29 Plays Later – Days 18-21

29 Plays Later – Days 18-21

The past four days of the 29 Plays Later challenge have brought me two satisfyingly fun pieces – a farce, and a revue – and two clear failures. Imagine me in a Travelodge in Leeds on my birthday, exhausted and trying to write about the Eastern Bloc for my nineteenth play of the month. Who made months so long anyway?

Day 18 – The Second ‘I’ in Liaison – I usually do titles last so the challenge was to begin with the title. Mine was kindly donated by the mighty Tom Elkins. I improvised a farce starting with a man triple-booking himself at a restaurant and trying to maintain three meals at once. Instantly painting myself into a corner, I just had to keep painting! Obeying its own absurd logic the farce built to a satisfyingly ridiculous conclusion.

18_-_THE_SECOND_I_IN_LIAISON_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 25pp, 5 actors)

Day 19 – The Obedience of Kolya S – Write about what you don’t know. I do this every time anyway. I started with this East European film I saw over twenty years ago and can’t remember properly. I wish I could track it down. There was some kind of revolution or siege, and a final grainy tableau where they find the weird little guy they’re after in a pile of bodies in a big net. I got thinking about Václav Havel‘s mixture of politics and absurd theatre, and Heinrich Böll‘s stubborn and eccentric protagonists struggling to sustain personal life against a background of war and political upheaval. I failed to create a coherent play in the little time I had on my birthday. Nice first line though: “I found myself with a nun in a cupboard of bread. I said to myself “Whatever happens, I’ll be eating bread.””

19_-_THE_OBEDIENCE_OF_KOLYA_S_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 10pp, 3 actors)

Day 20 – 1996: The Year in Revue – Write a play with twenty characters to celebrate the twentieth birthday of the Space Theatre. One challenger wrote a football match, another poured vitriol on the crappy challenges we’re being given. I created a revue, a mixture of surreal satirical sketches, songs, stand-up and skits telling the tale of 1996, the year of the mad cow, Dolly the sheep, GM Frankeinstein food, Take That and the Spice Girls, royal divorces, and tragedies on Everest, in Manchester and Dunblane.

20_-_1996_THE_YEAR_IN_REVUE_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 15pp)

Day 21 – Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town/Our People) – We were sent a text about visionary/outsider art. I went to my well-thumbed copy of Colin Rhodes’s book and picked out Simon Rodia who between 1921 and 1954 constructed the so-called Watts Towers (pictured) using ad hoc materials in a rough area of LA that would later experience massive race riots. I poured in content and didn’t create any characters or a good narrative, but there’s a kernel of an idea about not submitting and building a future.

21_-_NUESTRO_PUEBLO_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 12pp)

Speaking of which: eight more plays to go! Follow the hashtag #29playslater.



29 Plays Later – Day 17 – Dramatis Personae

29 Plays Later – Day 17 – Dramatis Personae

Our challenge for Day 17 of 29 Plays Later was to “write a play that is shorter than a millisecond or longer than a millennia.”

I got cosmic and spent the evening researching gnosticism, creationism and the Big Bang theory, the moral implications of complex systems theory,  explanations for the evolution of bigger brains and human intelligence, deep-learning systems in AI, composing music with recurrent neural networks, the overview effect, and sharing and hoarding in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, and Marjolijn Dijkman’s science fictional timeline from 2008 to 802,701.

I didn’t use any of it. Last week Sarah Mann sent me a screenshot of the character descriptions (dramatis personae) from one of her plays and it was hilarious and suggestive and to me worked as a thing in its own right. Day 17 felt like a good opportunity to construct a story wholly out of prefatory descriptions of the characters and thereby write a play shorter than a millisecond.

This is strongly influenced by J.G. Ballard’s experimental short story “Answers to a Questionnaire” in which we are presented with one hundred answers without their questions, leaving us as to tease out implied narratives and connections.

If you think the millisecond short ‘play’ itself is sheer sport, then have a look at Samuel Beckett’s notorious short play Breath, which at 25 seconds is comparatively epic. It’s a dream of mine to present Breath as an evening performance with an interval.

