Writing during lockdown with Breakfast Plays: New Tracks

News 25 Aug 2020

What do King Lear, Taylor Swift's Folklore and Breakfast Plays: New Tracks have in common? They were all written during a period of lockdown.

With Breakfast Plays: New Tracks premiering throughout this week, we asked the writers to tell us about the process of writing their play and the opportunities they discovered in adapting their work from stage play to podcast.

Conor O’Loughlin - Doomsdays

The Breakfast Plays offer a dream provocation to any writer, practically demanding a response primed with enough adrenaline to see Festival audiences through the rest of the day. It’s a testament to the Traverse’s own reserves of energy and resilience that this year not only continues that tradition but does so on an even grander scale and with unlimited scope. It may be a new form and platform, with rehearsal Zooms in place of rehearsal rooms, but the artistic team has at every turn provided the same incredible levels of support and bespoke development that make the Traverse the new writing haven it has always been.

Embarking on a writing project while in lockdown coincided with dubious online encouragement to draw from Shakespeare’s quarantine C.V. and create your own King Lear (though perhaps Taylor Swift’s Folklore is a more up-to-date point of reference). It’s really too strange and singular an experience for there to be a right or wrong way to do it, but for me it was more helpful to stick to a course than attempt to drastically reinvent my approach to writing.

The play went through as many drafts as the time allowed and we maintained regular notes meetings – albeit virtual – with the Traverse’s brilliantly intuitive Literary Associate Eleanor. Doomsdays ultimately changed quite a bit from the first draft until now, although it’s always fascinating to chart what DNA it still shares. The general unmoored-ness of lockdown did require adjusting to sustained bursts of activity rather than any strict sense of a timetable, but this tends to differ from project to project anyway. It was also massively instructive to know from the off that it would be delivered in an audio format and so factor that into the design through sound effects, vocal attributes and a much ‘bigger’ ending than would otherwise have been possible. I also hope it’s a piece that rewards relistening by offering new details and links to pick up on.

Uma Nada-Rajah - The Watercooler

The Watercooler was written quite quickly.

I had been thinking about race in the context of the history of western psychiatry when I came across this passage in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “I am far from convinced that being released from the African witch doctor was worthwhile if I am now- in order to support the moral contradictions and spiritual aridity of my life- expected to become dependent on the American psychiatrist.”

I soon had an image in my head of two co-workers standing next to a watercooler. I knew that one was undergoing a transformation on a deep inner level that the other would not be able to comprehend. I knew that they cared deeply about each other.

Writing this play felt like uncovering what was already there, though it is still in its early stages. I was very lucky to have received a very clear and incisive set of notes from both the director of the play and Eleanor, the Traverse's Literary Associate, which helped me to find a shape for the piece just in time for rehearsals.

Rebecca Martin - Rabbit Catcher

I think very visually, so part of my process of writing is visualising myself in the world that I’ve created- so how the sunlight may shine through a gap or a pine cone falling from a tree- I need to see it in my head, as if it were a film.

But it wasn’t until Breakfast Plays that I realised one of my processes in writing is drawing, illustrating scenes or a character, or a particular feeling or symbolism about Rabbit Catcher’s world became extremely important and vital throughout my journey. I would find inspirations from Pinterest or photos that resonate about the piece and turn it into my own vision, which helped me forward during moments of writer’s block or what emotion I wanted to get across during a scene. It was also a lovely therapeutic pause when I felt overwhelmed and stressed, it helped ground me during those moments.

Jamie Cowan - Contemporary Political Ethics (Or, How to Cheat)

The biggest challenge when writing the play was finding the right balance of political themes and comedy; too much of one and too little of the other would result in the entire story collapsing. To get it right required some experimentation with the tone and structure, but with some wonderful feedback given to me by the Traverse, it quickly started to take shape. After that, it was really a case of building on little character moments throughout the story, in order to show who these people are, what they want and why this matters so much to them.

Amy Rhianne Milton - Matterhorn

From my first draft I realised that the script needed so much more hope and courage embedded in it than I had previously thought. It felt very important to get that right. Writing about the end of the world, when the world around us was drastically changing, made me feel a strange power and responsibility.

I had wanted my play to emphasise the value in a single human life, but suddenly the world changed and I wondered if anyone really needed reminding of that. And then the world reminded me again, that we do. As global events the past few months seemed to spiral I made it my goal to thread as much resilience, compassion and bravery into my script as I could muster.

Figuring out all the science and the logic of the world was a bit of an adventure and I thank everyone who helped me understand/listened to me bang on about time endlessly. The rules were all a bit shaky and chaotic in the first few drafts and Eleanor (Traverse Literary Associate) was brilliant at helping me riddle it all out. After another draft, my housemates very helpfully pointed out that while it was all very exciting, they really didn’t know who my characters were.

I admit I was having too much fun with my jazzy plot. The last phase of redrafting was spent really trying to figure out who these women were, why they were so at odds with each other, and how far they would go for what they believe is right.

I was playing with structure right up until the morning before recording, after utilising the director Debbie’s suggestions and hammering out a much slicker rewrite. I can’t wait to hear my script and I hope to take this version and redraft again to rework it for stage.

What are The Breakfast Plays?

The Breakfast Plays are one of the most-loved elements of our annual Traverse Festival programme. Traditionally taking place at 9am during the Traverse Festival (and enjoyed with a breakfast roll), the bite-sized Breakfast Plays are also a key element of the Traverse’s creative development programme for writers, bringing brand new short plays by early-career writers, who are often alumni of the theatre’s Young Writers Group, to the world and showcasing the best, new Scottish writing talent to the international audiences who flock to Edinburgh in August.

Though a selection of previous Breakfast Plays have been broadcast on the BBC World Service, 2020 marks the first time that the plays have been written specifically for an audio format and been made available to global audiences on-demand, so that Breakfast Plays: New Tracks can become the Lunch Plays, or Dinner Plays, or be enjoyed at any other time you, the listener, would like.

We hope you enjoy tucking into Breakfast Plays: New Tracks from Mon 24 Aug.

If you're a young writer looking to develop your skills and would like the opportunity to possibly see your work on at the Traverse (digitally or physically), we're now accepting applications for our Traverse Young Writers programme.

The Breakfast Plays: New Tracks are generously supported by the Noël Coward Foundation and the Turtleton Charitable Trust. The Traverse Theatre is funded by Creative Scotland and The City of Edinburgh Council, with additional support from The Scottish Government Performing Arts Venues Relief Fund.

Image: Mihaela Bodlovic