Architect Rob can't find his Rotoring mechanical pencil. A small event, perhaps, but the early onset dementia it heralds will challenge Rob and his wife Cathy's relationship to its very core. This is a new production of Descent at the Gilded Balloon. Broadway Baby’s James T. Harding met Scottish playwright and actor Linda Duncan McLaughlin to discuss the play, the Scottish new-writing scene, and the twin creative-writing courses of Glasgow.
The audience had their own spontaneous post-show discussion
The play was first performed at Òran Mór's A Play, A Pie and a Pint strand in 2015. What was the development process like?
I got a New Playwright's Award from Playwright Studio Scotland to develop the play in the first place. Because it had been developed under their umbrella, they were instrumental in encouraging me to submit to to Òran Mór. It had a reading before that: as part of the award there was a public professional reading at the Tron. At that time Elaine C. Smith, Barrie Hunter and Kirstin McLean read it. And then I took it back to the page, if you like, and developed it further to the version that went on at A Play, Pie and a Pint.
What was the biggest change that was made the script at that time?
I had originally envisaged it as a two hander, just Rob and Cathy, but Nicola became a much stronger character in the reading. We only had a day's development in the Tron, but because the actor who was playing Nicola, Kirstin McLean, was so strong, it was possible for me to say: tell me the questions you want to ask, tell me the things you want to talk about. I was writing monologues for her on the hoof.
When we got to Òran Mór, I had to cut it again to the 45-minute length that Òran Mór needed. That helped to hone the thinking process as well.
I know you've interviewed many people with experiences of dementia in their family. Was there anything surprising or particularly memorable that came out of that?
It wasn't actually personal interviews. I was given access to a database of letters and emails from carers who had responded to a guy called Tommy Whitelaw. He invited carers to come to his roadshow and to write to him, and he undertook to present all that information to Nicola Sturgeon who was then Health Minister. I introduced myself to Tommy who asked me if I wanted to read the letters and emails. So he left me in a room for two days with these box files.
The overwhelming thing that came out of that was all the love. It was heartbreaking. There was a lot of rage and frustration and even sometimes hate in them, but underlying it all was that people loved who they cared for and still saw that person, no matter why they were on the dementia track. That's what I wanted to reflect in the play.
The show employs quite a lot of direct monologue, a technique which is practically a taboo in television, which is another medium you write in. What led to your emphasis on that technique for this play?
I felt it was a way to get into the real thinking in character's heads. Sometimes it can be hokey in theatre, as we know. For Rob, it was a way into his head which we might not otherwise have got just by presenting him from the outside. He's the character who suffers from dementia. It's really hard to portray that in drama without a lot of technical wizardry. At one point I wanted to do a lot of digital graphics to be the inside of Rob's head, to represent what he was going through, feeling, but it wasn't possible to do that – mostly for budget reasons.
It doesn't get done on television very often, but look at the impact of something like Fleabag where we do have direct address. It's not the same, we don't get long monologues, but she turns to camera and speaks. House of Cards, same thing. When Frank speaks to camera it's exciting.
Pretty much every interview I've done this Fringe someone has mentioned Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Really? No wonder. I thought it was so bold to have a character who was essentially unlikable, but you could understand why she was the way she was. Her monologues didn't attempt to make her nicer.
Rob is quite unlikable as well: he's extremely controlling of his own life and the people around him. I like the fact you see that as a character trait to begin with, but in a way it could have been a coping mechanism for his memory slipping.
They are a marriage of equals. Cathy's up to his weight, you know. There's plenty of give and take in their relationship, but Rob's need to be precise, his need to control things in his work, translates into a need to control the things around him in his life as his disease develops. It twists along the way, so it's a negative thing, whereas in his work, before, it's been a corollary of being a high-functioning architect.
A lot of people bring plays to the Fringe in the hopes of launching a tour afterwards, but you've already done a tour. So what was it that motivated you to bring this particular play to the Fringe?
I wanted to move it beyond Scotland. I'm really interested in touring the rest of the UK and internationally.
The audience hang around afterwards and want to talk about it. They don't want to talk about the process of putting the play together; some do, but most want to share their own experiences. When we did the tour, I did workshops in post shows. I only had enough money in the tour budget to do five in our 17-day tour. The first one we didn't do a workshop on, the audience had their own spontaneous post-show discussion. So I thought: I have to go to every venue that I can.
This is something that people really do need to talk about. We've thought about this a lot as a company -– the effect is has on us, and the effect that we were having on the audience. And I'm not claiming to be the only thing that makes it possible for people to talk about this, but it's one way for art to address it, and I think it's really important that we do. The Fringe is a big comedy festival now, but it's a way to make it available to more people.
I certainly didn't bring it to make money.
You were an actor in the very first A Play, A Pie and a Pint. How was A Play, A Pie and a Pint changed in all the years that you've been going to it?
I remember David MacLennan phoning me up, 'It might work. It might not work. Do you fancy doing this?' I was like, 'Who's gonna pay ten pounds for a lunchtime play? That's never gonna work!’
But it took off and in the very first week it was full. Now it has a dedicated following, people come every single week to see theatre in Òran Mór and the other venues. They will forgive things that don't think are so good, and will celebrate things that they do, and everyone has different views. It's employing actors, directors, writers, technical staff… I don't think David thought it would become such an institution.
There are problems because of the budgetary constraints. You have two weeks’ rehearsal and with the harder-hitting drama that's sometimes hard to do, but it's a great platform, a way to put something together that can then go on to a full production.
Do you think that A Play, A Pie and Pint has had quite a dominating influence on the type of new writing that is made in Scotland? It feels like it's the only platform for new writing in Scotland unless you're a very established writer.
I think that's a fair point. We have the Traverse, the Tron to an extent, but they certainly can't commission twelve new plays a season!
Sometimes it's good to write under constraints, but it does push people along that line. And because it's there, maybe it takes some of the pressure off the other producing theatres, the ones that we do have.
We know each other through the MA in Television Writing at Glasgow Caledonian University. I know you have the MLit from the University of Glasgow too. I wonder what the primary differences are between them – apart from the obvious that one is about scripts and one is mostly about novels. What differences in attitude to the courses have? What was the most useful thing from each for you?
The MLit was a chance to expand, if you like. At the time I was there, Michael Schmidt was the head of the course. He’s a well known poet. It was a way to open up the imagery in my writing, which I hadn't thought about before.
When I started writing, I expected I would write drama because I was an actor, but I found it really difficult to do. I was too close to it at the time. So taking the time out just to expand my head a little bit – there was more space to breathe with the MLit. By the end of my two years I had a novel underway and my writing had changed, definitely.
Then going to do the MATV – I'm a masters junkie, obviously – that was more careers focused. The MLit was more opening up my head, exploring the corners of my writing talent, developing my voice. The MATV did that as well, but it was focused on producing product, if you like, which I think it should be. The MLit has a lot of peer workshops where you critique each others' work. On the MATV the crit came from professional writers who were running the course.
You and I were on earlier renditions of the course. I've kept in touch with them – I do occasional guest lectures – and I know it's more practice focused that it was even when I was there.
Descent is on at the Gilded Balloon. Read our five-star review and find ticket information here: http://broadwaybaby.com/shows/descent/722345