(a very small selection...)
Doing a solo show is always dangerous, says Claire Dowie, the inventor of 'stand-up theatre'. 'When I first did Easy Access, the character I play was up on stage, panicking, but I wasn't there - I must have stayed at home.' Given that the character she plays is Michael, a twentysomething male prostitute - 'too old' to be called a rent boy - it always takes Dowie a few minutes to get under his skin. When she does, the transformation is amazing.
How come? 'Well, Michael's been in my head for years,' says Dowie, 41. 'I started off as a stand-up comedian, but didn't do any 'proper' writing until I met Colin Watkeys,' her partner and director. 'I never thought of doing any writing because I'd never been to college,' she laughs.
Easy Access was first put on at London's Drill Hall in January. 'Yes, I got an Arts Council bursary to write a play - but only if I wasn't in it,' she grins. An in-yer-face piece about Michael and his relationship with his father, who sexually abused him, the play is very emotional.
Where did this story, which is full of ambiguity and hits you in the gut, come from? 'Ever since I invented Michael, he's been the victim of some sort of abuse. And because he's been with me so long, the play just wrote itself. I know it sounds wanky, but I just sat down and let him tell the story.'
At the time, 'sexual abuse of children was very much in the headlines,' Dowie says. 'I wrote the play because the thing that annoys me about the media reporting abuse is that it's all black and white.' You mean monsters and victims? 'Exactly, in reality things are much more complicated.' For example? 'Well, the usual attitude is that if you've been abused, you have to go into care. But what happens when the kid doesn't want to go into care? What happens if they still love their dad?' she asks.
Such questions are explored in Easy Access. 'I suppose what I'm saying politically is that when someone's a victim, everyone around them helps keep them a victim, telling them what they should be thinking or feeling.' In the play, Michael colludes with his abusive Dad, 'but he needs to do so for the sake of his own sanity.' Then he 'stops protecting his abuser, and starts to unravel the lie that he's weaved. So you don't have to be a victim - but don't think it's easy not to be.'
Perhaps the most dangerous moment in a shock-fest of a show is when the on-stage video shows a little girl, Becky - daughter of Michael's lover - playing in the park, with a voiceover describing a sexual fantasy. Dowie's daughter, Rachel, played Becky. 'When we filmed it, it was really horrible. Putting the words on tape was like turning her into some sort of sexual thing. Colin did the filming and was completely spooked by the whole thing,' she says. 'But, all in all, I think it was better to use my own child than to ask someone else.'
Dowie's version of Easy Access for Edinburgh is a one-person 'solo remix' of the play. Why did she rewrite it? 'Because it's cheaper,' she says bluntly. 'We applied for a grant to tour the full-scale version, but got turned down. So we decided to try it as a solo show.' But there are other reasons too. 'When I was directing the original production, I was simply itching to get on stage. Now I've got my chance.'
Easy Access is innovative in its use of video and the interplay between film and live action. 'Yes, but the main reason for using video is that you can include other actors in your show. I mean, there's only so many one-person numbers you can do.'
Dowie, who was brought up in Birmingham and whose previous shows include classics such as Why Is John Lennon Wearing a Skirt? (1991) and Leaking from Every Orifice (1993), says her parents have been very supportive - 'but they still think I'm just going through a phase.'
In other interviews, she been contemptuous of 'straight gays'. Why's that? 'Look, I used to be lesbian - I suppose I'm bisexual - so I know a lot of people who aren't your normal suburban couples. But the people I like are those who have something to say, rather than those that go on about their mortgages.' Dowie has annoyed gay people by telling them they don't have to conform. 'If you're gay, you must be aware that mainstream culture is trying to brainwash you - I really don't see why gay people should want to fit into society.'
How does it feel to play a gay man? 'I don't think it matters that I'm female - after the first few minutes on stage, the character just takes over.' So, has she any plans for Michael? 'Not really. After I wrote the play, the character just disappeared. He'd been living with me for years and years, and I thought: "That's it; he's gone; I'm quite sad."' Now, playing Michael every day at the Edinburgh festival, it's time for Dowie to renew her acquaintance with her 'imaginary friend'. If you see the show, just remember: 'For the first few minutes what you see is Claire Dowie, then Michael takes over.'
Easy Access (for the Boys) was at the Pleasance, Edinburgh, 6-31 August
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Rachel Papers' in the Guardian on 12 August 1998
with Jonathan Harvey by Aleks
Characteristically, Harvey remembers things differently. His parents went to a 'pre-theatre supper' at the Pizza Hut in London's Goldhawk Road, and when his dad was rude to a waitress, his mum said, 'It's all right, we're from Liverpool'. Mum and dad liked the show. 'But not the swearing,' he says. '"You didn't get that from us."'
A comic writer who sometimes uses bad language to hilarious effect, Harvey is well behaved with his folks. 'I've never said "cunt" in front of them, and probably never will,' he says. 'When I took my dad to see Beautiful Thing after it transferred to the West End, he shivered every time that word was used on stage.'
Since 1993, Harvey's career as gay playwright with crossover appeal has really taken off. Although Beautiful Thing was criticised for showing young gay love as rosily sentimental, his subsequent plays - such as Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club (1995), Guiding Star (1998) and Hushabye Mountain (1999) - proved that he could lace softness with bleakness and mix tragedy with comedy.
Now, as his new play, Out in the Open, premieres in London, he points out that 'although it's a comedy, it's not a gag-fest'. 'It's about a group of friends who are keeping a secret from one of them - and over the course of a weekend, the secret comes out.' Is the secret about sex? 'Yeah,' he says, grinning mischievously.
Born in Liverpool in June 1968, Harvey retains a mild Scouse accent. He was brought up by 'slightly left of centre' parents: his dad was a social worker, his mum a nurse. His interest in drama began early - he used to go to youth drama club on Saturday mornings.
