Interview with Tim X Atack. Winner of The Bruntwood Prize 2017.

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The 2017 Winner of the  Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting was announced last week at a ceremony at The Royal Exchange Theatre. Tim X Atack was awarded the £16,000 prize for his play Heartworm. The Bristol based composer and sound designer has already had success as a playwright with works such as The Bullet and The Bass Trombone, Dark Land Light House and The Morpeth Carol and  has his own company Sleepdogs.

Heartworm was one of  1,898 entries and there were also three Judges Prizes and two commendations. The biennial prize is Britains biggest playwriting competition. It has previously been won by playwrights such as Duncan Macmillan, Alastair McDowell and Katherine Soper. Heartworm will be developed and staged at The Royal Exchange and The Royal Court.

So, a week on, how are you feeling?

Still really elated, it feels pretty surreal as  I didn’t expect to get this far. It feels really  great to be starting to work on developing it at some point in the New Year.

You say you didn’t expect to get that far, but you submitted almost every time – is this your fifth time?

Yes, this is the fifth.

So there must be something motivating you…..

I think The Bruntwood Prize has always been a kind of deadline in the diary for every grassroots playwright. So I’ve written something nearly every single time but I haven’t necessarily expected it to be better than previous years – it was the same with this play.

So when you look back now over previous submissions and you compare with Heartworm – for you –  would Heartworm be the winner?

(Laughs) I think they all have different qualities and I’m surprised that Heartworm connected with so many people and got as far as it did in The Bruntwood. I think it’s surprising in that some of my other plays aren’t as insidiously strange as Heartworm. Some of the others have more of a ring of authorial statement to them, especially the ones I wrote many years ago. In some respects they are the kinds of plays you might expect to connect a little bit more with the language we currently use in playwriting. I’m still working on a few of the others, developing further drafts to hopefully go on to production.

Ah I was hoping you might answer like that! I tend to think of writing plays and nurturing words like bringing up children so you wouldn’t want to favour one over another!!

No, I think that’s absolutely right. I really enjoy working on things over a long period of time. The band I’m in usually release an album about every 6 or 7 years – and the first thing I did when I got back to Bristol after winning was to record some vocals for a song that’s about 12 years old! I like letting things percolate for a while and seeing if they stand the test of time before releasing them into the world. Heartworm took about 2 years to write on and off, but I’ve entered The Bruntwood Prize before with things I’ve been working on for a decade or so in different ways.

So you’re in a band as well?

Yeah, I started my career as a composer and also did other things such as stand up comedy but throughout all that I’ve been in a band – about 23/24 years. Its a radiophonic pop group called Angeltech.

You already know The Royal Exchange as you’ve been working on the sound production for Jubilee….

That’s right. Its been an astonishing production to work on, it really felt like a very, very progressive show to be a part off. I was very proud of it, and it was also a riot of fun to do too…..

Fun in terms of the cast? Or working with Chris Goode?

Working with the cast, working with Chris, working with The Royal Exchange which was a fantastic theatre to do this in – it really feels like we’ve been given the run to do whatever we need to do for that particular production. Chris Goode runs an amazing rehearsal room. He’s a very collaborative person and it is really shows  in the way he invites his cast  and creatives in to put a lot of themselves into what’s happening in the rehearsal room.

I interviewed Pauline Mayers in June, she said exactly the same about him. We are lucky to have him at The Royal Exchange……So was this your first time working there?

I was at The Studio space while on tour a few years ago with my own company, Sleepdogs. It was a one man show called The Bullet and the Bass Trombone about a symphony orchestra that gets caught in a city during a military coup.

How did it feel to be currently working  here and then accepting the Bruntwood on the same stage? 

It was like a weird cheese dream especially when I saw people I’d been working with up in the tech desk. Some of the cast came to the ceremony so I could hear cheers from the gallery and recognise their voices because I’d been working with them for so long.

You have a very good ear for voices, sounds… does that give you an extra dimension as a writer when it comes to pacing and dialogue?

Yeah, I think it does. If there’s one thing I can say I definitely have as a writer is a kind of musical attitude to putting stuff together. I really enjoy soaking up the way that people talk and transferring that into the words I create. There’s always a sense of finding counterpoint melodies and textures that work interestingly opposite each other in the same way as if you mixed a piece of music. One of the reasons a lot of what I write has a kind of culture clash at the heart of it is because I’m always fascinated by what happens when these different kinds of music collide. I think that probably comes from growing up in Rio de Janeiro. Brasil is one of the world’s great melting pot cities – all kinds of voices and approaches to life there.

So Tim, all those possible voices – who would be your dream cast for Heartworm?

Laughs. Im going to annoy you now. I don’t tend to think about stuff like that. I love collaborating and I enjoy the surprises that come from the casting process. There are several things in particular  about Heartworm such as I’ve stipulated in the script than none of the cast are white. The casting will require finding performers who are at ease around the dreamlike language that the play uses. I can already imagine about 10 -15 ways of performing Joni K who is the most vocal character in the play. I’m really looking forward to seeing what people do when they sink their teeth into the script.

How would you describe Joni K? Who is she?

I’m reluctant to expand on much detail which is not always the case with my plays. A lot of my works have definitely had thematic concerns but Heartworm is genuinely an exception to that. The weird thing about Joni is kind of the only definitive question that the play seems to be asking over and over again is – “Who is she?” Im really keen that the audience have the chance and the space to answer that in their own personal ways.

 I was intrigued by the extract I saw at the awards ceremony. There are all sorts of thoughts going on wondering what was pulling her back to her childhood home.

The room that she is standing in is the bedroom she grew up in, in what is ostensibly a house belonging to complete strangers. I was intrigued by the questions that might race through your mind in that moment if you were the couple renting out that room. That’s what I wanted to explore.

I recently had the chance to go back and see my childhood home and the changes made to it. The thought made me feel almost physically sick. 

The idea of seeing your childhood painted over makes you feel woozy doesn’t it?  The idea came from thoughts of heading back to Brazil again. I’ve been once since childhood but was thinking of going for longer this time. When looking at staying in AirBnBs I found myself looking closer and closer to the street I grew up on, and thinking how weird it would be if I was able to see the flat I shared with my family.

I used that premise with Joni as a starting point to explore some complicated emotions that were bubbling up in ways I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I decided to follow almost a dreamlike process with absolutely no idea where it would lead. I wrote it in linear fashion from start to finish and was genuinely surprised myself by some of the turns it took. It was like an improvisatory process of what I might like to see on stage and I allowed myself to go wherever it felt right to go, no matter how disconcerting or self-revealing it might be. Looking back I can see some of the influences and broad emotions – the main ones being grief and loss.

Did it feel cathartic writing it?

Absolutely. If there are two kinds of human rituals – those of confirmation and those of transformation then I tend to focus on the transformatory. I prefer to write about what could this be?….. What might this be?….. Isn’t the Universe strange….

Do you think that might have been what connected the Judges to this piece?

Maybe. I’ve no idea. The judging process remains  closed to me apart from what was said at the ceremony. 

What would your advice be to anyone thinking of submitting for The Bruntwood Prize?

To just write, keep on writing, keep on entering. I think I’d particularly encourage an idea of writing something you would like to see on a stage no matter what the implications of that are. No matter how you think plays are produced, or normally look on stage – if there’s something you’d like to feel or experience on stage put it on paper and send it to The Bruntwood Prize. I thought I was writing something particularly personal and strange, yet it turns out of all the things I submitted that this has been the most successful.