Author: debsed41

Developing the Show – Team Green Knight!

Following on from my previous post about writing Green Knight, I wanted to blog a bit about the next stage – the process of developing the show, and the community of people who helped me to get it from script to production.

First of all, it’s worth talking about the reasons why I decided I wanted to write, produce and perform a one-woman show – having never done two of those things before! A very big factor was the control it gave me over this area of my work. As a working parent with day-jobs, producing my own work gave me the freedom to schedule rehearsals and then performances when I wanted to. I’ve always been really lucky with the directors I’ve worked with, who have been very supportive with organising rehearsals around my life; but it’s still frequently felt like a stressful experience – it’s hard not to have feelings of guilt around not being flexible enough. With Green Knight, I organised everything around the gaps I had in my working week and year. My son sat in on most of the rehearsals – he knows a frightening number of the lines, although he’s not quite ready to step up as understudy! Doing a solo show also meant I could minimise the expense – something that was especially important as I funded everything myself.

Most of all, though, I really loved the idea of the challenge! I’d been lucky enough to do a solo show in 2013, written and directed by the brilliant Jen McGregor, and I loved it – the close connection with the audience, the opportunity to tell them a complete story, and the chance to shift between characters. And I’d been longing for a while to write my own performance piece.

So, I had a script, and a desire to do it. But what about developing that script into a performance, and producing it? Cue a steep learning curve that would wake me in the early hours of the morning on several occasions!

The early steps were all about calling on the goodwill and expertise of friends and colleagues from the Edinburgh theatre scene. In particular, two brilliant women came on board and worked their magic. I did some early workshopping with Jen and with the marvellous Flavia D’Avila of Fronteiras Theatre Lab, which helped to build my sense of the characters. Jen did a number of invaluable dramaturgy sessions with me on the script. Flav started working with me with some hand-held props. One thing I did know about the show was that it would have to be simple and portable – otherwise, it wouldn’t be affordable. So – no set and only props I could carry collectively in a shoulder bag. I think we started with some fabrics, a ribbon and an artificial rose. What we felt from early on was that these props had to be the kind of thing that this woman, my character, might be carrying with her. Ultimately, this would resolve into a spoon, bowl, plate, apple, ribbon and sheet, props which would in the show represent – amongst other things – a king’s crown, a shield, a mirror, a girdle, and a ‘green’ knight.

Bless Flav and Jen, because these early sessions were done purely for love and an exchange of coffee and jaffa cakes.

As far as production was concerned, I had very little idea where to start. Fortunately, I had a friend who did. The brilliant Philip Kingscott of Peapod Productions sat with me one evening in the Filmhouse Café and basically downloaded all the details from the producer part of his brain for me, while I scribbled furiously.

I was also really lucky to have the support of the wonderful EPAD (Edinburgh Performing Arts Development). EPAD is an incredible resource, supporting independent artists and companies in Edinburgh. They organised meetings for me with established theatre-makers in the city to provide advice on development and production.

Meanwhile, other chats with friends and acquaintances on where and how to try and stage the nascent show led to an offer of a run at the Royal Scots Club in the Edinburgh Fringe. I had dates and a venue. And a commitment – I really had to do it now!

Flavia and Jen continued to support me. Jen came in and did voice-work with me, using the Nadine George method. Flavia came on board as director and, amongst all the other brilliant things she did, devised – and coached me through – the choreography of the show. It has been such a joy (and involved so much laughter) and a privilege to see the show develop alongside her. Meanwhile, I learned on the hoof to manage social media, and organise posters and flyers. The excellent Sandy McGhie from Channel 7a came and filmed video trailers with me. A group of trusted friends came and gave feedback on a first run-through (my lovely friend Danielle Farrow has been particularly generous with her time and advice); the Scottish Storytelling Centre gave me a space in which to do this run-through. It was a rollercoaster of very, very hard work in which I was continually expecting to find out I’d forgotten to do a dozen vital things. The buck for pretty much everything was going to stop with me, which was simultaneously terrifying and a huge thrill. But it was coming together.

