My Work – Sketching at Wiltons Music Hall
Sketching opened at Wilton’s Music Hall in September 2018. These words that describe the process of creating the play are from James Graham’s forward to the published script, and the images are by Simon Annand of the original production.
It’s hard to imagine now of course, but even Charles Dickens was an ‘emerging, up-and-coming writer’ at some point, desperately trying to find his voice and get noticed. Before Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield, he wrote a series of short stories over the course of several years for various different newspapers that were later published in one full volume called ‘Sketches by Boz’ (Boz being Dickens’ pen name at the time).
The full title of his volume is Sketches by Boz: Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. And it was the second half of the title that always inspired me, after the director Thomas Hescott – who I had collaborated with before at the National Youth Theatre – approached me to see if there was any mileage in a modern-day version of every-day people and their every-day lives.
What became clear though was that if you’re going to claim to present a range of different lives from different communities and backgrounds in a modern city as diverse as London, then one single author with their own narrow perspective probably won’t come close to capturing it. And so we hit upon the idea of many authors, writing many stories: a proper theatrical collaboration.
Television does this kind of thing all the time. In writers’ rooms on long-running TV series, there may be a lead writer, or ‘show runner’, working alongside a collective of other scriptwriters. Theatre is different, and rightly so, where the individual voice of the writer is championed and not to be hidden away or apologised for. However, as a template, this writers’ room concept felt quite exciting as a new way of making a play where both individual playwrights could do their own thing, in their own voice, but we would meld everything together, collectively, to make one single show.
In addition to wanting a whirligig of different voices that would make a mosaic of London both more authentic and more exciting for the audience, we were keen to create opportunities for emerging writers early in their artistic life, which are hard to find and arguably getting harder. So, Sketching, as we began to call the project, also felt like an exciting chance to provide a forum for newer and undiscovered voices to receive a professional showcase for their work.
Myself, director Tom, and Holly Kendrick, the Executive Director of Wilton’s Music Hall, were equal parts thrilled and terrified to receive around 800 story submissions. Thrilled to see so much talent out there, terrified about how on earth you pick eight stories from such a treasure trove.
Nevertheless, after trying out different combinations of stories like an ever-moving jigsaw puzzle, we selected our eight writers and their eight ideas.
A week of masterclasses and brainstorming sessions took place in June to test and push each of the ideas, establish common themes, and begin developing an over-arching structure for the whole show, before we all went away – including me, as the ninth writer in our cabal – to begin work on our own strands.
There is no ‘set’ version of Sketching, and in the published text they are presented as an anthology. This is because we want to encourage you to BUILD YOUR OWN VERSION of Sketching, a format that should feel inclusive and flexible.
What’s important is that it should feel like one show, not an anthology of different plays presented one after the other. They should overlap and interweave and crash into each other, so that an audience is experiencing a single twenty- four hours in London.
How did we do it?
My own stories form a central ‘spine’ upon which the other stories can be integrated into as ‘ribs’. You can swap some ribs (stories) for others, but the central spine stays intact.
So, while my central strand always stayed the same – with the same scenes, in the same places, the stories that filled the gaps could rotate. Like the same Christmas tree but with the decorations swapped around from time to time. Or a washing line with the same pegs, but new clothes attached, here and there.