Interview: Octagon National Prizewinners

Interview: Octagon National Prizewinners

Sarah McDonald-Hughes and Curtis Cole are the co-writers of Sherbet, one of two New Writing plays that won this year's Octagon National Prize. Artistic Assistant Alex Joynes met up with the two writers, who will also be performing their work, to find out a bit more.

ALEX: Please could you tell me the story behind Sherbet and how it came to be?

SARAH: Sherbet is the story of Jade and Nathan, a brother and sister growing up in Moss Side. We meet Jade and Nathan when they are 6 and 10 and the play follows them as they grow up into adults. At the start of the play there’s a tragic incident and throughout the play the characters are trying to get over that and work it out. Really, the play is about them searching for a family and security.

Curtis and I had written together before and we share lots of the same interests and themes in our writing. We were working together on another acting job and we started to talk about what we might write together. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to write a play set in Moss Side (where we have both lived and where Curtis still lives), and that it would be about siblings, and that it would span across years. We also wanted to write about young people experiencing the care system, being separated from their families, and the impact of that on their lives. This became the story of Jade and Nathan.

ALEX: How did the two of you approach writing the play together?

CURTIS: We had the premise, as Sarah said we knew certain things about the play and we had a series of meetings where we worked through the details of the story as a whole. From that we extracted the plot, the scenes we wanted to see, and then we divided the scenes equally between us writing each alternate scene. I would write the first, Sarah the second and so forth.
Initially I was unsure of the process, it was new ground for me and I think for Sarah too. I knew both me and Sarah tend to write naturalistic dialogue and are interested in similar themes, but thought that maybe the play wouldn’t flow in the right way and that it may stand out as two different writers. However I think because we spent a lot of time talking about the characters and each of us knew them really well, it didn’t jar. In fact, now I find it hard to remember who wrote which scene.

ALEX: Sherbet covers a long time-span. How did you find it to follow these characters over so many years?

SARAH: It was a challenge, because we had to first work out the whole story of their lives, and then go back and work out the plot, so which ‘bits’ were the most exciting and interesting for an audience to watch unfold. We were quite strict with ourselves that we could only write the scenes in which the characters were making decisions, the scenes where everything changed for them.

It’s great, though, to be able to focus solely on two characters who we really love and care about, and to be able to really invest in their lives and work out what it is that changes them and makes them become the people they become.

ALEX: Who are the writers/what are the plays that inspire you?

CURTIS: I remember doing TWO at college by Jim Cartwright and it was the first time I had ever seen working class characters on stage. To me theatre was for rich people about rich people, I’d seen the Seagull and some Shakespeare and Around the world in Eighty days but had never really seen anything I could relate to. I had to do a duologue from the play and read it as a whole, it truly was the first time I realized that I could maybe do this as a career.

SARAH: I spent my youth doing Victoria Wood and Julie Walters sketches copied off the telly, and I still think no one comes close to them in terms of creating warm, recognizable, hilarious, surprising characters. When I was at college I discovered Caryl Churchill and Edward Bond, and I saw Port by Simon Stephens which stunned me. I’d never seen anything like that before, a play that followed one character so closely over a period of years, and a story that I identified with. Plays that have stopped me in my tracks as an adult include Pests by Vivienne Franzmann, This Wide Night by Chloe Moss, and I recently read The Children by Lucy Kirkwood which blew me away.

ALEX: What advice do you have for writers considering writing a duologue/what are your writing tips?

CURTIS: Same thing most writers would say. Know what your characters want and make it as hard as you can for them to get it. Be mean to your characters. Be brave, challenge your characters and yourself as a writer, but above all these things is write! A bad play can be fixed but you can’t fix a blank page.

SARAH: Yep, all of the above. Go to the theatre if you can, read plays, watch telly, read books. Write. And just, write the truth. It’s harder than you think.