Scriptorium: Philip St John

10th June 2020

Philip St John writes fiction and drama. His plays include The Sylvia (Dublin, 2013 and Italy 2019), and Temptress (Dublin 2015, 2019). He has twice received Arts Council Literature bursaries. His first play Maxine (2011) won an International Theatre Forum Award and was performed in Germany and Manilla.

Clíona Ruiséil: What are you writing at the moment and has the pandemic affected your work?

Philip St John: I think I’ve found the pandemic less disruptive than many. I live with Laura Kelly, the artist, and we have both worked away quite steadily. We have no kids. Though the house is small, we can work in separate rooms. I’m used to a fairly solitary existence and, if anything, I’ve found the lack of the usual activity has freed me up. This may be the result of ignoring anything other than the page or screen in front of me, though. I’ve just thought, ‘It’s awful out there for now, so I’ll get on with things in here.’ Increasingly over the last few weeks, talking to other writers, I’ve become aware of the challenges facing all the arts in the near to medium future. It’s going to be rough!

I’m a writer of fiction as well as a playwright and I go from one to the other but in the last year I’ve concentrated largely on a novel which I will be finishing very soon (friends will tell you this is a familiar refrain). However, I did apply for the special Covid award from the Arts Council and was awarded funds to write a one act play which can be performed—most likely as a staged reading—under lockdown conditions. It’s set in a kitchen. A woman calls to the house intent on removing from it the ghost who has driven away many previous owners—an invisible ten year old boy. Matthew Ralli will direct his partner Melissa Nolan as the woman and Carl Kennedy, sound-designer and performer, will create the invisible boy. It’s a few years now since I first had the idea but when the award call went out, the play came back to me as it felt resonant: an invisible, perhaps fatal, threat lurking in what is normally a safe environment.

So far I’ve written a rough draft. I try to write drama fast and in a relaxed and even slightly distracted state, with loud music playing, for instance. Often I will lie down and scribble long hand on an A-four booklet, sometimes one I have already used. I’ll squeeze the writing into the margin. All this helps drown out the voice telling me ‘You are now writing and it’s not very good.’ And if it’s not going well, I can still enjoy Joni, Miles, Dylan, Zeppelin or the Stones.

CR: It sounds like you like to get a first draft done quickly. Do you spend much time (whether for a play or a novel) planning, structuring or researching before you start writing?

PS: The novel is set in Ireland in WW2. It’s about an encounter between a Nazi agent and an adventurous Dublin jazz band. Though I love jazz, I can’t play an instrument or really understand musical terms, and I’m no historian. So I’ve had to do a lot of research. With a bursary from Wicklow Arts Office, I went to Berlin for a week and visited places I thought might be useful. I talked to Ronan Guilfoyle the jazz bassist and he recommended a book that was really useful in getting to grips with the technicalities of advanced 1940s jazz. Then I read loads of history about Ireland at the time and Europe in general. I also got in touch with some specialists who helped me with various other matters that crop up in the story. So yes, for the novel: lots of research.

My plays are pure invention, so zero research. After the rapid first draft, I work on it for a while, then I might show it to a director and perhaps have it workshopped.

Recently, in a departure from my usual practice, I’ve been researching the short life of my great-uncle Herbert Conroy who fought in GPO in 1916 and was subsequently attached to assassination squads. It was pretty eye-opening, even shocking to discover—fairly recently—just what he had been involved in. So I’m exploring his life for what may be documentary theatre, or a form which combines that with fiction. Or I might turn it into a book.

CR: Many scriptwriters feel that there aren’t enough opportunities here to make a living. Are there any particular aspects of writing that you find difficult, whether that be from a practical, craft or earning a living point of view?

PS: Well, earning what a sane person would call a living would be great!…I’ve just about survived through thrift (our car recently reached its 21st birthday), the exhausting business of applying here and there for funds, and luck. But I have moved towards movies in the last couple of years. I sold the screen rights for my play Temptress last year and am currently working with an Irish director on a series aimed at Netflix (as is everyone else). Artists need to be supported with a minimum guaranteed income. Look how hungrily our citizens have turned to culture in the present crisis. Our leaders should stop regarding art as a luxury like cake – it’s bread.


Scriptorium means a place for writing – so this is a place for you to discuss your work, your views on writing in general, your thoughts on the industry and anything else you’d like to mention. You can focus on a script that you’ve written which was produced during the last year, or one you’re currently writing. We hope you enjoy this series and look forward to hearing what you think of it. We welcome in particular writers who may have an unusual or atypical experience of scriptwriting in Ireland in terms of their ethnicity, gender, age, physical ability, socio-economic background or other life experience.

Bheadh áthas orainn freisin a chloisteáil ó scríbhneoirí le Gaeilge gur mhaith leo an agallamh a dhéanamh trí Ghaeilge.

If you’d like to participate simply email:

Write a Comment