This year has been the year of the audio. Scratchworks Theatre Company have brought their original stage play, written by Jack Dean to an audio tale with accompanied Science experiments for children.
Combined in a couple of audio sections, Faina and The Snow Beast features the tale of an Orphan, Faina, who dreams of becoming a scientists. Raised by the owl who found her abandoned, Maud, who believes in the magical and extraordinary, the two, with the help of Faina’s mother’s journal, undertake the most exciting adventure full of trials and tribulations to find The Snow Beast.
The story is very easy to get into. Able to download, you can dip and dive into the story whenever you want to. With the talented voices of Scratchworks, a range of different character’s are animated within our consciousness with the use of accents and skillful voice acting, evoking images and fueling our imaginations of the character’s and their adventure.
Known for their brilliant voices and musical styling, Scratchworks bring in magical yet homely and folk like music to accompany the story, making the atmosphere and the story feel sensational, with a Disney-like quality to the story in drumming up visions of the adventure.
Punctuated with their science pack, children are able to listen to the story and are encouraged and inspired to follow Scratchworks and make their own scientific experiments. The story highlights that science and the extraordinary are not necessarily different to one another. Maud states something along the lines of why should you only have the choice of belief in science or of the magical and unusual. By bringing the two together in a theatrical story telling and with science to attempt, children and adults alike can enjoy the magic of science and stories.
Faina and The Snow Beast aims itself at children, but adults are also fully taken away to far away lands, flying in hot air balloons and feeling the blizzardy atmosphere The Snow Beast creates. A joyous and sensational story.
In our latest Playwright interview Director of Get the Chance Guy O’Donnell chats to Wales based Playwright Neil Bebber. Neil discusses his career to date, his latest project “Short Stories for Stressed Grown-Ups”and his thoughts on opportunities for Playwrights in Wales.
Hi Neil great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
Hello! I’m a playwright, screenwriter, copywriter and graphic designer. I enjoy cycling, sea swimming, hiking at night under star-stuffed skies, endlessly scrolling though Netflix trying to find something good to watch, cooking (though my recent attempts at culinary genius have fallen short) and playing online Scrabble with strangers. For the record, I haven’t lost a game. Yet.
So, what got you interested in the arts?
Pantomime. Probably. I remember the feeling I had watching a school panto when I was maybe ten years old. The Seven Dwarves had left for the day to hi-ho off to work and Snow White was left alone in the space. A sequence followed where she just made the most of having the space to herself and I was transfixed.
From an early age, I was curious about the world. Talking to people as soon as I could talk. Asking “why” even more than most other kids. That question can take a child either way. Science allows us to understand how something works. The arts allow us to explore how something makes us feel. I’m a combination of the two. But, having turned down a potentially lucrative career in banking, in favour of a poorly-paid graphic design “apprenticeship” (that’s a whole other story!) I’d chosen my path.
Can you tell us about your writing process? Where do your ideas come from?
I used to fool myself into believing the romantic notion that I could only write when I was wallowing in a pool of self-indulgent pity, but I now realise that’s not true. I don’t know who said it, but writers write. So, the most important part of the process is to start by writing something.
It’s a cliché, but it is a muscle. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. And the more addictive it is. On the many courses I’ve been on, the forensic detail of process has been useful, but I’ve always got more from the automatic writing exercises. It’s a great way to unlock the unconscious mind and discover those seeds lurking in there between the teeth of doubt.
And I make a lot of notes. The romance of a notepad and fountain pen has been superseded by the iphone, but I’m glad that, should I ever hit a pothole on my bike and find myself flattened by an oncoming bus, nobody will ever get to access my notes. There’s a lot of strange musings there. Today I wrote a paragraph about how a crow, battered by the wind, seemed to be perfectly content to walk across the road sideways. And how that might serve as a metaphor. But I don’t know what for yet.
GULL, the play recently read on Zoom by the brilliant The Far Away Plays came about like that. A note about watching gulls rip apart bin bags and hungrily tuck into a pile of used nappies. The revulsion fed the atmosphere of the play.
