Scriptorium: Philip St John

10th June 2020 by admin

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.

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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: info@script.ie.

A Tribute to Liam O’Neill by WGI Board Member Joe O’Byrne

8th June 2020 by admin

LIAM O’NEILL
(21st May 1956 – 29th May 2020)
An Appreciation

The recession of the 1980’s was a difficult time in the history of Ireland, forcing countless people to emigrate. But there were also very many who didn’t, because they had ideas, plans, dreams, and were prepared to live through the straitened times, and fight to make a contribution to the country’s regeneration. One of those was Liam O’Neill. His strong sense of commitment may have been due to the fact that he was born in Chicago, American first generation Irish, his mother returning to Dublin with Liam and his siblings in 1968, when Liam was twelve. Liam did his secondary schooling here, then went to UCD to study philosophy and psychology, funding his student years by heading to Alaska in summertime to fish on trawlers.

Clearly his first Arts degree wasn’t going to get him a job in early 1980’s recession Ireland, but he always had the dream of becoming a filmmaker. So he applied to the Dun Laoghaire Art College – now the National Film School – and was accepted onto its fledgling film course. Liam was one of its first graduates and he emerged in the mid 1980’s as a budding director, writer, cinematographer, at a time when there was next to no film industry here.

But there were a lot of ideas, plans, and ambitions in the air despite the recession. Many organisations would emerge, and Liam was always a formative part of them. For four years in the early 1990s Liam was chairman of Film Base, the filmmakers’ resource centre, which was followed by participation on the Board of Media Desk. These organisations in their own way contributed to the opening up of the Irish film industry and the energy behind them were part of the impetus for the re-constitution of the Irish Film Board (now Screen Ireland) in 1993. He conceived and co-founded IFTN, the Irish Film and Television Network, which to this day is an important information resource centre for the film and television business. Liam contributed a huge amount of energy and time to these enterprises on a voluntary basis, and they are an important part of the early chapter of the history of our current media landscape.

Aside from his general commitment to the industry, Liam had his own talent and ambition to foster. While developing his early film projects, he also spread his creative wings further than film, and worked with Co-Motion Theatre Company for a number of years, producing, directing, doing lighting design and photography, and was involved with a number of key productions at the Dublin Theatre Festivals between 1988 and 1991, which included “The Ghost of Saint Joan”, “The Sinking of the Titanic”, and “Vlad the Impaler”, which he directed.

As the landscape for film improved, Liam set up Paradox Pictures in 1990, and produced a significant number of feature films, including “Pete’s Meteor”, which premiered as part of the Berlinale 1998, “How Harry Became a Tree”, premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival 2001, and “Separation Anxiety. Liam was always prepared to produce and help other filmmakers get their films made, just as while a student he reached out to students in the years below him in a respectful and inclusive way, and later as a lecturer he brought the same qualities to his teaching work at various institutions such the National Film School, NCAD, and the Dundalk Institute of Technology.

But his own first love was directing and writing, and his credits include “Frankie and Johnnie”, “The Barber Shop”, “Northern Lights”, “Lost and Found”, and most recently “Danny Boy”, and “Kathleen”. When he fell ill Liam was preparing to shoot the film he co-wrote, “The Spectator”, and was completing the development of a feature film script, “Hiding in Plain Sight”, that he intended to direct.

Liam brought great commitment and generosity to his work with and for other people, but he was also a man with a strong sense of social and political commitment, of which his creative work was a part. He was also a joyous person to work with, and there are many who will remember with fondness time spent in his company even in the middle of the enormous stress that production in the media business can generate. Liam fought his way through those situations with determination and good humour, and even when he got his diagnosis of Covid-19 while a patient in St. Luke’s General Hospital, Kilkenny, for an unrelated medical condition, his sense of humour didn’t desert him, and he called his situation a “Comedy of Errors”. He fought the virus bravely for three weeks, but unfortunately succumbed on Friday 29th May at the age of 64. He will be missed terribly by his partner Annabel, and their children Ben and Ella, and by the many people who have been the recipient of his friendship and generosity over the many decades he was active in the media business. As Liam wrote in his rushed last post on Facebook when he was about to be intubated, his final written words: “See you on the other side”.

Survey Results

27th May 2020 by admin

We recently asked members to complete a survey in a bid to get a complete and up-to-date assessment of what you, our members, want from your Guild. Using this survey you told us what specific areas or activities you would like us to focus on. The results below will enable us to make decisions that will best serve your needs and provide you with the maximum benefit from your membership.

You can read the results of the survey here.

Scriptorium: Maura McHugh

27th May 2020 by admin

Picture by Maura McHugh

Maura McHugh lives in South Galway, and writes across media, including short fiction, comic books, novellas, plays, and screenplays. Her recent collection is The Boughs Withered (When I Told Them My Dreams), and the novella Psyche, which is set in the 2000 AD comic book universe.

