Born in Belfast, Brian McAvera is a writer for stage, radio, television and film. Since the early sixties he has worked as a director, founding or co-founding a number of small theatre companies, including the New Writers Theatre in 1980. Theatre work not listed in the Irish Playography includes The Troubles’ Trilogy (‘Final Solution’, ‘Splinters’, ‘Foul Play’) and ‘Picasso’s Women’ (Royal National Theatre, London). He is the writer of Dave at Large brought to us by Directions Out Theatre Company which opens at the Civic next week.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and where your interest in drama came from?
I was born in Belfast but I live in County Down close to Strangford Lough. And I really do not know where my interest in drama came from. My father had no interest in it. My mother might have had, but she died when I was very young. What I do remember is, when I was in second year at university, in a medieval studies class, my tutor said to a group of us that the only way we would understand medieval morality plays would be to produce one of them, and was anyone interested in doing so. I can still see myself looking at my upraised arm and wondering what the hell I was doing! Three weeks later I had a production of Everyman put on in the Student Union…so I learnt about drama the hard way, by doing it and I think, for a playwright, learning how to direct, how to work with actors and so forth, is crucial to understanding how to write for the stage.
What’s the first hook that gets a new play started for you? Is it an image, a theme, a character?
It’s nearly always one or more visual images which I then ‘interrogate’. I compile notes, often two or three large notebooks per play, as it takes me a long time before I am ready to write. I have to know the characters, how the play ends, and the broad shape of it, the structure, before I can write. I learnt that writing straight off is always a mistake: you produce journalism, not a play that is built to last.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
Being in control of my own life! I think most writers would also say that they love the research period and I am no exception. The other great advantage is that I get to travel and to meet people. Picasso’s Women for example has been translated into twenty-one languages, so I often get to go to the foreign productions.
Who were/are the biggest inspirations for your career?
If you are talking in terms of theatre, then the writers John Arden, John McGrath and David Rudkin. I am also very fond of medieval theatre.
Can you tell us a little bit about Dave at Large?
I grew up watching Dave Allen on the television. He always struck me as a remarkable comedian in that he had perfected an unusually relaxed style of comedy yet at the same time he was biting and incisive about areas of life which other comedians at the time were not touching: religion, sex, the Church, the problems of growing up, the ambiguities and oddities of language itself. I found myself wondering – Allen died in 2005 – what kind of routines he would have been doing if he had been alive today: how he would have responded to the appalling problems in the Church, to Northern Ireland and so on. That was the genesis of the play.
I wasn’t interested in writing a biography of him, or in doing a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of his routines, but I did want to be true to the spirit of the man. And I felt a kinship with him in that, just as he went to Butlins, so did I, when I was seventeen – my first job in fact. And just as his brother blazed the trail to London, so also did mine. I was aware that, living in London, you have a very different view of things back home; a different perspective.
I designed a play that fractured Dave Allen into three performers or three roles. One of them is the stage Allen, a much more aggressive character than the smooth, relaxed Television Allen. And the third was the female Allen, the equivalent of an Older Sister or Mother, around whom the other two revolve, like satellites. I hope you will find it funny, and also touching: a good night at the theatre, as John McGrath used to say. Allen was, I think, the first of the Stand-Up observational comedians.
What goes through your mind when you see your writing performed for the first time?
Now that would be telling!!! The honest answer is that it depends on the quality of the production: the quality of the acting and directing. If the play is working, there is a sense of pride in having produced a well-made play. Like some other playwrights that I know well, I tend to see the deficiencies first – could I have improved that sequence? Is that line functional? The worst cases are when you have the wrong director or a miscast actor as then you are not watching the play that you wrote but a mangled version of it!
What projects are you working on now?
Quite a few! I have been writing a trilogy of plays set in Venice in different historical periods, two of which are finished and I am researching the third. There is also a cycle of plays about 19th century artists like Toulouse Lautrec and, at the instigation of the actress currently in Dave at Large, a play on the Irish actress Peg Woffington.
What do hope audiences will take from watching Dave At Large?
First of all, I hope that they will have a good time at the theatre. I think the play is fundamentally optimistic – one goes through trying times but one survives – but just as Dave Allen wanted to make you laugh, but also wanted to make you think, I hope the audience will do the same – laugh, think and reflect.
DAVE AT LARGE, Monday 13th – Saturday 18th March 8pm
Starring Bryan Murray with Michael Bates and Tara Breathnach.