Tuesday, June 20, 2017

INTERVIEW: Playwright Brad Birch on Black Mountain (Paines Plough, Theatr Clwyd)

A script is like a recipe – the playwright sets out the ingredients and their properties, but it takes a team of chefs to cook up the finished dish. That's how Brad Birch, whose latest play Black Mountain will receive its world premiere at Mold's Theatr Clwyd on July 11th, thinks about his various creations.

Brad's work is far more than a simple list of ingredients, however. As writer in residence with the Welsh new writing theatre company Undeb, as well as being attached to the Royal Shakespeare Company, Brad has enjoyed his fair share of successes, whether it's receiving the prestigious Harold Pinter Commission in 2016 to write a new play for the Royal Court, or winning a Scotsman Edinburgh Fringe First Award for his 2013 play Gardening: For the Unfulfilled and Alienated.

The Mid Wales-born writer penned his first piece, The Snow Queen, in 2008 for Mid Powys Youth Theatre, and has since seen his work produced by Cardiff's Sherman (Light Arrested Between the Curtain and the Glass, 2011), the Royal Court (Permafrost, 2011, and Where the Shot Rabbits Lay, 2012), Dirty Protest (Milton, 2013), the Royal Exchange (Tender Bolus, 2014) and the Orange Tree (The Brink, 2016), among others.

Black Mountain – a co-production between Theatr Clwyd, Paines Plough and the Orange Tree – has been eight months in gestation.

"I wrote my first draft just before Christmas," says Brad, "although I tend to take a few months working at getting the tone and feel of the play first. I like to understand the characters thoroughly before I place them in a situation. I like to know everything there is to know about them, right from birth, so that I understand who they are and what they are about.

"Then I add in what I want to say, what the story is essentially. I let the characters and situations come to me over a period of time. I'm a procrastinator at heart; I do a lot of 'soft research' as a friend of mine calls it. Sometimes I find myself looking at something on Wikipedia and I ask myself 'why am I looking at this?'."

Brad shared his first draft with James Grieve, joint artistic director of Paines Plough and director of Black Mountain, who gave him a few pointers until, four more drafts later, the play was ready to be delivered.

"I don't think a play is ever truly finished though," says Brad. Like all art, it remains fluid until it can no longer be poured! "Black Mountain will be performed until March 2018, at which point I suppose we can say that the play is finished, and it then goes into a kind of stasis until it's revived."

Black Mountain tells the story of Rebecca and Paul, who try to save their relationship by going to stay in an isolated cabin in the countryside. It’s a psychological thriller which Brad says also has horror elements to it.

"I don't want to give too much away, but it's enough to say that Paul has done something which jeopardised his relationship with Rebecca, and the two try to work through it by getting away from the familiarity of home. But as the play develops we discover that perhaps they each have different motives for being there.

"I wanted to write a play that was about something, and Black Mountain is about guilt and forgiveness and redemption. I set it in a cabin in the woods to give it a very particular setting and atmosphere. I kept returning to the films Antichrist [Lars von Trier's 2009 horror film set in a cabin in the woods] and Don't Look Now [Nicholas Roeg's 1973 thriller about a couple who try to move on from a tragedy by moving to Venice] and tried to take elements of them and match their aesthetic to my ideas about guilt and betrayal."

Now that Brad’s handed over his "baby" to the team of chefs who will transform his words into dramatic theatre, how does he feel about "letting go"?

"I like to be involved with casting as much as I can, and I do attend rehearsals if the director is OK with it. I'm a theatre geek so like to see as much of the creative side as I can, but it is up to the individual director and how much they want to involve me," says Brad.

What's it like when his characters have been cast and suddenly they have faces that may not match what he had in his head?

"It can be weird, and at first I preferred actors who were best able to replicate what was in my head," says Brad. "However, more recently I've begun to prefer performers who bring a fresh energy to the part. James Grieve brought a great range of actors to this production and I've embraced developing a broader idea of what the characters can be. I like actors who can make the characters as human as possible, who make smart choices, and it can be a relief to finally put faces to them!"

Black Mountain will be one of several plays performed in the grounds of Theatr Clwyd inside Paines Plough's roving Roundabout Theatre, which kicks off at Mold and then travels to the Edinburgh Fringe, Salford, Kendal, Margate, Lincoln, Darlington, Poole, Stoke-on-Trent and Luton, before settling at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond between January and March next year.

"Black Mountain is in repertory with two other shows which will be performed in the Roundabout at Mold; that's why working with Paines Plough is so exciting," says Brad. "There aren't many repertory companies in the UK any more, which makes this a pretty unique gig to do. Paines Plough can build their own theatre anywhere, and take it any place, including to places that do not have a theatre. It allows us to take theatre into communities which wouldn't normally get the opportunity to see it, which is a brief I think most theatres would like to take on."

Also receiving their world premieres at the Roundabout at Mold are Elinor Cooke's Out of Love and Sarah McDonald-Hughes's How to Be a Kid, which will join Black Mountain in transferring to the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

So now that Black Mountain is in the hands of others, what's next for Brad Birch? As well as working with the National Theatre's annual Connections festival of new writing for youth theatres and schools (something closer to the playwright's heart), he is writing a new show for Arts Ed drama school in London, and a new play for Cardiff's Sherman.

"The Sherman was the first experience of theatre I ever engaged with, so it's great to be returning to my roots in a way!" says Brad.

As long as Brad keeps writing those "recipes", there will be plenty of producers wanting to turn his written words into staged plays. Try and catch Black Mountain during its UK tour this summer and autumn.

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