New Writing in Scotland with Laurie Motherwell

Young playwright Laurie Motherwell talks to Spotlight about how to get started as a writer and his experience of writing Scottish stories 

If someone wants to change a line because it suits them or their rhythm of language, who am I to say no?
Laurie Motherwell

Hey Laurie! Why do you write plays? How did you start?

I love experiencing stories with other people. I remember when I was a lot younger and I would go to the theatre with my mum… when I was really young, there was one of my mum’s friends who worked in a theatre company that toured around schools. I remember them coming to the school and just being really excited by it. Looking forward to it. I loved that excitement of being part of something, experiencing something... I still have that feeling when I see something awe-inspiring. There’s this intimacy of experiencing it with someone else.

I grew up in the south-side of Glasgow, and we didn’t have a drama department. When I went to university in Edinburgh that’s when I started to get involved in a few Bedlam [theatre] shows, tiny things – I didn’t write or direct [at that stage] at all. Then I did an introduction to playwriting course.

I managed to get onto the MSc in Playwriting here [in Edinburgh], and it was about four years ago that I graduated from that. That was the culmination of me realising I wasn’t an actor, but I wanted to be involved in theatre and share stories. Just explore situations and characters… A lot of [what I write] is in the Glasgow dialect as well - my voice - even if it’s not about me. I love just being a part of the crowd [making theatre]...

Right, because it’s not like writing a short story or something – theatre is communal…

Yeah, it’s collaborative. I like to think I am very collaborative – there’s things I’m working on at the moment, and things I’ve worked on in the past, where if it reads and sounds awkward - well, everything’s up for debate. If someone wants to change a line because it suits them or their rhythm of language, who am I to say no? If they’re not getting it or enjoying it, then to be honest, it’s probably not going to be great. I want the work to be good. I love the discussion, the live-ness of theatre. I want to be part of that world.

I didn’t really know that’s what I wanted to do until the end of university. I’m quite happy to say that I do have to work part time to supplement my writing. No one can really afford not to. I want to be really engaged – I want to be talking about the future and thinking about how I could not only be doing this next year but in thirty years. I can’t speak for London, but I feel like I have a finger on the pulse in Scotland.

There seem to be a lot of great opportunities for emerging writers in Scotland as well – what would you say to other writers based locally? Are there any opportunities they should absolutely target?

Absolutely – 100%. I’m Glasgow based but Traverse, based in Edinburgh, is the new writing theatre. Up here that’s a big thing. You’ve got the TRON as well, they’ve been doing a lot recently for creative development – the development of artists. They’re doing a new writer’s residency, which I will be applying for! I’m sure there will be a lot of people applying. It’s specifically for Scottish-based artists, doesn’t matter where they’re from or what they’re writing about. It’s a great opportunity.

Obviously, with the Traverse, I got involved because I was a member of the Traverse Young Writer’s programme. I went through that for about 6 months, which was workshops every week, around about the time of my MSc. After that there was a call out in January/February asking for a new [piece] for the Breakfast Plays. A few have gone on to do bigger things and it was about ‘youthquake’, so being a young artist, I fit the bill!

What can you tell us about your play ‘Old Enough’ which has been part of the Traverse’s Breakfast Plays?

It’s a naturalistic piece – heightened naturalism - set in the clichéd term of the ‘near future’ but it’s unspecified. I was trying to pin it in reality but at the same time give it space to explore the idea. It’s about a couple, who are 20 and 26. I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about how the age of adulthood is shifting. I’m 25, I’m not married, I don’t have a house. I just left education a few years ago. All these things are shifting as we live longer. What my play asks is what would happen if the government took that as an indication of young people wanting more time to be young? The government actively disenfranchising the younger generation and the impact of that.

It’s a short play, only 25 minutes long, but I’d like to develop it further and create a longer draft because I think there’s a meaty idea there. There were scenes that I’ve had to cut – the first draft was 45 minutes long. There’s loads of material. It’s opening up the conversation of when we’re allowed to do things, what adulthood is...

And it’s been paired up with Grout by Ella Hickson. Did you have much of a hand in that pairing, and what was it like to be mentored by Ella?