Day 17 – Dramatis Personae



29 Plays Later – Day 15 & Day 16

29 Plays Later – Day 15 & Day 16

The challenge for Day 15 of 29 Plays Later was to write about “your idol”; I have trolly-loads of idols – an idolatrolly. Where to start? Episodes from the history of music are a good source of drama and lols. I decided to develop an idea I had about the composer Handel and Jimi Hendrix being neighbours. This really happened, give or take two hundred years. You can visit Handel’s London house at 25 Brook Street and Hendrix’s flat next door at 23 which last week opened to the public as a museum. I wrote a comedy about the two musicians, one with his religious belief and royal patronage, one with his stone-free liberationism, not hitting it off but then influencing each other’s music.

Day 15 – The Persecution and Inspiration of George Frideric Handel as Performed by the Entourage of Jimi Hendrix under the Direction of Psychedelic Drugs (Handel/Hendrix)
15_-_HANDEL_HENDRIX_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 17pp, 5 chars)

Day 16 gave us four clips of Daniel Barenboim playing Beethoven to work with. I decided that even though there’s already a movie based on the story I’d have a crack at the mystery of the famous unsent love letter Beethoven wrote to a lady he referred to as his ‘Immortal Beloved’ – whose identity is still unknown.

Day 16 – Immortal Beloved
16_-_IMMORTAL_BELOVED_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf 20pp, 10 chars)

It’s frustrating that I only have time to lay down first draft filler dialogue to get across the story. There’s good stuff in there but a lot of weak and stupid writing. No time! I hope you’ll forgive me that, for now. Both of these plays are ones I’d like to revisit and write properly and record, perhaps as part of a series of absurdist musical mockumentaries including Day 4’s mathrock mocksposé Piccioni Rosa.


PS. As if you didn’t know, Day 15’s (working) title is a play on Marat/Sade.

29 Plays Later – Day 14 – The Massacre on Valentine’s Day

29 Plays Later – Day 14 – The Massacre on Valentine’s Day

Day 14 of 29 Plays Later was a toughie, with a list of writing constraints that would make the clever members of the Oulipo group blench.

Challenge 14 – Due 15/02 at 10am GMT

Let’s be super duper strict. Below are the rules for your play:

1. There are six named characters in the play, but only four of them appear
2. One of the characters begins every sentence with the letter B (every sentence, not every line), another starts every other sentence with Y.
3. You may use between 5-9 pauses in the play, but at least two of them need to be in the middle of a speech. 1>2m>
4. One of the characters is over 70
5. Every line of dialogue must have one of the following: either 6 words, 13 words, 19 words, 27 words, 54 words or 113 words (you can punctuate as you see fit)
6. The play will contain four scenes/acts
7. One of the scenes will be without words, but all the characters are present on stage, and the action should last a minimum of 5 minutes.
8. The other three scenes have a minimum of 15 lines of dialogue, and each must contain one silent action
9. Two of the characters fall in love during the play, and two fall out (can be the same two, if you like)
10. Wine will be drunk, wine will be spilled, wine will be thrown

Several challengers decided enough was enough, and vowed to ignore all this. Many had a go at it, but joylessly. I got a certain amount of pleasure, but it was limited and phoned-in. It’s one thing to write a novel that doesn’t use the letter e, and it’s another to do it to a 36-hour time limit without the space for the constraints to thrillingly liberate the imagination. Poets take this space and use it all the time – using rhyme is a kind of Oulipian constraint: in order to make the words rhyme you might have to take a different route than you would if you were just writing prose. The constraint of rhyming makes you think differently.

I kept to the constraints, all of them. It led me to quite a strange place I couldn’t have predicted when I exasperatedly started to work on a script. My silent scene is inspired by film-maker Michael Haneke‘s chilling long semi-static shots in CachéIn the third scene of Day 14’s very short high school play we cut into five minutes of the characters desperately trying to hide while off-screen/off-stage with deafening volume a kid shoots up the school.

Day 14 – The Massacre on Valentine’s Day

14_-_THE_MASSACRE_ON_VALENTINES_DAY_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 10pp, 4 actors)


29 Plays Later on the radio

29 Plays Later on the radio

On Saturday Sarah Mann and I appeared on the Dexter Bentley Hello Goodbye Show on Resonance FM and chatted about writing a play every day for The Space’s 29 Plays Later challenge. We performed a scene from one of these plays, Day 10’s Spiral Jetty, a true-life historical drama which in my haste and mania I had somehow failed to realize was completely absurd.

