Best of Intentions

Playwright Nina Raine

tribesfeature4Nina Raine gets things done. Starting out as an assistant director in the West End of London, she branched off into writing plays in her free time. When theatres shied away from producing her first script, Rabbit, she directed it herself upstairs in a pub. The production garnered wide acclaim from both sides of the pond, and she spent the next four years writing and shopping her next two plays around, only to have them premiere within months of each other. Tiger Country went up at the Hampstead Theatre (directed, once again, by Raine herself), but the other play, Tribes, landed at the Royal Court, followed by an Off-Broadway production directed by David Cromer. SpeakEasy Artistic Associate Walt McGough caught up with her by phone on her way back to her apartment where she lives with her brother, fellow playwright Moses Raine, and balances directing, writing, and several projects for television.

You’ve managed to stay very busy as both a writer and director; what are you working on at the moment?
I was directing up in Hampstead earlier this year; that feels like a long time ago, thank God. It was really hard work. It was a cast of very disparate characters, and that involves casting different actors, as well. And trying make the whole thing, different actors with different abilities, different ages, different processes…that was really very labor-intensive. That was the last directing I did. At the moment, I’m just writing, trying to write the next play, and at the same time I’m fielding loads of things at the treatment stage for television, and it’s kind of a ridiculous thing. They come, and they say “We have some notes on the treatment,” and you do the notes, and that’s a month. And then just as you’re getting into the play they ring up again and say “Great, so we’ve kind of been thinking about the treatment and we have some more notes.” And I’m on like the third round of notes for two different treatments at the same time. So, that’s what I’m doing.

Do you find that writing for TV and the stage are two very different hats to wear?
Yes, they’re so different. The only thing that links them, really, is that when you’re writing something, I find I often feel uneasy unless there’s a tiny grain of reality of it. A comment that I overheard on the bus, or something that a friend said to me. Something from life, in other words. And if I just completely make up a scene, and there’s nothing from life, I just feel a little bit like it’s plastic. So, when I’m writing television, I try to sprinkle it through with little bits from my own life. You can have a scene and you put everything that you need into it, but there’s not that little random element that actually happens in life, and you need to have somebody make a comment about raisins or something, you know.

That makes sense in looking at the process on your plays, like Tribes and Tiger Country, since as far as research is concerned, you seem to be much more immersive than academic. You do a lot of experiential research as opposed to reading in a library; is there a reason that you’re drawn to that style?
Yeah, you never know what’s going to float into your path. It’s the randomness that often makes something feel more alive. It’s the detail that you just wouldn’t have thought of that’s going to be the one that you encounter when you’re sitting there and just twiddling your thumbs. And what happens when you’re researching that way is that people are very sort of curious. The play I’m working on right now is about barristers, and so I’m having a lot of lunches with barristers or sitting in on court cases and stuff, and the truth is, you might spend a day, and you won’t use a single word from it. But it might be necessary to get you to the next day, when you might use three words or so. You just don’t know what’s going to come up.

Did you lean more towards directing or acting when you were just beginning your career?
I started out, really, as a director; that’s what I did at University while also trying to complete a degree, and I never really wrote anything while I was at University. You know, I was studying English, and you’re looking at Pinter and Beckett, and it just sort of feels like “do you really think you’re going to write a thing that’s worthwhile?” when you’re reading those guys. I didn’t have an idea for a play, I didn’t really have any life, actually, I hadn’t lived enough, I think. And when I left, I was working in a restaurant and I started writing a play that was just the dialogue that I heard between the waiters and staff and customers. I got an agent with that little piece of writing, but at the same time I also thought that I wanted to carry on with the directing, because I’d been carrying on for about a year trying to write, and really I was writing short stories that were quite heavily influenced by Hemmingway. And it was quite depressing, you know, writing Hemmingway-esque short stories about restaurants, and I really enjoyed it much more when I got to write the dialogue. And then I assisted on lots of shows, because I got a role at the Royal Court theatre, which is a new writing theatre. So, I also got to see how many different ways you can write a contemporary play, other than just Beckett and Pinter. And when I left, I thought, you know, a lot of these new plays are actually crap, which sounds arrogant, I know, but I decided to try to write. And at the same time I was assisting on a West End show, which is a great way to get money, and have time, and not be killing yourself doing some sort of waitressing job. And it was the perfect environment to write a play, and that’s when I wrote my first one.

And that was Rabbit?
That’s right, yes. And then I hocked that one around for ages and nobody wanted to do it because it was too middle-class, and so finally I decided to put it up myself and everything sort of went from there. So the directing and the writing have always sort of been going on at the same time.

