Where do ideas for plays come from? - Michael West

Where do ideas for plays come from? - Michael West

Michael West talks about the inspiration for his new play Conservatory.

Where do ideas for plays come from? You may as well ask where you start writing them. In both cases the usual answer would be ‘in your head’ and not just because writing is as much about memory as it is about imagination, uncovering what was already there as much as making up something new. But Conservatory is something of an exception since I can answer both questions and date the arrival of the title, the characters and the opening exchange exactly.

It happened in St Mary’s Abbey in Meeting House Lane one dark October night some years ago during an uncomfortable half-hour watching a Beckett monologue. I love Beckett as much as the next self-respecting self-flagellant, but this time I confess: my mind wandered. I was aware of the bench I was sitting on, the intensity of the performance, my inability to comprehend what was being said . . .
And then suddenly I could see a man and woman and a pair of armchairs: the man standing and ranting and a woman sitting and trying to read. He was telling her to be quiet, they bickered about a cat, he left and came back with a box. And that was as far as I got. One day, while I was still trying to work out what was in the box, our family set out to buy a couch. This was a matter of some urgency since we had two kids and a sitting room with nothing to sit on. Our ancient sofa was being repaired and re-covered and without it the room looked disturbingly bare. We loaded everyone into the car using the time-honoured formula for stowing a family into a vehicle as quickly as possible (twenty minutes per person and add twenty minutes) and set off to face the horrors of flatpacks when about thirty yards from our front door we saw, perched on top of a skip full of plasterboard and rubble, a pair of armchairs.

We reversed the car back where it belonged and wandered down to look. There they were – an old, faded pair of matching his and hers armchairs. They were upside- down but other than that exactly as I’d seen them. It started to rain and the drops spotted the dusty and rather grimy covers. But we didn’t have to drive anywhere that day. Some time later we held a reading of an early draft on those same two chairs. Since Olwen Fouéré was present at the inception of the play in St Mary’s Abbey, I thought it auspicious to ask her to come to the christening and she graciously accepted. I am therefore more than doubly grateful to her. Andrew Bennett took the other role on that occasion and because I hear his voice in my head whenever I sit down to write it’s only fair to record my debt to it here.

Along the way, Kim Durham and Ingrid Craigie performed a reading directed by Conor McPherson for which it is a pleasure to thank them and the Abbey Theatre for supporting it. And I am indebted to the support and confidence of many others who in various ways have helped Conservatory see the light of day. Thank you Rosaleen Linehan, Aideen Howard, Eleanor Methven, Mark O’Halloran, Annie Ryan, Sarah Durcan and The Corn Exchange; and to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre and the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaíon for the space and resources to finish writing it. Lastly I would like to thank the production and artistic team who made this performance possible; it is an unsettling privilege to see your work into print, but it is something else to see it become flesh and blood, and for that I am deeply grateful to Michael Barker-Caven, Deirdre Donnelly and Stephen Brennan.

Conservatory is now on the Peacock stage running until 12 April.

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