I’m plagued by the words ‘work in progress’. When is a piece of work no longer a work in progress but a finished article? I have many part produced plays, finished stories, published pieces but I often consider if any of them are actually finished.
In December a radio play of mine was finally broadcast via a radio theatre company based in the USA.
I thought it might be interesting to describe how this journey came about, but also consider whether it's finished yet.
At Manchester University studying Drama in the 90s, I never wanted to be a writer, but it became a necessity when I realised I couldn’t learn lines and had to do a dissertation about something. I wanted to be an actor, preferably at the RSC and constantly touring in Rep, (ideally in West Side Story though I couldn't sing or dance). That didn’t transpire but the balance between the necessity to write and the desire to perform has never left me.
I wanted to write a performance piece about the woman pirate ‘The Dread Pyrate Mary Read’ and wrote it all down on a shaky typewriter, pre-laptop. It was a monologue with occasional rewritten lyrics of sea shanties and a very panto-esque approach to the story of the women pirates, and the one I took to most - Mary Read. She had a rags to pirate story that, it seemed on closer examination, was mostly made up. In the depths of the University library I discovered copies of ‘The Complete History of Pirates’ by the mysterious Captain Charles Johnson. I found this to be most strange as the author was often not listed as the enigmatic Captain, but Daniel Defoe. It was attributed to him and on reading the embellishment of the stories, you can see why. Defoe must have had a talent for inventing tropes as all our pirate stereotypes seem to originate from this book.
Originally I wasn’t considering that too much, but my short play (with a couple of minor male characters) had a heavy handed feminist theme that ended with the lyrics ‘no one talks about her now cos history don’t like women’. Which I kind of enjoyed but didn’t get me much in terms of grading (the male lecturer hated it and I barely escaped with a 2:2).
This then became the basis for an outlined play. It was my first attempt at playwriting and so as time went on and after much interruption, nearly a decade later I went to do a Masters in Playwriting Studies, I discovered I had a love and flair for radio writing. I’d attempted to make the pirate play into a screenplay and abandoned it after Pirates of the Caribbean hit, and not getting anywhere on blind submissions.
Mary Read never left me, however, and I thought it might make a good piece for radio. After having a baby and the inevitable time out, I sent it into BBC writers room, I got a full read and no cigar. Then somehow managed to get it to the development producer in Birmingham and had a great 6 months of some development before it died a death in the pitching rounds. But along the way I had learnt a lot from the process of restructuring, followed Michelle Lipton’s guide to writing an outline and come up with a new theme – of Defoe trying to get pages out of Mary for his own ends. What I didn’t know was that he had actually done this to Moll Flanders and so my fictionalised meeting between Mary and Defoe (so fictionalised because she would have been dead and we don’t even know if he wrote the pirates book), had some basis in truth and could have been historically accurate. That didn’t help the fact it was now in the dustbin of the slush pile again.
Mary Read went on the back burner. Over the years I rewrote it for submission to the BBC Writers Room and producers who I managed to pitch. It went to an agent who declared it a good idea but a bit lame, and I benched it. Mary took on new life when I started storytelling and had a good go at animating her story by myself, I still loved the tale after twenty years. How did a woman of that time manage to get herself on board a pirate ship? She definitely existed even if her life was probably a work of fiction.
'The Ramblings of Mary Read' pdf and ready for action, sat in my laptop, brought out for occasional submission just in case. A director friend showed interest but we never got it off the ground.
And then I hit 2018 with a new renewed vigour. I would do a 100 submissions challenge and send it out again - forget the rejections, someone must want it. This time to Shoestring Radio Theatre company on a whim, as they accepted radio plays. And it was accepted and broadcast across the USA. How exciting!
I have mixed feelings about the broadcast, though the production values are high and the acting enthusiastic and I am very grateful to the company for producing my work and indeed keeping radio plays going.
However on listening I could hear the flaws in the play that must have decided the rejections – there’s too much voice over and exposition, it still bears the hallmarks of a monologue, the middle is a bit saggy and the flashbacks could do with better rising action and stakes. But I also heard the start of something, the dramatic action, the hint of a deeper theme of the fictionalisation of history and the revisionist writing of women into salacious role when I believe half the time women are heroes trying to survive in an unforgiving world. Mary Read is my avatar for the adventurous dreamer who fights against poverty to survive any way she can and it’s not a bad idea at all.
But the start of this post was about when a work in progress is finished. Well the germ of the idea began around 1993 and the broadcast was 2018, so after a good 25 years it should be. But it isn’t! I still don’t feel like I’ve finished it and I’m itching to go back and revise it for screen, book or even radio in a different form.
I’m not sure you ever decide when a piece of work is finished, I think, perhaps, it decides for you. And Mary Read is still sailing around in my head, so who knows where her next port of call might be.
Next time you get tired of your work, put it in a drawer but please put a note in your diary to get it out and have another look. It might just be asking you for another round.
I’ve done the hard work so you don’t have to – if you want to speed up the editing process get in touch for a quote on my reading and analysis reports, have a look at www.sambrooksreads.com for more information.