James McDermott is the scriptwriter behind a pioneering new play which aims to bring TV soap style drama to two Norfolk seaside promenades in April. Here he talks about binge watching EastEnders, teaching creative writing on Zoom and exploring his poetic side in lockdown
Up until March 2020, my life had been spent working in theatres, teaching writing in schools and drinking Corona beer in pubs. Since March 2020, because of Coronavirus my life has been spent working from home, teaching on Zoom and pining for pubs, schools and theatres!
My play ‘Time and Tide’ ran at Park Theatre in London throughout February and we were hoping to tour it later in the year. I had three other new plays set to open and my debut poetry collection, ‘Manatomy’ was being published with an accompanying book tour in summer. Whilst ‘Manatomy’ was released as planned in August, the book tour, the tour of ‘Time and Tide’ and the openings of my three new plays were all postponed.
The first lockdown was initially terrifying but ultimately bearable as it was summer so I could walk and run. I managed to write lots, too, once I learnt to turn off 24-hour news and find a structure to my day. The second and third lockdowns have been harder as winter weather has meant I haven’t been able to walk and run as much but I’ve still been able to keep busy, writing in the mornings and teaching on Zoom in the afternoons. Pre lockdown, I was always working towards future goals. In lockdown, walking lots and writing for writing’s sake has allowed me to live in the present moment, reflect on the past and fret less about the future.
I’ve found myself walking in rural Norfolk more than ever before and this has inspired me to write about the Norfolk landscape and nature, something I haven’t previously explored in my writing. I’ve found it difficult to write plays, as they tend to be about people going on journeys, something I haven’t been able to do in lockdowns, but I’ve written lots of poems which have helped me reflect on the past and process the present. Lockdowns have also impacted on my output as a writer. I’m pretty prolific anyway as I write everyday but not having to be in rehearsals or on trains has given me the space and time to write even more.
In lockdowns, I’ve been watching lots of EastEnders in preparation for a job on their Writers Scheme in which scriptwriters are trained to write on the soap. Binge-watching Enders made me want to write a play with lots of characters and a plot full of twists and turns in the hope of making theatre that will be as gripping as tele, to entice audiences off streaming services and back to attending live events when they can.
I first met director Marcus Romer in 2017 when we worked together on a digital theatre project at West Suffolk College. Since then, we’ve collaborated on several shows and have become great friends. We have a similar sense of humour, a mutual love for stories and a shared passion for working with and learning from young people. With every project we do, Marcus galvanises me and mentors me to write something bigger and bolder than we’ve made together before. I love that.
In December, Marcus and I spent several days in Sheringham and Great Yarmouth eating chips(!) and searching for locations for the play. The script was written with these places in mind. We wanted the play to feel like it accurately reflects Norfolk coastal towns. February will be spent auditioning actors on Zoom before beginning rehearsals on the same digital platform. We’re hoping the show can then open in April.
Audience members will gather on the prom and each be given a head set. The cast will then emerge and lead the audience to various locations where the scenes will unfold. The actors will be mic-ed up so the audience can keep their distance and hear the dialogue through the headsets.
For the rest of the year, I’m continuing training on the EastEnders Writers Scheme and will hopefully get to write my first episode of the soap in the near future. I’m also writing new plays for Mercury Theatre, Norwich Playhouse, Revoluton Arts, New Wolsey Ipswich and UEA; developing TV projects with Big Talk and Ranga Bee Productions; and I am editing my new poetry collection which will be released in 2022.
Ghosted will be staged in April by St George’s Theatre in Great Yarmouth and Sheringham Little Theatre in a joint venture partly funded by the government’s cultural recovery fund. The production will see the action unfold on the promenades at Great Yarmouth and Sheringham – while the audience wears headsets to get audio snippets that add to the twists and turns of the plot. For details of Ghosted and other shows coming up at the Little Theatre and St George’s please visit the websites. Also, visit jamesmcdermottwriter.weebly.com or Twitter: @jamesliammcd. His poetry collection ‘MANATOMY’ is published by Burning Eye Books. You can purchase copies here.
(Feature image picture credit: Abi Bansal)