In terms of dialogue, I believe that writing good dialogue is more about listening than writing. Before our freedoms were curtailed by a microscopic enemy, I used to sit in a lot of coffee shops, just listening to exchanges and watching people’s body language. In recent years, I probably haven’t been the best company, socially, choosing to observe and makes notes, rather than get involved.
Can you describe your writing day? Do you have a process or a minimum word count?
Writing days vary depending on the project. I’m also lucky enough to be able to supplement an artist’s income with commercial copywriting. But, either way, I start early. Check emails, social media between 8 and 8.30 and then make a start on the writing. At the moment I’m in the process of editing an audio play for a competition, writing a new speculative TV drama and also writing, recording and editing my stories for my YouTube channel, “Short Stories for Stressed Grown-Ups”.
Producing my own work has also made me realise the amount of time that’s needed for its design and promotion. The “Short Stories…” project needed to have an eye-catching brand, as well as accompanying visuals for each story. And all of this needs to be shared with the online world. I hope I’m finding the balance between, “oh, that’s interesting, I’m so glad he let me know” and “for God’s sake, not another post about his bloody stories!” If there’s anyone brave enough out there, do let me know!
Why and where do you write?
I write because I have something to say. About something I‘ve seen or something I’ve heard. Or something I feel passionately about.
I write because it’s a compulsion. A bit of an addiction. Especially when I get to see how an audience responds to it, good or bad. Maybe that’s some deep-seated need for validation. But then maybe that’s why any artist creates anything.
I write because it helps me repair. Relax. Forget. Make sense of a world (or of people) I don’t always understand.
I write because it’s satisfying and often surprising to be taken on a journey by imaginary characters, into unfamiliar scenarios and behaviours.
In terms of where I write, I can write anywhere. As long as I have something to balance a laptop on and a reasonably comfortable chair to sit on, I can write. There’s no ritual, no lucky desk or chair of inspiration. So, the photo is of a number of places where I could easily write. And the list is always being added to…
You are a prolific writer working across multiple mediums and forms. How has the Covid-19 Pandemic affected you and your creative process?
It was clear from the beginning that the lockdown, and the continuing response to a global pandemic, was going to fundamentally change a world that relied on the physical gathering of human beings in close proximity, whether audience or performer.
But, pretty early on, I saw an opportunity to get work out to a wider audience. Admittedly, it’s not the same experience as sitting in a studio theatre, tightly-packed with an appreciative audience, breathing the same air and having a collective experience.
When Jordan Bernarde contacted me about re-staging BREATHE (to avoid him climbing the walls during the first lockdown), after a short and successful run at The Bread & Roses the year before, I jumped at the chance. And it’s success has shown that there’s an audience for online theatre.
Theatres talk a lot about diversifying their audience base and this provides the perfect opportunity to do just that. Anyone who might previously have been intimidated by physically visiting a venue, can now watch a performance online and maybe discover that it isn’t the inaccessible, exclusive experience they may have expected. And, from a writer’s perspective, there’s an entire planet’s worth of connected people looking for content. The challenge is standing out amongst the noise!
From my own point of view, there’s been a shift towards demand for more audio drama. I’ve been working on a new play for the Papatango prize, which this year will be awarded to three audio works. And I was commissioned at the end of last year to write a multiple choice audio drama, which would be navigated purely through using Alexa. Exciting stuff!
One of your latest initiatives is the new new YouTube-based spoken word project, ‘Short Stories for Stressed Grown-ups’
You’ve written a number of short stories, which you’ve also narrated yourself. This is how you’ve described the project:
“Remember when you were a kid? And how it felt to be all tucked up and have a story read to you? What a shame that, as adults, we don’t get to enjoy the sheer, indulgent escapism of those moments anymore. Well, now that’s changed. Short Stories for Stressed Grown-ups by Neil Neil is now live! So all you have do is find somewhere quiet, where you won’t be disturbed, and listen to an original short story that will transport you from the troubles of your day.
