An Interview with Playwright Jon Tregenna

Hi Jon great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?

I was born in Llanelli, acted in Cardiff, in various bands in London, back to Llanelli to write TV and moved to Laugharne in 2012. I live in a house where a murder was committed in 1953 and a friend of Dylan Thomas was arrested. Dylan called Laugharne, ‘…the strangest town in Wales.’ He wasn’t wrong. I’ve written the Dylan Thomas ebook for the BBC, TV comedy drama for BBC & S4C and the David Garland Jones Youtube channel. Hail Cremation! is my fourth play after two plays for Llanelli Youth Theatre; Raw Material: Llareggub Revisited for NTW (co-created with Marc Rees) in 2014, and I’ve have been working on Hail Cremation! since 2016.

Marc Rees and Jon Treganna, Co-Creators,Raw Material, Llareggub Revisited, NTW.

 So, what got you interested in the arts?

My Dad read Dr Seuss and Charles Dickens to me when I was very young which I loved. I later raided Dad’s bookshelves and his Anglo-Welsh poetry, and became big fan of poet and polemicist, Harri Webb. In school I got into acting after seeing a performance of Wind In The Willows and later trained as an actor in the (Royal) Welsh College of Music & Drama. I’ve been in bands and written songs since I was a teenager, and once I started creative writing around twenty years ago, a musical was a logical step, tho’ it took me some time to realise it.

Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas come from?

My ideas seem to percolate for years. I try to create something I’d like to watch, and that I don’t think I’ve seen before… but those ideas are often outside the bounds of what people are prepared to commission. In terms of ideas, thinking about it, most of my writing is about real life stuff but then I like to drag it into left field.

Can you describe your writing day? Do you have a process or a minimum word count?

I don’t like staring at a screen for too long. I have a young daughter so writing time is precious, and when I do have time to sit and write, I throw everything at the screen. Sometimes it’s better to clear your head by writing 1000 words of rubbish rather than nothing at all. It’s all in the editing. I find a good walk, or a drive, is often beneficial, recording ideas into a phone ready for those gaps in real life when writing happens.

Why and where do you write?

We live in an 18th century cottage in Laugharne and my office is downstairs with a view of the street. I’m surrounded by books, cards, pictures, ornaments – or ‘junk’ as my partner calls them – and often scan the shelves when I’m stuck. It looks a bit of a mess, but you should have seen it before I tidied up.

Your latest play Hail Cremation will be produced by National Theatre Wales at Newbridge Memo from the 23 March- 04 April. The production is described as a musical odyssey through the life of cremation pioneer, Dr William Price – a complex and extraordinary Welshman. What drew you personally to telling your interpretation of Dr William Price?

Like many I knew about the infamous cremation, but initially I wasn’t aware he was a ground-breaking surgeon, vegetarian, feminist, nationalist, radical, a dandy and clearly a genius. However, his eccentricities in later life meant that many of those elements were ignored. If Price was around today, he’d be an inspiring leader, passionate about history, language and culture and I wanted to celebrate him with a spectacle that he would have enjoyed. On reflection most of my work is about Welsh identity, and Price was probably the person who tried to define it more than anyone else in the last two hundred years.

National Theatre Wales describe the nation of Wales as their stage. Their productions have ranged from We’re Still Here portraying the lives of Neath Port Talbot Steel Workers. On Bear Ridge which took place in “a lost village, blurred by redrawn borders” to this new production taking place at Newbridge Memo. Do you feel that Welsh Theatre is presenting representative stories of its citizens on our stages?

I’m interested in stories and legends that are uniquely Welsh. Wales is definitely the ‘secret Celtic nation’, and yet we have one of the oldest literary traditions in Europe. There is an ancient, supernatural, magical, mythical, witty, wild and wide-eyed side to Wales – Wales on mushrooms if you like – which is unique to us. I think more plays in this area would help establish, and then cement a Welsh theatrical identity not only in Wales but around the world.

Why do you think audiences should see this new play?

It’s part gig, part catwalk show, part cabaret. It has a wonderful troupe of dancers and actors, a rock band, incredible costumes, mad props, druids, goats, punk toads, wall to wall video projections, and an astonishing creative team lead by director, Adele Thomas. Yet at its heart is the story of a man who wanted his people to thrive. Dr Price met a woman called Gwen who was sixty years his junior, and they were a very loving, if highly unusual couple. They’d be unusual now, so it’s hard to imagine what 19th century non-conformist Wales would have made of them. Price and Gwen lost a child, and I nearly lost my daughter, so I had a small understanding of the grief they must have gone through. Then when Price’s powers started to wane and he went through a number of ordeals, he continued to charge on with Gwen at his side. He lived for ninety-two years and it’s still amazing how he crammed so much in. People should see this play because it tells a story of a dynamic couple in a wild theatrical arena, is both fun and emotional, and has something to say about Welsh identity.

Is it possible to sustain a career as a writer in Wales and if not what would help?

If the question is: ‘Can someone who writes plays about Wales and Welsh issues sustain a living in Wales, or indeed, anywhere?’ Then apart from maybe one or two exceptions, the answer is probably no. There are a lot of playwrights in Wales chasing a small pot of money and Welsh writers probably need working partners, day jobs, lecturing posts, etc., to survive. What would help? I don’t really know. We’re unlikely to see more arts funding for a while as the Welsh Government is looking to reduce public subsidy. Trying to be positive, successful and profitable shows that reach beyond Wales, and that couldn’t come from anywhere other than Wales, would help. We need to find our voice.

If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?

There should be more development deals, so that writers are nurtured in plays, poetry, TV scriptwriting etc. More people need to feel they have a chance, get some feedback, be part of a dialogue, even if the ideas end up uncommissioned. There could always be more arts, but we also need to build and educate audiences too. It’s tough in this era of Netflix, deadly diseases, Just Eat and smartphones, but the more people that take an interest in the arts, the better off we’ll all be.

 What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?

My daughter, Sylvie, has had two heart operations and spent five days on life support, so seeing her enter a pool for the first time in Butlin’s Minehead last weekend was a truly great thing.

Many Thanks for your time Jon.

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