Tim Rhys on Writing for the Stage

Welsh playwright and script-writer discusses his motivations as an artist, and the debut performance of his new play, Quiet Hands

How did you become a writer? 

I have always loved making up stories and voices for as long as I can remember. But my desire to write for theatre came from acting and directing in University while I was supposed to be studying Psychology—and then through acting in fringe profit-share productions in London and Bristol. My first full-length play Dead Man’s Fall was written with a friend of mine, Peter Jones. We had a lot of fun writing anarchic stage comedies together, which we initially produced ourselves. This led to a radio series for Radio Wales and works like Dead Man’s Fall and The Ghost of Morgan Morris, which were well received. From there, I went on to work independently with a host of theatre companies, and with the BBC on stage and radio plays, TV drama concepts and now film.

What motivates you to write? 

I just love doing it. It feels like a very natural and liberating thing to do. When it’s going well, you get surprised by your own inventions and wonder where this or that idea or character came from. Also, it is a way for me to express and explore the things I feel passionately about, in the way that communicates them best.

Could you tell me about your new play, Quiet Hands?

Quiet Hands is a play that is very close to heart, something I feel very strongly about—which is the abuse and marginalising of autistic people. It follows a young man on the autistic spectrum who wishes to regain the lost friendship he once had with his estranged brother. In seeking this, he stumbles into the dangerous world of ‘mate crime’ predators and has to learn to grow up very quickly.

The phrase ‘Quiet Hands’ is an instruction that has been used in Applied Behavioural Analysis. This is a type of Behaviourist therapy based on the ideas of B.F. Skinner, in which unacceptable behaviours are conditioned out of autistic children, the focus being entirely on controlling the subject’s outward behaviour, such as flapping hands, with little respect given to the inner thoughts and feelings of the person being conditioned. The ethos of this kind of therapy is one that I find dehumanising and there is copious anecdotal evidence from autistic people who claim to have been psychologically harmed by the endless drilling and repetition involved in the conditioning process. It has the added side effect of making the child feel powerless and trained to be compliant. That kind of compliance is the last thing someone needs when confronting the controlling individuals who carry out ‘mate crime’.

“The phrase ‘Quiet Hands’ is an instruction that has been used in Applied Behavioural Analysis. This is a type of Behaviourist therapy based on the ideas of B.F. Skinner, in which unacceptable behaviours are conditioned out of autistic children, the focus being entirely on controlling the subject’s outward behaviour, such as flapping hands, with little respect given to the inner thoughts and feelings of the person being conditioned.”

Quiet Hands addresses autism in relation to “mate crime”. For readers who might not be familiar with the term, what exactly is “mate crime”? 

‘Mate crime’ is a particularly insidious, nasty kind of ‘hate crime’, but much of it goes unseen and unreported. The perpetrators typically prey on socially isolated, vulnerable people, who lack the social networks that protect most of us. Autistic and disabled young adults are particularly prone to being targeted. It’s a very grim and sometimes horrifying experience for those affected by it. The pattern is that someone is approached and befriended, showered with compliments and friendly gestures (you could say ‘groomed’) until their trust is won. At this point, the abuser – or abusers – begin to systematically rob, defraud and – sometimes – to intimidate or even physically attack and bully their new “mate”. At its worst extreme, it has even resulted in appalling murders. It is often very difficult or shameful for victims to report such abuse, especially if they have limited communication skills or if they cling onto the abusive relationship because they have no other friends. It is a crime that feeds on loneliness and isolation. According to the National Autism Society, mate crime now happens to independent-living autistic people “on a devastating scale.”

A production photograph of Touch Blue Touch Yellow. Photograph: Kirsten McTernan
A production still of Touch Blue Touch Yellow. Photograph: Kirsten McTernan

The play addresses broader issues of language, meaning, friendship, and community. In what ways do you think literature and art can speak to our current cultural and historical moment? 

