In February 2016 playwright Simon Stephens joined our Reading Group held in the basement of Calder Bookshop. Here he writes of what he discovered there and hearing his early play Country Music read aloud.
i was just hoping
for a bookstore
like the one i prayed for
and the music they play there
would be dinosaur jr
and the people who worked there
would be super skinny
and super unfriendly
and that would make me happy
So sings my friend and collaborator Mark Eitzel on American Music Club’s sublime Myopic Books. It is a song I love because it is a song I recognise. I recognise his yearning for those places. The places where the bookshop staff knows far more than I will ever know and they will never respect my ignorance. They will sneer at my requests. These shops are fundamental because they always denote a world of possibilities I haven’t yet aspired to. They remind me I can be better.
Calder Bookshop on The Cut is one of the last remaining bookshops like this. Certainly the last remaining theatre bookshop. I love how it sits in the heart of the street where theatre workers always go. If the Pret A Manger on The Cut feels like a staff canteen for British theatre with actors and writers and directors from the Old and Young Vic and the National Theatre Studio congregating over Mango and Lime and Duck Hoisin wraps then Calder books feels like a belligerent anarchist. The last remaining address on The Cut where the name of Gregory Motton resonates to quite the degree it does there. It will never defer to the establishment. It will never be mainstream. It is a thrilling place to shop in.
It seems perfectly appropriate that the remarkable Presence Theatre Reading Group should meet in the basement of this beautiful mecca for the marginalised and cool. Because these people offer us more than we ever realised we might attain.
Presence Theatre does many things. Over recent years their productions of plays by Jon Fosse and Sam Shepherd have graced London and toured. Their fascination with plays on the peripheries of what playwriting might be inspires me. Their Reading Group is their beating heart.
One Friday every month led by Joint Artistic Directors Simon Usher and Jack Tarlton and Artistic Associate Colin Ellwood actors from throughout the city meet and spend a day reading plays out loud. They don’t get paid. They don’t expect to attract agents or casting directors. Meeting for these readings will in no sense help their careers. They do it because they very much want to read plays out loud.
The list of plays they have read, curated by Tarlton and Usher, ranges over centuries and continents. They read new plays by exciting new writers. They read Spanish classics from the Golden Age. Some plays last half an hour. Some hours. They swap roles. They pass it on.
Last month I went there for the first time. They were reading my play Country Music. It was a morning that will live with me.
It will live with me because Usher and Tarlton and Ellwood inspire me and their enthusiasm galvanises me. It will live with me because if going into the Calder Bookshop always feels exciting then going downstairs into its basement felt thrillingly transgressive.
It will live with me most though because of the clarity and care with which the actors gathered under the stairs read. Country Music is a play I wrote twelve years ago. After spending years working in Wandsworth prison and Grendon Prison in Buckinghamshire I wanted to dramatise some of the sadness and violence and loss of the men that I’d worked with. I wanted to dramatise the potential of the lives they never lived. Country Music was the play I wrote after teaching prisoners for nine months.
I’d not heard it read in English for maybe six years. I always approach the reading of any of my plays, however new or old, with the same sense of terror. I always tend to work on the assumption that I am a bit of a shit playwright who has hoodwinked many people with charm, hair and height, into thinking otherwise and that the bare, unmediated readings of the plays, shorn of the genius of Marianne Elliot or Katie Mitchell or Ivo Van Hove will reveal my flimsiness.
The old plays have a particular quality of excruciation for me. I always say that hearing my old plays is like looking at old photographs of myself. I might be appalled by the taste of shirt I was wearing or an unbearable expositional line of writing. I might also look with affection and yearning at an old jacket, or a linguistic directness, that I haven’t seen in years and know I will never get back.
Hearing Country Music out loud last month was a relief because the play kind of worked. There were moments that were funny which were meant to be funny. Actors reading with simplicity and directness captured the cumulative loss in the heart of the play. A few of the speeches were over-written. There was one line that Gordon Anderson the original director begged me to cut. This line was the only one lead actor Lee Ross told me he really struggled with. I refused to believe them. I kept the line. The reading at Presence proved them right and me wrong. It was awful over writing. But much of the play was strong. I was proud of it. It reminded me of the force of telling stories simply and made me wonder if I shouldn’t write more plays like that now. Instead of being dazzled by European post structuralism. Just tell the fucking story.
It moved me to have these actors read my play to me with such openness. They listened with real concentration. They read with directness and truth.
A rare gathering of remarkable people in a remarkable place reminding me of the stories I used to tell. I thanked them. Packed my bag. Blinked off into the light. Carried on down the Cut. And they stayed. Down in the coolest basement on The Cut. Reading more plays.