All of which led me in August 2017 to my first performance. It was scary, a bit emotional, and an incredible feeling.

Three years on, and Green Knight has been back to Edinburgh Fringe, to Buxton Fringe (twice) where I won a best female actor award, and to York Theatre Royal, and I’m currently deep in preparations to take it to Cambridge’s Corpus Playroom from 24-28 March. I am inestimably grateful (to pinch the words of my character) to the people who helped me to get it on its feet. Without Flavia and Jen in particular, Green Knight would still be an epically over-long script sitting festering somewhere on my hard-drive. Everyone who comes to see the show gets a book-mark, on which the full list of people I’m indebted to is listed. I’m happy that this reminder is there that while the show may be a one-woman performance, it’s very much alive as a result of this community of talented and generous people.

Writing and my Mum



I wanted to reflect a bit on the writing I’ve done this last year, and the people and opportunities that have helped me with it. 2017 was a busy, fruitful year on the writing front. I was lucky enough to be short-listed for the Kelpies Prize for unpublished children’s novels, run by Floris Books. I also wrote Green Knight, a one woman show which I performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, and adapted two short stories as audio dramas for the Shoreline of Infinity Infinitesimals project. I finished the year sketching out the plot and opening chapters of a new Middle Grade novel, doing a really thorough re-edit of the novel which was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, and being part of the recording of two Infinitesimals dramas – one adapted by me and one by the talented Jonathan Whiteside.


Last year, though, was just as much about connecting – or keeping connected – with people who supported, improved and inspired me as a writer. There were the readers who kindly gave feedback on my work – most of all the wonderful, talented Jen McGregor, who gave so generously of her time and expertise to dramaturg Green Knight, improving it immeasurably. There were the staff of Floris Books, who welcomed me so warmly between the shortlisting and awards ceremony for the Kelpies Prize, and, even though it didn’t win, offered fantastic advice on taking the novel forward. (If you write children’s fiction set in Scotland, you should be entering the Kelpies Prize – these are fantastic people). Writer Jonathan Whiteside and editor Noel Chidwick provided enthusiasm and momentum for Infinitesimals audio dramas, which will launch formally in 2018. I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and enjoyed workshops, crit group feedback and some lovely socialising with the local branch. And the awesome writers I met when I was part of Story Shop last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival have proved to be a really precious writing tribe, supporting everything I’ve done and inspiring me with the fabulous work they’ve produced. It’s partly down to them, and to SCBWI friends, that I’m now in a productive, daily writing routine.


But I also want to talk a little about my Mum.


While my dad was a bit of a frustrated actor, and probably fuelled that side of me, my mum was very much the writer and reader in our house, putting a wide variety of books in my hands (and never raised an eyebrow when as a teenager I decided to describe the naughty bits of The Thorn Birds to her – although she probably had a good giggle about it afterwards). Good stories were treasure to her, something to be passed on and shared, and that’s very much how I feel about them now. It’s a coincidence, but one that makes me very happy, that this year, before she passed away, I revisited a lot of my favourite childhood books, including Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, my Noel Streatfeild collection, and Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse.


My mum died in 2017, although the mum I knew had drifted away almost before I realised it a few years ago, when her dementia took hold. Before her funeral, I had a chat on the phone to the minister who led the service (and did so very beautifully), but hadn’t known her. I talked through my strongest memories of her: her big smile, her love of music – and her writing. She told me on more than one occasion that she would have liked to have been a journalist, but that it was difficult for women to go into the job when she came out of university in the 1950s. I’m not sure how happy the profession would have made her, in the long run, but who can say; instead she became a very, very good teacher.


