In this episode we interview three wonderful playwrights, Paul Stoyle, Matt Hanf and Bethany Dickens Assaf. We chat about their inspirations, processes and the common ground between horror and comedy.
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Hello and welcome to Page Parle. This is the show where we speak to (the) authors or experts (on creative writing) on the work we read in scintillating stories.
Today we are speaking to Paul Stoyle, Matt Hanf and Bethany Dickens Assaf
I grew up in the black country, which is the crescent of post industrial cities around Birmingham. And then I went off to uni to Cambridge, not the big fancy university, but the art school that was a polytechnic, basically, ghostly drama. That's where I've met my partner and we. got together ended up spending some wild years down in Brighton and it was while I was doing, I was working in theatres and bits and bobs like that.
And I was also holding down a day job, and I got just crazy mad basically, so I was like, Okay, I need something artistic to do that isn't gonna run me ragged, really. So I started sketching out little bits and plays and stuff, basically, I got something here. And so I started playing to like Scratch Knights, and. Bits and bobs of that and it's all just bloomed basically of just taking baby steps.
My name's Matt Hamph. I am in California, Sacramento area. I'm in Elk Grove or a small suburb of Walmart. I'm a high school teacher and that's kind of the most important thing because as a writer, I'm not a professional writer.
I have the luxury of writing what I want when I want. I have the problem of not getting paid for it, but I have a job. I have insurance. So I'm okay for those of you who are writers. I battled the biggest Thing we all face which is time, the time to get to write to think to decompress If you're a writer, yeah, you may understand that.
My name is Bethany Dickinson Sapp. I am a playwright from Orlando, Florida. I am a freelance playwright, dramaturg, theater producer, and I'm most proud of the fact that I'm the producing director. of Whiskey Theatre Factory, which is a collective that celebrates and produces and is a laboratory for emerging artists in Central Florida.
Fantastic, and I love the name. Where did that come from?
Well, we really wanted our initials to be WTF, of course. And it just felt right for us. We're young, we're a little bit edgy, we're a little bit sassy, we're a little bit saucy. Also whiskey is just one of those drinks that sort of brings people together around the fire to tell stories and connect with one another.
I think we are very much about the people that we're working with. We want to create a welcoming atmosphere.
Oh, I love that. Even as you were saying it, I could kind of smell it, you know, the bonfire smells. Oh, lovely. What drew you to playwriting as a medium?
I think at the time when I was living down in Brighton, I was trying a load of different things. Different forms of theatre, live art, tried my hand at improv, comedy, being true to myself I thought, you know what, Paul. When you've got complete autonomy of the text and say, okay, this is how it's going to be, and this is the character, and this is where it's going. And I think with the playwriting, it's solely you, it's solely your voice, so basically there's a very angsty teenager probably still in there yearning, to be heard over my parents voices. whilst watching Coronation Street or something.
Well, I believe we all have that inner teenager that perpetually shows itself.
I started out as a musical comedian. But I kind of outgrew my audience.
I no longer wanted to get on stage and make all these people happy. It was exhausting. And I did it professionally to get up there. And because actors. They work. It's a lot of work. You gotta be available. , there's no like 9 to 5 thing going on. It was rough, and I didn't have that.
So, I had to kind of go, okay, where does my writing go? And so I looked for 10 seconds at short stories, but who buys short stories? Except for the good ones. I read the really good ones, I'm like, that ain't me. I'm not that. So, where can I get the rush that you get from performing.
And still write and playwriting fit in perfectly. I can still do music. I can still do comedy. I can do drama. I get to watch other people work. I don't have to work. I can be lazy. It's awesome.
I have been writing since the age of four and I have diaries from back then.
They're pretty rough, but just something I've always been drawn to as a way of expressing myself. I started writing little novellas on my dad's Windows 1995 laptop way back in the day. And so I did that until about 20 17 2018. I had a friend actually challenged me to write a play that would have a monologue in it for her to use in auditions.
Once I started engaging with that and I started writing this play and that gave us something to talk about, something to connect over.