Whether you use it to help you get off to sleep, or to re-set in the middle of a busy day, every story is written just for you.”
What response have you had to this new area of writing and storytelling?
The short stories were a suggestion by a producer friend of mine, Simon Regan, who I’d worked with on an arts podcast, EVOLUTIONS, shortly before the pandemic kicked off
I was frustrated at the time it took to get work “out there” so he suggested I might do it myself.
I researched the short story market, as well as potential gaps in provision for audio content and I thought a combination of meditative and escapist character-based short stories, narrated in the style of a bedtime story, might work.
The response has been really encouraging. The audience has been very frank about what’s working and what isn’t, the real-time feedback giving me an opportunity to modify the style and content of each new story. I’m also keen to interact with the audience, using names for characters taken from contents pages and maybe asking for suggestions on story ideas and destinations.
It’s great to know, too, that these stories are temporarily distracting people from the stresses of their day and, in some cases, helping them sleep. I’m hoping my voice doesn’t have the same effect during face-to-face conversations, when we return to the “real” world!
In November your latest play GULL was read online by the team at The Far Away Plays. We think the Far Away Plays have been one of the highpoints of creative activity in Wales during the Pandemic. Have you had an opportunity to listen to any of the other Far Away Plays, play readings? And how was it to have your latest play produced on Zoom?
GULL was originally scheduled to be performed at WMC’s Ffwrnes Scratch night in March 2020, but then the world plunged into chaos. So I was thrilled when The Far Away Plays chose it for one of their online performances late last year. Their commitment to getting work out to online audiences, as well as dealing with all the logistical stages in between, has been immense.
I was also excited to be able to cast three incredible RWCMD alumni. Luke Nunn, Cecilia Appiah and Meredith Lewis were just some of the standout actors from 2020 and it was a real privilege to witness their brilliantly instinctive and nuanced performances, especially given the limited time they had to rehearse.
The director James O’Donnell also deserves a special mention. Having put a callout on social media for a director at late notice, James answered the call. The way he was able to take a potentially static medium and turn it into such a dynamic performance was miraculous. I always get really nervous before any production of my work, but it was clear within minutes that GULL was in safe hands, so I was actually able to sit back and enjoy it!
I’m waiting to hear from FAP if there’s a recording I might be able to share with all of the Artistic Directors who weren’t able to make it, because, as good as it was to see the work performed online, this play would (and this team!) clearly work brilliantly on stage.
There are a range of organisations supporting Welsh and Wales-based writers, I wonder if you feel the current support network and career opportunities feel ‘healthy’ to you? Is it possible to sustain a career as a writer in Wales and if not what would help?
“Healthy” might be a misleading term. The opportunities are available, but I wonder how writers are made aware of them. For opportunities, my go-to is BBC Writer’s Room Opportunities page. Then I check London Playwrights, which is another brilliant resource. I’m not sure if there’s a central database for opportunities in Wales. If not, it would be great to have one, where all aspects of writing were covered, plays, films, TV, etc.
Also, there are a number of theatres offering writer’s courses and residences, but there are rarely the resources available to sustain the momentum, once they’ve happened. I’ve been on three writer’s courses and one residency and none of these led to a tangible, ongoing relationship with the respective theatres.
In terms of sustaining a writing career, I think it’s important to diversify. I’m lucky to also be a freelance copywriter and graphic designer, but, even if I was commissioned to write three plays a year, the income generated wouldn’t be enough to sustain a family, mortgage and other regular day-to-day commitments. From what I can gather, to make any sort of living, TV writing seems to the way forward. Ideally I’d like to be able to do a bit of everything, though, as I’ve been lucky enough to so far.
If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?
I think a TV writing academy would be a valid investment now. As Wales becomes used increasingly as a destination for production, and companies like Bad Wolf continue to thrive, a joined up, sustained TV writing “lab” could help nurture home-grown talent and ensure Wales was increasingly self contained, moving forward. Especially given the increase in demand for content from online providers like Netflix and Prime.
