How I write: Robin Soans

Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage - Robin Soan - 21 January 2015

co-produced by Out of Joint and National Theatre of Wales

members of the cast rehearse for national tour of new play about rugby player Gareth Thomas, the world’s most prominent gay sportsman

Robin Soans is best known for his verbatim plays, including Talking to Terrorists and Crouch Touch Pause Engage for Out of Joint, and The Arab-Israeli Cookbook and Life After Scandal. His drama Perseverance Drive was at the Bush Theatre in 2014. He’s also a prolific actor.

Where is your favourite place to write?

I write in the hall of my house at my desk, but can only write when all is ordered about me. I cannot write in chaos.

I usually write to music: Always Bach in the morning, then through Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, into Schubert and Mahler, Verdi, Tchaikovsky late afternoon, and if I’m burning the midnight oil, either Elizabethan polyphonic music, Plainsong, or Indian mystic music.

Do you procrastinate, and how do you combat it?

Writing is always interrupted by procrastination. Anything will do – mow the lawn, cook a curry, play the piano, go to the betting shop. But it’s always a relief to be back in that hermit-like place. There is something monastic about writing, which is why it is such a shock when the world and his wife all want to smear their grubby fingerprints on your baby as soon as it slips out of the womb.

What time of day do you write?

I write most concentratedly first thing in the morning. I have a lot of creative mental activity in the fuzzy area between sleeping and waking, and so have a burst of outpouring when I first reach the computer, probably before breakfast. It’s medically proven that that is the time of day when your brain is at its most analytical and inventive. I will go on writing through the day, but that initial burst is always the best and most productive.

Perseverance Drive, Bush Theatre. Photo: Richard Davenport.

Do you remember the first time someone described you as “a writer”

It was quite late in life. It probably came in the form of a question like “Are you a writer who acts, or an actor who writes?” which only goes to show our fixation on pigeon-holing.

And the answer is, honestly, I’ll do whatever anyone asks me to do to keep me in employment, so it’s not as if I’m in charge. People who talk about careers are mostly deluding themselves. We are like the pinball in the machine and go in whichever direction a collision sends us.

Where do you find inspiration?

My inspiration is often provided for me, in that I’m presented with topics on which to write. But I am, like the elephant’s child, insatiably curious, so my inspiration usually comes from a feeling that there’s more to something than meets the eye, and I want to find out what that is. I also have an inbuilt distrust of authority and want to know what’s really going on.

Do you ever abandon a writing project?

No, I usually finish a project even if it looks unlikely that it will ever come to fruition.

How do you organise your writing time?

I use strict logic. My play is going to be about eighty pages long, and I’ve got forty days to my deadline. QED I have to write two pages a day, and if I don’t write anything today, I will have to write four pages tomorrow.

Croach Touch Pause Engage - Robin Soans - National Theatre Wales/Out of Joint - 19 February 2015

Directed by Max Stafford-Clark
Designed by Angela Davis
Lighting by Katy Morrison

Crouch Touch Pause Engage (Out of Joint/National Theatre Wales/Arcola). Photo by Robert Workman.

How much do you use research?

I research, and then research and then research again. I want my writing to be relevant to the world I live in and the world of the audiences who come to see it. If it is a world they don’t recognise they won’t be willing to go on the journey you want to take them on.

What do you do when you feel stuck?

A writer has no excuse to feel stuck. When you are going to write, you should know where you are going. Say I’m going from London to Edinburgh. Broadly speaking, you know you are heading north. The exact details – whether you stick to the A1 or take the A68 across the moors and hills or stop to look at Bamburgh Castle – are not set in stone but the broad plan is there, so the only “stuck” there can be is idleness, lack of enthusiasm on a particular day, or a disinclination to breast the next phase of the journey. It’s not an option if your key strategy is in place.

How do you know when a play is finished?

This is the most complex of your questions, and most playwrights don’t know. Or composers, or sculptors – one chip too few, one chip too many, or wine makers – do I pick the grapes now or leave them another twelve hours? Or painters – do I fiddle with that willow tree? Are those figures out of proportion?

Or directors: Have I guided enough? Do I allow for natural progression through them doing it night after night? Or cooks: do I take it out of the oven now and let it rest to bring out the full flavour and tenderness? Or, or, or…

Read more of the How I write series.