Ghost Town, York Theatre Royal’s latest offering by resident theatre company Pilot Theatre, takes a poignant look at mental illness through the lens of younger audiences. It’s award-winning playwright, Jessica Fisher, talks to LSi about OCD, the joys of bringing a script alive and the difficulty of writing for younger audiences.
Can you tell us a little in the way of the plot of Ghost Town?
The play is set on a beach in Lincolnshire. There’s a young girl called Megan, she’s lying unconscious on the beach. There’s a boy called Joe, who is looking over her in a bit of a panic and as the play goes on you find out that Megan and Joe were friends earlier in their childhood, so quite a lot of the play is about their friendship and what has gone on between them. But Joe also has a type of OCD where he has really disturbing images about hurting people, so he’s been in a panic and run away to the seaside. A lot of the play is about what he has to deal with in his condition and how his relationship with Megan has affected that at various times.
The third character, named Keira, is used in your writing as a device to personify and manifest Joe’s fear. Was this to tease out moments of OCD Joe experiences?
OCD is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time, but its really difficult to find the right way in. Typically, people with OCD are very good at hiding it, so trying to find a way in to share with an audience what the experience of having OCD is like was quite challenging, so that’s why we’ve got Keira in the play who represents Joe’s OCD in different facets. Sometimes its something that will make him panic and really stressed, and other times its something he turns to as a resource.
You graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama with a MA in ‘Applied Theatre’. What did that course entail and how did your focus shift towards young audiences?
Applied theatre is all about a more practical side of using theatre to work with other people. I did a paper on working with younger people and how to make theatre engage with people who might have disabilities, or learning dificulties. We did some work on how you make music work with people in prisons or different groups in the community, but I’ve worked with young people in theatre for years so my interest really was looking at how you can work with young people using theatre and different ways that it may help them. My thesis was looking at the impact of subject matter in plays that young people perform. I was looking at plays that had particularly difficult themes or violence in them and how that can be quite a safe way for young people to explore things in the world that are complex and particularly troubling, perhaps a way for them to explore those things in a safe environment.
There’s this notion that, in contrast to adult plays, material for younger audiences needs to be made simplistic in order for comprehension. Did you feel it was important in this way to extend awareness of mental illness to younger audiences?
I think its really important to treat younger audiences with respect and to create work for them that is complex, interesting and nuanced and not try to fob them off! I think young people have an enormous capacity to soak up complicated, difficult themes. They want to be able to talk about some of those more difficult things they encounter, that they want to talk about and explore. What’s really important is that in this play, the end has an element of hope to it. I think to young people that’s really important. It isn’t simple and everything isn’t solved, but I think it’s important to show young people hope.
Bearing in mind the theme of difficult developments, how is this transferred into the reherasal room? Are you sitting in with director Katie Posner, or is it a very segregated process?
It’s a very interesting process, because we’ve been developing this play for quite a while. Katie and I have done a lot of work together on the piece so we were lucky enough, back in autumn, to have a couple of days for research and development with the actors, so that’s great because it means I’ve been able to do rewrites off the back of that. Last week I was in rehearsals every day still playing around with the text and doing a lot of tweaking. It does feel like we have had a shared vision of the play and we’ve been able to explore that together.
You’ve written a lot of plays in different mediums. For writers who don’t have the luxury of working with a professional theatre company in residence, what would you say to them to give them hope and endure the long road ahead?
What I love about writing for theatre is that you’re not creating a finished work of art. The script is ideally going to be the beginning, rather than the end of the process. That’s what I love. Seeing actors take a script and perform it, seeing that world you’ve dreamt up and created coming to life – its really exciting. I think for anyone who wants to write plays, the most important thing is to find any opportunity you can to hear it read. Even if that’s finding a local group of people to do script reading or whatever it might be, its really important not to let it just sit on the page but push it out there and get some actors reading it for you.
Ghost Town is now showing at the York Theatre Royal until the 19th February and tickets can be bought online at http://www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/page/york_theatre_royal_show_listings.php
Image: Ben Bentley