Did you think while you were working on Rabbit that you would direct it, ultimately?
I started it thinking “I’m going to write this for me to direct,” which is why I set it all in one location, on one evening, and then when I wrote it I gave it to lots of theatres, who were all really keen while not actually biting. Everyone’s quite suspicious about a writer directing their own play, and so suddenly it was, like, “You can get Cathy Burke to do a workshop of it at the National Theatre Studio,” so suddenly it seemed like it’d be more likely to get it on if you pair it up with a director, because then you won’t look like a crazy megalomaniac writer who wants to do everything. But then it still didn’t get on in all these places, and so at that point I just thought f*** it, I’ll put it on myself. So it kind of went full circle.

You also directed the world premiere of Tiger Country. Do you enjoy that process?
It’s funny, because Tiger Country was nearly the same story. I wrote it, and I thought, “right. Rabbit was a very intimate, sort of salty and sexy and young hooplah,” and I thought “I must show my range.” And I wanted to write a real state-of-the-nation, sort of…because everyone was banging on at the time about how young writers could only write two-handers in small spaces, and I thought, “Well, I’m just going to write a real massive, tapestry-of-life thing, and it’s gonna have ten story arcs and it’s going to be about life, and death, and hospitals and sickness and feelings.” So I was quite conscious in trying to write this different sort of a play. And then once I’d written it, I thought “Oh my God, there’s no way I can direct this, it’s so sprawling. I need a Director with a capital D to direct this.” And again, I took it to various people, and they all kind of said, “Oh, it’s really good, and I could do it, but where’s the theatre?” And in the end I thought it had taken me so long to get a theatre that I needed to just do it myself, because it took so much effort to get it up that I didn’t want another director to f*** it up. So I did it at Hampstead, and it was quite brilliant, but also hard work. There was loads of medical equipment, and I wanted to do it so that there was no set, but all the stuff like the beds and the bleepy stuff would all be real, so that you could get away with having no set because the reality would be evoked by the thinginess of the stuff and paraphenalia. So I had to call on all the friends I had made while I was shadowing doctors, and they were all amazing, actually, you know, to donate equipment. They may be maddening in some ways, but I can’t think of another kind of sphere in which there was nothing in it for them, but they didn’t care if they didn’t get a mention in the program. They’re so trained to help people out, that if I turned up and said “Oh I really need a hospital bed for a play,” they just go “Okay, I think we have a slightly broken one on Ward Six that we were going to just throw out.” It was amazing.

Were you writing Tribes at the same time as Tiger Country?
I wrote Tribes before I even managed to get Tiger Country on. I wrote Tiger Country, and then in the time that I was trying to get it on I wrote Tribes. And then Tribes got put on before TC, weirdly. It was a bit like how with Rabbit, I had written Tiger Country before I managed to get Rabbit had been premiered.

Are you generally revising as you write, or do you tend to write the whole script and then step back and revise? Is it relative based on the project?
I think what tends to happen is that I begin at the beginning, and sometimes I have no idea what the last scene is going to be. Something Tom Stoppard said really resonated with me, which is that you write the first page about fifty times, but by the time you reach the last page there’s only one way it’s gonna come out. You polish and polish and polish as you’re going along the first section, particularly, and when I go, I open the document and scroll back to the beginning. It’s sort of like a ski run, or something: you have to start from the top to know what you’re saying when you turn that bend. I can’t just jump straight into where I left off and sort of continue with Scene 7; I have to look back at the beginning. And when I do that, I kind of think…it’s tiny things, you know, “I’m gonna take out that adjective, or make that one exclamation point and not two…” and then you get to the point where you left off. And sometimes you’re like, “Oh s***, I ran out of time, now I have to go out to a meeting.”

Does it change much once you get into the rehearsal room?
Yes, what happens always is that you discover that you’ve overwritten it. You see that you’ve said in three lines what you say in one. One person says something three times, and you just figure it out. When you hear things aloud, it’s so different from when it’s on the page. It takes longer! When you read something on the page, you read it faster than someone will actually say it aloud, unless you’re a very slow reader. So, things that were swift and fleet and elegant on the page can suddenly need to be pared down when you hear them. So that’s what happens.