'It was a way of showing off,' he says. 'But when I was 13 I got really bad acne, so I didn't want people looking at me, but I still loved all things showbizzy.' At school, he starred in As You Like It, but 'only because I was the only person prepared to sing "Oh, ninny nonny",' he says with a campy laugh.
In 1987, while he was doing his A-levels, Harvey wrote The Cherry Blossom Tree for the Liverpool Playhouse young writers festival, and it was put on in the studio. While he was at Hull university, it was suggested that he should write for the Royal Court - he thought it was the Liverpool venue of the same name, 'Ken Dodd's second home'.
Despite the occasional mistake - his 1990 show Catch used real fish, which rotted and stank out the theatre - his career has gone from strength to strength. After an apprenticeship at young writers festivals, he's followed in the footsteps of the great Liverpudlian playwrights.
'My great ambition,' he says, 'was to get something on in London, and that happened quite quickly.' But, before his break, he tried to follow in the family tradition of the caring professions by working as a special needs teacher in a south London comprehensive. Much to his hardworking parents' horror, he left this 'proper job' to take up a residency at the National Studio in London.
After Beautiful Thing hit the West End in 1994, he was shocked that it provoked a media storm - a 'plague of pink plays' thundered the populist Evening Standard. But while it 'doesn't bother' him to be labelled a gay playwright, he resented the 'typical homophobia' of some sections of the media.
'I realise now it was just some stupid journalist with a page to fill, who wrote some absolute and utter nonsense - the choice of the word plague was offensive, and it was hilarious because there were only two plays involved.' His and Kevin Eliot's My Night with Reg.
Since then, Harvey has worked on the film version of Beautiful Thing, has had some six plays produced, and has written two series of Gimme Gimme Gimme for BBC2. He has several film projects on the go, and his Pet Shop Boys musical, Closer to Heaven, opens in May at the Arts Theatre.
Despite his high profile, Harvey is more likely to be wearing a Kangol top and Nike trainers than a shirt and tie. 'I only have one suit,' he laughs. His face reminds you of his plays, a mixture of the serious and playful, of anger and humour. He is amiable and helpful; he makes you laugh. Yet, he also has a darker side.
In his work, however warmhearted, the themes of death and loss constantly appear. 'The best comedy,' he says, 'always comes from pain, and the comedies I love always have that element of darkness.' Where does that come from? 'When I reached 18 and came out,' he says, 'the gay community was being decimated by AIDS, so as a young person I had to confront death at the time I was reaching sexual maturity.'
He remembers the 1980s AIDS panic as 'scary', and, as a writer, he 'saw the world as a place in which you had to get used to death early on'. Nor has his success been painless. In rehearsals for Babies, his ill-starred follow up to Beautiful Thing, there were rumours that his refusal to rewrite had hobbled the show.
Since then, he's adapted well to the practicalities of being a writer. In the crucible of TV comedy, he's learnt to 'rewrite on the spot. It's relentless - everyone from the cameraman to the cleaner has an opinion.' Now he can 'take criticism like a man'.
Like his inspirations, Mike Leigh and Alan Bleasdale, Harvey is sometimes accused of taking the mickey out of the working class. He disagrees. 'I don't patronise the working class. I have a laff about it all, but never from an angle of piss-taking.'
How does it feel to be so successful? 'I feel I'm at the stage when I'm established,' he says with typical modesty. 'When people come to see one of my plays, they know what they are getting.' And success? 'I don't know really,' he says, 'I'm busy.'
Harvey's trips to Hollywood include pitching for a Bette Midler vehicle and for Disney's musical version of Sleeping Beauty. He mimics a studio mogul: 'Daya know, Jonathan, sleeping is a very passive activity, so let's keep that to a minimum.'
Despite all the jetsetting, he is Mr Stability, living in London with his longterm partner Richard Foord, 'who stops my head from getting too big', and 'who really loves travelling'. So, after a heavy stint of work, Harvey's favourite relaxation is 'to go and lie on a beach'.
Yet his northern roots are important. Like his parents, Harvey is a lefty. He feels 'a bit let down by New Labour, but I'm prepared to give them another go'. In his work, there are constant echoes of Liverpool. A title such as Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club inevitably conjures up the name of the iconic LP by fellow Liverpudlians, The Beatles.
Despite his rootedness, he's never been a Liverpool football fan. 'I've never really interested in football because it used to cause terrible family arguments.' But Guiding Star, his play about the Hillsborough disaster, shows how local feeling can motivate him.
In that play, the scene in which a dingy drifts out to sea 'really happened to me', he says. 'I was only about six and we had to be air-sea rescued. I didn't realise the enormity of it at the time.' On stage, 'my mum couldn't watch that scene - and I can see why.'
Harvey comes across as a good bloke who has been canny enough to use his comic gift, to learn from past mistakes and who hasn't let success turn his head (at least, not lately). Not so much a Scouse git as a Scouse hit.
Jonathan Harvey: a summary
1968 : Born in Liverpool.
1987 : Studies at Hull university; Cherry Blossom Tree at the Liverpool Playhouse.
1988: Mohair opens at the Royal Court young writers festival.
1992 : Wildfire, directed by Ian Rickson, opens at the Royal Court.
1993 : Beautiful Thing opens at the Bush theatre, and transfers to the West End in 1994.
1994 : Babies opens at the Royal Court.
1995 : Boom Bang-a-Bang opens at the Bush.
1995-6 : Rupert Street Lonely Hearts Club tours.
1996 : Beautiful Thing released as a film.
1998 : Guiding Star opens at the National Theatre.
1999-2000 : Two series of Gimme Gimme Gimme on BBC2.
1999 : Hushabye Mountain opens at Hampstead Theatre.
2001 : Out in the Open opens at Hampstead Theatre.
