Interview with Award-Winning Playwright of In Doggerland

Published November 18, 2013

In Doggerland – a story about a heart transplant patient who seeks out her donor has opened it’s tour to raving reviews and powerfully poignant reaction. The new play by Tom Morton-Smith has been praised for its unembellished look into loss, family and grief, while Hannah Tyrell-Pride’s inspiringly minimal production gives the subject depth and lyrical beauty.

We got a chance to catch up with Tom-Morton Smith to talk about his new play, the arts and playwrights.

What is the play about?

The play is essentially a meditation on grief and identity. It looks at the roles that are expected of us within a family (father, daughter, brother, sister) and how those duties and responsibilities may clash with a character’s personality. It’s a play about familial love and the processes of grief. It also raises questions about memory, remembrance and the peculiar things we will do in order to cope.

What inspired you to write this play?

It was an image I had when reading an article about coastal erosion, the image of a family home slowly crumbling into the sea. A home is so much more than bricks and mortar, and the idea of having cherished memories and your own sense of place eroded by the elements was, I thought, bursting with metaphor. I am fascinated by the question ‘what am I’ – am I my memories, am I my blood and bone, am I my organs, am I how others perceive me to be – and it is this question that I wished to explore when writing this play.

How does it fit in with your previous work?

My previous plays had all been rather ‘idea’ led and had a tendency to be epic in scope. With this play I wanted to shift my focus away from a grand idea and onto characters who lived and breathed, hurt and laughed. I wanted to write something small and beautiful, something poetic and even ethereal. My plays prior to this usually involvedpeople making bad decisions and having to deal with the consequences. For this play, I specifically wanted to write characters who had done nothing wrong, who had made the best decisions they could, and were making the best out of thetroubles life had thrown at them.

What do you hope audiences will get from watching the play?

I hope they enjoy it. I hope they laugh and I hope they are moved. I can’t really ask for more than that. At its heart this is a play about the worth of familialrelationships and the stresses and strains those relationships can go through. I think that’s something everybody should be able to identify with.

How did you get into writing?

I have always written. I have always made up stories. I wrote my first play when I was 17 and it won a local competition. During my time at university, and also whilst I was training as an actor, I kept writing – if only for my own amusement. I never expected it to lead me anywhere. When literary managers and theatres started getting interested in my work I realised that, not only was playwriting something I enjoyed, playwriting was something I was good at.

How does it feel to see your work on the stage?

It is both wonderful and terrifying. It is the strangest sensation to have your thoughts physically manifesting before your eyes, to have characters and situations that had previously existed only in your head appear before you. The most rewarding aspect of playwriting iswhen you realise that your stories have a life over which you have no control, and that is the life they have in the minds and memories of your audience.

How involved are you in your plays?

I am a strong believer in theatre as a collaborative artform. If I wasn’t interested in collaboration I would be writing novels or poetry instead. I love to be involved as much as I can in a production, but, as the writer, I understand that directors and actors needspace to work. I like to make myself available during rehearsal, but really my work should’ve been done long before rehearsals begin.

Which playwrights inspired you?

My biggest influences are Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. The balance that these four writers’ strike between entertainment, artfulness, beauty and fascination, is something I seek to find in my own work. There are others that have inspired me along the way; Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill, Joe Penhall, Howard Barker and David Greig to name a few. Also, it is impossible to write plays in the English language and not be inspired or influenced by Shakespeare.

What or who keeps you going?

I don’t know. Marnie has a line in In Doggerland that captures my feelings quite well – though she’s talking about photography. When asked why she does it, she replies: ‘Just to be better, I suppose.’

What do you hope Box of Tricks will bring to your play? And why did you choose them to premiere your play?

I greatly admire Adam and Hannah’s passion for new writing. With this passion they also bring a great deal of rigour and meticulousness to their work. They are a strong team both artistically and in a producing role, and they achieve what they put their minds to. They get a lot of respect for that.

Do you feel playwrights get the recognition they deserve?

For the most part.

What was the best bit of advice you were given when you started out?

‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ It’s about the importance of rewriting. You can always fix things in a later draft, but it’s much better to get something down. You learn by finishing things. When you’ve finished something you can see the piece as a whole and it’ll become so much easier to work on.

In these difficult times for the arts, what do you see are the challenges of becoming a playwright?

The challenges are what they always were: how do I get my voice heard and how do I survive until that happens? Don’t strive to be original. You already are. No one has ever written quite like you before. No one has had those exact ideas before. The story will find the form. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, find yourself a day job that doesn’t leave you disheartened and broken at the end of the day – you don’t know how long you’ll need it.

Why should people come and see the play?

I think this is amongst the finest things I have written. I hope to have created something moving, beautiful and funny. The plays I write are the sort of plays that I would like to see when I go to the theatre, something you would be unable to findelsewhere. This is a touching story, delicately told, that will hopefully resonate with an audience.

What is next for you?

I am currently under commission to the Royal Shakespeare Company. This year I wrote a play for the Latitude Festival called The Chamber of Curiosities, which was so well received I am now working with the director to expand it. I am also working on a script, possibly for Edinburgh, about physics and love.

In Doggerland comes to Exeter on Tue 26 Nov, click here to buy tickets >>

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