13 February 2011 Scotland on Sunday
DANIEL Jackson has heard that the last person to walk through a door is the one with the highest status. So he and fellow playwrights Douglas Maxell and Johnny McKnight are standing in the corridor outside a Scottish Youth Theatre meeting room arguing over who should come in first.
McKnight accepts defeat and makes his move, sensing he has a diplomatic duty as the director of Random Accomplice and the man who had the idea of bringing them together in the first place. Maxwell is next, although he is the nearest this group has to an elder statesman, with a ten-year track record as a playwright and, at 36, being five years older than Jackson and four older than McKnight. For Jackson, it is a small victory.
But in this lunchtime rehearsal break, it is actually me who is claiming the upper hand (although, frankly, I'm failing miserably). That's because the show these three playwrights have written together turns out to be my idea. In 2009, I wrote a review of one of McKnight's plays and commented on the similar territory he, Maxwell and Jackson occupied. All are from Ayrshire, all are about the same age and all have a penchant for comedies about their troubled teenage years. Idly, I speculated someone must have put something in the Ayrshire water 30 years ago.
In McKnight's case I was thinking of plays such as Little Johnny's Big Gay Musical, a hilarious show that believed it was a Broadway spectacular even though it had only three musicians, an actor and a singer. In between the song-and-dance numbers, McKnight told a rites-of-passage tale involving such small-town concerns as sports days and embarrassing medical complaints. When you see McKnight as the abrasive Dame in his acclaimed pantos at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, you see little sign of the Ardrossan boy he once was. "I sometimes talk about my childhood days because I remember them better and I knew a wider variety of people," he says. "When I was a teenager I knew every person in my high school and in the pub I would sit with the old drunken women who had been out since Monday. So when I'm writing, I imagine people speaking in an Ayrshire voice."
Douglas Maxwell has returned repeatedly to his Girvan childhood for inspiration, although in recent plays such as Promises Promises (lined-up for a New York run next month) he has broken out into new territory. His most enduring hit is Decky Does a Bronco, revived last year by Grid Iron and performed in play parks around the country to capture the atmosphere of a teenage boy's summer holidays. Other plays including Our Bad Magnet, Helmet, Mancub and If Destroyed True have shown a special understanding of the teenage small-town mindset. "I've got quite a complicated relationship with Girvan," he says. "I hate it and love it at the same time. Once I realised you could write about somewhere like that, I found a voice. Setting stories there just made them come alive."
In The Wall, The Duckie and The Chookie Brae, Daniel Jackson mined his Stewarton childhood to create a hilarious rites-of-passage teen trilogy. Like Maxwell, he feels he has said all he has to say on the subject and is delighted that My Romantic History, a rom-com with a more adult perspective, was such a hit on the Edinburgh Fringe. "I do feel like it was 15 years since I lived in Stewarton and Stewarton is quite a different place to the one I went to school in," he says. "I'm writing those plays actually set in the early-90s but pretending it's now."
But he hasn't said goodbye to his childhood quite yet. That's because, after reading my review, McKnight called up Jackson and Maxwell and outlined an idea for a play. It would be about something in the water that was affecting the population of Ayrshire. They would write one act each and, at the end, the audience would vote on which character it would like to save and which story it would like to see completed. It would be called Smalltown and it would go on a six-week spring tour.
And that's why I'm now playing status games with three of Scotland's most entertaining playwrights. It is also why I am grappling with the postmodern dilemma of writing about a play I inadvertently inspired. I feel like a mean Victorian philanthropist who has commissioned a play without offering any money, I tell them. "Which is great, but you won't get any royalties," laughs McKnight.
"I read the quote and I was going, 'Why isn't it a good review that we've based this play on?'" says Maxwell, hilariously misinterpreting what I wrote. "It wasn't a bad review, but there's an undercurrent there. Should we have taken a slightly bad review as the foundation? But then I was thinking, "Aren't all of our plays reactions to bad reviews in some way?'"
McKnight acknowledges my position: "So if it’s an absolute stinker you won't be able to hold your head up," he says. "You've got a lot riding on this show professionally."
Jackson warms to the theme: "It'll be interesting to see how the other critics take it: 'Well, they didn't write a play about anything I said.' I think we can all agree this isn't a play for the critics. It's a play for the critic."
The banter does nothing to disprove my theory, so I ask them straight: was there something in the Ayrshire water? "It's not the water supply any more," says Maxwell. "I had to step in wearing my dramaturg hat. I had to go, 'There is no one water supply in Ayrshire.' So now it’s bottled water that Ayrshire has produced to commemorate the anniversary of Robert Burns losing his virginity. The South Ayrshire Tourism and Leisure marketing department has spiked the water with a drug to create mild euphoria in this time of recession, but it's backfired. They've reclaimed it all apart from three towns: Girvan, Stewarton and Ardrossan."
"Stewarton's in East Ayrshire," Jackson pipes up, like the teenager at the back of the class who hasn't been paying attention. "Have we discussed this already?"
"We've got East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire and North Ayrshire," says McKnight. "Don't you worry, I've got my geography down. I like the way you worry about it a week into rehearsals."
Whether or not there was something in the water, there was certainly something in the artistic culture of the region. Jackson's father, Eddie, is the driving force behind the Ayr-based Borderline, a touring theatre company that prides itself on popular appeal. All three playwrights took the ethos of their local company for granted. "We all agree on what a night at the theatre is and that's not the case with a lot of my peers," says Maxwell. "We all go in thinking, 'We're going to have to entertain this audience.'"
It helps explain how their work can sit comfortably in a single show. "What classifies us all is we have a strong sense of humour through our work," says McKnight.
"There's the humour and the pathos related to the same thing," agrees Maxwell. "The same incident is both humorous and sad. Johnny's remit for Smalltown was just: "Funny and nothing else." That was a relief but a horrible challenge as well because normally in my work comedy is a side-effect; I'm aiming for the emotional core and the comedy is the way it comes through. Whereas this was like writing jokes. That made me nervous. I reckon you're a better joke writer," he adds, turning to Jackson.
"I'm not going to disagree with that," deadpans Jackson. "But I never sit down to write a comedy. Until they're in front of an audience, I never think they're comedies. So, yes, there is something intimidating in writing something that has to be funny."
It means that in Smalltown, you can expect zombies, B-movie motifs and three possible endings, but little in the way of profundity. "I wanted there to be at least a tiny bit of the small-town experience in each of the three plays," says Maxwell. "It's there deep down, but it's not that type of show. If you're looking for depth and exploration of the small-town experience, look at everything else we've done."
And with that, they exit – but only after arguing who should leave the room first.
Smalltown, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 15–19 February and on tour until 26 March.