You have managed to get your work produced?
I can say that I am not approached very often by people commissioning work from me and that would be a position I would like to find myself in at some point. Most of what I have done with regards Theatre has been self-generated.
I started a production company called Shot Glass with Joe Nawaz, another Belfast writer and playwright. Joe had written a play and it had taken a long time to get the production staged, almost eighteen months. We were talking one night and both wondered why it had to take so long and we moved from that discussion to making a decision to set up our own production company and stage our own work.
We went away and wrote two half hour plays, that was my first piece of writing for the Theatre.
When it came to organising the actual production of the plays, we had a sort of Mickey Rooney “let’s put the play on right here,” type of approach. We put the event on in a pub, we were helped out by friends with regards procuring actors, there was a bit of careful organising for the bar to be part of the production. We set up a Facebook page. We managed to get a really impressive crowd and from that because it was such a success we organised more.
I do think that being older, or coming to the craft of writing as an older person, I have the acquired resilience to see projects through to completion. I know a lot of people write material, but many never finish projects. I think I am disciplined enough to complete the projects that I set myself. Shot Glass was a great idea that had to be acted upon and I committed, along with Joe Nawaz, to that project
That must have been quite an exciting project to work on?
The most important thing for me was the alchemy of production. I was standing at the bar, hearing someone make my words work, breathe life into my words. It was real, it was human, warm, it was a wonderful experience, and the plays were well received. I loved the whole experience, I thought the whole process was fantastic, and we went on to produce 10 shows in 2 years.
We could turnaround our work very quickly, a couple of months. The plays only ran for one or two nights. It was very smash and grab. Here it is, it will only be on once or twice, come and see it now. It had a punk rock feel to it and it suited an audience who either didn’t want to go to the Theatre, or they might not be able to afford to go to a theatre show at a major theatre. Here we were putting plays on in a pub where you could drink during the performance and you paid £3 in at the door. And it is worth saying that people who came to our plays were not part of the established Arts sector or the Theatre sector, not as far as I know anyway. The audience was effectively self-generated.
I would say also that I think both Joe and I had a good idea who the audience for our work was and so we were writing material that we had a pretty good idea would work.
So Shot Glass Theatre was a success?
Yes, I think that is fair to say that. We were able to write material, get it produced for performance relatively quickly at a cost that we could manage, and we encouraged an audience to attend the events we were putting on.
We were outside of the mainstream Theatre circles as well so there was as I said an element of rebellion about those productions.
You have also had a play on at the Edinburgh festival?
Yes, I was approached by a comedian Christian Talbot who had been to the Edinburgh Festival doing comedy there. He felt that a one man show would have a better chance of getting people to come to productions.
He asked me if I would write something for him. I was pretty happy about that because I couldn’t have got to Edinburgh by myself, I certainly could not have afforded to put my own show on there.
I thought. Christian has a profile, people will come to see his show, he will get reviewed, which means my writing will get reviewed. Everything was working in my favour.
No-one from the local Theatre community nor from the Arts Council had come to have a look at our work when we were doing Shot Glass, and I really wanted to be reviewed. I wanted to get feedback from people in a position to do that. Taking a play to the Edinburgh Fringe festival offered that opportunity.
The play did well. The reviews were generally very good and again that was a very positive experience and encouraged me to continue.
What do you think of the idea that Netflix and various other entertainment providers are killing off Theatre?
There was no history of anyone in my family going to the Theatre and even up until recently I felt a sense of unease when I entered those lofty, draughty cathedrals of the Theatre. Even up until recently I wondered if I was doing the right thing, was I wearing the right clothes or would I be able to understand what was going on.
Shot Glass was an antidote to that in a way. Take plays to people, an audience who might also feel uncomfortable in a Theatre. I do think with regards Netflix, Youtube, Vimeo or any other provider, the Theatre is different.
Firstly, once you are in the Theatre there is no off switch. You can’t just stop the production in the middle and say I’ve had enough. You have to commit, and you are committing to a journey with real human beings, conveying to you emotions, feelings, and points of view. A story unfolds in front of you, in real time. Actors, real human beings are interacting with each other right in front of you.
That is a massive difference from watching a play or a film on Netflix. You are there and the production unfolds in front of you giving you both a collective, audience experience and an individual experience, so your experience is both shared and independent. There is nothing else like that and I really don’t think that television can offer the same visceral experience than that provided by the Theatre, I’m not suggesting one is better than the other, but for me the Theatre experience has lead me to a situation where I can see myself writing more for the Theatre at this point in time.
Your play “Every Day I Wake Up Hopeful” has just been produced by Prime Cut Theatre Company?
Yes. Emma Jordan from Prime Cut saw the production in Edinburgh and liked the script. We had a meeting in Belfast where it was put to me that they would like to produce the play. I felt like a child on Christmas morning. A Theatre Company with a very impressive record wanted to put on my play.
I worked on the script with Prime Cut; bits and pieces were added, dramatic elements were coaxed in to the script, they paid serious attention to detail and I was very glad they did that. I went to rehearsals, I was part of the process of production and the play was put on with two other plays as part of an investigation into mental illness as it is experienced by men, at the MAC in Belfast. It was truly inspiring experience and I was paid for my work.
From a standing start only a few years ago I feel I have made substantial strides regarding my writing. It would be reasonable to say now that if I didn’t have a clear career path before I certainly do now.
John Patrick Higgins