Clíona Ruiséil: What are you working on at the moment and has your work been affected by Covid-19?

Maura McHugh: Currently I’m working on several prose projects and video game dialogue, which were contracted prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, and I’ve another comic book script to write soon. Later I’ve a screenplay to write.

Like most people my life has been spun around by the new regulations regarding COVID-19. In relation to work: all the festivals, conferences, and engagements I had lined up were cancelled. Since much of my social interactions with fellow writers happens at these events it was a series of sad blows. Yet, now I’m seeing festivals moving to virtual platforms. One of my cancelled gigs was a panel discussion at Cymera, Scotland’s Festival of Science-Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, which has now become a public Zoom event. I also participated in a virtual ‘Poets’ Breakfast’ for the Kinvara Arts Festival, Fleadh na gCuach a couple of weeks back.

Despite all the disruptions, including having to care for elderly parents who are cocooning, my work has been continuing, although I had quite a dip in creativity for a period as we adjusted to the new regime. I’m working from home alongside my husband now which brings its own set of challenges! But I’m grateful for all my advantages, in particular that I have high-speed fibre broadband at home – we couldn’t manage without it.

CR: The added stress is something everyone could relate to I imagine, but are writers better prepared to deal with this kind of crisis as they are generally used to dealing with uncertainty and in a practical sense, working from home?

MM: Definitely understanding how to work from home as a freelancer helps, and we are more used to long spells of introverted work. Yet that also means our social outlets are vital. We’re all trying to find new ways to connect with colleagues, friends and family now, and that’s leading to interesting developments. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of being a writer during this crisis is having a well-developed imagination!

CR: Tell me about your radio play and the challenges involved in writing it compared to say, the video games or comic books you’ve written?

MM: The radio play started life as a two-act science fiction rom-com drama I wrote called The Love of Small Appliances, which was selected to be part of Waking the Feminists West New Play Reading at the Galway Theatre Festival. That process had been super useful, as my work was read by several dramaturges, and I sat in on the cast rehearsal of the play with the director. Witnessing it produced live with audience feedback was invaluable. I had the idea in my mind that it could make a good radio play, and when I saw a call for work for the NearFM audio drama series I sent the script, and was delighted it was accepted.

One of the things I enjoy doing is figuring out the core strengths and unique qualities of each medium I work in. With radio it’s all about the characters and their individual voices in a very pure sense. It’s eyes-closed drama, so the characters have to be vibrant and real immediately, and ideally it requires excellent voice acting. It’s also a medium that allows for the exploration of ideas and deep introspection. Lisa Tierney-Keogh was the script adviser and she gave me some useful pointers, and the producer, Paul Loughran, was supportive. Director Nicola Murphy was helpful, conscientious, and worked really well with the cast, who brought a wonderful humanity to the characters, including the non-human ones! Then you need good sound engineering and post-production, and Gavin Byrne worked tech magic.

The reason I’m going to pains to describe everyone involved is that a great team elevates every script. All the media I work in – even prose – requires a supportive team. Unfortunately, sometimes it just doesn’t pull together as well as you’d like. The more I write the more I’m grateful to everyone who collaborates with me to create the best possible story experience for the audience.

CR: Are there any particular themes, issues or character types that interest you?

MM: I think a lot about identity, how we form it, what is integral to us, and how that is challenged or transformed depending on circumstances. I pay attention to technology and the innovative ways we integrate it into our lives. I consider future uses and what that may mean to us as a species. I tend to write horror, science fiction or fantasy so most of these cultural and individual concerns, fears or joys are expressed through those genres.

CR: The screenplay you’re going to write – what can you tell me about it?

MM: It’s a science fiction psychological thriller with the working title of Ardent, which is set in the future when the Earth is on the verge of environmental collapse. We may be capable of escaping the planet, but can humanity escape the dark obsessions that have led us to disaster? I’m indebted to Galway County Council for giving me an award under the Artist Support Scheme 2020 to help me write the script. I conceived the story some years ago with Greg Day, and Canadian writer/director Danishka Esterhazy (Level 16, The Banana Splits Movie) is now attached as director.

CR: Why do you write?

MM: I’m constantly imagining new worlds, peculiar people and strange situations, so writing is a great way to experiment with the scenarios and exorcise them from my brain!

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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: info@script.ie.

Scriptorium: Christian O’Reilly

13th May 2020 by admin

Credits – feature film: ‘Inside I’m Dancing’, ‘Sanctuary’; TV – ‘Doctors’, ‘Casualty’, ‘Holby City’, ‘Deception’, ‘Red Rock’; theatre  – ‘Chapatti’, ‘Here we are again still’, ‘Is this about Sex?’, ‘The Good Father’.