And I really got to see how collaborative is. Theater could be and playwriting could be as opposed to more fiction writing. I I was just absolutely hooked. Me and this friend started doing little salons where we would go and read my plays and just the fact that everybody could come together and read together and have a lot of fun was just outstanding for me as an extrovert.
I can't believe it took me so long to find playwriting, but that's how it goes, I found out what I was supposed to and so I've been going strong ever since. I'm in my fifth year of playwriting now.
And you really enjoy that community aspect,
absolutely. And it's something that is so unique to theatre as opposed to other kinds of writing.
For me, a play, it's all well and good if, you know, writing it off by yourself and getting that first draft done. But the process really has only just begun for me when the first draft is finished and we have that first table read with all of the actors and then I start hearing. Their thoughts and their feedback.
I always write my plays usually with specific actors in mind. So I start to hear their voices and I start to bring in their perspectives and it makes it so much better than I could ever have done if I was just off by myself the entire time.
It's such fun experience to work with people on a show.
You don't really get that with other forms of writing. Because while you could go to, say, a writer's retreat and make good friends When you're actually doing the writing, you're kind of stuck in your own little garret, if you want to be dramatic about it.
Very gothic imagery. A single candle flickering. But when you're working with actors, with potentially collaborative writers, a lot of plays have multiple writers, directors, you feel kind of held.
Ooh, I like that. Held. Yes. And challenged. And challenged. Yes. Exactly.
I feel like I've just grown exponentially because of all the people in my world who I'm lucky enough to have who give me all this feedback.
This piece that you submitted to us, Thirteen Skulls, it's a very spooky, horror based piece. So what were some of the inspirations behind it?
I now live with my husband in South Wales, and he grew up in the heart of the valleys, which is a really spooky place, because if you go up there, especially the village where he grew up, there is nothing but mountains on the three sides of you, and there's one road out, and there's one road in, and the silence can be a bit oppressive, so there's a general bit of a sinister air And then just over the course of the last 20 years, trading school stories and stories of our youth and stuff like that.
But what I found is with the South Welsh Valleys community it's very intense because everybody knows everybody and everybody's personal history. Going back to the great grandfathers to the grandfathers so if you do something untoward to the community, or you're just a bit of an oddball, it gets noted down, and you become a bit of a local story forevermore, basically.
So, he told me this story about this woman who had a wartime sweetheart, and He was like, okay, I'm gonna go off to the front, but tell you what, get out of London go to this small, mining community in the middle of nowhere, you'll be absolutely fine, they'll take care of you. Horribly to say that he never came back and the rest of her family were bombed while she was in the village so she was kind of stranded And I always wonder did she become bitter because of what happened to her?
Or did she become a little bit of a pariah in the village ? Because, she was something totally different from what they'd ever seen before . And I wondered how initially welcoming they were to her, and vice versa. So this kind of story just kind of vested in my head. And I'm a big fan of...
Folklore and mythologies and all kind of spooky stories, going back to Celtic Britain. So, I was doing a bit of research into Halloween superstitions in Wales, and one of them was the black sag, which apparently was supposed to hunt you down and chase you across hill and vale on Halloween night, unless you can jump into a churchyard .
So, it was a kind of weird cross pollination of this true life story about this woman. Who's the prior of a community and also this horrible black pig.
You mentioned that you also work as a teacher. Do you think that impacts your personal approach to writing?
Yes and no. I certainly don't take stories from people, I found that, for me personally, it's dangerous to write about people's stories because then you've got to answer to them later when it's like, Hey, that's me. Well, kind of. No, that's me. Ah, crap.
Yeah, you're right. It is. But majority of my job, if I'm doing it right, is asking why. So you're in a bad mood. Why? You're not doing well in class. Why? Okay. So I do have to kind of psychologically. Get into people's heads a bit and go, okay, well, what's going on here? Why are you doing this? Which then forced me to ask my characters, why are we doing this?
You know, so it goes to the level of motivation. That is kind of the nature of our job is to say, not just, what do you do, but why are you doing it? Cause that drives the response,
could you tell us a little bit about the role that your grant writing plays in your relationship with the theatre community? Because obviously you have a full time occupation working in grant writing.
