Craig Baxter Interview
Posted on 14 August 2006. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to playwright Craig Baxter
Tell us something about your background.
I got very into theatre in the late 1980s as a student actor at Sheffield University (where I was studying Zoology) and at the Edinburgh Fringe. After that, with some friends, I set up a theatre group (Throwaway Theatre) and, over the course of a whole year, we devised in the most desperately inefficient way a 45-minute piece about King Arthur and some earnest cabaret in support of the Sandinistas. Then we split. Musical differences. And I ran away to a publishing job in London for which I wore a suit. The world of business I found required more fabrication and improvisation than devised theatre and after about 18 months I ran away from that to the MA Playwriting course in Birmingham, then run by David Edgar. That was terrific because while on the course I was treated like a playwright even though Ė at that point Ė I wasnít one. Doing the course gave me the confidence and impetus to write plays. And Iíve been doing that now for 15 years. Iíve had about 10 original plays produced, a few adaptations, a brace of radio plays and a handful of scripts for TV crime docudramas. In addition, Iím happy to intersperse my own self-expression with writing bespoke dramas, working to specific briefs for corporate or educational clients (such topics as literacy at work, bullying in schools, life in a market town). Itís a chance to apply the craft of playwriting and discover something of real life.
My most recent production was a short one: a five-minute one-to-one brief encounter at the Cambridge HotBed Festival.
Currently Iím working with the Birmingham Reparatory Theatre developing a play based on the some of the work done in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the genetics of altruism and spitefulness. Iíve just started a blog for them. I am working with the Darwin Correspondence Project on some dramatisations of Charles Darwinís letters and also collaborating with ex-glaciologist singer-songwriter with Sunday Driver Chandy Nath on a radio play inspired by her experiences in Antarctica (proposal under consideration at the BBC).
When I started playwriting I naively thought I would be either immensely successful or an abject failure. After 15 years Iím neither of those things. For a year or so within the first flush of optimism about my possible writing genius I was purely a playwright but this was financially (and probably artistically too) the least successful period of my writing career. Most of the time I have given myself (and my family) the security blanket of a part-time job unrelated to playwriting, usually within publishing. Iíve worked as a secretary for a developmental biology lab, an editor for the Society for Reproduction and Fertility and most recently as a production assistant for the International Glaciological Society. This has given my working week some semblance of structure and some familiar and friendly faces to work and share coffee with at regular intervals. I also do a spot of roleplaying mostly in and around my local hospital for trainee doctors, specialising in depression, paranoid delusions and sexually transmitted diseases. This work gives good insight into other peopleís lives and mental states. Useful for the writing. I donít know if being a full-time writer would be healthy for me. When the writing is not going well, itís good to have something (like earning some regular money) to fall back on. Certainly I have found the less time I have for playwriting, the more plays I get written.
How, when and why did you first start writing?
I found school a bit rubbish and boring but one English/Drama teacher was very inspiring and encouraging. His name was Jon Adams and sadly and horribly he was killed by a suicide bomber in Qatar last year at the theatre in which he was directing a play. I have been thinking a lot about him. At school, I often wrote purely to try to impress and provoke him. He was brilliant at absorbing this and encouraging me to be even more provocative. That remains with me and I think why I have stuck with dramatic writing, the purpose of which is to provoke (the characters provoke each other and the play provokes the audience... to feel, to think, to see something from another perspective).
Who are your favourite writers and why?
Iím not particularly loyal to any particular writer. None bear too much attention before they start repeating themselves and less vividly than when you first discovered them (ďItís all right but itís not as good as...Ē). Having said that, a couple of examples of writing that really inspired me when I read and saw them that spring to mind are Being Dead a novel by Jim Crace and The Clearing a play by Helen Edmundson. The first for skilfully and movingly combining the personal and the biological and the second for doing the same with the personal and the political.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
Nepotism is the way I have got work. Most of the commissions I have had have been from people I knew (not necessarily very well) beforehand. I have found that you donít have to be particularly charming or brilliant at networking (my interpersonal skills are well below average) but it does help to have a face to which people can put your name. I didnít get paid for the first three or four plays I had produced but they got my work and face out there. I made sure I was a good collaborator and someone people would be prepared to work with again... so when later they did have some funds available to generate a new project and this time pay a writer, they were happy to consider me. One job has tended to lead to the next. In addition I entered some competitions and schemes. This approach got me a production at the London New Play Festival, and on another occasion, a set of miniature spirits (still undrunk) as a shortlisted writer for the Allied Domecq Playwright Award. It is only relatively recently I have had an agent (the excellent Giles Smart at pfd). It is great having someone apart from yourself who is interested in your career and who can encourage and support and sort out contractual niggles for you, but it was perfectly possible to find playwriting work previously without one. I had regular periods when I used to worry about not having an agent but I should have channelled the energy I spent worrying into writing more or better plays. Thereís no point fretting that no-one appreciates your genius before youíve actually got solid double-spaced-on-A4 (or whatever) evidence of it. There are a lot more potentially good writers out there than there are actually good plays. Write write write and, if itís good, the agents will come.
What's the worst thing about writing?
The self-absorption and time spent inside your own head when you could be out there having a real life
And the best?
My favourite social activity is rehearsing and creating plays. I love actors. They are just attractive, outgoing versions of writers. They are needy people who need us. Hurrah.
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