We borrowed some earnest Australian accents from Home & Away and Neighbours and acted the shit out of it.  Lines like “It’s what we talked about months ago, in general terms” and “It’s only three weeks since the car accident” are clanging cloth-eared classics of the genre of bad dramatic writing.

That’s what happens when a man with no inner seriousness tries to write serious: it’s ridiculous. I’ve never laughed so much in my life as sitting in a cafe with Sarah Mann going through our lame scripts. It was all we could do not to corpse during the performance.

Here’s the video from the radio studio. I’m rocking a radio-friendly double-bobbled hat, and my flies are open throughout. Do I still embody gravitas?

Filmed by John Clay. Thanks to the Dexter Bentley show and 29 Plays Later.


29 Plays Later – Day 11 & Day 12 & Day 13

29 Plays Later – Day 11 & Day 12 & Day 13

The daily challenges of 29 Plays Later can be hard. They can be good or bad, inspiring or boring. I didn’t get much out of Days 11-13 but my responses gave me more experience of structuring a story, I experimented with expressionism, and wrote something kiddy-friendly. It’s as demanding as ever to write a play a day (and make it a play not just a sketch) but once the boredom subsides and the ink starts flowing, you can stretch out and surprise yourself.

Day 11 – Dirrty Pantalons – Challenge: write gender neutral roles and write about sexuality and gender. Andi and Nicky are going to sabotage Jonbenet’s cabaret act, but noone knows that Benjonet has stepped in pretending to be Jonbenet. An unedifying reflection of the cattiness and mean-spiritedness of show business, this piece has been described by one reader as as mean, horrible and empty.

11_-_DIRRTY_PANTALONS_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 19pp, 7 chars)

Day 12 – The Dream Song – Set your play on a plane, but then move it to somewhere else. I read a great one in which someone sitting in the front row of the Royal Opera House is having a panic attack until the moment the opera starts (or takes off). I wrote a short expressionistic piece, a bit desperate and psychoanalytically charged.

12_-_THE_DREAM_SONG_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 6pp)

Day 13 – The Melody For Destiny –  Write something you don’t want to see in the theatre, your theatrical nightmare, but make it the best it can be on its own terms from a position of understanding. This is a moral fable for children inspired by Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Cosmo goes on his Growth Quest to collect the Magic Melodies that have special powers. I got quite into writing this, especially the Gardener’s Melody for Patience and the Wizard’s Melody for Making the Impossible Possible. Alix Mortimer stepped in and wrote a few, and you should too! Let’s make it into an illustrated children’s book and then kill ourselves.

13_-_THE_MELODY_FOR_DESTINY_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf 34pp, 2 to 16 actors)


29 Plays Later – Day 10 – Spiral Jetty

29 Plays Later – Day 10 – Spiral Jetty

In 2005 Barry Marshall and Robin Warren shared the Nobel Prize for their work showing that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is the cause of most peptic ulcer, reversing decades of medical doctrine holding that ulcers were caused by stress. Such was the resistance to their theories that in order to ‘fast-track’ their research, Marshall infected himself with the Helicobacter bacterium. I thought this story could be turned into a play for Day 10 of the 29 Plays Later challenge.

By 11pm I’d just about marshalled my research into five scenes and hadn’t written any dialogue. Doom! To tell real history, where do you start? Too much linearity is boring, it’s just history as ‘one damned thing after another’. I felt that the key event, Marshall drinking the Helicobacter, was actually better happening offstage. The lead-up and consequences are more interesting.

The key dramatic event for the play is actually when he has to confess to his wife that he’s infected himself with the bacteria. This is the heart of my play, and the fourth scene. After that I started the fifth scene, which is a retrospective (a happy ending!), then the third scene is the lead-up to Marshall’s self-experiment (which happens between the third and fourth). These scenes are duologues and are sort of okay.

I needed to show how Murray’s action arose out of two things: the resistance of the rest of the medical profession to the new truth, and the needless human suffering this resistance was prolonging. The second scene is a pretty bad stylised speech scene in which Murray and Warren argue with ‘Medical Rep’ about science and ethics. I’d run out of time to write better drama, but opening with Murray delivering a monologue seemed to work reasonably well, with a vivid depiction of the human suffering that he had made it his life’s work, and risked his own life, to improve.

Day 10 – Spiral Jetty

10_-_SPIRAL_JETTY_-_AJ_DEHANY (pdf, 20pp, 4 actors)