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Charlot speaks with Craig Baxter

I met Craig (photo above) up at Madingley Hall, part of the University of Cambridge. I asked him if he would be kind enough to share some of his journey as a writer with us. I am aware that most of the interviews for this newsletter thus far have been with TV writers and novelists, neglecting plays as a form somewhat. Yet, I grew up sitting in the stalls of many theatres, as my Ma and Pa were both actors and directors. I can remember my Pa as Richard III, as John Proctor in The Crucible, and  in many more roles, all when I was just a little girl and I would attend his rehearsals. I now also have a son who acts and directs on stage. There is something immersive and visceral about watching a play that you don't get with the movies or reading a book. I often sit in the front row of theatres just to be close to the action. I love it, and I'm sure many of you do too. 

I am so happy Craig has agreed to speak with us, as he is such a talented writer, always exploring important themes. So without further ado, I am thrilled to introduce you to Craig Baxter!

Charlot: Can you tell us more about your journey as a writer – where did you start and how is that journey progressing? 

Craig: The tag “writer” doesn't quite seem to fit. “Playwright” or “dramatist” get closer. I got into student theatre in the late 1980s while at Sheffield University (where I was studying Zoology) performing shows at the University Drama Centre and the Edinburgh Fringe.

Next and with some college friends I set up a theatre group (Throwaway Theatre) and we devised, in the most hopelessly inefficient manner, a short play about King Arthur and some earnest political cabaret. Then we split up (owing to poverty and theatrical differences) and I ran away to a publishing job in London, for which I wore a suit. The world of business required more fabrication and wild improvisation than devised theatre and so I ran away from that too, to the MA in Playwriting course at Birmingham University, at that time run by David Edgar. While on that course, I was treated like a playwright, even though – at that point – I wasn't one. And that gave me the confidence and impetus to start writing plays. And I've been doing that ever since (about 29 years): producing (so far) 16 original plays, 6 stage adaptations, some TV drama-documentary scripts, 3 radio plays, a couple of short podcast dramas and numerous short commissions (corporate, training and artistic).

(Photograph of Craig on stage)

Charlot: How do you write? What is your process?

Criag: I’m still horribly inefficient with writing always getting nudged down to the bottom of the daily priorities. I have several other part-time and freelance occupations (in academic journals publishing, teaching creative writing and medical roleplaying), all of which operate to particular schedules. The writing – because in theory it can be done any time - gets nudged into what time is left (and quite often there isn’t any time left). Obviously, a writing deadline focuses the mind but, left to my own devices, I’m undisciplined and haven’t yet worked out what my process is. I guess it’s to circle round some ideas, do lots of reading, make lots of notes and then wait for the panic of a deadline to kick in. There’s a bit of a blur and on the other side: a play.

Charlot: Do you remember the first play that stuck with you? And the library in your formative years that you remember fondly?

Craig: The first play that really sparked my attention and perhaps made me fall in love was a good amateur outdoor production of A Midsummer Nights Dream that my dad took me to see as a young teenager at Chilham Castle in Kent. I think there must have been something in the flowers. I like university libraries. Cambridge has quite a good one but also Birmingham and Sheffield.

(Photograph: Craig on a bus in Cambridge advertising ICE, the University of Cambridge)

Charlot: You are known for the plays you write. Somniloquy was on at the Soho Theatre, and Lady Anna: All at Sea, which was performed at the Arts Theatre in Cambridge and Bath Theatre Royal, as well as radio plays. Can you tell us more about these? 

