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In Conversation with Playwright Duncan Macmillan

Photo of Duncan Macmillan

Award-winning playwright Duncan Macmillan, writer of People, Places & Things, talks to us about the writing and development of this extraordiary play.

Can you tell us a little about the process of writing People, Places and Things. Why did you write it?

 It was a confluence of a number of things, one of which was the subject matter and what I perceived of as an inaccuracy in the way addiction is usually treated in popular culture.

Our culture tends to glamorise or stigmatise addicts, make them into morality tales or victim narratives or punch-lines, or otherwise ignore the realities of addiction, both for the addict and those around them. I wanted to write about the process of recovery which is something which tends to be underrepresented in discussions of addiction also a subject which is fraught with controversy and debate. The more I looked into it the more I struggled with some of the central aspects of the support structures offered for addicts.

I found the whole area irreconcilably contradictory, morally, intellectually and emotionally. I wrote the play, in part, as a way of grappling with that contradiction and to find a form for my anxieties and uncertainties on the issue.

On a more practical level, there also seemed to me to be a worthwhile challenge in focusing on recovery. It seemed to me that one of the reasons recovery isn’t always dealt with accurately in popular culture is that it inherently rejects the kind of narrative structure that drama craves – we want a beginning, middle and end with a cathartic pay-off that provides meaning and a clear message. The reality of recovery is that it’s an on-going process with no end. It’s a daily struggle for your whole life.  That seemed to me to be a provocative challenge as a writer – to create something without a beginning, middle and end which rendered its content inaccurate or exploitative, but which could deliver a satisfying whole story to an audience.

One of the appeals of this, as a writer, is that it is not just about what it says about addiction, it goes beyond that.  What is it like to be alive now?  What is it to negotiate who we are from one moment to another, from one conversation to another. What strategies do we employ to carry on with our day? What is it to find a tribe? These are all huge existentialist questions.

I wanted the play to be subjective in its form. I knew early on that I wanted it to chart the experience of a central protagonist, that that protagonist should be a woman and that we should see and experience everything from her perspective. I very self-consciously wanted to get away from the default starting-point of a male protagonist and it didn’t feel particularly justifiable for me to simply present a woman from a place of objective judgement while she goes through a personal, private hell. I wanted us to be with her the whole way, to find a way to stage the sensory, emotional and physical extremes she is going through.

Quite apart from the central issue of addiction, I wanted to write a story about mothers and daughters. Stories of fathers and sons are, in some ways, the backbone of American and British drama but stories about mothers and daughters are depressingly rare.  I also wanted the play to pass the Bechdel Test (where at least two named women talk to each other about something other than a man). I wanted the central conflict to be gender-neutral and not revolve around wanting to get married or finding the right man.

What was the research process like? 

A huge amount of research went into the production. Neil Brener from the Priory has been particularly supportive of the production.  We’ve been taken into meetings, heard people’s life stories. There has also been a lot of accidental research too. The play has one of those titles which will mean nothing to most people but it will mean something very specific to a very particular group of people. I’ve had instances where I’ve been in conversation, for example in the queue at an airport or chatting to a hairdresser, where I’ve told someone the title and they’ve shown me a tattoo on their forearm or told me how many years they’ve been sober.

It’s been quite galvanising to hear such brave conversation and the people I’ve spoken to have been incredibly generous with what they’ve told me about their lives. There’s a huge responsibility which comes with dealing with something that effects so many people. Everybody is connected to addiction in some way, whether it’s themselves, a neighbour, a sibling, a partner. There’s a moment, as a writer, when you embark on a project and suddenly realise the weight of responsibility to deal with the issue accurately, respectfully and without sentiment.

We’d worked closely with a clinic in Catford and we invited the people we met there to the final Preview in the National’s Dorfman theatre. There’s a moment in the play where Denise’s character makes a phone call to find a meeting and someone in the audience shouted out good girl!   It was someone from Catford. That was essentially press night for us. That we’d accurately represented them was all we could have hoped for.

It’s a serious topic but it has a lot of humour. Was that intentional? 

It was absolutely deliberate. We need to be able to talk about depression and suicide in a way which doesn’t make us want to kill ourselves. The only way to do that accurately and to take as many people on board is to make it fun to watch, to normalise it and to take the stigma and taboo out of a very weighty, depressing subject. It’s something that’s really important for us to talk about, but something we generally don’t want to face.  I wanted Emma to have the license to say things honestly without feeling too guarded or judged. I needed to make it as funny as possible to make people stay with her.

