An edited transcript from the Writers’ Guild podcast, November 2010
Writers' Guild podcasts can be found at http://writersguild.libsyn.com and also on iTunes.
An interview with Roy Williams by Darren Rapier
Darren Rapier: You studied writing at Rose Buford College from 1992-95 – what led you to take that course?
Roy Williams: As long as I can remember I’ve always been interested in storytelling. I’ve always loved being told stories and writing stories. So I think the writer in me was always there. I just think, as with most young people, it took me a while to get the life experience and think ‘I want to be a writer’. I was in my mid-twenties, wasn’t doing much, so the time seemed write to go back to school, as it were. I wanted to see more plays, read more plays and soak myself in theatre.
DR: And did the degree course help your writing?
RW: Those sort of courses can’t teach you how to write. They can only sharpen your skills and that’s what I wanted. I knew I had a raw talent but I needed some finesse and the course helped. The most useful thing was studying the greats: Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare and the like – and stealing from them!
DR: Your first full-length play was The No Boys Cricket Club – how did that come about?
RW: It was the play I had to write at the end of my degree course and my tutor, Gilly Fraser, really liked it and thought it was worth sending it to some theatres. So I sent it unsolicited to the Royal Court, Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Hampstead Theatre to see what they thought, and Stratford East took it up for a reading and then a full performance, which I was thrilled about. That led to another commission and I also got a commission from the Royal Court, and things sort of snowballed from there.
DR: Do you think it was more difficult then than now to make that sort of breakthrough?
RW: I was quite naive at the time, and just excited that these theatres were taking an interest in me. I just went with it and enjoyed it.
DR: And you also got a radio commission?
RW: Yes, through a scheme called First Bite for writers new to radio. I don’t think the BBC does it any more but they should because a lot of good writers came through it.
DR: And did you plan what you did after those initial commissions?
RW: Not really, I just went with it. There was more-or-less one commission after another. I did Lift Off with the Royal Court, a play with the Tricyle and then got a start with TV as well.
DR: At that time how many black writers were there being commissioned?
RW: Not many – certainly not as many as there are now. The only visible black writer when I was starting out was Winsome Pinnock, who was a real inspiration.
DR: Do you think that made it harder for you or easier?
RW: For me personally it didn’t make much difference. I knew what I wanted to be and was getting commissions. I was aware how difficult it was to be a black actor but it made me more determined to write plays, and, ideally, plays for black actors.
DR: Quite a few of your plays, right from the start, have relatively large casts – was that something you were concerned about in terms of getting them staged?
RW: Not really. I think again that’s where my naivety showed. Writers at that time weren’t encouraged to write for large casts, but I just wrote my first play for my degree without worrying about some future production. Interestingly, Paul Everett, who was the literary manager at Stratford East, said that the large cast was what initially drew him to the play; everyone else was writing things that were very intimate but nothing that really took over the stage, and he thought my play did that. Thankfully there does seem to be more willingness from theatres now to stage larger-scale plays by new writers – I was really excited to see Earthquakes In London by Mike Bartlett recently, which completely took over the Cottesloe at the National Theatre in London.
DR: So you think attitudes among producing theatres have changed?
RW: Yes, I think they want writers to be daring. Not just with scale, but with content. Whether that will continue to be the case once the cuts kick in, we’ll have to wait and see.
DR: So after the first theatre commissions and the radio, what was the next big thing?
RW: My debut at the National Theatre was quite exciting.
DR: Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads – another big play.
RW: Yeah, I didn’t have anyone saying ‘You can’t do that’, I just wrote it. Fallout, my first play on the main stage at the Royal Court, was also quite significant for me.
DR: When you write a play, do you have a space in mind?
RW: I do now. When Ian Rickson commissioned me for the Royal Court main house he took me there and told me to feel the space, which I did, and I’m really grateful to him for that.
DR: Presumably another significant step for you was adapting Fallout for TV.
RW: Yes, it did quite well at The Royal Court so there was a lot of interest, which was exciting. Converting a stage play into a script was a challenge and in a slightly perverse way I got quite into cutting lines from my own play because in TV or film so much can be said in a close-up just from a character’s expression. Another big difference from theatre is that a film can be completely rewritten in the edit – whole scenes can be moved around.
DR: How much influence did you have over editing?
RW: Some, but not much; so many people are involved. It was a little bit frustrating but not too bad, and much better than what I’ve heard from other writers, who have had hellish times.
DR: Of course, you do get a bigger audience than in a theatre, but not the immediate response of a live audience.
RW: That’s right. Fallout was seen by about two million people on TV, which was great. It is a bit odd not having the excitement of a live show; I like to watch the audience when I’m in a play of mine, you can learn a lot from that. When my play Days Of Significance was done by the Royal Shakespeare Company I realised from the audience reaction that the final act wasn’t working, they were confused by it, and I completely rewrote it when it was revived a year later.
DR: Are you planning to do more TV and film now?
RW: I’d like to do more TV, yes. It’s a great medium and some of my favourite dramas have been on TV. And I’d love to write a film, but don’t ask me what – I’ll know when I come across it; although I am in talks about adapting my play Sucker Punch. But I don’t want to leave theatre.
DR: Do you ever write anything on spec any more?
RW: I haven’t done for quite a while. I’d like to, just to see what happens, but I haven’t had time.
DR: Do you think it’s possible to survive these days purely as a theatre writer?
RW: It’s possible but extremely, extremely hard. Much as I love theatre, everyone knows it doesn’t pay very well. Although there’s that old saying: you can’t make a living but you can make a killing. But if all I cared about was money, I’d get a regular job.
DR: Do you feel the pressure of past success when you have a new play on?
RW: Yes, but that’s the same as anyone in any job. I try to take the Alex Ferguson approach – forget about what’s gone before, you’ve got to keep going forward. And much as I hate Man Utd and Ferguson, he’s right about that. So there is pressure but that’s how it should be. I want to improve, and to learn each time I write a play. And I can still learn as much from a first-time writer as I can from people like Arthur Miller and August Wilson. I saw Spur Of The Moment at the Royal Court recently, written by a 17-year-old (Anya Reiss) and it was absolutely brilliant – such depth and complexity – and I came out really inspired by it.
DR: I know you go into schools from time to time, how do young people react to your plays now?
RW: They tell me they’re still relevant and it’s very flattering when people choose to study my plays for GCSE.
DR: Do you think it’s important for plays to have a message, whether for young people or anyone else?
RW: I think those sort of things are side-orders. The most important thing is the story. That’s the writer’s main responsibility. For me there are five key things when I see a play: I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to think, I want to be captivated and I want to feel. And that’s what I aspire to when I write.
DR: Going back to TV, I know that you’ve recently been working on Law And Order UK.
RW: It’s very different from theatre – it has established characters written by other people. But I’m really keen to learn more about TV and this was a good chance.
DR: Are you treated differently in TV?
RW: Yes, slightly. Because theatre is the writer’s medium whereas TV is more director-led and committee-led. But not many writers buy into that because that’s just the way it is.
DR: And what of your future ambitions?
RW: I’d like to get closer to writing a film. But mainly I want to continue doing what I’m doing, and with the cuts coming it’s going to be harder for writers to make a living, and we’re not that well paid anyway.
DR: I know that you’re working on a play about Marvin Gaye at the moment.
RW: Yes, I’m quite excited about that. It’s dealing with the last days of his life and is quite complicated and a moving story. It’s a challenge, but that’s what I look for.