What excites you about the arts in Wales?
Diversity. The sheer extent of opportunities to make and view art for a country with a reasonable small population. I’m hesitant to use the term, “punching above its weight”. Oh, too late. I have.
And then there’s always the occasional parallel universe curveball of one of Tactile Bosch’s performance art nights. That’s what first made me realise I was living in a capital city. Ah, I miss Kim Fielding. What a lovely man.
What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
There are so many things that have either left me speechless, laugh uncontrollably or made me cry, sometimes all at the same time.
I remember sitting down in my office (in the middle of the first lockdown), with headphones on, to watch Complicite’s “The Encounter”, and feeling within minutes as if I’d been transported to another world, by both the performance and its remarkable aural soundscape. Not sure if it’s still available to view online, but there’s more, here:
Charlie Kaufmann’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (on Netflix), whilst sometimes being incomprehensible, felt like a pure artist’s vision, unimpeded by the demands of people-pleasing. Maybe the best art is selfish. And this felt like that. But in the best possible way.
And no conversation (I say conversation, though this has all been a bit one way) with me goes without a music mention. The Dandy Warhols’ 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia has been my favourite album for years. And at the end of last year, they performed a live stream of it, in its entirety, for the first time. For that hour, I was there, front and centre, dancing like a kid in a sweet shop. The sweets being the songs. But not in jars. Obviously.
Anyway, that’s three. Because there’s never any shortage of great things to share.
Thanks for your time
And thank you for this brilliant opportunity to ramble.
Wales based writer Neil Bebber has recently launched a new arts Podcast.
EVOLUTIONS. Is an arts-based show, finding out about how artists started out, where they are and where they’re going. For the first episode, Neil has been lucky to be able to talk to Harry Holland, who was pretty inspiring and a lot of fun.
Many Welsh or Wales based arts graduates are finding this current period especially difficult. Their usual opportunities to meet agents, prepare for final year exhibitions or productions may take place later in the year or sadly not at all. To raise awareness of the diverse talent graduating this year GTC is offering any Welsh or Wales based graduate the opportunity to be showcased on our website. If you are interested, please do get in touch.
Hi Lewis great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
Hi, thanks for giving me this opportunity. I really appreciate it. I was born and raised in the South Wales Valleys in a little village called Cwm which is near Ebbw Vale. I’m just wrapping up my university degree now which is at the Atrium studying BA Theatre and Drama.
I was meant to be performing Frankenstein in May as a final show where I would be playing the role of The Monster but due to obvious circumstances that got cancelled. The creative team that I was working with on this project was a team of talents that I’ve known throughout my time at the university and I would definitely be interested in still doing this show as a non assessed piece. I have a Youtube channel that I share with my brother called ‘Silent Valley Productions’ where we upload projects we’ve worked on.
We are currently working on a 5 episode web-series thats been in development now for over two years, a very long process but one I’m sure that will be worth it in the end. I also love helping out with the media students with their projects, even though the budget isn’t Hollywood level, they’re all capable of making interesting and engaging stories, and that’s always fun to be a part of. I performed my first musical role in 2018 when I played Mr Sowerberry in Oliver with the theatre group i was with and had to perform my first live song. I also love playing on my PlayStation 4 in my spare time.
So, what got you interested in the arts?
Ive been acting now for about 4-5 years now. it was always a subject I got on well with in school and was really the only lesson I looked forward to. My drama tutors always saw something in me and encouraged me to take it further in my career, so without them I don’t think I would be where I am now. I was, and still am, a huge fan of Doctor Who and growing up I always wanted to play The Doctor and hope that one day i have the opportunity to fulfil this dream or even have a role in it. I always had a imaginative childhood, to this day I still have school friends come to me and say to me how creative I was and I think all of this put together is where I get my passion for it from.
Can you tell us about your creative process?
