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LowTide

Al Smith on Harrogate

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Freddie has asked me to write something about Harrogate for LowTide. He says it can be ‘themes surrounding the play’ or it can be ‘academic or informal’ or ‘something else you’d like to write about’ which is about as open a brief as I can imagine. I don’t really want to write about the themes and stuff. I feel like that kind of pops the bubble, that it’s not really my job. I wrote the play but I don’t feel like I need to explain it. So I think I’d rather write about where it came from. As in the choice to write that play. And about writing in general and the feeling of how brutal it can be to write in a headwind.

Nick Sidi and Sarah Ridgeway in the 2015 production of Harrogate at HighTide Festival

Nick Sidi and Sarah Ridgeway in the 2015 production of Harrogate at HighTide Festival

I think I started thinking about the ideas around it in 2010. It’s hard to pin that down. One thing I’m sure of is it must’ve been before January 2011 as Dec Feenan emailed me to ask if I was interested in submitting a short play for the Miniaturists. I had been writing telly for a long time and hadn’t written a play for ages and felt rusty so jumped at it. Actually, that’s a total lie. I had written plays in that time but I couldn’t get them on and I felt depressed and shit about the world and I think Dec had taken me out for a drink and I’d probably bitched at him about life and how I felt creatively dead and furious that nobody wanted my enormous five hour epic script about a Nineteenth Century French mathematician and so that’s why he asked.

I love radio, and I love telly, but I wanted this piece to demand a theatre and die anywhere else. What I came away with was the first draft of Harrogate.

The Miniaturists are terrific and supportive. They’ve been around for a decade or so, and host a night of short plays every few months at the Arcola. I had written a short play for them in 2006 and longed to return. I’m very grateful to Dec for reaching out and offering that space. For my Miniaturist I decided to go back to basics. One scene, two people, no cuts – just a meeting between what looks like a man and his daughter but, as things roll along, start to unstitch. I wanted to write something simple where, as the minutes tick by, you realise things just don’t feel right, and that the people you are watching may not be who they say they are - I had seen Sam Holcroft’s play “Edgar and Annabel” and felt enormously inspired by role play as a theatrical device (get a copy of that play, it is the most meticulously careful study of people role-playing under pressure). So anyway, I wrote this scene for the Miniaturists and my friend Rejane came to see it and said it was interesting and wondered what happened next in the story, so I took myself away for a week and followed my nose toward a first draft.

I set myself three rules: First, I wanted it to be a play that slavishly observed the unities – it had to take place on one night, in one place, and follow the same thought unflinchingly. Second, I didn’t want there to be anything in the play I didn’t feel personally connected to (given the option I’ll always hide behind other people’s stories rather than my own), and third, I wanted it to be something which couldn’t be anything other than a play. I love radio, and I love telly, but I wanted this piece to demand a theatre and die anywhere else. What I came away with was the first draft of Harrogate.

I’m enormously proud of the show and the team and what it has become, and I’ve tried to channel that good feeling into writing new plays.

That first draft sucked. But at the time I was so enthusiastic about it I felt sure it would be ok to send out. Here’s a lesson: Don’t. Don’t submit your first drafts. Yeah, give them to people whose opinion you admire and trust but don’t give them to people whose opinions are final. When you’re unknown, you rarely get two bites of the apple. I sent that first draft off to a bunch of theatres and they all said no. Again, I felt bummed out. That said, Holly Kendrick, who I had met through NSDF when I was a student now worked at HighTide, read it and was enormously enthusiastic. I’m so grateful to her for that. She encouraged me to go back into it to root out a finer story, and I’m so glad she did. It’s hard to find the motivation to pick yourself back up when your material’s not getting anywhere, but that kind of belief and support is just the most valuable thing. Thank you, Holly. In the following few months I got cracking on a redraft, and during that time I met Richard Twyman through a mutual pal, told him about the story and he asked to read whatever came next. I sent him my second draft, and from there, things started to take shape. HighTide offered a reading of it in 2013, then I redrafted it again, and again, until finally we had something that we could stage at HighTide 2015.

So that’s where Harrogate came from. I’m so pleased we got the chance to put it on, and am over the moon that we get to do it again at the Royal Court. That is pure dreamland. The fucking Royal fucking Court. In its 60th year. I keep having to check myself that it’s really going on. I’m enormously proud of the show and the team and what it has become, and I’ve tried to channel that good feeling into writing new plays. It feels like such a mercurial thing, storytelling, and I feel enormously fortunate to have supporters helping me fight the headwind. I hope you will feel the wind at your back too.

Al Smith

Harrogate opens at the Royal Court Theatre 20 - 29 October for its London premiere, followed by a UK Tour from 1 - 16 November. To find out more about the production, click here.

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