BWW Interview: Stewart Pringle Talks TRESTLE at Southwark Playhouse
Stewart Pringle is the Associate Dramaturg of the Bush Theatre. His play Trestle is the most recent winner of the Papatango Playwriting Prize, and is at Southwark Playhouse until 25 November.
Did you go to the theatre as a kid?
I grew up in a small village in Northumberland. We were probably an hour away from proper theatres, so when I was a kid we only really went to the panto every year in Newcastle. That was my main exposure to the theatre until I went to high school.
I had a very brilliant drama teacher who subsidised trips to see works on stage. That's what fired me. My dad's a mechanic and my mum does the books for him - they're very well-read and curious people, but no one in my family is really from the theatre.
What's the first production you remember having an impact on you?
Initially I wanted to do films really - I loved horror movies and special effects. It was probably when I saw Alan Lyddiard's production of 1984 in the early 2000s at the Northern Stage in Newcastle that I realised that maybe I wanted to do theatre in my life.
It was a show that used so many videos and electric physical work - I'd never seen anything that wasn't simply acted on a stage. I'd always thought you had to excuse the theatre for not being as exciting as film, but that changed my mind completely. It was an incredible show and my friends and I ended up going three or four times to see it, which is something we never did with theatre. It opened my mind as to what theatre can do.
Did you study drama?
No, I didn't, I studied English literature and then I studied American literature in my postgrad. I didn't do much theatre in those degrees - Shakespeare I suppose, but for some reason I never looked at plays a lot.
However, when I was at university in Oxford, particularly in my undergrad, there was a big drama scene in various different ways. I was spending much more of my time in rehearsals acting or directing or whatever than I was doing my studies, to be honest. I really loved drama - I acted in shows initially and then ended up directing shows and taking them to Edinburgh...nothing very good. I had a lot going on, though, and I learned very quickly.
You were previously a critic and an artistic director - do you think it's shaped your writing?
Maybe! I think it does, in the sense that you end up seeing a lot of theatre and having to form opinions on it, so you end up engaging more critically than if you didn't have to write about it the next morning.
My writing has certainly changed since I started doing all of that - I care a lot more about the craft of it, what I like and what I don't like. The main thing it's done is to expose me to such great writers that I wouldn't have encountered otherwise, and it has deepened my love for well-constructed plays.
It's probably slowed me down a bit, mainly because with running a theatre, as I did with the Old Red Lion, or working in a theatre, as I do now at the Bush, and doing criticism you don't have much spare time. But I'm quite a slow writer anyway, so it suits me. I don't think it's held me back from the act of writing.
As a critic, what would you say about your writing?
[Laughs] When it's on a page, all I can see is the flaws and the things I'm not happy with, or the things I know could be better and I'll change. I see the good bits too, but I'm more aware of the flaws. It's when it comes alive on stage that you see what you can do with it.
As a critic, I would probably say that I need to think more carefully about stagecraft when I'm writing. One thing I've found during Trestle was that I'd given the director quite a lot of challenges in terms of how to manage scene changes - they could have been made a lot easier. It's probably pure lack of experience, I think. If I was reviewing the show I'd say that the scene changes could have been fixed at the writing stage.
How did Trestle come about?
It started as an escape from trying to write this much bigger show, which I've been trying to put together for a year and not getting anywhere with. Any time I thought I'd do some writing I'd sit down and look at this horrible play that I couldn't finish and I got sick of it.
Last year I decided to start writing some scenes with no complicated plot, no set, none of the stuff that was holding me down, and just see what happened when two people were talking. So I just started to write lots of different skits with these two people who I quite liked, and then slowly a world started to appear around them naturally, because they had to live somewhere, and after that the plot started to come.
It was really organic, even though I had no plan whatsoever and I had no idea what the ending was until it pretty much came to the page. It came very quickly - Trestle was written between September and January and I wasn't even working on it consistently. It was a very surprising process and it will likely not happen ever again.
What is it about?
I suppose it's about people in their late middle age - they meet once a week between his local council meeting and her zumba class. They meet up in that stolen five minutes, they grow together, and maybe they fall in love a bit. If it's about anything, it's about how we find connection in the world, and how companionship and community are human constants thought all ages.
Basically nothing happens in it, but it's part of what I wanted to say. It's a play that's not bogged down or dramatic - it focuses on the characters first and foremost.
Why did you decide to send it to Papatango?
I sent the play to my agent, who read it and didn't know who to send it to - he suggested I just send it to competitions for a start, so I did. I'd entered Papatango once before a couple of years ago, which got to the longlist and got some lovely feedback, so I was aware of it as a prize. They're very responsible and caring about the contestants - they provide feedback to everyone, which is amazing and doesn't happen often.
I sent it and I was very, very surprised to receive a call from George [Turvey, artistic director] saying that I was on the shortlist, and then soon after that I'd won. It was a real shock - it's not a play I'd expect to win.
Any advice for someone who would love to do everything you do?
A lot of times at the start you just need to make your own work - you've got to find a group of people who you're excited to work with and create. It can be quite tough at the start. With criticism, I'd say just go for it! There are so many places you can write for - people would be surprised how accessible it can be.
For writing it's the same: you have to keep applying for things. Try to find people who'll read your work and provide feedback. It can be a lonely business, so I think it's all about reaching out to people. Don't be afraid to knock on doors, if you want to work in a theatre, ask for it. If you don't ask, you don't get. If you're not willing to knock on doors and be a bit cheeky, you could end up just being ignored.
Photo credit: Robert Workman