When James Graham collected the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy earlier this year (for Labour Of Love), the Ink and This House writer transitioned firmly from the ‘Rising Star’ to ‘Powerhouse Playwright’ category. But in his latest show, Sketching, which begins performances at Wilton’s Music Hall on Wednesday (26 September), he’s not going it alone.
In a collaborative project with director Thomas Hescott, the duo have recruited 8 emerging writing talents to form Sketching, a uniquely multi-authored play. Sketching draws inspiration from Charles Dickens’ first novel Sketches By Boz, and tells tales of 24 hours in the life of London.
We spoke to Himanshu Ojha, one of the selected writers, and Thomas about the unique experience, what they’ve both gleaned from it, and why the result is a must-see for anyone who loves London.
Looking to break into the theatre industry? We have loads of information on our Inspiring Future Theatre hub.
Himanshu Ojha – Writer
For anybody who hasn’t heard of Sketching, can you tell us a little about the show itself, and the project behind it?
Sketching is a collection of stories about different parts and people of London. It’s almost like a curry – just lots of different flavours and slices of life, jumbling up against each other!
In terms of the project itself, this is an idea that James and Tom have had for about 7 years now. The idea was to use Dickens’ short stories to talk about different sides of London and, over time, they also came to see it as a way of championing new writers – and so we have Sketching!
There’s 9 writers – including James – 5 actors, and more than 50 characters.
What experience of theatre did you have prior to Sketching, and what made you want to apply for it?
When I came out of Uni I acted for a couple of years, not particularly successfully! I got the chance to study journalism in America, dropped the acting, and I’ve been a journalist since then.
It was in May when James announced the competition. I still have a lot of friends in the theatre world, and it was a really easy competition to get involved with. You just had to write a 300-word story idea.
Most new writing competitions want you to have a fully-fledged script, which is difficult if you’re working in another job. An idea for a story can capture that moment and inspiration without having to beat it down with the specifics of crafting pages and pages of dialogue. I saw it, wrote down an idea within a weekend, and got it down on the last day – I think like most of the other writers here!
You applied, got in – how did the process then work for the writers?
There was a launch at Wilton’s Music Hall at the end of July, and that was the start of a 3-day workshop period where all 8 of us met up for the first time and met with James and Tom.
For 3 days we were in a room. James basically ran it like an American-style, TV writers’ room, where we’d talk about our individual story ideas, different ways they could play out – because not all of them, including mine, were fully fleshed out at this point – and we discussed it as a group.
And we also talked about what kind of things we liked about theatre, what kind of things we’d like to avoid, over a really happy 3 days. “Workshopping” sounds like work – but it was mainly just 3 days of talking about stories and theatre, and our stories in particular.
What were you hoping to gain from the process?
Having 8 other extremely good writers in the same position as you. They’ve all had work put on before, and they’re all just fantastic people to talk to, which is very accommodating for a novice like me. I just kept asking questions!
It’s nice to have people who are experiencing the same highs and lows as you are – it’s quite reassuring. And in terms of working with James, he was just lovely – it was one of the best editing experiences I can ever hope to have.
He asks all the right questions, but also gives you the power to fix your own problems. It was just the perfect mix of encouraging and questioning, and a really organic process.
What aspects of playwriting have you enjoyed the most?
I’ve found myself over this summer really enjoying the collaborative aspects. Coming up with a scene in your head and having your imaginary characters dancing around and arguing with each other is great fun, but then taking that into a rehearsal room with actors and directors can be quite daunting at first. I was pretty sure I’d be really defensive!
It’s been really lovely to see what other people bring to make your work look better! I think the fun of stage writing is creating something and having other people buoy it up, and then it becomes everyone’s thing.
Finally, coming back to Sketching, why should audiences come and see it?
Come see what you know about London…. and come see what you don’t know!
Tom Hescott – Director
How would you describe Sketching?
Sketching is inspired by Charles Dickens’ short stories, Sketches By Boz. A number of years ago James [Graham] and I were chatting, and we both loved the idea of telling the story of London and what it means to be a Londoner.
We started to play around with that and became interested in Dickens’ short stories, Sketches By Boz, particularly as he often would unmask extraordinary Londoners you might not know about. As we started to workshop that idea, it became really clear to us that, to tell the story of a whole city, we had to include more than one singular voice, so we were excited to bring in emerging writers.
We started to create this idea that the content of the play – hidden voices in London – would meet the process of the play – bringing writers together to give a platform for those voices.
There must have been a lot of interest in that platform!
I think there was over 800 applicants!
So what in particular made these writers stand out?
We weren’t sure when we started, we were very open-minded. We were particularly struck, as we started to whittle them down, with the stories that surprised us. They took us in directions we weren’t expecting.
Dickens’ novels were often quite twist-y and turn-y with great big character archs, but were also grounded in a sense of reality. All of Sketching’s stories particularly inspired us because they led us in unexpected ways, and they surprised us as we went through them – they inspired us.
How did you go about bringing together these stories into a singular show?
We brought the writers together and started to explore each of the stories, and form a structure. They each went away and wrote their story.
James also has 3 or 4 stories that weave in and out, so he started to piece it together and find a way of creating a cohesion. And exactly how he’s done that, you’ll have to come and find out!
What do you hope the writers are taking away from the entire experience?
I hope they are excited to see their work come to life. First and foremost, we’ve brought everyone together to create an extraordinary play.
Each of the writers will be learning like the rest of us. It’s not about James and I passing wisdom on to a bunch of emerging writers – it’s about people working together and exploring a set of stories, and in that process the writers in the room inform us, the actors inform us, and we all inform each other. We’re all here to create something collaboratively, and we can all take away something from that.
Creating theatre can be a competitive industry. How did you get into directing?
I studied Theatre Design at Central, and was a Stage Door Keeper at the Royal Court. They had a young writers’ workshop coming up, and I said I’d love to help out, so they made me an unpaid Assistant Director, and that’s how I began!
For anybody who’s thinking about getting started in directing, what advice would you give?
Explore what your own voice is and what work you’re passionate about. Think of yourself as a storyteller and the stories that you want to tell.
Don’t get bogged down in the career side of things – follow the stories that inspire you and find the platforms for those, rather than getting bogged down in “What Chekhov should I direct this year?”!
Why should everybody see Sketching?
You will go on the most extraordinary, surprising journey through the city that you could imagine.
And if you come on different nights, you may well see a different play…