It really depends on what kind of project im working on. If its an acting role then I always find it easier to create a scrapbook and look for other characters that could help shape the image that I have for the particular role. I keep a scrapbook in my room for characters that I think are unique and ones that I think could be useful in a future project, so there’s something I always have to go back to and reference to if needed.
As a young Welsh artists graduating during a very difficult period what investment and support do you think is required to enable your career to develop and prosper?
I think the support has been really well all round on my behalf, with organisations like yourself giving opportunities which are really useful for people who are graduating to introduce ourselves to the rest of the industry. This situation should be taken to learn a new skill or start something you didn’t have the time to do in the past. At the moment I’m learning to play guitar and really pushing the pre-production for the series I mentioned earlier. I think it would be helpful if we used this opportunity to share these ideas and have different eyes review it.
A range of arts organisation and individuals are now working online or finding new ways to reach out to audiences. Have you seen any particularly good examples of this way of working?
I’ve seen quite a few opportunities arise on Twitter especially. Its My Shout is something that people should look into.
Normally filmed in the summer but now would be a good time to send them monologues and try to apply for their scheme. I’ve been gathering a list of agents from different companies like United Agents and Regan Management. Going back to what I said earlier I think creatives should also take this opportunity to look into uploading auditions and show reels on You tube. Most of what you see on YouTube don’t really have a budget or if they do its minimum, and they get 20 million views due to the entertainment quality. Its a site that hasn’t reached its peak yet and with projects getting 20 million views, I believe it’s the perfect opportunity to show off your talent. Now is the perfect time to start looking into it too.
If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?
Off the top of my head I can’t really think. Amateur productions are something that I think should be given a bit more of a funding as the copyright for a lot of shows are really expensive which then makes the budget for the set, theatre booking and costumes a lot more tighter than would it could be. I would like to see some kind of better funding go towards people who want to make short films too,Having known people being in that position, I understand it can be difficult pulling off projects with such small budgets. Some of the ideas I’ve heard of in the past have been really fascinating to hear about but due to the funding, they’re either put on hold or cancelled which is a bit disheartening, especially for the people in that position. So some kind of better funding to help those guys out.
What excites you about the arts in Wales?
The future of Wales is looking bright for sure! with massive Hollywood films like ‘Dolittle’ with Robert Downey Jr and ‘Infinite’ with Mark Wahlberg, it looks like Wales is finally getting noticed.
Along with the talent, schemes and ideas in Wales, the overall future is bright and I can’t wait to see what opportunities the future holds!
What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
There’s a few things that come to mind. I’ve seen quite a few live TV recording’s of ‘The Big Six Nations Kick Off with Gabby and Gareth’ I got the male lead to ‘A Vampire Story’ which was my first time doing a lead in a show. But what stands out the most to me is when I went to New York to see the musical version of King Kong, going to Ellens Stardust Diner, and looking at some of the incredible views from the skyscrapers!
I also went to the Welsh BAFTA’s where I got to speak to quite a few big producers, actors and actresses like Ioan Gruffudd, Eve Myles, Catrin Stewart and Mark Lewis Jones, so that was a pleasure to meet all of them and hear what successful professionals had to say.
In the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Robinson. The Other Island offers a multilayered way to rethink the book. Director Mathilde Lopez and John Norton, Artistic Director of the company Give it a Name, blend Robinson Crusoe with Michel Tournier’s Friday and convey a somber mood through an original sound experience, devised by John Norton and Jack Drewry. The play unfolds in our heads as we listen to the sounds, words, and music with headphones. Robinson is more than a play; it is a shared and intimate experience of reading and reflecting on solitude.
