Playwrighting Top Tips: Part Three

Part three of our Top Tips series comes from Nina Steiger, Senior Dramaturg at the National Theatre. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses and here, Nina talks about writing for digital media and the unexpected route her own career has taken. 

You started your career as a playwright. So, why is it that you do what you do? What was the trajectory of that?

Nina Steiger: I think the first ten to fifteen years of any career are about the balance between trying to find your feet, make money and get as close as you can to what you feel is the heat source in the room. For me, as a writer, I was like, “Oh my god, I like people who make theatre and it’s fun to take things from page to the stage”, and that was the heat for me as a writer, as well as a way to express my intelligence, problems and creativity. As I carried on, it became more about directing as that heat source felt stronger. It was as though it was the next level of authorship and a different level of control and interpretation. It was one that was creative, exposing and deeply connected to my interests and issues.

Then I started working at a theatre that worked with new writers, and I discovered that what I really loved was not the nuts and bolts of directing. Because from the time a play got cast and the script was locked, I pretty well lost interest, which is not a good thing for a director. Also, by the time the play had opened, I not only had lost interest, I wanted to leave. I actively never wanted to see the thing again or the people involved, and I took that as a sign that I was not meant to be a director. I’m joking of course, but what I mean is that from the time the script was locked, I felt the heat begin to diminish. For me, the magic was around the tussle for story and style and the possibilities in that.

Another sign early on was that I was often told when applying for jobs in theatres “Please don’t have aspirations as a writer or director yourself.” I very willingly dropped those aspirations to take on some really great jobs working with and for writers, and I didn’t significantly regret that compromise.

I feel that writing will always be there for me. I feel that expressing myself verbally and through images and ideas is something I adore. But I think that’s what helps me work with writers. I discovered that the greatest heat, for me, is understanding the soul of a play, what it could become, starting from this fragmented pencil written recipe that arrives on pages and is turned into a live event – to me, that is the ultimate excitement. That’s how I discovered what I was.

Nina Steiger

Do you have some examples of times where that’s worked well?

Nina Steiger: There are examples of where my talent-spotting, which is a big part of my job, has worked well. I have seen people soar into successful and secure careers, and quickly.

For example, one of the first writers I worked with at Soho Theatre was Matt Charman who had never written a play and was working as a valet sorting cars out, and he wrote a wonderful play about that. His writing has taken him to the top of the game. That’s a sign to me that I put the right person in the path of the right opportunity.

When I think it’s the best is when a piece of theatre has gone from a conversation with an artist over a coffee to something that really catches fire and begins to change the culture. One of the pieces I’m most proud of that I’ve worked on is by Bryony Kimmings, called Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model. It’s not a traditional play but very much a piece of theatre about the dearth of appropriate role models for young women and girls in our society and the way they’re sexualised. It’s the least didactic and preachy kind of evening.

That to me was one that went from “This is what I care about the most” to, within a year, it being on and changing the world around it. So, that’s a great example for me.

How does that theatre work link to digital media?

Nina Steiger: A lot of people who I work with in theatre don’t know that I’m wild about the convergence of dramatic writing and digital media. It’s not something I bring to bear every day in my job, in my work with various theatre companies or with artists. But I think it’s the most brilliant marriage. I always start with this question when I do workshops on this area: “How many people have been on the internet today? How many people were on the internet before they left their house to come out? How many people were on the internet before they got out of bed?” Now

some people are going to be like, “Isn’t that a bad thing?” And, that’s not what we’re debating, but it is a bad thing obviously.

However, I believe it’s also a really cool thing. I then will ask “How many people have one smart device on you right now? Two? Three?” There’s usually three or more – I’m talking about your phone, your iPad and your laptop or something like that. Because it’s not unusual that ordinary old us are wired up from the minute we wake up in the morning and, ready to go, we’re available. To me, that suggests something very interesting about the way there are performance spaces embedded in that – we are getting stories all day long and it’s a space that isn’t totally owned by artists yet but there’s an amazing opportunity there.

Then there’s this other side of it, which is, if that’s your life, it’s also the life of your audience. I feel I want to say “get in there you artists, and populate that really interesting over-inhabited but under-explored space”. So one of the things I thought was that, in theatre and in storytelling, we are so amazing at liveness and uniquenesss and experience, there is a real opportunity to bring the two together.

That’s how my interest started. What I hope my Masterclass exposes is that I’ve learnt a lot about theatre and storytelling and liveness through exploring what happens when digital media is part of it. I’ve learned a lot about what digital media can do through trying to apply what I know about theatre to it. That was the purpose that I thought I should bring to the fourweek investigation with the students, and what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass.

