BLOG; In conversation with Tim and Pete
Fri 9 May 2014
Mark Fisher met up with playwright Tim Elgood and director Pete Meakin to discuss their working relationship and the inspiration behind Mad Dogs and an Englishman...
You’ve worked together on and off for 20 years. How did your relationship come about?
Pete: About 20 years ago, I went along to this very small venue in Matlock and saw what was only the playwright’s second ever play. It knocked me sideways. Here was a writer with real ability in terms of understanding and realising characters and being able to generate humour out of human idiosyncrasies. I met him afterwards and said if we were able to form a community theatre in Derby Playhouse, I would really want to have this piece as the first major main stage production. Sure enough, all those things came about. It was called Buster’s Last Stand, and it got a reception one could only dream about from both audiences and critics.
Tim: Handing Pete a handwritten script 20 years ago, his feedback reminded me very much of my English teacher at school. It felt like handing in work and getting a very honest appraisal - not all of it complimentary. He’s very straightforward and doesn’t give praise unless it’s earned. I was in awe of him. I wanted to keep improving and he was the driving force behind that. I owe him a lot.
Pete: We went on to do quite a number of Tim’s plays for the community and youth theatres, and, when Derby LIVE secured the funding to continue to produce professional theatre, we decided the first production would be Tim’s The Pros, the Cons and a Screw.
What do each of you think the other brings to your work?
Pete: When I’m working with a writer on a new piece, initially I see my role as a critical friend. One wants to be positive and supportive but also objectively critical. You want the best possible vehicle to take into rehearsals. So there will often be a fair bit of tussle beforehand and Tim is very good at that. He is understandably protective but he is also very good at listening and understanding other points of view. As well as a personal and professional closeness, I think it’s fair to say Tim and I have a real mutual respect. All of that helps the process be as robust and as honest as possible.
Tim: I write what I would categorise as poignant comedies, and I think what Pete liked about my writing was it was truthful. He often says to actors: “Remember, we’re dealing with a truthful situation here.” What I love is that he will go through the script with the actors, literally sentence by sentence, to check their comprehension is on par with what he and I see. He gives the actors great confidence that they know where the writer’s coming from.
Did you have any particular brief for Tim for Mad Dogs and an Englishman?
Pete: I’ve long since given up trying to give Tim any kind of brief. His brain doesn’t work like that. Over the past 20 years, there have been times when I have given quite specific briefs and he always comes up with something a million miles away. He is one of those creative geniuses that you cannot straitjacket. When the opportunity came up for this double bill, I told him we could do with another one-act play to complement Bare Words, which we’d given a couple of platform performances to. The only parameters I set were that we needed it to be a small number of actors and preferably a single setting.
Is it fair to say Bare Words was written from experience?
Tim: Oh yes. It’s a younger person but it’s a good airing of my experience as a writer of the fine divide between inspiration and intimidation. On a good day, you’re firing and then the next day, you have to re-read, and you feel totally intimidated and think it’s never going to work. It’s very difficult to know how you’re going to feel from one day to the next. A lot of people say they’d love to be able to write and yet everybody writes. There’s always an important thing to write; it’s not necessarily a play: it could be a letter of condolence or anything when you really want to say something important. So Bare Words is an opportunity to say everybody’s got a writer in them.
The Dog House is about rescue dogs - what made you so passionate about that subject?
Tim: My wife and I have had three rescue dogs from puppies. We’ve got one now who’s 16 and a half, and I always say I hope he’s around to see the play! When I was a teenager I worked as a volunteer with PDSA, and if you go on the website it’s ‘last-chance kennels’ - it’s just so emotive. We always say we’ve done well for giving three rescue dogs a really good home, but I was looking at Harry, our dog, one night, and I thought: “I wonder if they would concur with that?” The play took off from there. We’re breeding dogs left, right and centre and charging the earth for them, and the question is: can we house the dogs that are in this country without breeding all sorts of unnatural mixes? There’s a lot of work to be done to do dogs justice.
Is it important to have a note of seriousness behind the humour?
Tim: Yes, there has to be purpose and point. Everyone has great ideas, but it’s got to pass that litmus test: has it got purpose and point, or is it just funny for the sake of it? If it’s funny for the sake of it, invariably it doesn’t have sustainability for me. That’s the sort of humour I enjoy in other writers; I like that laugh/cry feel.
What were you looking for in the casting?
Pete: Tim likes to write with specific actors in mind and he wrote Mother Came Too thinking of Sean O’Callaghan, who he’d seen in Derby starring in Conor McPherson’s Shining City, and Steven Blakeley, who we’d brought up through the Derby Playhouse Youth Theatre and we’d known since he was 12 years old. Luckily, we were able to get them to do it and it went down a storm. So when Tim went away to write The Dog House, he wrote the two male characters very much with Sean and Steven in mind. We must have done something right because the two of them made sure they were available. The third actor, Laura Freeman, is a Derby girl who came through the Youth and Community theatres, and is now a well-established professional actor, so we’ve been really lucky.
Tim: Steven Blakeley turned up as a 12-year-old and we could see tremendous potential in this kid - and the attribute he had was truthfulness. He was inspirational. He was a joy to write for. It doesn’t matter what you give Steven - he is totally truthful. I had Laura and Steven in mind for The Dog House and, because I worked with Sean last year, I thought he’d be a lovely contrast - it gave us the whole range physically.
(C) John Good