Nick Quantrill talks to Hull-based playwright, Dave Windass ...
Nick : I know you've got your artistic fingers in different pies, but let's start with the obvious - tell me a bit about the plays you've had performed?
Dave : This weird theatrical trip I've been on started back in 2003, when my preoccupations involved attempting to dismantle capitalism via the written word. This sort of led to a short piece called Store Me Whether, originally planned as a side swipe at large chain supermarkets intent on globalisation.
Well, that was the idea, although in its journey to the stage it became an absurd piece about a supermarket manager who staffed his 'superstore' with prostitutes and a pimp who made a reverse journey into the heady world of retail and higher education.
Just a piece of nonsense, really, but very different to anything I'd seen or experienced in a theatre up to that point.
I was one of nine writers involved on a new writing scheme with Hull Truck at the time and, when the chance to develop this original ten minute piece into something longer materialised I was deluded enough to think that I was crafting a work of genius. For a short while there was a musical version that's never seen the light of day but I can't for the life of me work out why Bill Kenwright hasn't demanded a meeting with me and offered to produce.
I still struggle to fathom what happened next and why it did but the long and short of it is that Gareth Tudor Price, of Hull Truck fame, who'd tolerated all these silly ideas I kept sending his way, chatted to me one day and provided me with a bit of focus. He suggested I consider writing something that an audience might actually pay to come and see and asked me to write a play about the rugby league Challenge Cup final in 1980, when Hull FC played Hull KR.
Gareth knew I'd been at the game, had big memories of it and that, as I was working as a journalist, would be perfectly poised to conduct any additional research that was necessary. He actually changed the way I worked - I simply went from 'making stuff up' to amassing folders full of reading matter that I'd then plough through and push aside before making stuff up.
That play was Kicked Into Touch, which got a short run at Truck's legendary Spring Street venue. After that I was genuinely gobsmacked to be asked to suggest something else. I had a few ideas - I've always got more ideas than I can deal with - but, in the end, it seemed a natural extension to stick with rugby league and, over a very messy sandwich in a city centre restaurant, I suggested a play about Clive Sullivan, which materialised in 2006 as Sully.
The subject matter was obviously dramatic so I was like a kid on a bouncy castle. I was also blessed with not one but two superb and very understanding directors (Gareth and Martin Barrass), a great cast and the involvement of Sully's family.
Sully went down well with audiences, was revived again in 2007 and hopefully demonstrated that, despite my rather peculiar route into working as a playwright, I knew what I was doing.
Hull Truck let me loose again with On A Shout. After the success of Sully I was paralysed by a fear that I'd never experience anything like that again and, for me to get over myself, the only option was to raise the bar and attempt to write this epic piece that spanned several decades.
Which is what we ended up with - this play about Spurn Point and the lifeboat crew that is based out there in the wilds. Again, with subject matter like that, the drama is simply there for the taking - there's no bigger antagonist than the force of nature that is the sea.
It's great to have the support of a massive institution like Hull Truck but it's also nice that, because I started moving in these theatre circles, I've had the opportunity to collaborate with other people on stuff that's allowed to exist slightly under the radar, like Gagging For It and, most recently, Thinspiration. Those shows have been put together with talented people that hail from this area.
I'm still amazed when I see stuff I've written on my crumb-filled keyboard being performed on the stage with actors speaking sentences that were originally formed in my mind.
Nick : One of things I enjoyed about most of these plays is their distinctive local flavour. Was that a deliberate attempt to get under the skin of Hull? Did you learn anything about the city as you wrote them?
Dave : I distinctly remember telling lots of people that my plays would be the antithesis of 'local flavour'. They wouldn't even be set in the north, never mind Hull, they would be clever and classless and free of colloquialism.
I was, and still am, very 'anti' being categorised easily and didn't want to replicate what those 'northern writers' had done, did or would do in the future and I certainly don't want to be a professional northerner.
But you have to connect with an audience and, if you're going to get anywhere close to writing for a living, and certainly if you want to work with a producing theatre, you have to think in commercial terms. Otherwise you'll be torn apart.
So, this local flavour started with Kicked Into Touch which, as I've said, was the result of being reminded, really, of the importance of people sitting in front of your work. Which I totally agree with - I always want a capacity crowd in front of my stuff, anything else just feels like a waste of time given all the effort that goes in to getting a show on the stage.
There's no escaping the fact that I'm a Hull lad. I lived in a council house down Albert Ave for the first decade of my life, I would head to the Boulevard on a regular basis, went shopping on Hessle Road in its hey day. I have that bloody accent that everyone elsewhere laughs at and derides us for. And all of that infiltrates my writing. My Hullness crops up everywhere, even though I know that I'm trying to suppress it, because the very act of putting thoughts on paper makes a nonsense of all that.
The really positive side of writing Kicked Into Touch and Sully is that I really could say what I thought about the city, both negative and positive, by putting my thoughts into the mouths of these characters. That got me off the hook, too.
I like to think that in both of those pieces I extended the banter that we enjoy between east and west and got under the skin of a few east Hullites in the process by reminding them that west is best. I learned how much I loved Hull. There's a speech at the end of Sully when he talks about the city and those words have very little to do with Clive Sullivan and everything to do with my opinions. How great is it to be able to do that?
Nick : 'Thinspiration' is obviously a different piece of work to the more comedic pieces ... what inspired you tackle the subject of anorexia? What different challenges did you face writing it? Was it a deliberate attempt to widen your range as a writer?
Dave : On the surface it is a different road to head down and it's not an obvious subject to mine for comedy, you're right. The three of us that created the show - myself, actor Rachel Shaw and director Lee Green - have been personally affected by this subject and we knew it inside out. I think it's one of the last taboos - there aren't many left - because it's almost impossible to talk about.
When someone has an eating disorder they are in no position to discuss what they're going through and when, hopefully, they come out of the other side they are not in the same mental space at all.
So any discussion becomes clinical and highly objective and, in many ways, de-humanises the condition.
So it was intriguing and fascinating for me to attempt to present an authentic account of someone going through this. It was a scary place to venture and I'm proud, yes really proud, to admit that I cried when I wrote portions of the script.
During the writing process I lived inside that young woman's head. I know that sounds odd - it's just a play, just another piece of work - but I've never felt so proud of anything I've written. It is, I think, an honest piece of work and Rachel and Lee brought the same to the table. I'd like it to be performed again but we're back to the commercial question. Who would come and see it? It charts painful territory and people back away from going there.
As for widening my range, on the surface yes, it's a million miles away from 80 minutes of rugby league. But I just write stuff and that's as deliberate as it gets. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn't. Some of it gets produced and performed, some of it doesn't. Some of it is funny, some of it isn't.
I'm getting older and increasingly I have my serious moments but, as most people that know me will testify, I can behave like a four-year-old. I want to write a great play that outlives me. That might never happen but I'll shorten the odds by writing a few more.
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