Talk a little about the genesis of Tribes.
It was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, and I remember having a conversation with their then-Literary Manager, and saying “I want to write about deafness, because I think it could be theatrical and interesting.” And he was a bit doubtful, and he said “Have you thought about blindness?” [Laughter] I felt a bit disheartened, but I went away and happened to watch a documentary [about a deaf couple] which inspired me, and then I just sort of, like with the doctors and the barristers play, I just started to go out and try to meet deaf people. That was harder, though, because everyone knows a barrister but hardly anyone knows a deaf person, because quite often they keep themselves to their own communities. My way into the community was someone who was going deaf, not someone who’d been deaf from birth, and once I’d met her, then I met people who’d been deaf from birth. And no two deaf people were the same; everyone had a different degree of deafness and therefore everyone had a different way of signing, or they were happy or sad, and were feeling it in different ways. People were confident and outgoing, or others are more withdrawn; there’s the whole range.

Even Billy and Sylvia, in the play, are so removed from what most people would probably think of first when imagining a deaf character on stage.
Each of those characters is a complete mixture of all of the deaf people that I’ve met. They each have different aspects, which makes them good characters because they’re not just one thing. They change, and I wanted them Billy to move from withdrawn to confident and Sylvia from confident to withdrawn, I suppose, because of what was happening to her hearing.

So was Billy really the starting point for the play, or did the whole family show up very quickly?
I think the family has a lot of elements of my own family, and so they were always there, and Billy and Sylvia kind of came about exactly the same time as I met deaf people. But I do remember, and this gives me hope for the play that I’m writing at the moment where I have no idea what’s going to happen in the plot, I do remember that I wasn’t certain at first that Sylvia was going to be a deaf person. I thought that maybe she would just be fluent in sign language, or an interpreter, but then I realized that she had to go deaf. And that was something…I remember making notes, and it being up in the air in my head. I wanted to have someone who was fluent in sign, and yet had been completely hearing so that they could speak about the difference between sign and the spoken word with a complete knowledge of each world without ever being deaf. And then I realized that she had to go deaf, too, because this was my play.

Do you generally have a starting point for your play: a theme, a character or a scene?
I think I start with a scene, actually. With the exception possibly of Tiger Country, where I had a friend and I thought I would write about what her job as a doctor was doing to her. So with that one, I suppose it was more of an idea than a scene, but with Rabbit I had a scene in my head, which was a girl whose father was dying in hospital and she was in a nightclub taking phone calls. It was sort of based on a night that I saw this all happen with a girl. And then Tribes, it was really the last scene and the first scene that I began with, I suppose. I was also really interested in the subtitling, and I remember thinking that I wanted a scene where people’s thoughts were subtitled, but in the end we couldn’t do that in the NY one. It’s the scene where Billy tells his family that he doesn’t want to speak to them any longer, and in that scene I had originally had lines where people said polite things that were then subtitled with their angry thoughts. And in London, this is another thing that happens when you get into rehearsals and previews, in London our director said that he was very, very wary about these subtitles, because he said they’re comic, you know, there’s something inherently comic about having someone saying one thing and meaning another. And we had them in that scene, I remember, and I didn’t mind the audience laughing because the very next moment they’d be crying, and there’s absolutely no comedy by the end of the scene. But that was another thing that I really was looking forward to when I started the play, that it was going to build to this scene where I was going to invert that all the rest of the play people sign and there are translations that we see, and then in this scene there would be people saying things, and they were translated for us, but when he signs we would have to be deaf, and wait for Sylvia, our translator. I wanted the audience to feel deaf, in that scene.

Do you find yourself thinking like a director as you write those kinds of challenges, or do you try to turn that side of yourself off?
I don’t think of it as thinking like a director, but I suppose I do have things in mind that are doing that. For example in the play that I’m writing at the moment, I’ve got a domestic setting, it’s set in a house, and then I go straight to a different house. And in that different house, the house has just been bought and there’s a sofa that has a sheet over it, so I’m thinking “oh, so I’ll just keep the same sofa and just cover it with a sheet.” When I’m writing I feel very anxious if I set a scene set in a house and then I write a scene that’s on the edge of a cliff and then I write a scene and it’s on a boat. I start feeling really, like, “Oh my God. I’m really laying out some problems here.”

Is there anything you’d like to put in audience’s minds before they see Tribes?
I suppose what I think is: Don’t think they’re all monsters. People can behave monstrously but it doesn’t mean that they’re monsters. Because I really hate it when I overhear people in the ladies’ loo saying “Oh my God, they’re all so awful,” and I just think, “What is your f****ing family like?” No one has a perfect life, and perfect people are very boring to watch on stage. So I suppose I would say, don’t judge these people too fast. David Cromer always used to say this thing when he was directing it in New York, which was that people can set out with the best of intentions and all the love in their hearts and still make mistakes. And that’s really the point.