It’s quite unusual to have two plays by one writer staged at the same theatre simultaneously, yet Amanda Whittington is taking Nottingham Playhouse by storm. On the main stage is My Judy Garland Life, an adaptation of the book by Susie Boyt, and in the studio, Fifth Word is producing Amateur Girl opening in Nottingham before embarking on a national tour.
Amateur Girl is a one woman play following the story of a likeable auxiliary nurse, Julie, who is working long shifts in a Nottingham hospital but needs a bit of extra cash. When her boyfriend buys a camcorder we delve into the seedy world of the Amateur Girls. Playing Julie is actress Lucy Speed, well known for her roles in Eastenders, The Bill and Shakespeare in Love.
Amanda is currently racing from rehearsal room to rehearsal room and switching between edits and re-writes for both plays but we’ve been able to pin her down to ask a few quick questions.
So you’re pretty busy at the moment? What’s it like to have two plays in production at Nottingham Playhouse?
It feels very special. I’ve never had two plays running simultaneously in the same theatre and the fact they’re such different pieces adds to the experience. Nottingham’s my hometown too and I’ve been coming to the Playhouse since I was a teenager. To know the theatre that inspired my young self has two of my plays on makes me feel a bit like I’ve come-of-age as a writer. It’s also great to see the Playhouse expressing such a faith in new plays, especially in the current climate.
Tell us a bit about Amateur Girl
Amateur Girl is a story that’s been evolving for seven years or so. It began as a 15-minute radio drama for a BBC Radio 4 serial on the Minimum Wage. I was one of five writers commissioned to write a piece. Mine was inspired by an interview I did with a woman who’d been working as a nurse but had started doing amateur porn to earn a bit of extra cash. Her story was remarkable and there was much more to say than was possible in the 15-minute piece. I rewrote it a few years later as a one-woman stage play and then brought it up-to-date for Fifth Word’s production.Julie’s a character who’s very close to my heart and I felt her experiences told us so much about so many things that women can relate to.
Why is this an important story to tell now?
Sexual exploitation is as big an issue now as it’s ever been, especially for young girls. The play takes place on that blurred boundary between consent and coercion. Online pornography, together with its moral and political implications, is a subject we have to address – not only for women, but for men too. Do we want teenage boys to be growing up with no understanding of what lies behind these images? Amateur Girl doesn’t offer any answers but it explores some of those questions.
You’ve worked with Lucy Speed before, can you tell us a bit about that?
Lucy was in the very first production of Be My Baby, at Soho Theatre in 1998. The play, set in 1964 in a home for unmarried mothers and their babies, tells the story of four young women who are pregnant and have to give up their babies for adoption. It was originally on for a week, then for a month and is still performed today. Lucy created the role of Queenie, the most worldly-wise of the women. From the very first rehearsal, she was exactly as I’d imagined the character to be – bright, witty, charismatic and compassionate. I can see her performance as if it was yesterday. We’d kept in touch over the years and when the opportunity for Amateur Girl came up, I thought of her immediately. The qualities she has are exactly right for Julie. She’s got fantastic stage presence and she’s a great storyteller, which is what a solo performer needs. She’s also completely believable as an actor, with great instincts. We’re very lucky to have her.
Do you think there is something distinctive about the voice of writers from the East Midlands? Or the stories that come from here?
I think what’s most distinctive is the diversity of voices. I’m not sure there’s an East Midlands voice and if there is, it’s probably not for me to define. I took part in Making Tracks, the last project run by Theatre Writing Partnership, an East Midlands writer development company who did amazing work in bringing those voices through. The six writers who were involved in Making Tracks wrote plays inspired by journeys to Nigeria, Kosovo, Sarajevo, the Isle of Wight, Blackpool and Greece.That really did demonstrate the vision and ambition of our writers.
How has your work evolved over your career?
Well, hopefully I’ve got better at it! It’s hard to analyse your own work but what I’m striving for now is an originality in form as well as subject. I think I started our with an ear for dialogue but I’ve worked hard over the years to learn all the mechanics of play writing. One of the most significant things to have happened over the years is that I’ve found people to work with who really understand my work and bring out the best in it. Theatre is a collaborative process and those creative relationships are vital to me.
Can you tell us a bit about the process you go through when writing a new play?
The first thing I want to identify is the ‘world’ of the play and what it’s concerned with. I’ll do a lot of research into the subject and look for a fresh way into it, for the story that hasn’t been told before. When that story becomes clearer, I’ll create characters and look at their relationships. The plot will develop from that. I usually have a clear plan for the first draft before I start writing it but then of course, the plan goes to the wall! As I write, I discover what I’m really trying to do and say. Essentially, the process is rewriting. Draft after draft after draft! A play’s never finished, you just run out of time.
A big question! There is much discussion around the impact of funding cuts on opportunities for writers in theatre. What are you thoughts on this?
One of the worrying things about the cuts is that they could destroy the bridge into professional theatre for new writers. It’s hard to sustain a career as a playwright but it’s even harder to begin one. I’m very concerned that today’s new writers won’t have the opportunities that I’ve had and new voices won’t be heard. Ten years ago, theatres were reaching out into the community to find people who might never have thought of writing for theatre. Can they afford to do that now? Great writers don’t arrive at the Stage Door fully-formed, they develop with professional support. Where will that support come from if the funding goes?
What is your most memorable theatre moment ever?
There are many but it would probably have to be seeing The Threepenny Opera performed by the Berliner Ensemble in Berlin. Seeing this amazing piece in Brecht’s own theatre had an extraordinarily powerful resonance. It was pure Brechtian theatre as it was intended to be, with the history, politics and style embedded in a way it could never quite be in an English production. The combination of the play, the theatre, the performances and the city was unforgettable – it was the real deal!
What advice would you give to a playwright starting out?
Aim to be truthful not original. There’s a difference. If you try to be original, you may not be authentic. Write what you see, feel, know and understand. Explore the questions that are most urgent to you. See as much theatre as you can but find your own truth in your work. Be influenced by other writers but write in your own voice. If you write as your true and authentic self, then you can’t help but be original, too.
Interview by Angharad Jones: Fifth Word