Interview with Charlotte Jones by Aleks Sierz
Over the past 10 years, the National Theatre has done its bit to break down the Berlin Wall between art and science. Since CP Snow first voiced the idea of 'two cultures' in 1959, this division has become a cultural cliche which, like Frankenstein's monster, refuses to die. But despite that, plays such as Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, both staged by the National, have appealed equally to bards and boffins.
Charlotte Jones, whose new comedy about a suicidal astrophysicist, Humble Boy, opens there this week, says that the play began with an image of 'a man pottering around a garden like a bumble bee' - she'd also heard the theory that, 'according to the laws of physics, the body shape of the bumble bee should make flight impossible.' While she admits that the story is 'probably apocryphal', hearing about it was one of those 'Eureka moments' when several different ideas seem to gel in one image.
Similarly, her character, Felix Humble (played by Simon Russell Beale) searches for a 'scientific Eureka moment', trying to work out 'a unified field theory which will reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics'. At the same time, 'Felix is also trying to bring his mother, who's having an affair, and his father, who's died, back together in his mind.' In this metaphor-rich universe, his mother 'is a black hole, warping him out of shape, and his father is just microscopic, fizzing away in the corner of his mind.'
Aware of how difficult science can be, Jones uses a simple device to convey Humble's astrophysics. 'He talks about string theory to a local woman in a charity shop so he has to use understandable language.' What attracted Jones to string theory 'was the theological language used to describe it: all about dwelling in possibility and questing after the unknowable, living in between doubt and fear.'
Such metaphors suggest one reason why plays about science are so engaging - they're all about language. Michael Frayn says, 'Heisenberg (who appears in Copenhagen) took the view that science is based on conversation, and so are most plays.' Indeed, Steven Poliakoff's Blinded by the Sun (1996) was criticised by scientists because his boffins talked gobbledygook rather than real science.
But Copenhagen was memorable not only for its discussions but also for its staging. 'The set was part of the message. It was in the shape of a circular lecture theatre,' says Frayn, 'which was meant to suggest a practical demonstration, a moral forum, and - since the play is about understanding ourselves by looking at other people - the idea was to keep the audience in full view of one another.'
However good their research, most playwrights are attracted to science for humanistic reasons. Tom Stoppard used images such as jam being stirred into a rice pudding to demonstrate entropy and chaos theory in his 1993 play, Arcadia. 'My interest in chaos mathematics is an artist's interest, not a scientist's,' he said at the time.
Theatre is good at wordless stage pictures which make ideas tangible - at the end of Arcadia, two couples from different historical epochs dance across the stage, creating a sense of cosmic harmony. In The Far Side of the Moon (which visited the National in July), Robert Lepage uses a mirror to give the illusion that his character is floating in space - finally free of his past.
Jack Bradley, the National's literary manager, says: 'There is an enduring interest in science because theatre can simplify something, such as the uncertainty principle in Copenhagen, which we often think is beyond us.' And, while books tend to be abstract, 'a single visual image can make ideas corporeal.' Scientists, says Bradley, 'are modern heroes - they work at the edge of the unknown.'And because it's on the frontiers of knowledge, 'science offers an opportunity for moral debate. Theatre is best at being a public arena where people discuss issues.'
Science is itself the stuff of drama. 'The more I read about it,' says Jones, 'the more conscious I am of its conflicts and drama.' Frayn agrees: 'Science is an extremely demanding activity and people in any demanding activity become very emotional, very worked up, fixated, competitive.' In the end, the reason that science works well on stage is that playwrights use it to explore emotions - and we're all interested in those.
Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy opened at the National on 9 August
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'There's a Suicidal Astrophysicist at the National. Best Place for Him' in Independent on Sunday on 5 August 2001
with Debbie Tucker Green by Aleks Sierz
As if to prove the point, Debbie Tucker Green's powerful debut, Dirty Butterfly - which was staged in February at the Soho - ended with a harrowing in-yer-face image of domestic violence, but is there more to this young writer than just shock tactics? As her second play, Born Bad, opens at the Hampstead Theatre, I asked her about the show.
"Born Bad came out already walking, talking," says Tucker Green. Unlike her first, which she "spat out and then had to kick into life". She's still "a baby at the game" of playwriting and hasn't "found a proper way of doing it yet". Born Bad is marketed as "a high-voltage drama in which two generations of one family confront the truth about their past". Yes, it's about abuse.
But what distinguishes it from other plays about domestic misery is its structure. Instead of being a realistic drama set in a squalid flat, it's a series of fragmentary, freefloating poetic dialogues. The characters, who are on stage all the time, might as easily be in purgatory as in a counselling session.
Reviewers of Tucker Green's debut called her distinctive voice an "angrily plaintive polyphony" and "secret whispers", although one Daily Telegraph critic attacked her "pseudo urban verbals" and "Ali G-style patois". So how would she describe her voice? "It's a whole heap of things. I don't want to define myself."
But Tucker Green laughs in recognition when I call her style obsessive. "That's how people speak," she says. "Listen to a group of kids: just repeat and repeat and repeat." Then she improvises a dialogue around a simple phrase: "It's hot outside; it's really hot, innit? I bet it's really hot." So "suddenly you've got half a page of dialogue".
She loves playing with language, and - while she worked as a stage manager for 10 years - wrote poems before she tried plays. Her influences range from black writers such as Ntozake Shange and Louise Bennett to Bob Marley and Beverley Knight. What about Sarah Kane, another playwright who had the same visceral, no-holds-barred approach ?
"I know her work but the language is completely different." Like Kane, Tucker Green had to watch walkouts from her debut. "If you hate the show, at least you have passion," she shrugs. "Touch wood, you ain't indifferent." She says that one person even had a seizure in Dirty Butterfly.