Thanks to Nina Steiger and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters.
You can still read parts One and Two on our blog. 


Bernard Kops at 90

Born in November 1926, the great post-war writer Bernard Kops will have his 90th Birthday later this year. Áine Ryan from Oberon Books went to meet him, to ask how it feels to reach this milestone.

The playwright, poet and novelist Bernard Kops will turn 90 this year. It’s the sort of milestone age, he jokes, that says ‘hello! I’m going to die soon! I’m still here!’ Going to meet Kops for tea and biscuits at this home near the Finchley Road, I also meet his wife Erica, two of his daughters, a son, a-son-in-law, a grandchild and three great-granddaughters. Sitting out in the communal garden which the area shares, there’s a real community feel, with the children having a water fight and interrupting our chat to get biscuits and kisses from their great-grandfather.


Bernard Kops

Bernard knows exactly what he wants to chat about. ‘I’ll tell you what’s going on with me.’ He says more than once. ‘I’m feeling a bit bereft because all the writers I came up with, they’ve all died, and I have no-one’. The recent passing of his friend and colleague Arnold Wesker has clearly affected him. But Kops still writes every day, so I ask if the people of London still inspire his characters and stories. ‘No’, he says, ‘it’s much more interior now. Parents, children, dying, living.’

‘I’m very anti-God at the moment’ he warns, before treating me to a reading of some new poems he’s been working on for an upcoming collection. The poem he wants to read is about his mother. A child’s view of a vast, warm, all-engulfing mother who gathers her family in her arms, mixed with images of the stress and worry of raising seven children with little money, and of the wider story of his family – genocide, holocaust, missing mothers, entire generations of missing mothers.

East London, 1950s

We speak a lot about Kops’ childhood and upbringing, and I’m fascinated by stories of London in the 40s and 50s. ‘There’s a place in the East End called Toynbee Hall, and on a sign it said ‘Drama Classes’, so I joined! The first play we did was a Sean O’Casey play, and I loved O’Casey, and he took me to other marvellous writers – Irish mainly – and poets, especially poets! And because I’m Jewish, there’s a kind of thing with the Irish… resonant… very similar.’ At one of these classes, the first play Kops ever wrote was about an IRA gunman hiding out, inspired in part by Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman. ‘Desperation, alienation, surviving against everything, and poverty were all in my head.’ Kops says, again aligning the Jewish experience with the Irish.

Local gardens

The local gardens

‘As a young boy I had no education because we were so poor, and the war bombed us out of our house. And then one day I walked into a library. If you’ve read the poem ‘Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East’ that will tell you the story of my life, really.’ ‘We lived in Shoreditch, and at that time it was stinking, you could push your finger into the walls of the house.’ Having no money to take his wife of 62 years, Erica, on a first date, he took her instead to the Italian Catholic church in Clerkenwell to Christmas Eve mass. The plan backfired when the strong incense which filled the chapel made Erica faint, causing a scene, much to the annoyance of the priest! Bernard still laughs at these stories, and talks about Erica at any opportunity. ‘She is beautiful and wonderful, but still down-to-earth and practical.’ ‘I live in a kind of little paradise’ he summarises. And, sitting in the sunshine discussing Yeats, Frost, and O’Casey with one of the most prolific and talented writers of our time, I have to agree.

Bernard Kops will turn 90 this November, with celebrations and events planned throughout Autumn ’16 at venues such as JW3 and The Jewish Museum.

Bernard and Erica, married 62 years

Bernard and Erica, married 62 years

‘Ivy & Joan’ interview

‘Ivy & Joan’ by Oberon publisher James Hogan recently ended its run at Jermyn Street Theatre. It is his first play since the 80s and 90s, when James stopped writing plays to concentrate on building Oberon Books. In this play themes of love, loss, and disappointed hopes are explored. Caro Moses from ThisWeek London recently caught up with James, hoping to find out more about his inspiration for the plays and his work here at Oberon.

Caro Moses: ‘Ivy’ and ‘Joan’ appear as a double bill. Are the plays linked, or do they stand alone?
James Hogan: They are intricately linked with many parallels; eg, each of the women has lost or never had emotional fulfillment. In visual terms, in each play a broken vessel (the broken heart) is symbolic. In ‘Ivy’ it’s a china tea-cup and saucer, in ‘Joan’ it’s a wine glass which is never filled, and which she sweeps aside in anger and shatters at the end. In each play there is a wedding in the background. In ‘Ivy’ it’s going on in the hotel where she has worked for 40 years. In ‘Joan’ it’s a memory of a wedding procession passing through the Piazza San Marco (Venice).