Clíona Ruiséil: What are you working on at the moment?

Christian O’Reilly: I’m juggling a few projects at present, including a stage play called ‘Unspeakable Conversations’, which is based on a New York Times magazine article by wheelchair-user Harriet Johnson. The article describes her clash with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who argued that it should be legally permissible to euthanise disabled infants. I initially tried writing the play as a piece of verbatim theatre, edited together from her article and her email correspondence with Peter Singer. In more recent months, following two workshops, I realised that the verbatim form wasn’t really working and have had to explore it as a more conventional play. I’ve got a great cast to work with – disabled actors Liz Carr and Mat Fraser – and I’ve also got funding to stage the play, but everything is now in limbo due to Covid 19. We had planned to stage it in September at the Mermaid theatre, followed by Dublin Fringe Festival and Belfast International Arts Festival, but those plans are now in doubt.

I’ve also just finished the first draft of a new screenplay.

CR: You have written both plays and films. How do you feel about the available supports or funding for playwrights versus screenwriters in this country? And in terms of the craft, do you prefer one or the other?

COR: I think screenwriting is quite well supported, thanks to Screen Ireland. The application requirements make sense because your application is assessed on the strength of your idea, its potential for cinema, your writing and the extent to which you can craft a story for the screen. They have recently changed their guidelines and seem to no longer want full-length scripts, which is interesting and presents a new challenge to someone like me who would always have submitted full-length first drafts in the past. But funding for screenplays is also extremely competitive and there is the sense that it’s increasingly competitive.

In terms of theatre, there are also supports and funding available to playwrights, through the Arts Council. But I find the Arts Council application process is generally more time-consuming and more complicated. Also, you can’t simply apply for funding to write a play. And if you submit a play for development or production funding, the play itself is not assessed. Instead, the Arts Council weighs up things like the quality of the idea presented in the application, artistic merit of the idea, feasibility in terms of a realistic budget, the level of support from other artists or from venues and councils. And when you apply for such funding, you are in the position of being the lead applicant, i.e. producer. This is an added responsibility and one that many playwrights don’t have the experience or skills for.

In terms of the craft, sometimes I prefer writing plays and other times screenplays. It varies.

CR: What can you tell us about the new screenplay you’re currently working on?

COR: It’s a science fiction comedy set during the end of the world. The planet is dying due to climate change, there’s only enough food for five years and suddenly a deep voice booms from the sky. It’s God, decrying mankind for destroying the planet and announcing his retirement. From now on, it’s up to us to decide who gets into Heaven. The government drafts an Afterlife Access Act and the contract for Celestial Access is awarded to a corporation, which markets Heaven as a holiday destination for the rich, through a service called Transitional Assistance (assisted suicide). Pretty soon, everyone wants to leave this life for the next… all except one man, who believes life is for living.

It’s an idea I’ve been working on for a long time, but the Covid 19 situation has helped me to better imagine a future world in which climate collapse has also taken place. I’ve got another new screenplay on the go, but it’s not developed enough to pitch. I’m still at that point of having absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not.

CR: Which writer or writers do you admire and why?

COR: Right now I’m loving ‘Normal People’, which is based on Sally Rooney’s beautiful novel, and adapted for TV by her and Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe. It has such emotional truth to it, the characters feel so real and it feels like it’s capturing something so authentic. It’s also a really great love story.

I recently loved watching ‘Fleabag’ by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and ‘Pure’ by Kirstie Swain. I loved the characters, who felt so flawed, so real, so funny and so vulnerable.

In the past I have loved the writing on shows like ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Crown’.

As a child, I loved ‘Peanuts’ by Schultz. Snoopy was my hero, but I identified more with Charlie Brown.

The first novel I fell in love with was ‘Catcher in the Rye’ by JD Salinger. I found it so sad and so funny.

I love ‘Whistle in the Dark’ by Tom Murphy, ‘Sive’ by John B Keane and ‘Translations’ by Brian Friel.

I love the writing in ‘Pure Mule’, ‘Bachelors Walk’, ‘The Young Offenders’, ‘Derry Girls’, ‘Love/Hate’.

I love to encounter great, driven characters who feel like real people.

I admire numerous writers, too many to list here!

CR: Apart from increase the available work and funding for writers, what can the industry do to better support writers?

COR: In an ideal world, we as Irish writers wouldn’t be so dependent on funding/income from Screen Ireland, the Arts Council and RTE. It would be great to work internationally, whether that be in TV, film or theatre. The UK is an obvious market for television work because so much TV is produced over there. So, if there was a way the industry here could help Irish writers connect with UK production companies and broadcasters, that could help – though, to be fair, there are no real barriers to entry when it comes to TV in the UK. Likewise, I think we need ways of accessing streaming services like Netflix as possible destinations for our projects.

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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: info@script.ie.