As part of our Plays for Young People celebration week, we spoke to Martin Travers, playwright and author of The Kids Are Alt Right and Whatever Happened to the Jaggy Nettles? about how he got into playwriting and what words of wisdom he can offer young drama students of today.
How I Got the Job by Martin Travers
How does anyone end up becoming a playwright? I imagine some silver-spooned glitterati will say they were born into it. Other lesser mortals might say they fell into it (like Alice). Some cool gutter-writers might say they broke into it (like a rock and roll cat burglar). I have a job card in Springburn Job Centre in the North of Glasgow in 1999 to thank/ blame for me ending up a playwright.
I was skint, I had a bad cold brought on by poor lifestyle choices, my band had just broken up and I felt like I’d just been thrown through life’s windscreen. The job card said THEATRE ADMINISTRATOR: THEATRE WORKS, GOVAN. One year contract. So I applied and was interviewed by the Artistic Director Robin Wilson. I lied a lot. I got the job. I was 27. One year later I was interviewed by the otherworldly and wonderful Giles Havergal – Artistic Director of the Citizens Theatre – for a job as their Audience Development Officer. I made sure he saw me reading Dylan Thomas’ Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog in the foyer as I waited for my interview. Never forget the power of a first impression. At the interview I lied a little less and embellished a little more. I got the job. I was 30 before I plucked up the courage to write my first play.
I had no inclination then that I would end up sitting here at a desk in Lanark facing west during a Global Pandemic and telling you that you could – AND SHOULD – become a playwright like me. I’m sure some of you are thinking what’s the point. Theatre buildings and theatre companies are closing all over due to Covid 19 restrictions and social distancing. Why would anyone in their right mind want to throw their life away trying to become a playwright right now? During all this?!
Well the thing is – playwrights aren’t in their right minds. EVER. We are all dreamers. I sometimes try to come across as cynical and pessimistic when I’m talking to people. Maybe because I think that’s the cool way to behave – the doomed poet stance and all that. But to be honest I’m not feeling cynical or pessimistic about the future of playwrighting or plays or actors performing to riveted audiences. Two years from now what age will you be? Exactly! Get writing. Two years from now all this virus malarkey will be behind you and you’ll be able to draw on all the terrible stuff that’s been happening to create amazing characters that are living, breathing human beings with real hopes and real fears and real drives to fight against the injustices in their lives.
I suppose the first thing you got to get clear in your head is why you want to write plays for actors to act and audiences to enjoy and be enthralled by?
If your reason is to show how clever you are – please stop now and go get a job for clever people. In my experience clever writing never ends well. Clever = Complicated Plots. Clever = Endless Unendingly Dull Speeches about the Universe that go in one ear – and if you are lucky – straight out the other. Clever = Boring, Tedious, Distant Nonsense.
If your reason to become a playwright is to help to tell fiercely honest stories that enchant and engage and feel like a worthwhile use of some of our precious time on this planet – then you are in the right game. I hope you noticed I said “help to tell” there – this is really important. As a playwright you are just a cog in a wheel of a marvellous machine called the production. The most important cog by miles of course – that was a joke…honest…well…maybe…don’t hate me…be humble…I’m trying…try harder…
The one thing you need to keep in the back of your brain when you start writing plays is that your plays are going to get better. Please don’t think your first play is going to be a masterpiece – it isn’t. It is the first brave step on the ladder. Pour your heart and soul into it but know that it is just the first rung. And to climb the ladder you need to get your foot on the second rung as soon as you can. When you get to about rung eight, you’ll start to realise you are getting the hang of it.
Writing plays is great fun. And it isn’t something you need to make a living from to enjoy. Just always make sure something big happens in each of your plays. Keep drama and conflict at the heart of everything you write. It can be hard and lonely work to begin with but when you hear actors or your friends read your first draft out loud – WOW. That’s really cool. A mixture of pride, fear and adrenaline that is really addictive.
Why did I write The Kids Are Alt Right?
I was asked to write the play and I liked the premise although it sounded a bit complicated – to write a new play based on interviews with teenagers in Glasgow that explored the effects on-line influencers with divisive ideologies can have on young people’s lives. When I thought about it; I realised it wasn’t complicated at all. I was being asked to write a play about bad ideas and how they can mess up our heads.
When you are writing a play you need to try to know as much as you can – within reason – about the world your characters live in. What motivates them – what they do with their time – who they listen to and who they don’t listen to. You find this out through research.
The more research I did online about right wing content the more I realised that this story needed to be told. Right wing poison isn’t something that’s going to just go away. It tries to separate us from anyone that is in any way different to us – at a time when we all should be celebrating how amazing and rich everyone’s culture is. Right wing poison online is sneaky and hides in and under other content. It is like rust. We need to actively protect ourselves against it. It made me angry. That gave me the right sort of energy to write the play.
I wrote The Kids Are Alt Right before the Black Lives Matter movement but I suppose the play should now be read in light of that amazing and powerful force for good. The play was originally going to be called Broken. As “broken” was how one young African girl who was seeking asylum in Glasgow said she felt when she arrived in Scotland. But as FATMA’s character developed I didn’t want her to be a victim of her father’s past. I wanted her to be a strong Scottish female who happened to be born in another country.
Ultimately, I wrote The Kids Are Alt Right for you and your mates – not for the adults and teachers in your lives. Although of course I hope they enjoy the play too! I suppose the thing that I really want you to do is read it aloud with your mates. Act out the scenes together. It is a Scottish story but I bet you can all relate to it. And doing a Scottish accent is always worth a giggle.
Celebrate Plays for Young People with Methuen Drama on @MethuenDrama Twitter throughout the whole week from Monday 23rd to Friday 27th November. Sign up to the Bloomsbury English and Drama for Schools newsletter for exclusive play extracts and offers.
You can purchase your copy of The Kids Are Alt Right here.