Gareth [Nicholls] mentioned the artists that were going to be working on this project and I’d heard of Ella Hickson - she studied in Edinburgh as well, it’s a name that’s always been around so I thought… Ella is also London based, but having [also lived] here, that was interesting to me. I didn’t read Grout until last week, but Ella told me herself [about it]. It was kind of mentoring and also kind of her just asking me really good questions. I sent her bit of my work to get a flavour of my voice… I sent her a draft and then she’d ask things like, “What are the stakes in this world?” Things like that where, when you’re so close to it, you don’t think of them. The play is only 25 minutes long. 25 minutes is a hard brief, but it’s good to challenge yourself. If you’d given me free reign I probably could have waffled on!

What’s your writing process actually like?

Usually it depends where the idea has come from. It might be a scene, or an image, or a title. I just try to attack the blank page. I’m a bit of a skipper – even if the narrative’s linear, I’ll know a beat that comes later on so I’ll just skip about. I’ll write the image and that means I’ve got bookends, so I can jump in between... I [also] always have a title page, that’s always the first thing, even if I don’t know what it is. I write the title and go from there.

What do you think about the advice that you should ‘write from experience’? is that a good way to get started?

I think it’s fine for your first couple of pieces. Even a fraction of a memory – just finding something you can hold onto that you can use or work around. Whether it’s an experience you’ve had, a family member… then what happens when you have to look outside that? Though we’re in everything we write anyway, so is that personal experience or…? I think the best piece of advice I ever got was from an actor at one of my readings, and he said, “Redrafting is just rehearsing.” That’s so true. We’re always honing and editing. [No matter] what kind of writer you are, you’re always refining.

What kind of writer are you when it comes to feedback? Do you like to get a lot of feedback early on, or do you prefer to finish a draft first?

I’ll usually finish a draft [by myself], then probably bore the ears off anyone who asks about it. But I’ll finish a draft, then I have people of different perspectives, mixed experiences – a first tier of people who are closest peers, allies, friends [who will see the draft], then there's a second tier... Then it's about putting into the hands of whoever – a company that maybe makes that work…

Do you have an idea of the actor for the part when you write a character?

Some of my writing has a particular style – naturalistic, very fast, and for lack of a better word, quite Scottish. So, I guess there are groups of people who will fall more naturally into the categories. There are types of actors I just don’t have a lot of interaction with – I’ve been working on a piece recently on the rising rates of STIs in the over 65s. So, it’s a sex comedy set on a caravan site. It wasn’t until I was doing development with the Macrobert Theatre in Stirling that I had access to actors that I’d probably seen on TV or stage [in that age group] – they’re great but I would never have known where to find them!

I quite like to see people you wouldn’t normally see in for a part – it’s the same reason I wouldn’t direct my own work.

Having that other set of eyes, you mean?

Exactly. It’s a collaboration…

What about when it comes to writing a Fringe show in particular – what are the challenges?

Timing, the slots. You’re going to have to aim for fifty minutes, have a simple set, and especially if you’re coming from somewhere that isn’t Glasgow or Edinburgh, you have to think about travelling. It’s so expensive now that you may not have a lot of choice. Just understand the limitations that you have to have but try to use them to your advantage.

We have a tendency to think that the show has to be good – to say something – but sometimes we’re so concerned about that that we forget about our own development. The Fringe was set up as an off cut from the International Festival, but now it’s seemingly much more professional, slick – but really, it’s a platform to learn… let’s take a breath, take a moment. This might be good, might not be good, but what am I taking away from it? What am I learning? That’s what the Fringe is for.

What about when the work is done? What advice do you have for someone seeing their work performed for the first time?

See as many of your own performances as possible without driving yourself mad. Whether or not you like it, you begin to notice more about the rhythm and the way the audience is reacting to it. I always try to sit somewhere where I can see a bit of the play but mostly I watch the audience’s reaction. And just enjoy it!

Final question: What story are you eager to tell next?

I’m working on a bundle of different things at the moment, but once those are all done, what I’d really like to do is to tell something big. I don’t know what that is yet, but whether it’s a big concept or it has ten characters, that’s something I want to do. I want to get to that point. There are certain things I’ve written that aren’t particularly Scottish, but then there are others that are Scottish characters in Scottish towns… I’d love to write a big Scottish story.