How involved were you in the production process? 

I always try to be as present as possible – in design meetings, in castings and in discussions about who’s going to be on the creative team.  I’m at rehearsal most days because I want to be there as a resource.  Something might not make sense, either because it needs to be explained or because I haven’t got it right. I need to respond quickly to what people are doing and offer rewrites.  Also, as a writer, I’m very interested in what the evening is going to be like, rather than just concerning myself with the spoken text.

We have an amazing creative team working on this and everyone is very collaborative. They’ve all taken what I’ve offered as a stage direction, understood the gesture of it and then come up with something really extraordinary.  That collaboration is an on-going conversation that happens during the rehearsal process and as a writer I want to be involved with that.

How far will you be involved in the tour? 

I’m around in rehearsals as much as I can. I like working with Jeremy in that way; we’re constantly talking and never really take a break. I like having close relationships with directors.

Have you worked with any of the creative team before?

I worked with Tom Gibbons who was our sound designer on 1984.

I worked briefly with Matthew Herbert on some of his music projects and his live show. I’d never worked with Jeremy Herrin on a play before but I worked closely with him whilst I was an Associate at Headlong.  He’s been a fantastic advocate for the play.

How did you get into writing? 

I originally wanted to be an actor and director. As a teenager I didn’t really know people still wrote plays. I thought that all playwrights were dead.  Then I started seeing plays by people like Sarah Kane and Roy Williams, and started to read plays, in particular anything by Caryl Churchill and Wallace Shawn.  It was very special for me to have my play announced alongside new work by Caryl and Wally, two people whose work I admire enormously.

I wasn’t very good at being an actor. I discovered I have a very boring voice and a very unremarkable face so I wasn’t going to waste time trying to pursue that.  I also wanted more control over what I was working on and found the idea of an actor’s life rather terrifying.

I studied Film and Theatre at Reading University, then went on to Central School of Speech and Drama and later Birmingham University.

 I collected writing courses in that way.  I went to the Soho Theatre writing course at around the same time, but it was really my time as a member of the Royal Court Young Writers Group, which was run by Simon Stephens, that I really started writing.  Being around other writers, seeing plays and getting feedback on drafts at the Royal Court was really instrumental.

I wrote the first draft of People, Places and Things, many years ago. I’d stopped writing for a while and it was really my foray back into it. I was working with Headlong at the time, adapting and directing 1984 with Robert Icke and as a Creative Associate. One way or other, the play fell into their hands and Jeremy took it to Rufus at the NT.

Are you surprised by the reaction to the play? 

I’m delighted with the reaction the play has received.  A huge amount of the success is due to the incredible production values, and such a powerful cast. It was never intended to be a commercial show; it’s about a difficult person, being difficult to other people who are in a difficult situation! It attempts to pose a lot of complicated and contradictory ideas and the play is quite dense and difficult in that way.   It’s been humbling and gratifying for all of us who have worked so hard on it that this production means something to so many people.

What are your thoughts on the play and theatre in general?

There’s a lot in the play about theatre; why a group of strangers would gather in a dark room to hear stories. Why people come together in a room to be a community of people to hear about other people’s lives and to negotiate themselves in position to that.  How we are before and how we come out changed.  Theatre can remind us that we are all alive, all together, in the present moment and momentarily focus our attention on the difficulties and the complexities of being a human.

On one hand the play is a way of challenging a very particular 12 step process. It also explores theatre as artificial, fake, ridiculous and irresponsible in some ways.  It’s irresponsible to make a play about something as broad as addiction or depression, whose real-life structures and complexities don’t conform to tidy narratives. It’s a play largely about the effectiveness and point of theatre. Is it ok for us all to sit in a room and spend money on tickets, travel and childcare, to go and listen to a room full of middle-class people talking about their tiny problems?  Is that a worthwhile use of our resources?  I’m still very conflicted about that but there’s something about going through the process of writing this play, researching this play, spending time with people who are having the experiences that this play depicts which makes me think that there is something very worthwhile about coming together, to share stories and to take ourselves seriously- thinking about the outside world, our position within it, other people in society, not just us as individuals and the people we relate to and how we relate to them. That’s something theatre does better than any other art form in my opinion- it interrogates, it exposes, it reveals and it responds.  At its best it gives our empathy a workout and expands our emotional and intellectual vocabulary.

People, Places & Things is at the Exeter Northcott from Tues 31 Oct – Sat  4 November.

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