“Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don’t have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough.”
– Stephen King
In the summer of 2010, I took a play to the Edinburgh Festival called Lost Boy. I co-wrote it with a colleague as I was passionate about telling the true story of a young man I know who was trafficked to London as a child from Nigeria and who experienced a childhood of domestic servitude and abuse. When he was no longer eligible for child benefit he was thrown onto the streets. A talented artist striving to get to university, he was threatened with deportation to a Nigeria he had no memory of unless he could prove he had lived in the country for 14 years or more. With no papers, how could he prove his identity?
We wrote from the heart, necessarily creating a play that would fit our 40 minute performance slot and which could be performed by the talented young people we were working with. The play was a success, helping to raise awareness of the issue of child-trafficking and even being featured on BBC Newsnight. We raised funds for the charity AFRUCA (Africans Unite Against Child Abuse), and gave our young people a fantastic experience and opportunity. We received four-star reviews and were particularly excited when Mehmet Ergen, the artistic director of London’s Arcola Theatre, invited our young cast to do a one-week run back in London in the autumn.
Unfortunately, circumstances beyond our control meant we were unable to put the show on that autumn. Things go wrong sometimes when you’re powering projects by goodwill, but I felt professionally embarrassed to have let down the Arcola after Mehmet had put his faith in us. I’m really sorry about it. Its my local theatre and I’ve had a long association with the place, at one time working with them to give some of my students their first breaks in professional theatre. Worse, I was disappointed that we hadn’t been able to continue telling the story. Who knows where the play might have gone next if we’d had that Arcola run?
I went back to my keyboard and began tinkering with the text after the disappointment. Child-trafficking is greatly disturbing but largely goes under the radar so I wanted to create wider exposure with a full-length play treatment. Unfortunately my inner critic took over and I never got very far. Like the protagonist in the play, I’d lost my way and fallen through the cracks.
I’d had a revelatory moment when writing the Edinburgh text that the true story we were telling echoed the Cinderella fairytale; its bizarre when you think you’re writing something completely new to suddenly realise the main characters- based on real people- are all archetypes found in folklore. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the play packs such an emotional punch. I wanted to develop this angle further but was unsure how to do it and the play got mothballed.
Fast-forward to May 2015. The Arcola Theatre run a renowned Writers Group, and I received an email saying they would be starting a new programme in which writers would focus on redrafting an existing script to get it stage-ready. The course would be led by Lisa Goldman, one of the foremost dramaturgs in the UK and the former artistic director of the Soho Theatre. At the end of the course, the developed scripts would be read and outstanding work would be forwarded to Mehmet Ergen. I don’t hold out much hope of getting a second chance so quickly, but I knew this would be a great opportunity to develop my craft.
I’m the sort of person who works best as part of a group; a good example is my running. When I pulled my trainers back on in 2012 I could never have imagined I’d travel the world and race distances from 5K to the marathon. Being part of Run Dem Crew has given me the fuel to develop as a runner, the network to tap into, and now I’m happier, better-travelled and faster than ever before. I respond well to the structure of being part of a group; being accountable and people depending on me to complete a writing task or go on a training run makes me much more likely to do it. So I was excited at the prospect of having a fortnightly check in with a network of writers who could push me to do things I would never have believed possible.
I flew to New York right after receiving the email, but made time in Brooklyn to fill out the application and selected a ten page excerpt to showcase. I was excited at the prospect of getting onto the course, but knew demand would far outweigh spaces. I could see so many defects in the writing, but this was time to silence the inner critic and just press “Send’. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
After a nervous ten day wait, I’m over the moon to say I have been accepted on the course and we start next Monday! I’m a little daunted by the skill and experience of the other writers in the group, but I’m so grateful to have been given this opportunity to learn and develop my craft, and it’s fitting that it should be at the Arcola Theatre. Above all, the chance to blow the cobwebs off Lost Boy and to continue to raise awareness about child-trafficking has got me feeling excited, creative and determined.
Its good to move out of your comfort zone. Some stories deserve to be told. Bring it on.