Yes, I am also a grant writer. It's a huge passion I'm buying. I'm very blessed to be able to work in grant writing. And I do think the 2 things feed each other the grant writing, is writing narratives for competitive grant competitions. It's a form of storytelling. If you want the funder to be able to connect with your mission and what you're trying to achieve through the project and give you the money that you're requesting, you could just, Spit out a bunch of facts and explain what the program is, but when you can actually tell a story about how this program is changing people's lives, it just makes such a big difference.
So I feel like I get to flex my storytelling muscles a little bit there, but also grant writing has also really contributed to my work. As a playwright, not only making me a better, more efficient storyteller, a lot of grant applications tell us all about your project in a hundred words or less.
I think that's maybe a more concise playwright. It's helped me also be a better collaborator. When writing a grant proposal, that is definitely not something that you can or should just go and walk away and do by yourself. It's made me just a better receiver of feedback.
It's made me Really value everybody's contributions, all the stakeholders that have to get involved.
I've been doing it for about 12 years now has definitely become sort of a secondary passion for me. I definitely see the two things as flowing in synergy with each other.
Do you feel that you put any aspects of yourself into your writing?
There's always a nugget of truth in them, and it depends what you do with it. For example unfortunately, while I was a teenager, I got attacked coming off a train. It was a homophobic attack, actually.
And long story short, I had a Hasbro friend in the back of my head. And of course this sent me into a spiral of anxiety and depression which stayed with me for quite a long time. And I don't think I ever processed it fully until I wrote a short story about somebody who was gonna go work in a greenhouse.
It was community service. It was part of their punishment, basically. And the reason they were there, is because they attacked somebody and I think that was so close to my experience that it something just rung true in the story, I don't always think that theatre should be used as a form of therapy.
It really depends on the person on, a kind of case by case basis. In tandem with medication and a bit of therapy, I've sometimes got a few of my demons out over the years. By maybe putting a, putting a horror twist on something or, making it fantastical.
That's a really good perspective on it.
And I agree with you. Therapy and medication is a primary part of any recovery process. But, it's been demonstrated that theatre and performance can be incredibly beneficial to people suffering from various mental health conditions
I think theatre is a very viable method of processing.
I think if you're personally, quite laconic, as I normally am, having that medium to translate it. I've had quite a few therapists in my time.
And when it's like straight on talking therapy, I always feel like there's this grill or a grate that comes down when something gets a bit too hard. But if you've got something tangible to go for an art space therapy. There's a time when you can stop using the words and just totally invest yourself in the project that you're working on.
It's interesting to look at the way that theatre has been used in this way before. Now we have modern practices like the Sesame Approach which is an offshoot of play therapy, which, fantastic, especially when people are non verbal or when they can't speak about these issues because they're just too present.
It's wonderful to unlock things in that way. But if you just look at theatre straightforwardly, since people have been putting together plays, they've been dealing with traumatic incidents. Shakespeare dealing with the death of his son by writing the Tempest, these sorts of things. So I think you're part of a grand literary tradition in that regard.
Why do you think that people are intimidated by writing comedy? Because one thing comedians say that people have come up to them and said is, Oh, I could never do what you do.
The response is so immediate and obvious. If I tell a joke, nobody laughs.
It's like, yeah, that wasn't funny. But if you do drama, it could still be drama. You don't know how. Reacting to drama so you can lie to yourself and say that's good drama. , I've been on stage and bombing and it's like, yeah, I can't pretend this audience is just dumb and doesn't get me.
I'm just not really funny right now. So I get it. But I think the people who often say I'm not funny, I don't do comedy, often write really good comedy. They just writing jokes, not writing, absurdist pieces. Cause you almost can't avoid comedy. I know a lot of people who aren't funny and they can be really funny. And it's safe to say I'm not something means you don't have to try, I've gone through many phases in my life where I would not say I was a writer. You know, earned it or something, but really I was just chickening out on, acknowledging what I wanted,
so if I failure, I was like, Oh, that's too much. I can't do it now. Just say what you are. You don't have to have a little trophy to prove it. And then go earn it afterwards.
