To mark the opening of The 42nd Theatre Company’s debut production, Four Thieves’ Vinegar, which opens this week, Artistic Director Adam Bambrough sat down with writer Christine Foster to discuss the development of her play, her writing process and what advice she would give to new writers.
Adam: So, tell me, how do you like to write? I know it verifies greatly depending on the writer.
Christine: Any number of writers have said “I hate to write, but I love having written”. Knuckling down is hard. I don’t give myself set times – it’s too much like school. I try never to start on a Monday morning. I have a go and noodle away at all sorts of ideas at the same time until something starts going somewhere, then I stick to it until I’m stuck. Then, I try to work on the problem bits in my head while doing other things, and only go back to it if I’ve had a breakthrough.
Adam: How long did it take you to write Four Thieves’ Vinegar?
Christine: I researched it for a leisurely six months or so. Then played around, trying to come up with the characters. I’m better at dialogue than plot, so once I had the action and conflict roughed in, the first draft only took a few weeks.
Adam: And where did the inspiration come from?
Christine: I found an 1840’s novel in my mother’s library called Old St. Pauls by William Harrison Ainsworth, a ripping yarn about the London Plague of 1665. It mentions in passing how Newgate prisoners were turned loose for lack of jailers and it seemed astounding, the idea that maybe you’d be safer to stay in your cell even after you were freed because it was so lethal outside. That set the whole plot in motion in my mind. Determination to survive is a timeless theme, both practical and theatrical, having one set, a great time period, characters in extreme situations. It just grew. I’d also heard that something called ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’ was a respected plague remedy and I wanted to make up some history for that!
Adam: Interesting characterisations are the key to every piece of writing and there are four in this play, which is one of the main reasons that I was initially drawn to your submission. How did you build the characters in Four Thieves’?
Christine: I think characters do well when they’re developed from bits of yourself. I try to “become” each character when writing dialogue. I think we’ve all got multiple personalities. Writers maybe more than most.
Adam: What advice would you give to other new writers who are just starting out?
Christine: Above everything else, write about characters who are driven. Nice people wanting nice things usually make for constipated theatre. Zero in on your conflict, and then follow David Mamet’s dictums – after you’ve worked out what your characters want, ask them: ‘Why do they want it?’ Then, ‘how will they try to get it?’ And finally, ‘What will they do if they don’t get it?’ If you can do that for all of your characters and you care about your theme, then you’ve got something!
Adam: What traps should a new writer look out for?
Christine: The most deadly traps I try to avoid are (i) putting background or exposition into dialogue unless it truly drives the narrative, (ii) starting too early in the plot, i.e., always try to come in on conflict, (iii) try not to have your characters say what they really mean, and always have them mean more than they say.
Adam: Together, we have developed Four Thieves’ Vinegar, from your first draft, over three years through script development sessions, table read-throughs, workshops, rehearsed readings, etc, and now we are ready to perform the play to audiences in London. What has the development process taught you about the play?
Christine: That as much as you think you know what you’ve written you won’t have covered everything. Even if you’ve tracked every character and action, when you get a chance to hear it and see it like an audience does, you’re going to discover at least a few holes, questions and inconsistencies. And that’s what I’m most grateful for. The chance to get it as watertight as possible. When it finally satisfies, and intrigues the director and actors, then you have a fighting chance that you’ve got something decent.
Adam: How should a writer approach the development process when working with a producing company like ourselves?
Christine: Leave your ego at home. Listen. If at all possible pretend someone else wrote the piece and come at it like a critic or script editor yourself. Don’t discount any observation made in readings or rehearsals. Those comments represent audience questions and confusions too. Never justify your choices with explanations. If something isn’t clear, change it. The only proof that it works, after all, is in the performance.
Adam: I often hear writers talking about the high levels of rejections they receive or even the fact that many companies do not even respond to their submission, how do you deal with that?
Christine: Theatres get sent hundreds of scripts so it’s a shot in the dark, frankly, to even get read. I keep a submission chart of where and when I’ve sent things out and log in replies if and when they come. But writers shouldn’t call their non-acceptance responses ‘rejections’ – just think that someone took a “pass” on it this time and there are a thousand reasons for that. Keep submitting.
Four Thieves’ Vinegar runs from Wednesday 8th to Sunday 26th March at Barons Court theatre. Tickets are priced at £12 (£10 for concessions) and can be purchased by either calling the venue’s box office on 020 8932 4747 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.