What draws her to extremes? "To start with, both plays are quite mundane. Then they just get darker. I'm interested in normal situations that become dark. I find it intriguing; it's all out there. Somebody who beats on his wife might be the nicest workmate you can have. In Born Bad, I was interested in betrayal, in women betraying women, which is the point of the play."
But the question at the heart of the play is: what did mother know? "You sometimes hear in trials of abusers that the mother said she didn't know. And you ask yourself: how come?" In the text, there are also suggestions of the victim's complicity. "There's a whole heap of psychology going on and I'm not in a position to even go there. The play is about subjective truth. Each character has a version of the truth that is real to them."
Tucker Green is wary of interviews. She won't say how old she is, or where she lives. "I've got Jamaican blood in me but I don't talk about my family." It's the work, and only the work, that matters. She despises journalistic cliches, although her tough-talking attitude may just hide the vulnerability of a newcomer.
Her talent has certainly been noticed. Born Bad is directed by Kathy Burke (star of Gimme Gimme Gimme and Harry Enfield), who now sees directing rather than acting as her "first job". The theatre "sent me a few plays and Born Bad stood out as the most original. Debbie's unique. She uses her own voice, and once I got into its rhythm, I just flew with it. It really gripped me and a lot of it made me laugh out loud. I liked the cruelty - people venting what they really feel."
For Burke, the play is less about abuse than about "truth, denial and unconditional love". She relishes the challenge of directing Born Bad: "I just love the way it's written and I love the fact that it is going to be tricky to make work on stage."
Jenny Topper, Hampstead's artistic director, sums up Tucker Green's qualities: "She has the three essential elements of a new voice: she is concerned with ideas, she is concerned with form, and she has the courage to stay true to her intuition and let her own linguistic invention come through."
When I ask Tucker Green about accusations of sensationalism, she has a one-word answer: "Bullshit." She has certainly brought danger back to the British stage, at a time when many new plays feel a bit jaded in style and content. I guess she's attracted by agony because it seems both authentic and passionate, but her unique mix of poetry and emotion lifts her work above the banalities of dirty realism.
Born Bad was at the Hampstead Theatre in April/May 2003.
© An earlier version of this article appeared as "If You Hate the Show, at Least You Have Passion" in Independent on Sunday on 27 April 2003
Interview with Tanika Gupta by Aleks Sierz
Tanika Gupta is a prolific and award-winning playwright whose work has been staged at the best venues in London and beyond. She's a bilingual British Bengali, a good-humoured personality and a professional at the top of her game. In fact, the only way to irritate her is to label her an Asian playwright.
"I'm so fed up with being called an Asian playwright," she says. "You would never describe Tom Stoppard as a white playwright, or say that a play had an all-white cast, like they say 'with an all-Asian cast'."
Whatever you call her, Gupta's had a cracking year. Her adaptation of the classic Hobson's Choice - set in an Asian tailor's shop owned by Hari Hobson - is opening at the Young Vic, one of London's hottest venues, and in the past 12 months her Sanctuary was staged at the National, Inside Out toured for Clean Break, and Fragile Land opened the new Hampstead theatre's education space.
To cap it all, she's just won the Asian Woman of Achievement Award for arts and culture. "It was a big do at the Hilton," she laughs. "With all these New Labour women dressed in saris. Hysterical. It looked like they'd all gone to the loo together and put on the same bindi." Still, Cherie Blair's sari was given the thumbs up by Eastern Eye newspaper. Oh well.
When Gupta was interviewed at the event, she keep being prompted to say what a struggle it had been for her as an Asian writer. "Actually, it hasn't been such a struggle. Of course, it's difficult being a writer, but my background hasn't made it more difficult. I've had more rapid success than some white male writers I know. We all struggle."
Another typical question is whether the stud she wears in her nose has any cultural significance. "Yes," she always answers, "if I take it out, my trousers fall down!" In fact, she's defined less by her colour and more by her parents' enthusiasm for culture.
Born in Chiswick, Gupta grew up in an arty environment. "My mum is an Indian classically trained dancer and my dad was the most amazing singer and story teller," she says. "They were into Bengali literature and Rabindranath Tagore. They met and fell in love at Tagore's ashram at Santiniketan. The artistic side of things was just breed into me - I didn't even notice it."
For several years, they lived in Hastings, where racism was overt. "When I was eight, a kid in my class called me a wog, and I went to the teacher, who said, 'Well, you are one.' And I was bullied. I couldn't tell my parents I was being picked on. I didn't want to upset them. As a kid, I wrote as a form of self-therapy."
When the family moved back to London the bullying stopped. By then, Gupta had got the writing bug. "I wrote short stories from an early age, so it has always been a bit of an obsession. I've written diaries or little stories, or brief plays for school."
She then went to Oxford University, read modern history, and "tried writing a novel, but it was hopeless. Somebody read it and said, 'The dialogue's really good but the description's awful - have you ever tried writing a play?"
As well as confirming her talent for dialogue, Gupta also met her future husband at university. "I met my bloke [David Archer, now head of international education at Action Aid] on a demonstration," she says, adding that university politicised her.
After Oxford, her political commitment found expression in her work for an Asian women's refuge in Manchester. After marriage in 1988, the couple moved to London, and Gupta was a community worker in Islington, writing in her spare time.
"The first thing I had produced [her radio play Asha] was three months after my father died in 1991," she says. "I also had my first baby so it was a strange time." She now has three kids, aged 12, 10 and three. So how does she manage?
"Because I was writing when I had my first child I've never had any other experience except being a working mother. The only time it's difficult is when you have deadlines and one of the kids is ill. I've had brilliant support from my mum and in-laws." Having children means she has to be a "fiercely disciplined writer" with "an iron will".
In 1996, she "decided to be a full-time writer because I didn't want to become a local government manager. When I was offered this gig to adapt A Suitable Boy for Channel 4 by David Puttnam, I decided I could write full time. So I did, and then I was broke for a year!"
