The Scottish Playwright Talks Comedy, DIY and The Far East
A Respectable Widow Takes To Vulgarity, Fatbaws, Build Your Own Utopia, The Backpacker Blues. Just some of the uniquely titled plays and musicals written by the hugely successful, Girvan-born playwright, Douglas Maxwell.
“My first play was called Our Bad Magnet,” Douglas tells me, “which went on at the Tron in the year 2000. Then I wrote a play called Decky Does a Bronco which is still, I think, the play that a lot of people know me by. My third play, Helmet, was about a computer game shop I’d been working in… they were all bought at the same time.”
The first two plays were both set in Girvan. Our Bad Magnet follows the progress of four boys as they try to unlock the secrets of childhood. A ventriloquist’s dummy, magical fairy stories and indie music from the 1980s all add up to an hilarious black comedy. Decky Does a Bronco tells the story of a gang of nine-year-old boys who spend the summer of 1983 ‘broncoing’ swings (kicking the swing over the bar), a pastime that draws a fine line between sport and vandalism.
Douglas clearly has a vivid imagination and a very creative brain. Originally, though, he wanted to be an actor or a musician but soon realised he wasn’t actually cut out for either.
“I didn’t have the chops. That’s what they say for musicians if you’re not very good. I don’t know what it means!”
Writing plays, however, seemed to come naturally to the young Douglas Maxwell. Certainly, he felt he had an aptitude for it and found it much easier than writing prose.
“When I was at university I started a wee theatre company with my friend, Douglas James. I did an English degree and I wrote a play. When I was writing the play I realised… this was a job that some people must do, I’ll do that!”
He credits this ‘can do’ attitude to his home town, a place where people took DIY to a whole new level.
“When I think of Girvan, everyone I knew did it themselves. There was a DIY attitude in my group of friends. We were all into bands and music. By the time I met them they were already running a nightclub – they were 15! The same would be happening for sporty people. They started their own football club. So when I went to uni, the idea of starting our own company or writing my own play, that felt the Girvan way to do it.”
He also has much to thank his old teacher, Terry Johnston, for.
“I’d been in musicals at Girvan Academy. Terry Johnston taught classics and directed all the musicals. He was inspirational in putting me in musicals. I remember thinking, everyone that’s in this little theatre now are the people I want to be with for the rest of my life. Not just the actors but the band, the guys working the lights, the people painting the set. If I could find a job where I’m with these people, then I’d be happy.”
So that’s exactly what he did, writing plays and submitting them until he struck gold with Our Bad Magnet.
“I had no idea about the theatre industry,” he admits. “It was about 5 or 6 years of sending plays off and writing for youth theatres and business conferences and whatever I could get my hands on. I wrote about 21 or 22 before my first play went on…”
Since then, Douglas’ plays have been performed all over the world. In fact, he’s just learned that Our Bad Magnet is doing a run in Tokyo for three months in Japanese.
“That first play is set in Girvan. It’s been on twice in Scotland but it’s been on forever in the Far East… in Korea, twelve years in Seoul. It’s set in Girvan with all those street names! I don’t know what it is that appeals about that. They don’t want any of my other stuff, they just want this one play, it’s so random! It’s the only Girvan play that lives, but it doesn’t live here, it lives in Japan and South Korea!”
It may be random but what an accolade! Of course, Douglas’ plays have also been staged much closer to home including at The Traverse, The Tron, The Citizens, The Lyceum, The Kings (in both Edinburgh and Glasgow), the Dundee Rep and the Edinburgh International Festival. In addition, Fatbaws has been seen by over a million people and was nominated for a Scottish BAFTA.
So what makes a good play?
“The main thing for me is the emotion. Not necessarily sadness… sometimes you’re angering them or making them think or taking them somewhere else. I’m aiming for some kind of emotional reaction from the audience all the time. Or else, I don’t quite see the point of it.”
Does that include making them laugh?
“I don’t consider myself a comedy writer because I can never sustain it. Laugh at the start, cry at the end is something that tends to happen. I don’t know if I necessarily aim to do it. I think of theatre as being an emotional art form. The job of the playwright is to hold the attention of the audience and then move them in some way. The audience have to do a little bit of work. They know fine well that’s not a real sword and that’s not a real castle, so you’ve got to pull them in and grip them and then keep them gripped and keep them moving.”
The ideas for his plays quite often come from his own curiosity. For example, he may say to himself ‘I wonder what would’ve happened to me if I’d done this’ or ‘I wonder what I would do in that situation…’
Although Douglas began his career writing plays for a younger audience, those he writes today are often about being married or middle-aged or about long-term relationships or even death.
“Because I’m writing about the questions I’ve got about myself… If you can find an idea that will answer some of those questions or bring up some kind of meaning but also mean something to an audience full of strangers, then that’s an idea that’s got a chance.”
He’s quick to admit it doesn’t happen every time and it’s more of a hunch than a science. Whatever it is, it’s certainly worked well for him so far. But writing a play isn’t as simple as it may sound.
“With Orphans, it took three or four years to write. We’d done weeks and weeks with the cast… testing out songs, testing out scenes, cutting things, changing things. We are constantly re-writing right up until it opens. I’m working right up until press night.”
Orphans, a darkly comic musical about family, grief and forgiveness, was performed at the SEC Armadillo last year. 2022 also saw the one-man show Man’s Best Friend (performed by Jonathan Watson of Two Doors Down) appear at A Play, A Pie and A Pint in Glasgow. This particular show is, Douglas hopes, returning for a tour in 2023 – definitely a date for the diary!
“But if people want to travel to Tokyo…” he jokes, “if they desperately want to see Girvan’s Horse Rocks get mentioned and how it gets translated into Japanese…”
It has to be said, Douglas has a wicked sense of humour, something I would imagine goes down very well in his plays, no matter how brief he claims his comedy scenes may be. And it’s reassuring to know that whatever he chooses to write about, he’s passing on his wisdom to the next generation of playwrights.
“I’ve taught at Edinburgh Uni and Glasgow Uni… and I do an awful lot of workshops. I do a huge amount of mentoring and script reading with younger writers. I’ve got an open door for that. People can send me their work and I can meet with them and talk to them. I love doing that… supporting young writers coming up.”
Being mentored by the great Douglas Maxwell? Talk about building your own utopia!