As a child, Sylvia Dow remembers accompanying her mother to ‘unsuitable’ productions, transfixed by the story brought to life and lying tangible before her. Her attraction to the industry sent her on a treasure hunt of drama-related professions. She has worked as an actress, a radio presenter, head of the Bo’ness Drama academy, Education officer for the MacRobert Arts Centre in Stirling, and, most recently, Head of Education at the Scottish Arts Council, at that time a relatively recently founded position in a thriving department. When she retired, the ideas for plays which had been fizzing inside her head for decades led her to pursue a creative writing Masters at Glasgow University, where her work was spotted by theatre-maker and director, Selma Dimitrijevic, of Greyscale.
After fifty years working in various parts of the theatrical sector, Sylvia Dow (who is now 73) has decided to become a writer, working in collaboration with Greyscale to present her play A Beginning, A Middle and An End. Sylvia talks to our Scotland Editor Rosanna Hall about her movement towards writing theatre and taking her work from page to stage.
So, how did it feel to say ‘I am a writer’?
SD: I felt so liberated. I could write about whatever I wanted. And maybe no one would see it. Maybe it wouldn’t get published or go anywhere and perhaps no one would care. But once I’d said it, no one could stop me writing.
What are the differences between working behind the scenes in the arts sector performances yourself, putting yourself up there and out there?
Well, it’s a change of pace. Not so much a shift from head to heart about what is invested, I mean when you work in any way with the arts, the emotional aspects are never compartmentalised away from the productions. But when you’ve seen a play grow in your hands, and then when you watch that vision blossom onto stage…it’s been a more scary and more all engulfing process than my work in other sectors.
And how has that been, seeing the work you wrote being taken over to be placed onstage?
Amazing. So amazing. Greyscale and Selma have been fantastic to work with. I’ve been in rehearsal a lot, more than I thought I’d be. But it is a collaboration between us; it’s no longer just mine. It’s like a hive of activity, everyone bringing their own stuff to the table. Working together and getting it done.
You see it in the set design. A lot of it the audience miss, but each of the props onstage when Evelyn and Ade build the house were all handpicked, illustrated with tiny initials and drawings of the family which tied in with the plot. It was all so carefully done, a real place is created. But it’s still spontaneous because Selma encourages the building of the house to be different every time. She told the actors to think about where they were placing the objects and to really engage with it, like they were real people making house. There was nothing methodical or rehearsed about it. That’s brave, making an audience sit through 20 minutes or so of prop movement. And then making them sit through it again! But it worked. And everyone sat through it.
I love the set design, and the idea of the randomness of a different set every performance is really in keeping with the theme of movement and organic cycles which struck me as central to your writing
I like universal themes. I’d even go so far as to say that the best plays are about universal themes. Humankind operates in a cycle of optimism and despair, not dissimilar to a plant which pulls itself down in winter and rebuilds during the summer months. We’re always looking for new beginnings to things, even when we’re at our worst. My original idea for the script was that you could begin the play from any scene. It would be circular in form.
Like in Ulysses when Joyce ends halfway through a sentence which finishes on the first page?
Yes, with this idea of circularity, but meaningful circularity built into the structure. Each time you learn something new. This idea got a bit lost in the wash when the play went into production, but hopefully the essence of it is still in there.
I think so, what with the references to beginnings at the end. The optimism was really refreshing to watch onstage. Much of modern drama seems so saturated with despair. I think it’s great that you write from this vantage point of calmness, retrospection…
I don’t know if I can speak for older people in general, but it seems to me that there is more universalisation of themes, and a different relationship with them. Most things have happened before one way or another, and no matter how bad the situation seems now, we have been there before. We got through it before. We know more than we know now. Even politically, you can see the cycles that occur. And it’s amazing how far we’ve come, being able to legislate against people hurting each other, in my lifetime, but even in yours. Homosexuality, women’s rights…people forget the improvements we’ve made. It’s not that I don’t get angry – I’m an old socialist – but there is a knowledge that we will get through the difficult times, and even that there is something deeper than the conflicts, something which endures. I have had a few Buddhists approach me after the play, and feel that the themes were very much in keeping with their philosophy. And I just love the idea that there is a meeting point between the different religious outlooks in the play.
Yes, because there are so many references to Biblical stories, the names of Evelyn and Ade. The avocados operating as this distorted apple…and death appears as a reunion in it somehow.
Yes, that is it. That is the best thing about being involved in theatre like this. To write things and for people to engage and relate to them. To feel part of an ‘artistic community’ and to call it that! Even an old wrinklie like me!
And has writing as an older person been a challenge? How does it feel to be marketed on account of your age?
Well. I can only use that once really. No one is going to be interested in a play by a 74 year old. Unless it’s a good play of course. But as there are a lot of us, older people I mean, I think it’s good that I put myself out there. In Scotland, in the next few years, more than half the population will be over 55. And people write more than you think, many older people write. There are many, many older people out there with stories they want to tell. And they should go for it. Like Selma says, you should let an idea grow inside you until you really feel ready to burst. And that’s when you know you need to write it down. Just to get it out of you. If you can become part of a course, where it’s structured, that helps. It makes writing a priority, and encourages the process of drafting and redrafting which is often overlooked in people’s perception of how writing works. It’s incredibly hard to write something good if you don’t redraft, and it’s incredibly easy to throw out a first draft without giving it a proper chance to develop.
I’m delighted that I’ve been given the chance to get my writing out there, and have been bowled over by how much it can mean to other people.
It is very reassuring to hear from an older voice I think, and theatre is a great mutual environment where young and older can be included easily.
It’s why projects such as the Luminate Festival are so important, theatre is a great field to bring younger and older people together, it isn’t exclusive to either like some other arts are, it’s a really effective way of communicating across ages.
I agree, and that is what I loved about A Beginning, A Middle and an End, it had this really nourishing quality.
Like an avocado. Thank you. Because – as I wrote in my blog for Greyscale – I don’t want to play at this. I want to be good at this. And age has nothing to do with wanting to be the best you can be.