Her first play, Voices on the Wind, was developed by Talawa and the National's Studio, and based on an extraordinary incident in her family history. "In 1930, Dinesh Gupta, my grandfather's brother, was hanged by the British. He was only 19." A Bengal Youth Volunteer, Dinesh Gupta had been part of a suicide squad which assassinated the British inspector general of prisons.
But while his comrades killed themselves, he botched it, was healed and then executed. "In prison he wrote all these beautifully eloquent letters to his family, which I was given and used as the basis of Voices on the Wind. My family is very proud of him, and now a road in Calcutta is named after him."
She also points out that although our image of the struggle for Indian independence is dominated by Gandhi and peaceful protest, "there were also a huge number of revolutionaries who used violence - and the British used violence and torture to suppress them."
When Voices on the Wind was staged at the National Studio, "it was terrifying because people like Richard Eyre came to watch it - that was scary because I suddenly realised that other people, and not just my mates, were interested in my work."
When the BBC asked her to write for Grange Hill, "I thought it was because there was a new Asian character in the show, but actually they just liked my writing. On the one hand, it was great that there were no Asian characters, but on the other hand it was odd that this London school had no Asian kids."
It was "great fun to work on Grange Hill because we did readings and developed the scripts with the young actors. It was a good chance to re-live my schooldays - I'd also been a fan of the programme."
Gupta's critics might mutter that she writes too much, and that her work has a soapy facility, but she's unfazed by that. Although she comes across as calm, she's extremely energetic, always doing workshops, teaching and numerous projects, from 10-minute political plays to short films.
"It's good to get out, have contact with people and not disappear up your own arse." She's not a solitary garret writer. "I get bored with my own company. And I need feedback." Bad reviews only upset her when they have a racist slant. "I hate it when your race is used to beat you."
In 2000, The Waiting Room was a career highpoint, enjoyed by blue-rinses as well as by Asian audiences. "Being staged by the National is what all playwrights want - it gave me the chance to work with amazing actors like [Bollywood legend] Shabana Azmi, who's so big in India. She was mobbed every night at the stage door."
She's too tactful to moan about Nick Hytner's new regime, but when I point out that there are no women writers in his opening season, she nods. She's noticed. "Well, the jury's still out - he's only just started," she says diplomatically.
What kind of play will she write next? "One of my ideas is a play with no Asian or black characters at all. After all, Ishiguru wrote The Remains of the Day, which has no Japanese characters in it," she says. "In the end, writing is about stories - and should be universal in its appeal."
Hobson's Choice opened at the Young Vic on 2 July 2003
Tanika Gupta: a summary
1965 : Born in Chiswick.
1983-6 : Read Modern History at Oxford University.
1987-96 : Community work at an Asian women's refuge in Manchester, and with Islington Council, London.
1991 : Her Radio 4 play, Asha, in BBC Young Playwrights Festival.
1995 : Her BBC film, The Rhythm of Raz, nominated for a Children's BAFTA. Voices on the Wind is developed by National Theatre Studio.
1996 : Her 1994 film, Bideshi, wins award at the Bombay Short Film Festival.
1996- : Writes for Grange Hill and EastEnders.
1996-98 : Writer-in Residence at the Soho.
1997 : A River Sutra staged at Three Mills Island. Skeleton staged at the Soho.
1998 : Flight, her BBC2 screenplay, wins an EMMA.
2000 : The Waiting Room, staged by the National, wins the John Whiting Award.
2002 : Sanctuary staged by the National. Inside Out produced by Clean Break.
2003: Fragile Land opens the new Hampstead Theatre's education space. She wins Asian Woman of Achievement Award. Her version of Hobson's Choice at the Young Vic.
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'A Woman of Achievement' in The Stage on 17 July 2003
Interview with Richard Bean by Aleks Sierz
"It's been a mad year," laughs playwright Richard Bean, shaking his head. You can see why: he's managed to cram five plays, which take most young playwrights five years, into the past 18 months. In 2002, The Mentalists opened at the National Theatre, while 2003 saw premieres of Under the Whaleback and The God Botherers in London, and Smack Family Robinson in Newcastle. Now his new play Honeymoon Suite - starring John Alderton - opens at the Royal Court.
But although he's a new arrival, 47-year-old Bean is not exactly young. When, in 2002, he won the prestigious George Devine award, the presenter said the prize "was to encourage young playwrights", and Bean began his acceptance speech ironically: "As a young playwright..." He has no regrets about coming to writing late. "I was horribly arrogant in my 20s - I remember being absolutely clear about everything. Now I'm rather ashamed at how cocksure I was."
Bean's not only made up for lost time, but he's also made good use of his experiences. His 1999 debut, Toast, was based on time he spent working at a bakery and Under the Whaleback on his knowledge of Hull trawler men. But although he came to attention with testosterone-heavy all-male casts, Bean is quite a softie at heart. Of Honeymoon Suite he says, "It's a bit of a weepie. I can't stop crying in rehearsals."
It's a "play about unconditional love, and whether it is possible or not". Set in the best room of a Bridlington hotel, it tells the story of a marriage by showing an 18-year-old couple on their honeymoon, then staying in the same room 25 years later, and finally aged 67. The gimmick is that all three scenes are played simultaneously, so three couples are on stage at the same time.
But Bean points out that "the play is not about the trick, but about the characters' story". He was influenced by Caryl Churchill and Alan Ayckbourn, and points out that the love story is also about aspiration. "The lad is a docker and his bride worked in a chocolate factory. In those days, the minute a girl married, she was sacked. Although her dad, who wants the best, has paid for the honeymoon suite, the young couple are awkward. They can't face the restaurant so they buy a bag of chips; they don't even know how to open a bottle of champagne."