Craig: Somniloquy, a monologue exploring one woman’s night’s sleep, was a joy because it gave me the opportunity to collaborate and reconnect with my old Sheffield college friend Richard Horner, who is now a Professor of Physiology at the University of Toronto. Richard has researched and written about sleep and is particularly interested in what sleep is for, from an evolutionary perspective. It was wonderful to meet up with Richard at the Soho Theatre (he’d flown across from Toronto especially) and then sit through this play we’d written together. We had a wonderful actor, Jasmine Hyde, and director, Paul Bourne, both of whom I’ve worked with quite a lot. That is the joy of theatre: a joint venture with people you love and respect who can help you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Lady Anna: All at Sea was another highlight. Superbly directed by Colin Blumenau, the show toured some Number One venues in Cambridge, Bath, Windsor, Winchester and several others. It was a commission from the Trollope Society to celebrate Anthony Trollope’s 200th birthday in 2015 and I was very honoured that they chose me to write it. I loved researching Trollope and his life and his writing and then watching a tremendous ensemble cast lift the play up and out to the audience. The show really divided the critics, and responses ranged from the Telegraph calling it a “beguiling theatrical soufflé” to the Standard equating it with the recent resurgence in childhood rickets.

Another project I’ve really enjoyed working on was to write a couple of audio podcast drama scripts on the Sound of Anger for the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University. It was great to work with historian Professor Thomas Dixon and producer Natalie Steed on two short (but intense) plays on Seneca and Darwin (both of whom made significant contributions to our current way of thinking about anger).

Charlot: You have also written for local community projects. How does that work?

Craig: I’ve been fortunate to be able to work a lot as a dramatist locally, mainly through the superb local new-theatre writing company Menagerie Theatre, based at the Junction, Cambridge. It has been particularly helpful to me while raising my sons (doing the school run, etc) to be able to work in my own town rather than having to travel to the busy metropolis touting my playwriting wares. Menagerie has engaged me as their dramatist on many diverse and fascinating projects: from Trumpington Voices community play, which I constructed – working with brilliant director Patrick Morris - from verbatim interviews conducted with residents, new and old, as the major building developments on the Trumpington side of Cambridge progressed to Pictures of You, which was a collaboration with psychiatrist Martina di Simplicio exploring different ways of thinking, particularly with regard to intrusive images and mental illness, and which was produced at both Menagerie’s annual Hotbed Festival, the Soho Theatre and the Cambridge Science Festival in 2016.

(Photograph: Jasmine Hyde in Somniloquy)

Charlot: Are there any other projects you are involved with that you can speak about? 

Craig: Currently, I’m working on a couple of historical projects. One a play about Charles Darwin and his family towards the end of his life; and another set in Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment London. And the Czech translation of my play Hard Sell is currently in production by Divadlo 16-6 in Prague,

Charlot: Whether writing, performance, music, painting, sculpture and more - I think the arts have never been more vital. What is your take on the arts and their role in society? 

Craig: For me, the arts are important in society and, particularly, in education because they are the medium through which we empathize with a broad range of experience (some of it shared and some of it alien). They take important, complex and myriad ideas and help us to feel their importance and significance.

(Photograph: Craig and Prof. Richard Horner at the Soho Theatre before Somniloquy)

Charlot: Finally, three albums you’d take to a desert island?

Craig: I like novelty, so I'm not a great one for listening to the same album over and over again. Somewhat nostalgically I would go for Rubber Soul by The Beatles, UK release version. This is one of the first albums I got into as a teenager but it was my Mum and Dad's and they had bought it in the USA (I was born in the USA) so it has a different track listing. I'd like to listen to it in its proper British order. Also A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships by the 1975, as it is long and varied and funny and brilliant. Also Everything Everything's next album (which they are working on now; I don't know the title but am pretty confident it will be as brilliant as their previous ones).

(Photograph: Craig performing on stage with his son)

Charlot: I would like to thank Craig for sharing the insights above about his work. It has certainly made me want to go and see more plays! If you would like to Follow Craig on Twitter you can find him at @CraigBaxter

Next week, I shall be sharing some more photographs I have taken of Cambridge in Spring over the years. We are nearly there!

Hope you all have a lovely week,
Charlot x
If you would like to read archived newsletters with interviews on other writers, actors and artists, please view the archive button top left once you open this newsletter in a browser.
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