scripts and microphones

Writer's Diary


THE GREAT LOS ANGELES OPPORTUNITY:

Writer's Diary: originally published in New Playwrights Trust Newsletter #105


William George Q is a young writer and singer. Here he tells how his first radio play, The Great Los Angeles Opportunity (LAOpp), came to be produced.


Beginnings

Late 1993 in Edinburgh, I wanted to write but had few ideas and little confidence. My best friend, Dallas, set me a topic: "Los Angeles? Great opportunity! Any chance you could help me out?" In a week I had the full synopsis and the opening scenes of a film script: how would LA react if Jesus turned up now (especially an ingenuous, black female Jesus)?

Then something else came up and I put it aside. Around this time I went along to a Writers' Guild Open Radio Day. A BBC producer there was most encouraging; I soon sent him an old over-written play from my college days. 1994, now in London, I saw a leaflet for the London Radio Playwrights' Festival. Timidly I went to an open workshop, where Tim Crook, founder of Independent Radio Drama Productions (IRDP) and Goldsmiths' College Head of Radio, spoke engagingly and encouragingly, and played us some classic radio drama.

I went home and took out my LAOpp notes. It was massively visual. But couldn't I turn that to my advantage? I chose a deadline: I'd enter it for IRDP's Woolwich Young Radio Playwrights' Competition in November. I scribbled the final scenes on the train back to London after a visit home, and got it off just in time.

The leaflet also advertised script surgeries: apply with story outline and sample dialogue. I sent off my favourite scene, where an old black blues singer preaches to the young heroine, not knowing that she is Jesus. I felt unusually confident. It was the best I could do. If they didn't like this, screw them.

But I heard nothing. Disappointed, I took a train to visit my girlfriend in Edinburgh. When I arrived she looked glum: IRDP had phoned to say I'd been chosen for the workshop. I phoned back, all prepared to be angry. Marja, their administrator, politely apologised for the late notice: the workshop was for my benefit, but if I couldn't be there, they'd set up a phone link with the studio.

Elated, I decided to go back down.

I arrived just in time to hear the two actors (brought in specially) reading it through. Tim Crook joked, "Any play called The Great Los Angeles Opportunity must be good." In the studio, I was all ready to explain motivations etc. But they needed no help. A couple of comments from Tim, and the second take was even better. He taped it for me, we all had pizza together, and I went home feeling like a writer.

March 1995, I got my old script back from the BBC producer: Not Interested. He made some withering, though accurate, comments.

LAOpp came back too. This was more disappointing. But the crit from IRDP's reader was fabulous: he'd loved it, picked up all the Dylan and Tom Waits references, and made shrewd suggestions: to cut a scene and go easy on the directions. He wrote, "Actors and producers can be trusted to interpret without excessive guidance, and they can reward a writer richly when allowed to do so."

Time to rewrite! A discipline I needed to learn. With a few friends, we held an unprepared reading. They liked it, found it surreal and amusing, though one of the characters (GABE) didn't seem to work as I'd envisaged him.

I sent it off, both to IRDP's other competition, The London Radio Playwrights' Festival, and to the same BBC producer up in Edinburgh.

The IRDP result was due in June. I had nothing else in the pipeline, and I'd finished the acting course that had brought me to London; if LAOpp came to nothing, maybe I should move on. I became nervous waiting for the postman each day. It was the end of June. I'd given up hoping. Then Marja phoned: I'd won.


Selection

The presentation. Wine and cheesey biscuits. Excerpts from the five winning plays: Tim has put an LA soundscape at the start of mine. Did I write this?! It doesn't seem funny to me, but people clap. They broadcast the feature on London Radio that week, including my excerpt and a little interview with me.

I put the cheque into the bank (full payment for 46 minutes worth of radio.) Now I really feel like a writer.

In August, I meet Tim for a business lunch, clutching notes on the blues/jazz music I wanted. I'm too nervous to order anything interesting. But we hardly talk about the script, instead chatting randomly about politics, creativity, the empire, etc. Wonderful. I like Tim.

William laughing

Over the next few months, I start to doubt that it'll ever happen, though IRDP drop me occasional notes saying they haven't forgotten me.

April 1996. Finally Tim has dates for the broadcast. We discuss casting over the phone. He says it's perhaps the best script he's ever worked on ... Is this just his natural enthusiasm getting the better of him? I can't tell.

I send out notes to all my friends, telling them to listen in.


Action

June 19. Three days to record it. Not possible to do the usual read-through, because we never have all the actors together. I hadn't realised I'd created a monster: 30 characters to be played by 10 actors; myriad different settings, some only for one line. I really had envisioned it as an aural movie. And, perhaps because I knew nothing about radio recording (beyond reading the Hitch Hiker's Guide radio scripts), I've not hesitated to include complex, ambitious sequences.

