Ahead of Meetings, we caught up with Jenny Davis, the Creative Producer behind Missing Pieces, to discuss the relevance of script-in-hand performances in Bristol.
‘Missing Pieces’ gives a chance to hear (in Bristol) rarely heard, overlooked, or very new writing by Black writers. Who are some of your favourite writers and why?
I’ve always loved whatever Derek Walcott wrote, and I was acutely aware that people didn’t know his plays. ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Pantomime’ are two of his best in my mind, but he has others, ‘Chicken Soup No Barley’ for instance, which I guess outside certain audiences and readership, people wouldn’t necessarily know of. Why Walcott? Nobody writes about post-colonialism like he does; and his firm belief that you can render the ordinary with language that befits the classics. There is nothing wrong – as postcolonial subjects – in using and adapting the formal voice of Shakespeare or the Greek Classics and making it one’s one.
When I first started writing there were still so few black writers out there getting their work on stage. I would go to see anything by Winsome Pinnock. I wanted to include her play ‘Speaking in Tongues‘ in a season, but is has too big a cast unfortunately. Significantly, I was doing one of her writing workshops through Spread the Word, and that set me on the road to writing plays. My first professional Play ‘The Front Room‘ was developed through that.
How did Missing Pieces start, and grow?
I studied Caribbean literature at Warwick, (many years ago) and the Irish Playwright Brian Friel has always been firmly up there as one of those writers I totally loved. Every word that dripped from his page gave me this ache from the sheer beauty of it. But, Missing pieces was all about the overlooked canon that was out there – old and new Black theatre writing. It wasn’t until I started reading for the Alfred Fagon Award that I was introduced to a whole raft and generation of new writing: exciting voices like Somalia Seaton, and some unknowns who I would love to include such as Max Kolaru, Nessa Muthy, Mark Norfolk, Dizzie djeh, Diana Atun and Matilda Ibini. They’ve moved beyond first generation stories, and tackle other big themes: child soldiers, capitalism, futurism, or experiment with form and narrative. I have to include Debbie Tucker Green too, in respect of that – another favorite, whose work is about the rhythm, and the spaces in between.
For the Alfred Fagon Award I was reading so many amazing plays, I felt strongly that some of those shouldn’t return to the drawer, or not be seen out of London. So it came out of conversations with friends (some who had done script readings in London), and the Bristol Old Vic itself. I had thought of just putting something on in my living room and inviting mates round, but I put one on in a pub to see if it had any legs. As that was a success, I went for funding and the rest is history.
We put our first season on in the Bristol Old Vic Basement Studio and Hamilton House. We alternated to see if we could capture a community non-theatre audience too. The season was hugely successful so I decided to go for another, this time at the Wardrobe Theatre while Bristol Old Vic’s Foyer and Studio were being redeveloped.
You’re a writer yourself. How did you get into writing for BBC1’s drama ‘Doctors’, and what’s it like telling a complete story in a 30 min slot?
I’ve been writing for BBC ‘Doctors’ for some years now. It was quite a long process to get onto the program, to be honest. I was in the BBC Writers Room for quite some time, or rather the hallway, and someone forwarded one of my scripts to a script editor, and from then on it was about learning to write for that program. There was a mini academy, which was excellent – you had John Yorke and other script execs talking about the nuts and bolts of writing.
Writing for a 30 minute slot is quite a strict discipline. You learn to be frugal with your story telling. It’s been a good learning experience all in all, writing for TV. I stopped being so precious about my work, and grew a thicker skin.
What can we look forward to in the upcoming Missing Pieces events this season? What made you choose those pieces?
This season we’ve had Walcott’s ‘Pantomime’, the Broadway award winning ‘Eclipsed’, my play ‘The Front Room’, and ‘Little Baby Jesus’ by Arinze Kene. You couldn’t get any more diverse, from Robinson Crusoe, to Liberian female soldiers, a Caribbean front room domestic drama, and three inner city teenagers growing up on an estate. This month it’s ‘Meetings’ by Mustapha Matura. It’s a lesser known play, but I felt in terms of classics, we have to include this writer as he’s one of our leading Caribbean writers of the 1980s and 90s. The last play is tbc! It was between Debbie Tucker Green and Winsome Pinnock – both strong female led plays: one about Jamaican drug mules, and the other about sex tourism. The other consideration we have is what will work for a script-in-hand performance. There is only so much work the audience and actors can do, given it’s not a full production. There’s also limited rehearsal time, so if the actors are playing multiple characters on top, that could get challenging for all concerned. So it’s an exciting gap yet to be fully filled.
Missing Pieces continues our Studio Walkabout Season with support from Bristol Old Vic Literary Department. This month’s performance, Meetings, opens at The Wardrobe Theatre 6pm, 5 Nov. All Tickets £8.