Bean's own aspirations have been amply realised. Born in Hull, son of a policeman and a hairdresser, he says his background encouraged hard work. "The police thing is very strong, and my family was lower middle-class with aspirational values: work hard and save money. I can't get away from the work ethic. And I do work bloody hard. There's a romantic image about writing, that you have to do it at night, but that's shit. The best time to write is 10.30 in the morning when your head's clear."
He's "very workmanlike about writing". Until the middle of last year  he rented an office in Chancery Lane for £50 a week. "It was the most appalling dump you've ever seen but that was good because I couldn't do anything else there apart from write. I got on the tube, went to the office, did an eight-hour shift and went home in the rush hour."
After doing psychology at university, Bean worked for many years as an occupational psychologist and traces of his interest in the subject can be heard in his talk. "Fear of failure is a huge drive", he'll say, or "You can't get motivated writing other people's ideas".
He says he had "no connection with the arts" until he was 30. "Theatre wasn't part of my life. I was a punk - I'm the same age as Johnny Rotten - but I was a nice punk: I helped old ladies across the road." Then, in the late 1980s, he discovered stand-up comedy. "I really enjoyed the gigs and I thought: I can do that. It was easy to get into, but harder to keep going." He did stand-up for six years in the 1990s, but was "never A Team - my material was always better than my performance".
Bean finally became a playwright after winning a competition at a Middlesex University drama nightclass. His Of Rats and Men went to Edinburgh in 1992, and since then he's also written radio plays, adaptations and an opera libretto. At first, his theatre hallmark was work plays, but gradually, as his subject matter has broadened, it's become black comedy.
Evidently, those years of stand-up have cast a long shadow. "My way in is comedy, but I'm not happy just doing comedy," he says. "Now, I get criticised for having too many jokes in my plays. It's something I'll have to look at. I don't want to give people an excuse not to take me seriously."
Certainly, Honeymoon Suite is serious as well as funny. It's about "the deep, awful tragedies of love and relationships". Has he been married himself? "No, I can't stand in a church and take those vows - how can you promise to love someone forever?" Tough talk, but his soft side peeps out when he mentions his four-year-old daughter, Tilly. "She loves the theatre," he beams, "even though she talks all the way through the show."
Honeymoon Suite previewed from 8 January
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'It's Never Too Late To Wow an Audience' in The Daily Telegraph on 6 January 2004
Interview with Gregory Burke by Aleks Sierz
Scottish playwright Gregory Burke - whose The Straits, the eagerly awaited follow-up to his 2001 smash hit Gagarin Way, has just roared into the Hampstead Theatre - has got a great gob on him. Not only does he write like a dream, mixing wild hilarity with political jabs, but he also throws anecdotes at you with all the sharp wit of a party animal itching to down a bevvy and crack a few jokes. Humour is definitely his thing. And, when he gets going, he's unstoppable, from eye-popping stories about beautiful women to his recipe for avoiding bad breath: mint chewing-gum.
"I make all my decisions based on what folk are wearing," says the 35-year-old. "When I first met John Tiffany, the director of both my plays, we clocked each other's clothes immediately. Afterwards, he said, 'I only directed the play because of your trainers', and I said, 'I only let you because of yours.'" Today, Burke sports a Prada jacket and casual togs - definite signs that heÕs enjoying his success.
Burke was born in Dunfermline, his dad was a dockyard worker for the navy and, when Gregory was nine, the family moved to Gibraltar. "It was fantastic," he says. "We spent our time swimming, spear-fishing and playing football. And fighting with local Gibraltarians." When they moved back to Scotland six years later his English accent was a problem. "The kids were all: 'He's English and he's got a tan - let's kill him.' Within three days, I had the broadest Fife accent." What was his new school like? "Put it like this: if a girl didn't have tattoos, she was the prom queen!"
Based on his memories of Gibraltar, The Straits started life as a radio play. "After Gagarin Way, I was on a writing for radio course and I pitched it as 'Lord of the Flies with Stanley knives'." As the Iraq war kicked off, he turned it into the stage play which wowed Edinburgh in August. Set during the Falklands War in 1982, the play "is a political play because all wars are political".
But although Burke is uncomfortable with the idea that his work has a message, he says that The Straits is about "being in a gang, and feeling part of a group. And in times of crisis, people create a threat even when there isn't one, and this reinforces their identity. And the reinforced identity also perpetuates the threat. If you feel besieged, as people in Gibraltar did during the Falklands conflict, you lash out." Like George Bush today? "Absolutely."
Before Gagarin Way made Burke the hottest newcomer to British theatre, he was a dropout from Stirling university, having made the mistake of doing a Philosophy course. The other students were public-school types and his secondary school had done nothing to prepare him for academic life. Then, after a decade of doing "shit jobs", he quit work and wrote his debut over one summer. A year later, he sent it to the Traverse in Edinburgh. It became the only unsolicited play they've ever produced.
Now Burke lives in Brixton with his girlfriend, reads a lot and aims to have two plays and a screenplay ready by Christmas. Although he loves having a laugh, he's also serious about issues such as the Iraq war, the risk to his father of asbestosis, and the mean streets of Scotland - but he's never dour or depressing. Talking about the differences between his two plays, he says, "The new one has no philosophical diatribes: you can't have 16-year-olds talking about the historical consequences of Empire." Quite.
Gregory Burke's The Straits opened at the Hampstead Theatre on 3 November
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Rock Hard' in What's On on 29 October 2003
Interview with Moira Buffini by Aleks Sierz
There's a simple, well-tried recipe for avant-garde art: first write your manifesto, then provoke authority, then put your money where your mouth is. This is just what playwright Moira Buffini, whose Dinner - starring Harriet Walter - opens in the West End, has done. Last year, she teemed up with a pack of other writers to form the Monsterists, a group which aims to change the face of British drama.