However, she still found a way to write – producing lifestyle articles on family life for the local paper. One of my firmest memories of her from my childhood in the 1970s is at the typewriter. It was a noisy machine, and she rapped out her words with fierce determination (this was not an era for secret messaging). This typewriter time was my mum’s alone – she insisted on it, in a life where she was more or less constantly in demand from one or other of us, adopting an unsmiling writing face which clearly warned, ‘Do not approach’. I was enchanted by the typewriter in the way my son now gets hyped up about a new iPad. Here was a machine that fired out words! Even more impressively, these same words would weeks later resurface in the actual pages of the newspaper which tumbled through our letterbox every day. And, although the sheer honour of this seemed sufficient to me, they would even pay you!


As soon as I could, I negotiated time for myself on the typewriter, and started tapping out my own stories – these now provide unintended hilarity for myself and my teenager (they also feature some less than classy illustrations by the author). But I’m so grateful to my mum for the example she provided. That there was a joy in creating, imagining and storytelling. That the time to do this was not something to be sacrificed to a sense of responsibility to others. That writing was also work – in the sense that it could and did lead to publication and payment, but also because it required hard, inky graft and a lot of edits (bear in mind these were the days before we had Tipp-Ex, too).


So, she would have been delighted to see me writing, and to have heard that I’d performed last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival (which she always loved and spent too much at – something else we have in common). She would have adored to be with me at the Kelpies Awards ceremony (also at the Book Festival) in August, and to hear my words read aloud. I can picture her exactly as if she had she been there, quaffing wine and beaming at me through the crowd.


The thought of going into the new year without her hurts, and is bewildering. But I’m also beginning it with stories to tell, goals for my work, and people around me who value writing as she did. And that’s a starting point to be grateful for.


Christmas storytelling

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This week, a storytelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written and performed by me, and filmed and produced by the fantastic Channel 7a, will play in four 10 minute episodes released daily on YouTube. You can watch the first episode here

The episodes will go out on 22, 23, 24 and 25 December. Chances are you will have other stuff to do on at least the last of these days (Santa is stiff competition) so they’ll remain up for you to watch at your leisure over the Christmas season. 

Please do give it a watch – it’s similar in style to, but not the same as, my one-woman-show Green Knight which played at the Edinburgh Fringe this year (you’ll find more about that on my website here). The episodes going out before Christmas are a straight storytelling, and not a version from the point of view of Lady Bertilak, as the Fringe show was (although Lady Bertilak will definitely be back with her side of the story in 2018!) Also, it’s an armchair version – with a little bit of outdoor storytelling thrown in (recorded in the woods at -5C – next time I will have thermals under that dress).

Christmas is a perfect time for storytelling. However, I’ve always particularly wanted to put a version of this story out at Christmas time as it’s during the Yuletide festival that the Green Knight bursts into the feast at Camelot and Gawain’s quest begins. Most of the rest of the story then plays out during the following Christmas and new year season. But the connection runs deeper than that, because the theme of the passing of time and the brevity of mortal life, which is such an undercurrent in the fourteenth-century poem on which this is based, always seems to me to recall the short, hard, bright days of mid-winter. And every day this month when I’ve been out and about in bitter cold under the glorious winter skies, it’s struck me how winter captures the life described by the Gawain-poet – hardship and beauty, a freezing burst of colour.

Of course, there’s also some serious feasting and partying – which you’ll hear about in episode one of the storytelling. 

This is our first of what we hope will be a regular streamed series of storytellings in 2018. The awesome Sandy from Channel 7a and I worked together on trailers for Green Knight in the summer, and he approached me with this idea for online storytelling after we’d recovered from the Edinburgh Fringe. We’re both very excited about this project. It immediately brought back lots of happy memories for me of Jackanory in my youth – and of a particularly brilliant telling of the story of Odysseus by Tony Robinson on children’s TV back in the day. So we have lots to inspire us and to aspire to. 

If you’d like to read more about the medieval poem on which this telling is based, the description on the website of the British Library, who hold the only surviving manuscript, is a good starting-point. Michael Smith of Mythical Britain, who’s publishing a new translation of the poem with beautiful linocut prints in 2018, has written some really excellent blog posts about it. The poet Simon Armitage made a fantastic documentary with the BBC about the poem a few years ago, and his modern translation is wonderful.