That's a really psychological perspective to that. I really like it. Do you find it creatively satisfying to write about experiences of gender and sexuality, particularly through a humorous lens?
I think that's something that I've really come to own. Bringing in the humor, bringing in the joy into these topics. Only in the last couple of years, there's actually a A festival of eight of my short plays going up here in Orlando in a, in a couple of weeks and they're doing stuff that I wrote in 2018, 2019, all the way to the present and seeing those older plays.
I'm like, wow, I really thought I was really edgy and dark. And there are some good things to be said about about that approach, especially 2020. The darkest play is definitely from bed. But. Coming out of, 2022, 2023, I just really did a lot of soul searching and realized that joy is very, very important to me and so for me, personally, to help to explore these topics, I felt I could do them more authentically.
If I could bring in some of that humor, some of that love, some of that joy, some of that care for my collaborators, just sort of coming off the page. And these topics do deserve, very serious treatment especially for me as an advocate in my community, especially my theater community, forming a predominantly female Collective it can be very tiring and it can be very exhausting to, be fighting the good fight all the time.
And really, you just have to laugh sometimes.
Otherwise, it would just be depressing, the incremental progress that we make. So to get to express some of that reality and in place. It's definitely become something I've become very attached to over the last couple of years. Just so that, all of my fellow LGBTQ friends and fellow females and, and, and all of us who are, are struggling right now we can just kind of have a laugh about it.
And, hopefully being able to start some conversation around it, but also just have a little relief as well.
It's funny because comedy and horror in terms of expression and processing are kind of very similar in that with humor you're processing difficult things by, taking away their power and laughing and so you're processing a difficult thing Through a very, a big relief of laughter and with horror, you're processing a difficult thing by really Highlighting the scariness and just getting it out of your brain and going this is what it feels like, Both are, from the writers and the creators and the actors perspective, you get this huge rush of relief from just shaking it through.
Hmm, I love that. I think that's 100% true and beginning those conversations, I think humour can be a great, it can open a lot of doors. People
Getting people to laugh with you.
Is very good for starting conversations because you're not going to change many people's minds by shouting at them, but you might get more people to consider things differently if it's presented through this light hearted lens
everybody writes differently. It's an incredibly individual process. So, when you sit down, or stand up, to write, what does that look like for you?
I always start from something of discomfort, to be honest with you. I probably spend more time moaning about, I should be writing, or I haven't got any good ideas.
You can put yourself into a corner thinking like that. this might sound very trite, but sometimes the best ideas come to you when you're not looking for them. I've probably had glimmers of inspiration when, , you go out and weed the flowerbeds, or you are scrubbing the muck off the sink or something like that, and then your mind just goes to weirdly unusual places, just bored to the monotony of what you're doing, the tasks and the chores, basically.
And then, this play, it will just be a fusion of maybe several things will just come together. remember when we were kids and it was a game and you used to draw a person and then fold a piece of paper up and then somebody had to draw their trousers and then the next person would draw their shoes and stuff like that?
Yes, I love that game! I remember my dad would, if I was getting fidgety, my dad would wap like, yeah, this is the life.
, that's basically how I work with just flipping through these different things and going, okay, got flip flops, a princess robe. Devil horns. Yeah, okay. What does this make me think of if we imagine that a metaphorical picture book in my head just flipping through all these different images and then we all just freeze and think oh god Yeah, there's something in here to explore.
It's funny you say stand up because If I go for a run, if I run long enough, I can get to a place where I can think. And sometime in a running or a driving or something there that I can really more flesh out an idea or even get an idea, but I try to keep certain things in mind.
I try to be very practical. Like I'm writing a 10 minute. I'm aware of how many people are on stage because your typical community theater have 25 people, they tend to be women heavy, so I Try to write for more female characters , or if it's a character that could go any way, I'll make it a woman because from what I've experienced in community theater, there's a lot more women available.
And I try to make it fun for the actors. Because if an actor enjoys it, then they're going to invite all their friends to the show, right? \ and I take Shakespeare's advice. I don't write like Shakespeare, but I did take this advice.