The Monsterists, whose name is a playful pun on English slang for "large" and the French verb "to show", issued a campaigning manifesto "for British theatre writers to create large-scale plays". Hoping to liberate new writing from the "ghetto" of small plays in small studio theatres, they want the same resources - money, directors and actors - as those given to classics.
Originally, they met at the National Theatre's Studio - an R&D lab for new plays - and include playwrights Richard Bean, Gregory Burke, Sarah Woods, David Eldridge, Tanika Gupta, Colin Teevan and Roy Williams. Their stunts, such as applying in a group for vacant artistic directorships, pose serious questions, such as why shouldn't writers run theatres? And they've also joked about kidnapping a theatre critic - how would their paper respond to a ransom note?
True to their name, they started off by thinking big, laughs 38-year-old Buffini. "We would love it if someone commissioned a season of new plays from us, but nobody will. Most writers want to break out of the confines of the banal, naturalistic play. We want to write epics: after all, you don't go to the theatre just for telly."
But, surely, writers have always wanted larger stages. "That's true," she concedes, "but the economics have never been harsher." The financial risks of staging new plays in large spaces are hair-raising. Today, even subsidised theatres rely on box office for half their income "so if a new play fails, their whole budget is fucked".
Armed with their manifesto, the Monsterists have met artistic directors, "who have listened attentively" but done little. The group is sick of seeing mediocre plays by dead playwrights getting money lavished on them, while living writers are ignored. When Buffini's Loveplay was done by the RSC in 2001, "the whole budget was the same as the wig budget for a classic. That's what new writing always gets, the wig budget."
Not all the Monsterists have written big plays so how can they demand large stages? It's a vicious circle. Without a commission, you can spend a year writing a play which is never put on. But it's hard to get a commission for a big piece if you've never written one. Anyway, "commissions amount to £6,000-7,000 at most," says Buffini. "When you're a student, that seems like a lot of money, but not when you've got a mortgage and kids."
What the Monsterists are doing is unique. British theatre is usually allergic to manifestos. If you want the thrill of reading ringing declarations and calls to action, you have to look abroad. A typical list of modern examples would start with the 1909 Futurist manifesto, which inspired modernist stagings, and the 1916 Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire, which favoured cacophony and chaos.
King of the French manifesto drafters was Antonin Artaud, whose "total theatre" ideas appeared in his seminal book, The Theatre and Its Double, in 1938. His ideas about a "theatre of cruelty" had a direct effect on British director Peter Brook, whose The Empty Space attacked "deadly theatre" in 1968. Disappointed by Swinging London's response, Brook migrated to Paris.
Still, despite a scepticism about manifestos, there is a native tradition of playwrights passionately advocating change. In 1890, George Bernard Shaw wrote The Quintessence of Ibsenism, which wanted theatre to be "a factory of thought, a prompter of conscience and an elucidator of social conduct". More recently, Howard Barker and Edward Bond ruffled feathers when they theorised their own work - and they are more revered abroad than here.
Although campaigning critics are now extinct, in the 1950s the Observer's Kenneth Tynan mocked the commercial West End, arguing that it was dominated by upper-class "Loamshire plays". His attack on theatre censorship, a piece called The Royal Smut-Hound, was a classic of impassioned advocacy, and he was also fond of quoting the Marxist manifesto addict Bertolt Brecht.
Nor have movements fared better than manifestos. When the Royal Court theatre's press officer coined the resonant phrase "Angry Young Man" to describe John Osborne during his 1956 debut, Look Back in Anger, the subsequent spate of Angry Young Men all shrugged off the label. If they'd been French, they'd have issued a manifesto.
"Yes, manifestos are terribly unfashionable," smiles Buffini. "Writing down what you think is frightening because people might hold you to it." But, she adds, "We can be quite proud of being European." She also says that the Monsterists don't need sympathy - they're doing okay. Bean's The God Botherers and Woods's Cake are currently on in London, Eldridge's version of Festen arrives next year, and, of course, there's Dinner.
Set at a dinner party with a hostess from hell played by Harriet Walter, Buffini describes her wicked revenge comedy as "a Jacobean farce about excess". But don't expect a standard naturalistic play. "I don't think people want to go and see plays that tell them what they already know. People want their imaginations to be stimulated, to be shown the unexpected."
Although Buffini shrugs off the label "woman writer" - "I'm a writer, I'm a female, get over it. I fight my corner because I'm a writer not because I'm a female" - she's more open than any man about saying how having her two kids affected her work. "When I was writing Dinner, I was pregnant and didn't know it. I couldn't understand why I was so exhausted and eating these massive lunches."
Originally staged at the National's tiny Loft space last year, Dinner now has a new ending. Buffini feels that the original was affected by her having her baby. "As a writer, what you lose when you've just had a baby is sharpness and clarity. You're not getting any sleep. Your mind is totally elsewhere. It was a good experience but it was strange and exhausting." After all that, Dinner deserves to be a monster success.
Dinner opened at Wyndham's Theatre on 9 December
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Enter, Leftfield' in The Times on 13 December 2003
Interview with Martin McDonagh by Aleks Sierz
Angry young men are as common as dust in theatre, but the paradoxical thing about Martin McDonagh - who follows up his RSC hit The Lieutenant of Inishmore with his new one, The Pillowman, at the National Theatre - is that he combines a bad boy persona with lashings of talent. One minute, he's behaving like a rock star, gobby, excessive and loud, loud, loud. The next, he's busy penning plays whose dialogue sizzles, whose jokes ricochet and whose endings deliver a rabbit punch to the expectations.
The Pillowman - a Kafaesque account of a short-story writer in a totalitarian state - is advertised as "a viciously funny, seriously disturbing tale". So far, so good. But it's also hailed as "a new play" and "new" isn't exactly the right word. It was entered for the Soho Theatre's Verity Bargate Award in 1994-5, when, to McDonagh's amazement, it didn't win. So why is he peddling an old play about Eastern Europe as a follow-up to his hits, which have all been set in Irish backwaters?
