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Be Open to Creative Collaboration

Posted on 10/04/2013
By Commonwealth Foundation

Angella Emurwon Be Open
The call came at 7pm Friday 14th December 2012. I was in my favourite coffee shop pretending to work, my eyes fixed on my computer screen but really it was one YouTube video after another of movie clips from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. I’d just read the play and was completely blown away.
The number on the caller ID started with +44 which meant the UK, which meant one thing: I was going to find out if I’d made it past the shortlist for the 2012 BBC International Playwriting Competition. True enough, it was Helen Perry (Producer, BBC Drama) on the line saying lovely things about my play. Yeey! She was happy, the judges were happy, I was happy, it was wonderful. But at no point in the conversation were the words win or won mentioned. To be fair we had a really bad connection and the coffee house was loud. Next, Marion Nancarrow (Executive Producer, BBC Audio Drama) came on the line also congratulating me and wondering if I would be able to travel to London in February. Only winners go to London, I immediately thought.
Helen ended the call by asking if I would be open to rewriting the parts of the play for clarity and that she would send through some notes the judges had for making the play tighter and up to BBC broadcast standards. Again, rewrites meant the play was still in the running. After the call, I remember telling my family and friends not to get too excited but there was a chance I had won.
[A quick aside: being shortlisted is the most nerve wracking thing I have ever been through. Just as you talk yourself down into a calm reasonable human being who should be honoured to have even been shortlisted, a tiny voice pipes up from a hiding spot under your pancreas and yells “I want to win!” Then you have to make yourself get calm and reasonable all over again. Multiply this by however many hours in however many weeks you have to wait to hear back from the competition.] 
An email a couple of days later confirms that I had indeed won. With it came the notes that began the editing process to get the script ready for recording. Before this experience, I considered editing to be a clean-up process: grammar, continuity, maintenance of idea flow and so on. However, I soon discovered that editing is as much a creative process as writing is. More so when the play is set in context that is unfamiliar to a huge portion of its worldwide audience as mine was.
I have always said that I write for Ugandans. At the same time, I would like my work, my craft, to stand up to international standards. So working on edits with Helen Perry and Ros Ward (Director, Sunflowers behind a Dirty Fence) was enriching in this regard. While I worked hard to retain the Ugandan flavour of the piece, I also had to take on board cuts and suggestions that would make the play better in terms of pace, clarity and plot. This is a tight rope and there has to be a lot of trust between writer and editors. You have to be able to explain why something must remain in the play because it makes sense in your context, but also be willing to add or cut from it to clarify, letting go of things you love so that the script can become better not just good.
The other issue with writing from a different context is you have to explain things without sliding into exposition. For instance, Boss (the baddie in Sunflowers) is sceptical about witchcraft even though providing services for witchdoctors is his bread and butter. How do you bring this across without having a long monologue that slows the play down? It seems an easy decision to sacrifice commentary for plot. But is it? Especially when the issue is as important as the safety of children? I guess this is what makes writing work.
Think about a favourite radio advert for an indigenous product that employs storytelling unique to your part of the world. It makes you laugh, sing along, identify. What would it take to sell the same product in Uganda or Cuba or India? Though indigenous to your country, it would have to employ storytelling that makes sense to another place to be sold. Absolutely, I want my work on a global platform but it comes with its sacrifices.
A few weeks later with the final draft sent in, it was time to hop on a plane to the UK. Sounds easy right? It wasn’t. Nevertheless, I did eventually get a visa and make it to the UK for the prize giving ceremony and play recording. To summarize my first time in the UK would require a small booklet; on to the recording sessions. Magic! First of all, as a writer/stage director, I didn’t want to be a nuisance during the recording process but at the same time I was anxious that the play would come out well. I needn’t have worried. Ros Ward was fantastic. She was committed to getting the best out of the actors and the best out of me during script editing as well as additional script cuts during recording. It was an enormous relief to have her holding everything together. I even left early to attend an interview on one of the days.
The technical aspects of the recording were eye opening. The studio managers were amazing, overlaying background tracks over dialogue, creating bushes, chicken flaps, and produce trucks in studio. It was great.
Chatting with the actors then watching them work was surreal. It is difficult to explain. When I watch TV, films, and so on the distance between me and the people in the box is massive. To one day get an encouraging pep talk from Jude Akuwudike who was in one of my favourite shows BBC’s Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency … crazy. And this is just one of the anecdotes from two days with six amazing actors most of whom I’ve seen in something or other.
As Janet Morrison (winner English as a 1st Language, who will be posting her own experiences soon) said in an interview “learning from the editing and recording process was the real prize”.