So, pull up a comfy chair, tuck into a mince pie and tune in to our broadcasts. We hope you enjoy.

Writing Green Knight


With less than a week to go until Green Knight premieres at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, I thought it would be worthwhile popping up a blog-post about what led me to write the play.  This is partly because it’s something a few people have asked about, and partly because it’s an interesting thing for me to reflect on now I’m in the final throes of preparation!

The first, most obvious answer is the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on which the show is based. It’s an Arthurian romance, one of a series of stories popular in the period about King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table, and their adventures both on strange and marvellous quests, and in love. The poem survives in only one manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, and we don’t know who composed it – the poet is generally referred to as the Gawain-poet or Pearl-poet, after one of the other three poems in the manuscript. All four poems are thought to come from the same poet, and they share the same north-west Midlands dialect (although this may come from the scribe who copied out the manuscript rather than the poet).

You can see digitised pages from the manuscript, including some beautiful illustrated pages, at courtesy of the British Library and University of Calgary.

I read the poem first when I was seventeen years old, and about to head off to my first year at university. I can remember clearly the shock I felt when I opened the text for the first time and realised that I could understand only around one in every five words! If this was typical of what was coming then university was going to be really hard!

I decided to try and read it in small chunks over two weeks. I was agonisingly slow at it. But at the same time, despite the temptations of summer, friends, and dodgy 1980s pop, I couldn’t leave it alone. There was the cracking adventure it told: the interruption of the new year feast at Camelot by a strange green knight issuing a beheading challenge, a challenge which is taken up by Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, who is famed for his courteous manners and religious purity. It was pretty obvious to me that he was heading for a fall. The language, even if it was odd and challenging, was at the same time rugged and beautiful – and northern! And the characters, young and lively and gorgeous, were simultaneously painfully human and flawed. It tuned in perfectly with my sense of where I was at seventeen, about to leave home and live independently for the first time, testing myself in the world, bubbling with arrogance on one hand and simultaneously terrified I wasn’t up to the job. The poem’s combination of the strange and the familiar, the ideal and otherworldly and the messily, dirtily real, was irresistible – actually I’ve never quite got over that. It led me on to specialising in medieval literature, and then a D.Phil in medieval studies, and I’m still drawn to anything related to the Middle Ages.

When I came back, nearly thirty years later, to thinking about a story to adapt for a one-woman show, I wanted something that fed my medieval obsession – and Gawain was an obvious choice. I started to feel curious about the woman at the heart of the poem. Arguably any power she has in her world is very limited – and while she speaks a lot in the main section of the poem in which she appears, the words may have been fed to her by others. But her ambiguous motivation (in my head, at least), and the ingenious flirtatious skirmishing she enjoys with Gawain, made her irresistible. I began to wonder about what could have brought her to this point in her life, and how she felt about it. What was going on in her head, and if she could tell us her side of the story, what would she want us to know? So, I started writing framing pieces for the main adventure story, in which my lady spoke about her life, and to shade the storytelling of Gawain’s challenge to express her perspective.

Writing the story from the lady’s point of view brought to the fore of my mind the shortage of female voices in medieval literature. When I’d worked on my D.Phil, I’d looked at the problem of ordinary people who might want to be remembered by future generations and how that might be achieved – in the research I was doing, this included town clerks (male, of course) who exploited their control of city records and the gift of literacy to insert information about themselves into those records. In particular, I was struck by an early town clerk of London, Andrew Horn, who commemorated a son, lost at an early age, with a brief but poignant listing in one of London’s civic books. For women, making their voices heard, ensuring they would be remembered, was an even bigger challenge. So, I started to explore the idea of my lady, seized by an urgency to tell her story before time ran out for her.

And lots of other reasons! But what’s here will begin to give you an idea of what inspired me. More soon!