Accidental Playwrights – An Impostor’s Story

A couple of years ago my wife, writer Kate Sidley, had a humour column in a monthly health magazine. Each month she mined the great steaming petri-dish of gyms and other health obsessions and came away with all sorts of comedic nuggets to extract a couple of laughs from readers.

Around the same time we went to see a wonderful play written by our friend Craig Higginson entitled ‘The Girl in the Yellow Dress’. The play was enjoying both popular and critical acclaim and was being (or was due to be) produced in multiple cities, including overseas.

We chatted to Craig, who described the economics of the successful playwright, and they were mouth-watering, with a juicy cut of each ticket sold ending up in the writer’s pocket. A quick calculation showed this to be potentially much more lucrative than the pittance made by the average South African novelist and columnist.

Pfft. I said to Kate – let’s write a play. How hard could it be?  Pfft, she said – sounds like fun. when do we start?

So we sat down to fashion a play based on her column, and supported by our multiple degrees from Juilliard and the London Academy of Dramatic Arts and our stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and Broadway.

Where things went quickly off the rails.

Firstly, Kate and I nearly got divorced within the first 2 pages of the stageplay. She would say – I don’t think your characters’ voices are clearly enough separated, and the hairs on my neck would rise and I would wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off with a Thai mail-order bride. I would say – I don’t think your character’s first joke was funny enough, and I would see her lips and eyes narrow as she contemplated an affair with someone younger and cuter than I.

Secondly, we have another friend, Rosalind Butler, who has wads of experience in bringing stories to stage and screen, and was in the process of looking for a producer for her own original stageplay. She described the landscape – producers had little money, sponsorships were rare, theatres were living hand-to-mouth, audiences sparce and uncommitted. In short, most playwrights climb a a daunting mountain, stageplay in hand, and no summit in sight. The real world seemed that it would be a tough place for unheralded playwrights like Sidley Inc.  (Ros’s play, the very funny ‘An Unromantic Comedy’ was produced and staged last October).

We threw in the towel almost immediately, and returned to the unforgiving world of novels and columns.

So, fast-forward a year or two. I was busy doing battle with my fourth novel (still am), and I was losing. Sloshing around in a pit of despond I accidentally opened the stillborn play that Kate and I had started. The first two pages were actually not bad. I told Kate that I wanted to poke at it, to which she gave her blessing.

I sprinted through the first 15 pages, and then paused. Not having invested great deal of effort at that point I figured that I may as well get some educated feedback, and if the verdict was the expected rolling of the eyes, I would simply abandon – little ventured, little lost.

So I sent it to a person-of-influence, in secret. .

Who said – this is wonderful. If you can finish this play at this level of quality I will produce it.

I gingerly crept in to down to Kate’s writing lair, and said – remember the play? I need your help. We have a chance to be bona fide playwrights. Can we co-write without blood on the walls? She was keen – I suspect because she was supposed to be writing her Creative Writing MA proposal at the time, along with any number of simultaneous columns for various magazines and newspapers. Any distraction in a storm…

So we carefully separated the characters, the writing tasks, the schedules. We spitballed and lobbed ideas at dinner, before bed, during  slush-mouthed morning toothbrushing, by cellphone during teenager pick-up duties. Kept egos to a minimum. Smiled a lot. Swallowed choking gobs of pride.  And emerged with a competed stageplay some weeks later, perhaps in need of polish and tweak, but essentially complete.

I sent it to my person-of influence.

We received an SMS some weeks later which simply said –  ‘I love your play’.

‘Shape – A Comedy of Vanity, Race and Sex’ by Steven Boykey Sidley and Kate Sidley will premiere at Theatre-on-the Square in Sandton on January 28, 2015, produced by Daphne Kuhn

And we are still happily married.