Playwright Nicola McCartney on How Not to Drown and the James Tait Black Prize for Drama
Nicola McCartney is an award winning playwright, director and dramaturg, with past plays including Easy, Heritage, Cave Dwellers and Lifeboat. At the University, McCartney is a Reader in Writing for Performance and Programme Director of the Masters programme in Playwriting, as well as running the James Tait Black Prize for Drama. Her latest work, How Not to Drown – written with Dritan Kastrati - is showing at the Traverse Theatre as a part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. On Friday, it was awarded a Fringe First award in recognition of outstanding new writing at the Festival.
The Traverse Theatre’s 2019 programme is celebrating resilience and action in the face of challenge and oppression. How does How Not to Drown fit into this narrative?
The play tells the true story of Dritan Kastrati and his journey as an 11 year old asylum seeker to the UK in the aftermath of the Kosovan War, and then his subsequent journey through the British Care system. It is a tale of a young child desperately trying to survive through his own strength and sense of humour, in a system in which he is not welcome and in which his language and identity are stripped away from him.
How did you end up working with Dritan Kastrati?
I was invited to come and work with him 4 years ago by Scott Graham, Artistic Director of Frantic Assembly Theatre Company. I have written for this company before and Scott told me they were working with a young actor who wanted to tell his life story as a piece of physical theatre, but it was so traumatic that he was struggling. I have done a lot of similar work using playwriting to help people carrying trauma to take back control of their personal narrative. And so Scott thought I'd be best placed to help.
How did you find the collaborative experience of writing alongside Kastrati, given that the story is his own?
I have a lot of experience working in this way, and in fact for me it is a huge part of the work I do: using dramatic structure and playwriting to help people piece back together their life histories after a traumatic experience. The story we each tell about ourselves to ourselves is very important for one's mental health and wellbeing, and so I have engaged in projects like this with care-experienced young people, drug users, survivors of conflict and sexual assault, and those who are in the criminal justice system. This project has worked very much like those.
Your co-writer has said that this is not a sad story – how would you describe the tone of the play?
I'd say it is one of strength and hope - of overcoming sadness, of survival. But there is a lot of humour - the humour which often breaks tension in tough situations.
The James Tait Black Prizes are awarded by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures and are Britain’s longest-running literary awards. Since 2012, the James Tait Black Prize for Drama has been awarded as well as the book prize, to similarly celebrate innovative drama worldwide. The £10,000 prize is open to any new work by playwrights from any country, and at any stage in their career and the award is run by Nicola.
How important do you find awards such as the James Tait Black Drama prize for encouraging playwriting?
We are looking for plays which break the mould in some way. What we wanted to do with this award was to encourage theatre companies to take risks in commissioning. In economically straightened times, often producers and directors are risk averse because they need to sell tickets. But this can lead to "beige" programming and work which though it might sell, is just replicating old forms and not doing anything new.
Your role within the University involves supporting emerging young playwrights - such as assisting Masters Students debuting their plays in Pre-View at the Traverse Theatre. Do you find that this role benefits your own ideas and writing?
Absolutely. Clichéd though this sounds I learn from the students I work with probably more than they will ever learn from me; because each stretches me in a different way since I deliberately choose emerging playwrights whose voices are unique and differ to each other.