Interview with NWS Best New Play Award winner Paul Macauley
Paul Macauley is asked about how he wrote his award winning play Bug Camp
Hello Paul, congratulations on winning the Best New Play Award in this year’s Brighton Fringe. For those people who didn’t see it can you give a brief description of what Bug Camp is about.
Thank you! The play is the story of Lola, who decides that being a grownup sucks so she heads to a place called Bug Camp, armed only with strawberry laces and Metallica frontman James Hetfield. But reality is close on her heels, in the shape of her best frenemy Jas, her nemesis Aleine and her teenaged daughter Tilly. It features playground antics, several key Metallica riffs and most of the major swear words. It makes more sense if you come and see it.
Bug Camp is about imagination, memory and loss. These themes seem to resonate a lot with writers. Why do you think this is? What made you want to write about them?
Maybe it’s just human. To fantasise that you’re the person performing that song you’re listening to, to wax nostalgic about being as young as you’ll never be again, to realise that moving through life means letting things go.
The theme of imagination came first and drove everything else. People have rich internal stories and fantasies going on and having that as the entry point for Lola’s story felt like an invitation to have fun. The loss thing came next, reasoning that if someone spends so much time in their head there’s possibly something in their waking life that they’re missing or can’t face. Then memory became the catflap into those stories of loss for all the characters.
Your main character, Lola retreats into a world of childhood imagination in order to deal with (or avoid) her grief. How did you ensure the dialogue had a child-like quality while being played by adults?
In rehearsal we spoke about the points of difference in the characters between their adult and younger selves. One of the things we mentioned was that they are fundamentally still the same people whatever their age. The ways of being people establish as children carry on into adulthood -we just learn more convoluted ways of masking what’s going on underneath and some longer words!
In writing dialogue a good rule was to ask, what is the most direct way of saying the kind of thing I would want to say as an adult? Lola and Jas use meandering sentences, quick changes of topic and have a sense of fearlessness about what they say. Children of a certain age often care very little about what others thing about them, which is a lovely quality to play with.
Ultimately it is the actors who sell the dialogue through their performances. I admire them muchly for making sense of it all.
Bug Camp deals with some difficult issues and yet is still very funny. How did you strike the balance between humour and pathos?
I’m glad it does seem to strike the balance. You need both don’t you, comedy and drama? I find it hard to separate the two, they’re light and shade. I love using one to undercut the other. That tension that arises when you’re laughing at something you probably shouldn’t be? Or when something is so nakedly human it becomes ridiculous? I love all that.
Maybe it’s my inability to take anything totally seriously.
What was your process for writing the play? How many drafts did it go through and did you seek advice/feedback while redrafting?
Inspired by someone I know saying the words ‘Bug Camp’ I started writing to find out what that meant. At the time I was bored with my writing, which had buckled somewhat under the self-imposed notion that to be a serious writer everything one writes has to be very serious. I wanted to write something free from that. I began with no plan, just an intention to write every little thing that amused me. The Script Space competition offered a deadline so I wrote a first draft in 3-4 weeks, submitted it and it ended up getting selected for some R&D work, which was brilliant.
After which I did nothing with it for two years. There were issues with the play and I didn’t know how to fix them. Doing my play Necessity at last year’s Fringe drove me to think how Bug Camp could work on stage so I spent last summer working on the script (shout out to the Writer’s HQ massive) and over another draft or two I scrapped stuff and did a major rewrite of what remained. I didn’t seek any advice or feedback at this point, I already had so much great feedback from the R&D work I wanted to respond to.
Once we’d cast and began rehearsing the play I did another draft that cut things for time, clarified some points and responded to what the actors were bringing to the play. In all Bug Camp had around 3-4 drafts I think.
Bug Camp received development work through the Tobacco Factory Theatre’s ‘Script Space’ programme, can you describe what this involved and how it helped your play develop?
Script Space was a bespoke writer development programme that focused on new writing. The theatre worked with writers to create a process that would help them understand their individual work better. With Bug Camp one of the questions was ‘how is this playable?’ We decided that a full reading of the script would be less helpful than actually more fully staging whole scenes.
This resulted in three days of development in a studio space, with a team of actors, a designer and a musician (the excellent Kid Carpet) all lead by director David Lockwood. Having all these creatives respond to the piece in parallel really tapped into the energy of the play. The cross pollination of ideas and the ability to experiment with staging using all these elements fired up lots of possibilities. Our work culminated in a sharing of several scenes with a small audience of friends of the theatre.
The process gave me several important things: i) overall encouragement and belief that the ideas and tone of the writing had something to offer, ii) an understanding of what wasn’t working -if a company has worked on a scene and it’s been in front of an audience and there’s a feeling that something’s missing, there’s probably script work to be done, iii) an appreciation of what was working, strengths I could identify to lean into when rewriting.
Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about producing a play in next year’s Brighton Fringe? Is there anything you learned after doing it this year?
Do it. If you’re thinking about it then you’re already halfway there. Okay it’s not that easy, but it is that simple. If you’re a writer then it’s the best way to find out how a script works -by putting it in front of an audience.
Make the thing you’d love to see. Forget what you think other people might expect; be bold and then poo your pants on opening night like everyone else hoping other people who might also love it show up.
Ask for help. If you need to know how, ask someone who knows. If you need actors, a director, technicians then find where those people are and ask them to join your kickass project. The thing you’re making is adding value to the world so ask for whatever assistance, money or bums on seats you need to make it a reality. I only know a little bit, please offer to buy me a coffee if you think I can help (good coffee).
Bringing Bug Camp to the Fringe this year taught me to: i) be conservative in estimating what you might sell and set your budget accordingly, ii) take more time off your day job than you think you need to get it done iii) enjoy it -while it’s happening. That feeling you get where you think ‘oh this is the start of a brilliant adventure’? That is the adventure right there.
What is next for Bug Camp and for you as a writer?
I love Bug Camp and I want the team who made it to take it as far as we can. At the moment we are having some very exciting conversations about how we might tour and perhaps take it to Edinburgh. It would have an even better teepee. If you are a venue interested in receiving our odd little show then please get in touch…
There are so many things I want to write at the moment. There’s a project I’m working on with a wonderful illustrator friend of mine. There’s a feature film script. I’m also tinkering with some other ideas for plays.
Before any of that though, we at Broken Silence Theatre have a new play beginning in August, written by Tim Cook (who won the last Best New Play Award -snap!). I’m directing that so I will have to prod away at my laptop any moment I can. Always the way, eh?
Paul is on Twitter: @paul_macauley