Rick Limentani – Cambridge graduate, former TCS journalist, and award-winning film-maker turned playwright – braves the April showers to talk to TCS about his experiences as a writer and his new play, ‘Freedom’.
TCS: The play you’re touring at the moment is the first play you’ve written. Was that a conscious move away from your previous film work?
RL: It wasn’t really a conscious choice. I came up with the story, and it just fitted so well to theatre. It’s three characters, two different locations, and there’s a symmetry to it; in each act you’ve got two characters in one place and one in the other. And that really appealed to me, and it made sense to do it in a theatrical setting. The previous year I did a short film which is going to film festivals and doing reasonably well at the moment, and that was a good process of saving up, finding funding and getting the production budget together in order to make the short film. But to make a feature film costs an enormous amount of money, so I thought I could either spend a year or two struggling to get that money together, and not make anything, or… Theatre is a way to tell a feature-length story at a much lower cost than producing a film.
TCS: Which would you say is a more challenging process – writing for film or theatre? Is it actually all that different?
RL: It’s very different. It’s an extra constraint, and constraints normally make us more creative because we have to find ways round them, so I always see that as a good thing. In theatre it’s harder to tell things visually because little things like opening a letter or a glance between two people get missed by the people sitting at the back: the subtleties that you’d show in a close-up in film, you can’t do in theatre. Also, in film you have much shorter scenes and you can jump between different places. I’ve got two locations in the play and they’re both onstage at the same time, so the whole story’s told in a kind of split-screen between two different countries, England and Tajikistan. There were so many times when I wanted to introduce more characters or more locations, and in film you would do it because it’s easy – not easy, but it’s possible. In theatre if you have to change the scenery, it takes away from the experience. I think my film background shows in the play as well; there’s a lot of quite short scenes, so it bounces between the two locations quite quickly like an intercut. I think it makes it feel quite vibrant and lively, but it is more filmic than theatrical I think.
TCS: Where did the title ‘Freedom’ come from?
RL: It’s the theme. When I’m writing – film or theatre or novels or whatever – I always need to have a theme. I make sure it’s one of the first things I decide and I write it on a piece of paper, so that all the time I’m writing it’s there in front of me. Because otherwise it’s very easy to get distracted and write things that don’t stick to a central message, which I think is not good writing. So I had the word freedom in front of me for so long that I couldn’t think of another title. But I think it sums it up pretty well, all three characters at some point in the play face a dilemma where they have to choose between their own freedom and the freedom of the others.
TCS: Has any playwright or any play been particularly influential to you?
RL: I feel like I’m not as knowledgeable about the theatre world as I should be. I go and see plays reasonably often but I don’t know all the names, I don’t know all the rules even. My attitude’s always been that the way to learn stuff is by doing it. I went to film school – it was a bit of a rubbish film school, the lessons were awful – but they gave us equipment and they encouraged us to go out and shoot stuff, and we learnt a huge amount just by doing dozens and dozens of short films each year. So I wanted to learn about the world of theatre by jumping straight in and doing a play. Influential? It’s much easier to say for film than for theatre, but I love ‘Waiting for Godot’ – I like quirky little slightly surreal plays like that, like ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’, those kinds of things.
TCS: Were you involved in theatre when you were at Cambridge?
RL: I wasn’t, I really wish I had been. I did some techie stuff on a play once, and I tried my hand at directing once, but largely ineffectively. At Cambridge, because I was younger then, I didn’t have the confidence to put my own writing out there, so instead I was usually active in the journalism area. I wrote film reviews for Varsity and for The Cambridge Student; I was one of the two first film editors of the film page of TCS.
TCS: Do you have any advice for people at Cambridge who want to be playwrights?
RL: The great thing about writing is it’s free, you can do it anywhere: paper, pen, computer. You have the means already, so just write stuff and show it to people and don’t take their feedback too personally. I get better all the time, every year, and that’s partly because I show my stuff to people and I get opinions and I recognise the things that I do badly. But it is just a matter of practice, and you know, to make a living at it is practically impossible, so you’ve got to do it because you love it. But if you want to be a writer, write. It’s as simple as that.
‘Freedom’ comes to the Mumford Theatre on Wednesday 9th May.