Goldsmiths' College studio. Coffee with a few of the actors; everyone is very complimentary about the script . I teach a song to one actress. She learns it straight off and we record it a capella; I'll sing the doowop backing vocals behind it later.

Shelaagh Ferrell, the main actress, arrives; I know her from our script surgery last March. To my relief, her scenes with GABE seem hilarious: the actor, Rupert Degas, has the clownish timing perfected; and his Jewish-New York voice is superb.

Outside recording: Rupert, Judith, William & Shelaagh

Tim likes to do things semi-realistic: we record lots outside, often waiting for British Rail trains to pass. The most complex scene is the Jazz Bar: Shelaagh and Rupert talk in an anechoic chamber; next door, with two musician friends I've roped in (Jamie West on guitar and Stik Cook on drums), I play live backing to some performance poetry; and Peter Guinness, the devilish Maitre D', moves from one room to the next. We do this in just two takes: it's not quite how I imagined it, but it's certainly fun.

How much input is expected from me? Tim says, if I have any comments, I should address them through him; this makes sense, though I'm used to talking to actors and have to hold myself back. I'm impressed by the way he lets the scenes flow, never correcting actors, but carefully choosing a few guiding words if he thinks they're missing something. He has cast all the roles perfectly, and he now gets fantastic performances out of the actors.

I've been listening to radio plays more recently. My main problem is with actors trying too hard, explaining everything through tone of voice. When we're allowed to work things for ourselves, it often seems more powerful.

The first and third days are immense fun; the second is full of tiny bitty scenes. With all the instruments lying around, the cast display their talents while waiting between scenes: we could have made it a musical ...

At the end of the third day, I ask if I can put the doowop backing vocals on that first song now. The studio manager says it's not possible; well, it's possible but very awkward; doesn't really need it, does it? We'd have had to multitrack it.

William and assistant director Judith Johnson discuss the script

Ah. Without the backing it won't be a doowop chorus, and won't work in the Rocky-style montage. My heart's sinking, but maybe it isn't important; and I hate to end on a note of complaint. It's late, and we all go home. Everyone has worked hard.

London Radio is changing its name back to LBC. Tim's IRDP hour is being shifted to medium wave. We've told lots of people to listen out to the last stereo fm slot on June 30. This leaves Tim just a week to edit, for most of which he's at a radio festival in Italy. Not ideal, but he says he'll do his best.

So the broadcast is my first hearing.

My brother is visiting from Australia; my mother's down in London to see him; we're with several of his friends and his baby daughter. While tuning in, we miss some of the set-up, and it's halfway through before they catch the thread. The adverts interrupting the flow are infuriating, but by the end the pace hots up nicely. Except ... some of the end is missing! The final tie-up has been cut, and the climactic sound effects don't convey the intended impression.

Everyone is very congratulatory. But as far as I can tell, only those who've read the script actually know what's happened. One friend even says to me, "Well done. I didn't understand any of it, but well done." Oh, no: it wasn't meant to be confusing! I had been worried it was all too obvious.

There's congratulations from Tim on the answerphone, with apologies that he had to make last minute cuts to fit the slot. But he thinks it's been a great success.

Taking a break between scenes: Shelaagh and Rupert

I'm not convinced, but decide to leave it a couple of days. Then I listen again to the tape I made off the radio. Some bits are better than I could have imagined, but others aren't as sharp as what I wrote. Am I being being too precious? I know writers shouldn't expect scripts to be followed exactly.

I call Tim. He says people are saying it was marvellous. Problems understanding? No! He's planning to repeat it on the new LBC 6pm Sunday Playhouse slot, in a fortnight's time. This seems to make it worthwhile commenting in detail. Can I send him my notes?

The more I listen, the more I'm amazed that he managed to edit it at all in such a short time: it's hugely complex. But I send off my notes anyway. Am I overstepping my place as a writer by voicing criticisms? To hell with it: I am trying to be constructive, I still think it's good; just, it could be better.

I meet with Tim. He goes through my notes, and says he'll tidy up a few bits if there's time. Most importantly he'll play it in two episodes, so no need for any cuts.

I tune in both weeks. Tim has created a fun new slot on LBC, "interviewing" Orson Welles as he introduces the plays. This seems to set up the atmosphere much better than before. And somehow, now that the whole thing's done, I feel happier about it. I listen more dispassionately and find it rather enjoyable.

I phone Tim and thank him for all his efforts. Apparently the Evening Standard reviewer loved it, but can't fit it into the paper. That's radio drama.


POST SCRIPTUM

While working on my next play, Tim plays me the LAOpp Dolby Surround Sound mix. I have to admit, it sounds good. Except that most people listen in mono...

And in September, that BBC producer returns my LAOpp script. I'd forgotten they still had it! He says: "I beg leave to suggest that the principal purpose of the script is to provide a vehicle to display your love of "The Blues" - and this is not the basis, I believe, for the writing of any play."




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