CM: Can you give us an idea of what they are about? What are the central narratives?
JH: In both plays the basic story is how any of us can face a bleak future without that

Lynne Miller plays Ivy and Joan

Lynne Miller plays Ivy and Joan

special person who would be the love of our lives. Many people carry this sad secret around with them, but they never let on. In ‘Ivy’ it’s a former head waiter in the hotel who disappeared years ago after a one-night stand, but ‘Ivy’ is still convinced that one day he will return and marry her. In ‘Joan’, she discovers that the man she has been married to for decades has never loved her. But there are wider, more worldly themes filtering through… for example, Joan is an amateur painter, she has returned from Venice believing that art is useless as a tool for civilization. In ‘Ivy’, our central character is obsessed, waiting for her lover to return, and the theme is futile hope, which lurks within most of us at some time or other in our lives.

CM: What themes do the plays tackle?
JH: ‘Ivy’: Loyalty, both true and misplaced. The power of lost lovers/partners to dominate our lives.
‘Joan’: We may long for another kind of life, but we only have this one. Most people’s lives fall short of their aspirations and ambitions. How do we cope?
Has the explosion of art in Europe, often sponsored by the church, made a better world? No, because not far away thousands of people are being slaughtered for their beliefs.

CM: What inspired you to write these plays? Where did the ideas for them come from?
JH: For me there’s always a point of departure. This can be a phrase I overhear, or a small incident.
For ‘Joan’ it was my own experience of Venice. I was sitting in the Piazza San Marco enjoying a glass of Chianti in the evening. A mist drifted into the Piazza from the Grand Canal, and through it there appeared a wedding procession led by folk musicians. It passed through the Piazza and disappeared down a narrow lane. Magical.
For ‘Ivy’, it was also my own experience working in a hotel as a student. During my break I listened to an old waitress who lived in the hotel and was obsessed with the delusion that one day her lover would return.

© Nobby Clark

© Nobby Clark

CM: As well as being a playwright, you are the founder of independent publisher Oberon Books, which specialises in publishing plays. How did you get into this field, and what made you decide to set up the company?
JH: In the early 80s, I was the joint convenor of a playwriting group at Riverside Studios. After 4 years I decided I had to move on. But I was struck by how difficult, and even unlikely it was, for new plays to be published. There was an embryonic programme text project at the Royal Court, but not much else. So I set up Oberon to fill the gap.

I had an agenda. The funded theatre and much of the fringe was riddled with cliques of one sort or another, eg, the intellectual left, which had a vice-like grip on everything that went on. The pseudo Trotskyites who set out to disrupt the system. The funded theatre was a power-base for all these aparachniks, and it had little to do with original writing. I remember being told that a play of mine would not be staged because it wasn’t left wing enough. Actually, it was. It just wasn’t partisan. Oberon is a response to all this. Bear grudges. It’s good for you.

CM: Through Oberon Books, you have championed unknowns and published the work of many notable contemporary playwrights. Do you have a favourite?
JH: Lots of favourites. But in terms of favourites, I think mainly of individual plays rather than writers. All writers have good and not so good moments. But as a publisher you embrace them all through it. Play A may be great, play B may be a disappointment, but by then I’m looking ahead to plays C D E and so on. A publisher is custodian of every writer’s total oeuvre. Cherry picking would be easy. Anyone can do that. And if it’s a financial headache to publish everything a writer does, it’s my job to face that challenge.

There have been great moments. When Sir Peter Hall joined Oberon I was over-awed. Our street-cred soared. He once told me why he’d come on board: because we publish so many new writers. I have my detractors too, but that’s life.

There is another priority, which is to reflect what is actually happening in the theatre. But I mean the whole of theatre, not just fashionable sections. This might mean that we miss out here and there on some over-hyped long-running hit. I never look at what other theatre publishers are doing, except out of envy now and then. We have our big hits too and that of course boosts our standing every time.

Our list should also be truly international, writers from just about every conceivable ethnic and cultural background. I remember a leading playwright saying that he couldn’t recognize an ideological thread in our list. I said “Which one d’you want?”

People ask me how I manage all this at my age. My response is always plain. I’ve filled Oberon with a team of extremely bright young people. I encourage them to lead. We have to meet a changing, ever modernising world head-on. Young people instinctively understand things that we older people don’t.

CM: What’s next for you? Are you working on more plays? What can we expect in the future?
JH: I’m working on a new play, but I’m not giving away the idea!

This interview was conducted and originally published by ThisWeek London – HERE
The play text and rights are available from Samuel French – HERE
Some reviews of this production can be read – HEREHERE and HERE