forever and you also have the fun of writing lots of episodes for the same characters and seeing the actors develop their characters over many years and different stories.

 

How important is theatre for young children?

I think it’s really important. Getting the experience of seeing live performers is something that stays with you all your life. I still remember when theatre companies came into my school to perform when I was young. I remember seeing a show called “Smash and Grab” when I was about 7 and being entranced. We had to bring in 50p each to pay for it, but nobody was excluded from the show so I guess there must have been provision made for the kids whose parents couldn’t afford it. So it was affordable for all the children to watch. With all the cuts to arts funding, I’ve heard that theatre in schools is happening less and less and that’s a real shame.

 

Who do you feel are the more difficult audiences to please – children or adults?

I don’t know which are more difficult to please, but children are very discerning and very honest.

 

How did you get into writing plays?

I used to be in drama groups as a teenager and then I acted in loads of plays at university and was an actor for a short time. I wanted to act, but writing was always calling me – I loved working on the group projects we devised for GCSE and A level drama. I wrote an adaptation of one of my favourite children’s books, Little Women, and put it on with a group of friends. I also sent a script to BBC Wales, which eventually led to a job writing for The Story of Tracy Beaker, the first of many jobs I’ve done with CBBC.

 

What have been the highlights of your career?

Adapting Jacqueline Wilson’s “Hetty Feather” was a definite highlight – I worked on the stage adaptation, devising it with director Sally Cookson and a group of brilliant actors and musicians, and have also been lucky enough to write a few episodes of the TV version. I also loved working on an adaptation of “Carrie’s War” which played in the West End and on tour. And I’m very proud of “Eve”, a TV show about a robot which I co-created for CBBC.

 

What is the most important piece of advice you could give someone who is thinking of starting to write plays?

I know everyone says this, but it’s true. Read loads, listen and watch as much as you can. Try to get to the theatre as much as you can but if you can’t afford it, get books from the library, watch TV, listen to radio, watch stuff on the internet. Join a drama group if you can, acting really teaches you how a play works. And write as much as you can, all the time – writers are lucky in that it’s something you can do on your own and it’s free…

 

What are you working on next?

 A new adaptation of “The Worst Witch” for CBBC.  And series 2 of “Eve”.


 

Interview with Playwright Ella Carmen Greenhill about her new play Plastic Figurines

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Q+A WITH PLAYWRIGHT ELLA CARMEN GREENHILL

 What is Plastic Figurines about?

When Rose’s mum is diagnosed with Leukaemia Rose has to give up her life at University and return home to look after her autistic brother Michael. The siblings have to get to know each other again but when tragedy strikes on Michael’s 18th birthday Rose has to learn to cope on her own and ultimately to forgive herself. The play is really about guilt.

What inspired you to write this play?

My brother is on the autistic spectrum but I suppose what I wanted to explore was the less obvious things autism throws up for a family. Plastic Figurines could easily be Michael’s story but it isn’t, it’s Rose’s and we see it all through her eyes. I wanted to explore sibling relationships and show that these two are like any brother and sister; the same beautiful and ugly parts are there as with any family.

 How difficult is it to write a play about a subject that it so close to you?

I think the important thing is to distance myself a bit. Plastic Figurines is in many ways a very personal play. It is inspired by my own experiences of autism, sibling relationships and losing my mum. At the same time it is a complete work of fiction and, whilst Rose and Michael are very close to my heart, they are not me and my brother. It’s so important for me to keep in my head that I’m making this up and that this isn’t autobiographical, even if some bits are taken from personal experience. There have been times that I’ve worried what people might think but if I do that too much I’ll never write anything.

Can you tell me about the research work for the play?

I’ve watched and read a lot but the most helpful things has been talking to other people who are close to someone on the autistic spectrum, particularly parents. In the play Rose thinks she has to fulfil a parental role and so I wanted to tap into the guilt that she has because she can’t do it ‘right’. It was interesting discussing with other people, including people in my own family about guilt and trying to be the ‘perfect’ family. I joined forums and chatted and what was great was that people were really keen to talk about their experiences. I don’t want to give away any spoilers but the play does explore the mutual need between Rose and Michael and how actually she might be just as reliant on him, maybe more so. That was something that came from my own experiences as well as other people I’ve talked to.

 How does it fit in with your previous work?

From what I’ve just said it probably doesn’t seem like it but I would say the play is much more comedic than my other work. I really wanted to have fun writing this play and for it to make me laugh. It isn’t doom and gloom and Michael is a very witty, intelligent character who was a joy to write. My previous work has been much darker in tone and subject matter so I like that this was a change, something that I could really get stuck into but still have fun with. Plastic Figurines is the play that is closest to my heart and so in some ways I have felt the most vulnerable writing it but I think that’s really important; feeling scared and putting yourself out there can really pay off creatively.

 What do you hope audiences will get from watching the play?

An insight into a world they don’t know maybe, or for others a warm familiarity. I want people to walk out at the end and feel compelled to talk to each other. I love Rose and Michael and I hope the audience will too; I hope they will care what happens to them even after they leave the theatre – does that sound mad?

 How did you get into writing?

I applied for the Young Writers Programme at Liverpool Everyman and it just went from there. I realised that writing was something I needed to do, otherwise I sort of go crazy.

 How does it feel to see your work on the stage?

Terrifying! It’s amazing but I do get very nervous and hot. I tend to watch the audience. Years ago I had a reading of a play and someone in the audience gasped. That was such a great feeling because it wasn’t thought about, it was just an instinctive reaction, I love theatre for that.

 How involved are you in your plays?

I think it’s great to be in rehearsals early on, when everyone is discussing the play but then I do think it’s important to let go and leave. If you want to write and it be only yours then don’t write theatre. Theatre is collaborative and I think it’s really important that everyone feel that it is a little bit theirs. For me, it’s important to trust my director and to let the play go. I try hard not to be precious, I fight for what I love but some bits have to go.

Which playwrights inspired you?

Martin Crimp – Attempts on Her Life is still my favourite play. That seems so final but it’s up there anyway.

Robert le Page – Polygraph is the first play I saw and then read that just blew me away.

Dennis Kelly – I love that he can be weird and really heartbreaking at the same time.

Caryl Churchill, Duncan Macmillan, Vivienne Franzmann. There’s too many!

 

What do you hope Box of Tricks will bring to your play?

They’ve been with the play from the very beginning, from when it was just a paragraph of an idea, they know it so well. Adam is a great director and I really trust him to be respectful to the text as well as bringing his own brilliant stuff. It’s amazing to tour to so many venues, scary as well as there won’t be any time to settle and know an audience reaction, but really exciting.

 Plastic Figurines opens at Liverpool Playhouse Studio from the 8-11 April and then tours till 16 May. For tour details visit Plastic Figurines tour dates