To answer that, you have to know 33-year-old McDonagh's life story. True to his larger-than-life image, he is tall, wears sharp suits and white shirts, and was already grey-haired three years ago. The minute he opens his mouth, you realise his background is "sarf" London. His dad's from Galway and his mum's from Sligo, but he grew up - with his elder brother John - on a council estate in Elephant and Castle, visiting Ireland only for summer holidays.
McDonagh left school at 16, and, when his parents returned to Ireland, the two brothers stayed on in the family home in Camberwell. Both lads were determined to become writers. Martin once said he wanted to be a writer to get girls. He worked in McJobs - or spent time on the dole - and wrote short stories, films and radio plays. To those who met him in the early days, he was someone who wrote for the pure pleasure of writing.
Talking in 1996, he said he'd written 22 radio plays, all rejected by the BBC. It must have taken guts to keep going. At one point, he gave himself a deadline of two years to succeed. Luckily, he discovered theatre. He says he "only started writing for theatre when all else failed. It was a way of avoiding work and earning a bit of money." He claimed he'd only seen about 20 plays. However typical of youthful arrogance, such flip comments can't disguise the fact that, as he admits, "I used to read lots."
Judging from the dialogue in McDonaghland - which critic Fintan O'Toole calls a "strangely beautiful hybrid" drawn from "the edgy street-talk of English cities and the lyricism of rural Irish speech", he's no stranger to Irish playwrights from Boucicault to John B Keane, from Synge to Tom Murphy.
In his The Full Room, Dominic Dromgoole, then Bush theatre supremo, remembers him at the start of his career. "We passed on Martin's work," he says, "but found him an agent." He thinks that Killer Joe, a dark thriller he staged in 1995, "set something free" in McDonagh's imagination. Certainly, he soon started to mine a rich seam of "Oirish" plays which, like Killer Joe, mixed thrilling plots with taboo-busting humour.
McDonagh's genius is 20 per cent inspiration, 80 per cent perspiration. The hours of garret scribbling paid off in 1996, when his debut, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, scooped an armful of awards, including three major British prizes and four Tonys. Mary McAleese, the Irish president, praised him. By 2000, the play had been translated into 28 languages.
Yet, despite his success, McDonagh makes enemies faster than other writers get rejection slips. Director Richard Eyre watched him win Best Newcomer at the 1996 Evening Standard Awards, "Martin was legless. Sean Connery tried to sort him out, but Martin told him to fuck off." When Sam Mendes presented the award, calling him "very talented, very assured, very young", Eyre remembers a chorus of: "And very drunk."
McDonagh took to fame like a piranah to a tank of entrails. Fiercely proud of his talent, and conscious of the hard graft it took to hone it, he became his own spindoctor. When his Leenane trilogy was staged by the Royal Court, he compared himself to the young Orson Welles, claiming to be "the greatest" and calling older playwrights "ugly" and "really badly dressed". The relative failure of his follow-up, The Cripple of Inishmaan, at the National in 1997 seemed like a well-deserved comeuppance.
He certainly leads the field in arrogance. When Nick Hytner once asked him what he thought of David Hare's Skylight, he replied, "Well, I didn't write it so it's crap." Having used theatre to hit the limelight, he then moved into film - and disappeared into script development hell. Now, he frankly admits that his first foray - a Paramount commission for producer Scott Rudin (Clueless) - fizzled out. "What I wrote was rubbish," he says.
But if McDonagh acts the part of a hooligan playwright with enormous gusto, and has been described as "in awe of his own genius", he does have another side. People who work and get on with him say he can be really warm. If he likes you, you have a friend for life. But even his friends point out that he doesn't suffer patronising fools gladly.
In 2001, McDonagh's theatre comeback was as headline grabbing as his debut. The Lieutenant of Inishmore was put on by the RSC, but only after being rejected by both the Royal Court and the National. At the time, he raged against both, castigating their timidity and political correctness. But the truth is simpler. The Court had already staged a lot of his work and the National just thought it was tasteless.
It is, of course, but it's also a hilarious satire on Irish terrorism, with a twisting plot about a renegade psycho who has a soft spot for his cat, Wee Thomas. Aptly enough, the live cat was the most expensive item in the production. One insider says, "You not only have to pay for the cat, but for the cat's trainer, their insurance and their hotel bills."
When the play transferred to the West End, McDonagh's temper once again got the better of him. At the aftershow party, a young woman asked him to explain his running joke about "trampling on mams" - he went berserk and pinned her to the wall. Most writers are flattered to be asked about their work, but in McDonagh's case, it's better not to mention "mam".
During his dispute with the Royal Court and National about The Lieutenant of Inishmore, he was said he wouldn't "contemplate working with either again". Now, he's had to eat his words. The reason is that he has a back catalogue of completed plays: one set in London in the early 1960s, one set on Coney island, and another called The Pillowman. Until theatres put these on, he won't offer them a new one. Hence his return to the National.
When I asked McDonagh whether he'd like to do an interview about The Pillowman, he emailed me, "hi aleks, sorry, man. iÕve decided never to do interviews any more. no real reason, that's just the way it is." I suggested a pub crawl - to no avail. And what if I doorstepped him at the National's stage door? Well, not unless I wanted a bop in the head.
With luck, plays from his back catalogue might give the lie to the acutest criticism of his work: its emotional shallowness. "I always like a dark story that's seemingly heartless," he once said, "but where there is a heart, tiny and camouflaged as it might be." Well, let's look forward to a time when McDonagh grows out of his bad boy persona and shares a bit more of his heart.
The Pillowman opened on 13 November at the National Theatre
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Tougher Than the Rest' in The Sunday Times on 9 November 2003
Plus: new writing bibliography