I was very keen in Quiet Hands (and my previous play Touch Blue Touch Yellow) to write a play in which the autistic character’s dilemma mirrors or resonates with dilemmas we all face, so that universal themes can be explored through the experiences of someone who happens to be autistic. I very much wanted the autistic character to be a kind of everyman character, to whom everyone could relate, rather than as something other and different. So, while Touch Blue Touch Yellow was about a father-son relationship breaking down due to the father’s inability to accept his autistic son as he was, it also explored how the pressures of conformity can warp and disfigure our lives and relationships.

Quiet Hands is about a vulnerable young man trying to deal with mate crime but also, I think, raises questions about the ruthlessly competitive, dog-eat-dog world that extreme neo-liberalism inevitably leads to.

Creative arts are a particular form of free speech and thought that, I think, is a vital element of any free, democratic culture. Creative arts can explore different ways of living, can question accepted values and challenge orthodox truths. It’s no coincidence that totalitarian regimes are so threatened by artists and so determined to control or silence them by any means. While this is equally true of journalists and academics, whose freedom to speak is also vital, artists can be uniquely subversive and free-ranging in that they are not bound by any of the narrow constraints of conventional academic discourse.

“Creative arts are a particular form of free speech and thought that, I think, is a vital element of any free, democratic culture. Creative arts can explore different ways of living, can question accepted values and challenge orthodox truths.”

This is not to say that literature, theatre and art can only have value when challenging the orthodoxies of the powerful. But simply having art forms that are free to go in any direction they wish, in whatever manner they choose, is a vital part of our culture. Art, in all its forms, is a way of communicating that can connect people in unique ways. In drama, particularly, those moments of recognition and empathy that an audience can experience are very important. In terms of where we are right now, alienation and social isolation (made even worse, in some ways, by social media) seem to be real problems, something which affects us all but which can be seen at its most intense in the situation of a ‘mate crime’.

Theatre can play a small part in counteracting this in that it can create moments of shared emotion and connection that elicit feelings of empathy, as well as shared anger at injustice. Theatre is at its best when it can engage the intellect and the emotions. I always want my theatre to have a physical effect on the audience, to stir up intense feelings, to create a physical involvement in what is happening onstage. Intellectual / scientific discourse and art (in all its forms) both have their own very different but equally vital roles to play in exploring and expressing truths—as well as challenging those of others.

Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Wales, UK
Tim Rhys’ Quiet Hands will debut at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, Wales.

Quiet Hands is currently being produced by Winterlight Theatre. How did your relationship with Winterlight start, and how do you work with people who perform your work? 

It was the topic of autism that initially drew Chris Durnall and myself to work together. I’d seen a number of plays that Chris directed and always enjoyed the dynamism and intensity of his productions, and his love of taking artistic risks. When I saw a play about autism that he directed (Matthew’s Passion by Mike James), I realised I was bursting with things to say about that topic, having a son on the autistic spectrum. I feel very strongly about the inaccurate, damaging stereotypes of autistic people, such as their supposed lack of empathy and lack of need for love and friendship. In discussing this, we found we shared a lot of beliefs about theatre and so we decided to do a play together that would challenge the stereotypes and give a more real and nuanced view of one autism family. The play Touch Blue Touch Yellow was extremely well received, especially by other autism parents. Since we enjoyed the process so much and as I had more themes I wanted to explore, we decided to do another one, taking the same character into adulthood. This has become Quiet Hands.

We have been very fortunate to receive great support from Cardiff University (and the School of English, Communication and Philosophy) with Quiet Hands. They stepped in when we were in dire need of support. Their belief in the importance of the play’s subject and trust in us to produce a great piece of theatre has been vital in getting this play off the ground.

