I’m not referring to the actual writing of the play – that’s the short-term “easy” bit, but the development of it. Lots of people say “I’d like to write a play”, but they never get around to it. I’m a big believer in the advice given to lots of writers – just get it written. But what holds many people back is that when the idea is in their heads it’s the best play/screenplay/novella in the world, but when you put it on paper (or screen) it becomes real and you find out if you are any good at this writing thing. Rewriting is a lot easier than writing the first draft. There was a five-year gap between having the central idea for my play (although thinking back, there were lots of big plot differences) and writing a version of it that was the right form. For me, that was one of the keys to writing this form. The structure of it, which impacts on plot, character, the very feel of it.
Without a doubt, playwrights who have some success are persistent. They’re perhaps more than that, they’re bloody stubborn. There’s lots of tales of manuscripts, novels etc. that have been passed from literary agent to artistic director to literary agent and not been picked up. That’s where the stubbornness comes in. And I can testify that stubbornness is not about flogging the same horse over and over again. Sometimes, when you know you have a good idea, it’s about finding the right vehicle for it.
Writers are tenacious because we love writing. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Even those playwrights who’ve had a successful start to their career – maybe got on to the right course at the right theatre, won a prize or two, got an agent – still have to be incredibly persistent to make a career out of playwriting. Indeed, becoming a playwright is kind of the easy bit – building and sustaining a career is the tricky bit. Writers at all stages need to be supported – it’s how we’ll all get better plays and that’s what everyone wants, right? On the noticeboard in my office I don’t have any inspirational saying or proverbs, I have my hours of work. It’s a reminder that if nothing else, I must keep at it. Writers cling to hope as much as anything else.
Like many of my stories, this play is an amalgamation of different thoughts gathered over time. HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT is about a man who loses his job and then loses his job again. Then something extraordinary happens to him. In 2014 I went to the match with a bunch of football mates. They’re old friends from the place where I grew up (a village called Llantwit Fardre, just outside Pontypridd in South Wales) and I got talking to John who’d recently been made redundant from a factory near Newport. He’d worked for Panasonic since leaving school and described to me that since redundancy he’d felt the bottom had fallen out of his world. That his place in society had been taken away in one fell swoop. There’d been cut backs of hours and jobs over the past few years and finally, the axe fell on his department. He talked to me about the very real sense of loss he was suffering and how his loyalty, his years of hard work at the factory had been disregarded. He was powerless, a very small component in a production line that put together very small components. That, I suppose, is the consequence of living in a capitalist society – the work goes to where the most money can be generated. Simple. Efficient. Makes sense from a business point of view, right? Nothing lessened the hurt that I felt from John. The feeling of being set adrift. It wasn’t until after speaking with him that I was really ready to write this play. Maybe that’s what was missing from the initial stab at writing it – it never felt personal. That “personal” feeling took shape in the structure and form, and in the very way that it’s written. To steal a line from John Yorke: out of feeling comes structure, and out of structure communication.
HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT is a play about that despair of losing your place in society, and it’s also a play about hope. It doesn’t have to be about hope, but is – there has to be some, even in the face of the most cold and cruel of economic situations, doesn’t there?
Alan Harris won the 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting Judges Award for HOW MY LIGHT IS SPENT. The show premieres at The Royal Exchange Theatre on 24 April before transferring to the Sherman Theatre, and Theatre by the Lake.