Ink Festival’s Esther Freud, Helen Atkinson Wood and Libby Purves discuss new writing

Novelist Esther Freud. Photo: Contributed

Novelist Esther Freud. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Archant

This year’s Ink Festival sees celebrated novelist Esther Freud make her playwrighting debut. She, and director Helen Atkinson Wood, reveal more while professional theatre critic Libby Purves offers advice on how to get your new play noticed.

Esther Freud's Mr Mac and Me. It's set in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast in 1914. Photo: Contribu

Esther Freud's Mr Mac and Me. It's set in Walberswick on the Suffolk coast in 1914. Photo: Contributed - Credit: Archant

Both Esther and Helen are on the move when I catch up them. Esther’s five minutes from home after a walk through Walberswick. Helen’s about to board a train. Both are excited about Esther’s debut play Stitchers, the first 30 minutes of which will be unveiled at a rehearsed reading on Sunday.

Q: It’s your first play, how are you feeling?

EF: It’s just the first half-hour because Ink Festival is a festival of short plays. The actual play is two hours long. I’m very excited to see how it looks when I’m sitting in the audience and it will come to life to some extent. We’re going to have sound effects, people are going to move about and we’re going to have a little bit of a set. I’m doing another draft at the moment and I’m hoping this will be the one someone says yes to. I’ve got various directors interested.

Q: How long have you wanted to write a play?

EF: As much as I love writing novels it’s been an ambition for, I think, maybe 14 years. I remember having an idea and thinking “oh I’ll do this when I finish my next book” and then getting into writing another book. This time I started doing my research while I was writing my last novel, Mr Mac and Me, so I just thought “okay, I better just start this”.

I think the ideas I had before I wasn’t really convinced (of), whereas this idea I absolutely knew if it didn’t work it was only because I hadn’t written a good enough play not because the idea wasn’t good enough. There’s just so many elements in there that were interesting.

Actress, writer, painter and director Helen Atkinson Wood. Photo: Steve Ullathorne

Actress, writer, painter and director Helen Atkinson Wood. Photo: Steve Ullathorne - Credit: Archant

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Q: It’s a different way of working?

EF: For me it didn’t seem that different, it was just about writing and writing and writing; getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t work and re-writing it 1,000 times.

Q: Tell me about Stitchers?

EF: I’ve wanted to write a play for a long time and was just looking around for an idea. I’ve known about Fine Cell Work, the charity the play’s based on, for a long time. I wish I could remember what it was that suddenly gave me the idea that it would be a wonderful play. I think [it was] just the idea of men in small grim prison cells making these beautiful items of embroidery. The play is set the year it first started in 1997 but 20 years later there are Fine Cell Work groups in prisons all over Britain and waiting lists for every group in every prison that has it.

Q: It’s an interesting juxtaposition?

Author, journalist, columnist and theatre critic Libby Purves. Photo: BBC

Author, journalist, columnist and theatre critic Libby Purves. Photo: BBC - Credit: Archant

EF: The lady who set it up, Lady Anne Tree, had a family that had a reforming tradition. One of the things she said was that excellence is not usually expected in prisons... She really did believe that with some training, enthusiasm and support anyone could make these really beautiful items of embroidery. If she could sell them on behalf of the prisoners it could make all the difference to their lives when they came out and all the difference to their lives in there.

A prison guard said to me “we don’t judge anyone on what they did outside, you just judge people on how they behave in here”. When you have a room with people sewing, an extraordinary peaceful feeling descends and so you get to know people on quite a deep level. People start to talk and open up; their anxiety retreats, their confidence starts to grow.

I spoke to men who said “I don’t think I’d actually still be here if I hadn’t discovered stitching because it’s something to do in my cell and it just gave me a space in my brain to think”. It’s really quite moving actually.

I always have loved making things but modern life does leave you with much less time to do those kind of things you used to do. I started to do a lot more sewing when I was first researching the play.

Q: How did you and Helen get involved in Ink?