Our working pattern is one of a constant handing over. The first week or so of rehearsals is very free and creative, with actors, director and writer all throwing in ideas and suggestions—and with Chris creating an environment in which we are all encouraged to be bold and take risks. This period is very important in any new play, since a lot of the sharpest script advice I’ve had has come from actors. Actors who focus so intently on their characters that they often find qualities and contradictions in the writing that the writer has overlooked. And as the writer, I have plenty of  ideas about ways it could be directed. But there comes a point where the piece of theatre starts to find its shape and the writer starts to get in the way. At that point—roughly halfway through rehearsals— the writer needs to hand over to the director and let them bring their own creative expertise to the play. Once it goes on stage, the director has to hand over to the actors, who in turn hand the play over to the audience.

Do you have any advice for others who are pursuing an artistic vocation?  And what do you think are the key challenges being faced by writers and artists today? 

I feel loathe to give much advice – there is so much out there already. But there are a few things I could add. Obviously, there is the practical problem of sustaining yourself while establishing yourself as a writer, musician or artist, especially given the current scarcity of financial support from government for the arts. Given that you have to eat and pay bills while you find your creative niche, it is vital to carve out enough space and time in your life to create. It is all too easy to have this free time nibbled away by a million activities and worries that demand your attention. You have to be totally ruthless and unbending in sticking to times when you absolutely refuse to watch that film or match, to not answer the phone, nor emails nor social media – nor the doorbell – because that is your creative time.

“It’s important not to lose sight of the joy and excitement at the heart of creativity. If it becomes an agonising drag or chore, do something else. Love what you do, just do it and enjoy it and see where that takes you.”

Also, while you need to be realistic and grounded, it is important not to be too grounded, not to let negative, nay-saying people discourage or demoralise you. Such people need to be shut out, not necessarily from your life, but certainly from your creative work. It’s important not to lose sight of the joy and excitement at the heart of creativity. If it becomes an agonising drag or chore, do something else. Love what you do, just do it and enjoy it and see where that takes you. And try to find other like-minded people who can help keep you energised. I also think a certain wilful, bloody-minded anarchy of the mind is vital – too much respect and reverence for the ideas, writers and institutions we are told to revere is death to art.

On a broader level, one key challenge to the arts is the desire from those in authority to impose censorship and to control what is said and how. I think there is a real danger in this country that we might be entering a new period of creeping censorship, under the guise of protecting our security and discouraging terrorism. This desire for censorship needs to be fought and resisted at every turn. Artists and writers are in the front line of any battle between censorship and free speech and can play a part in defending it.

What’s next for you?

Promotional poster for Crow (dir. Wyndham Price, 2016)
Promotional poster for Crow (dir. Wyndham Price, 2016)

I am keen to take Quiet Hands and Touch Blue Touch Yellow on tour, as we have had a lot of interest in both plays from far afield. I have a host of ideas for new plays that I am keen to write for the theatre—and Chris and I intend to work together again.

I have also recently had my first feature film, Crow, produced (as writer). I am currently working with a couple of film producers on new projects, including developing an autism script for the screen. The film Crow (directed by Wyndham Price for Spinning Head Films) is based on a stage-play of mine, Stone The Crows, that has yet to be produced as a play, so that is another thing I would very much like to see happen.

But right now, I am looking forward to seeing Quiet Hands come to life onstage. It’s looking great in rehearsals, so I’ve got my fingers crossed!

Quiet Hands will debut at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, Wales, UK. It runs from 12—16 September 2017. To find out more, or to book tickets, visit the Chapter Arts Centre website.

About the Writer

Tim Rhys has written stage-plays for Volcano Theatre Company, Made in Wales Stage Co, The Sherman Theatre Company, The Old Red Lion Theatre, London and Theatr Y Byd, as well as numerous community and youth theatre plays. His radio plays have been broadcast by BBC Radio 4 and Radio Wales and include The Cull (Feb 2005), Riding With Buffalo Bill, The Member For Penbanog and a six-part series, The Last Visible Dog (written with Peter Jones). For two and half years, he was one of the regular scriptwriters on the BBC Wales drama serial Station Road. He teaches Creative Writing at Cardiff University.

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