The Robinson Crusoe of Robinson. The Other Island (played by John Rowley) suffers a maddening loneliness alone on the Island, but lonely is also Bianca (played by Luciana Chapman), who reads Defoe’s and Tournier’s books. Bianca is alone in her flat, eating microwavable meals, trying to work out how to fix a leaking tap, hiding from her father, and yet seeking a connection with him. As Bianca reads about Robinson in our ears, it is also us who experience loneliness. Isolated from other members of the audience by headphones, yet establishing a connection with them as we watch and listen together. The drama is at times broken by the lively and funny interventions of book clubbers talking about Robinson Crusoe into the mics of Robinson and of Bianca. It is effective, although on opening night there were perhaps too many voices, rather than the one or two during rehearsals, thus losing intensity.
Robinson Crusoe’s misogyny, racism, and colonialism are not brushed under the carpet but take centre stage. They are tackled with humour, puzzlement, and even violence. At the words ‘I bought me a negro slave,’ Bianca gets angry in her anger she becomes Robinson. She orders to fetch the Governor’s coat (Robinson’s), smokes, and reads the horrendous passage where ‘negroes’ are things, tools of work, lesser humans. The colonial racism is juxtaposed with Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Whitey on the Moon,’
The 1970’s that contrasts the power of white man colonising the moon while black people have no money to pay the doctor’s bill. Bianca takes up a plank of wood and attacks Robinson breaking into the world she is reading about.
Bianca and Robinson interact only slightly. It
is a dance of two lonely people seeking connection and forgiveness. Robinson is
shown in his humanity: lonely, resourceful, exploring and observing the island,
fighting against his destiny, and begging for forgiveness. A soft music creates
intimacy. Bianca and Robinson sit together playing with dough like children and
like children the audience listens to the voice reading the book. In the week
when Jean Vanier, the founder of the community L’Arche, died, Robinson
reminds me of his teaching on loneliness:
‘Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart. … It is because we belong with others and see them as brothers and sisters in humanity that we learn not only to accept them as they are, with different gifts and capacities, but to see each one as a person with a vulnerable heart. We learn to forgive those who hurt us or reject us; we ask forgiveness of those we have hurt.’
Robinson is a meditative piece that stimulates thought and nudges us slightly towards compassion.
I am a podcast fan. I listen to podcasts on long journeys, while I’m cooking dinner, while I’m gardening and to help me off to sleep. There is a world of fascinating knowledge and stories out there that I can’t get enough of. The first of these, recommended to me by my son, is the encyclopaedic purveyor of unusual facts, 99% Invisible. Produced in Oakland, California it is part of the Radiotopia network and whilst rooted in the USA, has a truly international outlook. I find it delightful.
If you visit their website, the ‘about’ section tells us that “99% Invisible is about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” Fascinating enough, but it’s much more than that. To date there are 325 episodes that you can download, beginning in 2010 and carrying on to the present, they have covered what I consider to be everyday wonders of the world. If you haven’t listened to any of them yet, you’re in for a treat. I wish I could start from Episode 1 again – in fact I may well do that because there are many that I would like to hear again.
Each episode begins with an introduction from the velvety voiced Roman Mars, with the inevitable but very important messages from their sponsors (independent means they need the advertising). “I’m Roman Mars……” and proceeds to tell us about some fascinating thing that we’d really never thought about but might just observe now, like the way that large buildings are designed to make people behave in certain ways – in airports for instance in Episode 126: Walk This Way, and Episode 93, which tells us why we should always use the revolving doors.
Then there are my all-time favourites: Episode 160 Perfect Security reveals that “in the entire history of the world, there was only one brief moment, lasting about 70 years, where you could put something under lock and key — a chest, a safe, your home — and have complete, unwavering certainty that no intruder could get to it.” The story of Bramah, Chubb and the lock controversy of 1851 unfolds. Episode 164 tells us how the discovery of Bakelite helped to make the awful practice of creating billiard balls from elephant tusks come to an end – did you know that by the mid-19th century, elephants were being slaughtered for their ivory at an alarming rate, just to keep up with the demand for high-end billiard balls – no more than eight balls could be made from a single elephant’s tusks. Closer to home is Episode 316 The Shipping Forecast featuring interviews with that reassuring voice of Peter Jefferson that anyone who listened to his dulcet tones late at night in will appreciate.