Writing a great play is easy, the key is first lower your standards
'Sometimes when you write a play, you think, that's not the image of myself I want to project to the world," says Mark Ravenhill, over tea in the Westbury.
Mellow and soft-spoken in person, even cuddly, this is the man that gave us one of the most notorious plays of the 1990s, Shopping and F***ing. Alongside the late Sarah Kane, he was the figurehead for the "in yer face" movement in British theatre, one of violent, sexually explicit, fragmented plays, which attracted both controversy and audiences. (Enda Walsh and Martin McDonagh have sometimes been lumped awkwardly in that box.)
Ravenhill was in Dublin recently to give a public talk organised by the Dublin Theatre Festival and Theatre Forum (details below), and I sat down with him to talk, mostly, about writing.
"I'm not really a 'writer' writer," he said. "I think a writer would probably have letters and diaries and poems. Writers talk about notebooks and writing everything down – I've never done that. I make theatre, so the writing is part of the making of theatre, rather than just writing."
His breakthrough, Shopping and F***ing, came in 1996, when he was 30. If it surprised the public, it also surprised him. "You build up an idea in your head of the kind of writer you'd like to be, of what your writing ought to be like. But sometimes your writing is not what you'd like it to be ... You have to take the time to go, 'okay, that wasn't what I wanted, but that's the play that came out – is that maybe what I do best?'"
Because he doesn't tend to do research or use notebooks or reference works, he is unencumbered. "I never have anything around me when I'm writing – all I need is space to put a laptop." Of late, he uses the British Library in the West End, spending five or six hours a day there. "It's not quite as solitary as home, and less distracting." It takes him roughly three months to write a play, though the first draft may come very quickly. (Arthur Miller wrote the first act of Death of a Salesman in one long night.)
First, though, there's the archetypal challenge: "That fear of the blank page ... that doesn't change. The first hurdle is filling the pages."
The trick, he says, is simple: "Just lower your standards and carry on. You want to have a first draft. Once you've covered the pages you can start to rewrite, cut, edit, move around, polish. The first draft is just raw material, the messy bit of the clay that you're then going to use to make something."
This is where many would-be writers get unstuck, he says, because that's not how literature is taught: "You assume that these great works were just written down, rather than being moulded and hewn and stuck together.
"It's important to have almost no quality control whatsoever. Dash it out as quickly as possible, without censoring."
It's good advice, and chimes with my own experience. I tore a quote out of the newspaper years ago, and carried it around in my wallet: "don't get it right – get it written." And when I did finally commit to finishing a play, last year, I realised I had to put my critical faculties on hold: I had to allow myself write badly in order to write at all. (Some might say I haven't got beyond that stage.)
A caveat. Ravenhill gave a provocative and entertaining address at the Edinburgh festival last year (published in The Guardian, and well worth reading online).
He finished his advice to young theatre makers with the following: "Don't look for mentors who are decades older than you. People like me – ignore us. Don't look for business models from last year. Make it up as you go along. Do everything as if for the first time."
RAVENHILL'S DUBLIN VISIT WAS PART OF THE NEXT STAGE ARTIST-DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME RUN BY THE DUBLIN THEATRE FESTIVAL AND THEATRE FORUM, AND SUPPORTED BY THE ARTS COUNCIL AND THE IRISH THEATRE TRUST. A VIDEO OF HIS PUBLIC TALK CAN BE VIEWED ON THEATRE FORUM'S YOUTUBE AND FACEBOOK PAGES.