Author Interview: Chris Woodley
We are delighted that Chris’s multi 5* play Next Lesson has joined our catalogue of great contemporary plays, ideal for use with young people.
Hope you enjoy getting to know Chris in this short interview…
Tell us a bit about yourself? Where were you born? Grow up? What job do you do now? Before?
I was born and bred in Bromley, South London. I currently work as a secondary school teacher and writer in East London. I love crisps.
How did you get into theatre?
When I was at Primary school I saw my sister in the end of school play. It looked so fun. That led me to get involved with the Churchill Youth Theatre in Bromley and I just got the bug. I’m a huge fan of comedy, when I was eleven I’d watch Absolutely Fabulous every morning before going to school. I was obsessed with Eddie and Patsy.
What is the name of your latest play and what inspired it?
The play is called Next Lesson. I’d worked as a secondary school teacher for a number of years and was really interested in how discussions around sexuality in school has changed. I went to school during the 80s-90s when Section 28 was introduced to schools by the Tory government. Section 28 was a piece of legislation that said homosexuality was not allowed to be promoted as something equal to heterosexual relationships. It silenced many teachers and students from ever talking about sexuality. Next Lesson is a collection of interlinked duologues debating issues around sexuality. The story begins in 1988 and ends in 2003. There is also a big old through line about a student Michael coming out in a school and then returning to teach at the same school years later.
What’s the first hook that gets a new play started for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?
It’s usually a conflict where I see both sides of the story and I want to unpick that. The grey areas of life, the muddy bits.
Tell us about your lead characters?
There is one lead character called Michael, but the whole play is a collection of characters from the school community that build a larger part of the full story. Michael is the common theme in most of the scenes but it’s a comedy drama that less about policy and more about personal lives. I like plays to have some warmth and heart.
What else have you written? Is this play a departure from your other work?
This was the first play I wrote, however since Next Lesson I wrote The Soft Subject (A Love Story) which went to the Edinburgh Festival a couple of years ago. The play is an autobiographical love story about love, loss and The Little Mermaid. I’ve also written a camp comedy called Tommy on Top and I’m working on a radio drama called Human Shields.
Why a play? Rather than fiction.
I feel like theatre is my first love so it was the natural step to make it a play. However, I’ve been thinking loads about what the play would look like as a novel for young audiences and I’d love to explore that idea further. I’m planning to get writing this Summer.
How do you write? Do you have a special place or routine?
The best piece of advice I was given is to start and then to finish. That simple. You should accept you’ve written a first draft and know it’s going to need lots more work and love and people to read and feedback on it. I like a clean desk, music on, mobile off and crisps at the ready.
What were you like at school? Were you good at English?
I hated secondary school as I was really badly bullied. I was a bit of an average Joe, I got C for nearly all my subjects for GCSE but I adored Art, Drama and Media Studies and really excelled at the arts. Then I left and went to The BRIT School which saved me and made me love theatre even more and the bullying stopped and I had a gay old time. It wasn’t until I was thirty years old and I’d got a pretty good degree, completed a PGCE, worked as a teacher did I find out I was really dyslexic. The diagnosis was totally liberating and that allowed me not to feel really ashamed about my grasp for spelling, punctuation and grammar. So, I finally let people read all my stories and plays I’d been secretly scribbling away at for years.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a few projects. Hometime is the sequel to Next Lesson, it’s an all female cast set in 2019 looking at education and religion in an East London secondary school. It’s my first two-act play so I’m excited to get that on its feet and into a rehearsal room.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading Educated by Tara Westover which is a fascinating read. I just finished Becoming by Michelle Obama, Brutally Honest by Mel B and This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay. All brilliant books!
What is your favourite play of all time?
Loveplay by Moria Buffiini, I performed it at University and still use it when I’m teaching in secondary schools. It’s about acts of love set on one patch of ground over a few hundred years. Quite often I’ll direct Loveplay for the A level exam which give me lots of joy.
Who are some current playwrights you follow and think should get more attention?
Olivia Hirst from Lost Watch Theatre Company who wrote Goodstock about BRCA1, she is a genius. She’s also written some other great shows called Play for September, Left My Desk and The Annex. I also love Suhk Ojla a stand up comedian who recently toured with her play Pyar Actually, her writing has such warmth and humour and I’m excited to see what her next offering is.
What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights?
Think about what you want to say, write it, ask people who you trust and respect to read it, make the cut and edits. Then repeat this process many many times and try not to lose your sanity. Also try to find a mentor, massive shout out to Rikki Beadle-Blair for all the love he’s shown me over the years.
You can follow Chris on Twitter @ImChrisWoodley