“We were going to set it in a toilet”: On writing Living Quarters

Tom Bevan 1 November 2015

We came up with the idea for Living Quarters in Freshers’ Week of our first year. Excited by the prospect of applying to the ADC with an original script, we thought, rather naively, that we’d be able to hammer out a full-length play before the application deadline. Yet we soon lost all motivation and any sense of time to finish formulating ideas. Was it four male or four female characters? Was it a cottage in the country or a flat in London? Even the idea to set the entire play in a toilet was seriously considered for a time.

A year later and the two of us were keen to write again. We realised that one of the reasons we had felt stuck with the script for so long was because of the arbitrary limits we’d imposed: none of the characters could leave the stage. As soon as we introduced the possibility that characters could actually enter and exit the stage a whole new world of dramatic possibilities opened: characters could now talk about other characters ‘behind their back’, we could devise fun and unexpected ways for people to come in and leave, and overall it helped expand the play from a sentence-long plot synopsis to a full-blooded story arc. It was seemingly obvious things like this that completely changed our approach to playwriting.

Image credit: Ben Waters

We now had a clearer idea of what Living Quarters would be: a modern-day version of the sixteenth-century ‘comedy of humors’, starring a sanguine (Sandy), choleric (Chloe), melancholic (Mel) and phlegmatic (Flo). It took half a day to come up with the full plot summary, and throughout that monster session we were trying to come up with the most unexpected ways events could develop.

Co-writing a script is an incredibly rewarding process if you have a writing partner who is on your wavelength but also isn’t afraid to disagree or argue with you. Our writing sessions, which often began at 9pm and ended at 3am, fluctuated between the hugely productive, in which we’d write a dozen pages, and the frustratingly slow, as we’d dispute over a single line. The benefit to there being two people, however, is that when you hit writer’s block, you can step away from the computer and allow someone else to write for a bit, and vice versa.

It’s so strange to be directing these lines with real actors after so much time only reading them aloud as a pair. It’s no myth that an actor can be as integral to the formation of a character as a writer, and the cast have been incredible at suggesting ways in which lines can be tweaked in order to get this intention across more clearly. The dialogue in Living Quarters is very snappy with lots of realistic overlapping lines, and since there’s almost always one character in the background during each moment of drama, we’ve been adding in more and more action so that the audience will be convinced by what’s happening, no matter where they look. Suddenly what began as a vague stage directions have taken on a life of their own, and the process of turning page to stage is changing our conception of our own show.

 

Image credit: Simon Lock

The thing we’ve learned most from doing Living Quarters is just how incorrect the notion is that a play is the product of just one ‘writer’. Tony Kusher, the Pulitzer-winning writer of Angels in America, once said that it’s a “fiction that artistic labour happens in isolation”, and if we consider all the individuals that have helped to shape the play from the start – critics, readers, actors and directors – then we’re inclined to agree. Theatre is not like poetry or a novel; you can’t be the sole creative force from beginning to end. The very medium requires collaboration and co-operation, for multiple people to come together and, for want of a better term, ‘play’ with words.

 

 

Winner of the RSC/Marlowe Society Other Prize 2015, and shortlisted for the Footlights Harry Porter Prize, Living Quarters runs at the ADC this week.