EF: I was standing in the street in Walberswick, talking to Julia Sowerbutts, who set the festival up. She said as a patron, which I am, what would I like to do at the festival; would I like to give a talk. It’s much more fun for people to see something and I was thinking wouldn’t it be great if I could just write a short play but I knew I probably wouldn’t have time. She said how about we just do the first half an hour of Stitches. Helen is the other patron and Julia said “Oh I’ve asked Helen if she would direct something – maybe she could direct that?” And I went ‘brilliant’”. It all got sorted out in about four minutes. I known Helen for 15 years or something.

Q: Does it help directing-wise that you’re friends with Esther?

HAW: It probably does, but we’ve never worked together so we’re discovering different things about each other along the way which of course is all part of a friendship... I think first and foremost we have a passion for this part of Suffolk. My job is to serve Esther and her play as best as I can with the actors we have pulled together; and we’ve got some great actors involved in this rehearsed reading. It’s a learning curve for all of us. They’ll be on their feet, putting everything into it but the idea is so Esther will be able to see what works, what doesn’t work and what’s the best way forward.

I’m also going to read a short radio play by (comedy scriptwriter) Jan Etherington. Three different writers have written three short radio scripts and there’s a cast of 12 actors who are going to be doing these radio short plays.

Q: Ink Festival is getting more recognition this year?

HAW: I think so. The whole point of the Ink Festival is to celebrate things that come out of the seedbed of East Anglian talent. It’s not stripping things out of East Anglia but we did have the opportunity to give one of the shows of last year [Daughter, by Bill Cashmore] an outing at the Pleasance Theatre in London. That was very much appreciated by the wider audience. Not that everything needs to end up in London, far from it...

Q: What do you like about Ink?

EF: As someone who has written a play quite recently, I know how hard it is to know where to send it or know who to get to read it. The idea there’s someone saying “please send your short plays to us and we’ll have a really good look at them and maybe make a production” is wonderful, life changing. It makes you want to write when you know someone’s waiting. Last year there was so many interesting things, I’m really looking forward to seeing more plays this year.

The 2017 Ink Festival also features a number of discussions, including What Gets a New Play Noticed - A Critic’s Perspective with Libby Purves on Saturday.

The Suffolk-raised journalist, columnist and novelist has been a professional theatre critic since 2010; two-and-a-half years as The Times’ chief theatre critic, then after the editor changed doing it for her own website (

Q: How hard is for writers to get their work noticed by potential backers, venues and critics?

A: Very hard for new writers. Established ones will always be followed, though less if they are at a very fringe theatre.

Q: Why is it hard?

A: There are not many newspaper critics left – two Sundays have dropped them entirely – and the online critical community is changing and growing and shrinking all the time, few are known voices. Also there are a LOT of openings and few of them outside big theatres ever have matinees, so with a limited number of nights in the week... think about it.

Q: Do you think some writers and directors veer too much towards pleasing of backers and critics, not audiences – or vice versa?

A: Nobody thinks about pleasing critics. They have free seats, so are not a source of revenue. Audiences are the gold dust.

Q: How much good work do you think never makes it to performance because people don’t know how to get their new play noticed?

A: If it’s seriously good, in the end it gets there. But writers often hate the process of selling, being rejected and trying again.

Q: What advice, as a critic and an author, would you give writers?

A: Try to get it into the kind of theatre that critics and journalists know of and respect. If not, consider whether the content of your play is in some way topical, hits a nerve, touches on something people are talking about or that’s in the news and persuade people to write about that. Use social media and, for heaven’s sake, find a catchy title. It’s amazing how little people think of that. The title is the label, the marketing tag, the lure.

Q: What new work are you looking forward to seeing at Ink?

A: All of it I hope

Click here for more details of this year’s line-up and here for arts editor Andrew Clarke’s interview with artistic directors Julia Sowerbutts and Emma Struthers. See Saturday’s heaven section of the East Anglian Daily Times for my full chat with Esther Freud.

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