I don't put in a lot of stage directions. Because that's not my job, that's the director's job. And I want the director to have ownership of the piece. Because if everybody thinks they're the ones who really made this piece good, they will all invite their friends to see it, and then we'll have a big audience, and we all win, right?
I think the more dictatorial I am, the more they're just kind of shovels in my, my big ditch. The less they're engaged with it, you know? And then of course there's the, the positive thing of like, if you work with good people, they have good ideas, things that you wouldn't have thought of, you know? So it's good to let go.
So I guess my, my writing process is an attempt to let go.
It's a very collaborative thing for you.
A collaboration is shutting up. It's allowing them to go. I've written things so fast sometimes that I read it myself and I go, I don't even know what that sentence means.
Yeah, the braid went too fast for the hands.
For the most part, it is collaboration. Having faith in the people you work with. I can't, control an audience. But it feels really good when an actor says, I really enjoyed your piece.
They have a lot of experience. They're actually a pretty good evaluator.
Oh, it used to look so different. I have a five month old. So it used to be, I would sit down at the exact same time every day. 10 o'clock I'd have My bergamot tea, I had to have it. I was almost superstitious level and I would write for an hour and 20 minutes exactly, which would mean for me, anywhere from 10 to 20 pages.
And then I call it a day and I go live my life. Not so much. Occasionally happens when my mom could come over for the most part. You know, I will snatch opportunities to write whenever I can. I have a week coming up with a lot of great writing where I'm probably not going to get to write at all.
Sometimes during the afternoon, sometimes right in the evening, and I think I don't want to say, and I have completely embrace that because I haven't that would be alive. it's managing the tension between being a mother now. And being a writer is just, I don't think it's something that can be solved.
I still try and have my tea. But I probably am not going to get to 10 to 20 pages every day. And just, so just give cutting myself a lot of slack and knowing that that that's all right. And that this is a season of life.
And there will be. A different season of life, you know, right around the corner. So I would say at this moment, I probably write the most just early in the morning. He'll get me up way too early and I'll put him back to bed and then I'll see him around five pages or so. So I'm doing whatever needs to be done at this point.
And that's okay.
That's really a very compassionate lens. And I think that's really important for people. A with. young children or children of any age, to be honest. But but also maybe people who deal with things like being on the ADHD spectrum where distractions are a real difficult thing to encounter.
I had a friend who's an amazing playwright, who's been produced many times, who recently told me that she's not a real playwright.
And I asked her what that meant. And she's like, well, to be a real playwright, I would have to be sitting down and writing every day. And I was like, no, I know so many fantastic. Playwrights out there who, that's just not their reality, or sometimes that's just not even how folks work best, and you shouldn't beat yourself up.
Use the technology. I know one playwright who my collective has produced who doesn't have a lot of time to write, but spends a lot of time in the car commuting, and does voice to text. She just, she talks about all of her plays, and they're amazing, they're beautiful, so.
Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights of any age?
It's, in a way, limiting. You've gotta hold an audience's attention, and you haven't got the luxury of having four pages to describe somebody's internal monologue, or the drawing room they're about to enter. You put something personal in it, use what's around you, and also, I think sometimes, like, the fear, because we're talking about horror, and my old writing lecturer said, the best way to start, Is what keeps you up at night?
And this could be any existential dread, or real fear, or the state of the world, or the economy, or anything, basically. And then just really mining into that. What's the root of that? And has that got legs? I think the best horror usually says something about the world or the human condition. And I'm going all the way back to late Macbeth here, see, because you mentioned the bard, in terms of that play, it's about destiny and choosing options and basically, okay, what heights, what would we do, where would our ambition take us?
Basically, what would we sacrifice
when you were talking about ideas coming to you when you're, doing something else physical or a task that doesn't necessarily utilize all of your brain. It reminds me of something that Terry Pratchett said, it really resonated for me.
If you want to walk around with your head in the clouds, you've got to make sure your feet are on the ground. Just doing some really just dirty work around the house and being grounded. And I think that that really chimes with what you were saying about ideas coming to you.
When you're doing just a really mundane, menial task, it does sort of allow part of your brain to just kind of,
not detach, but you know.
Explore. Yeah, exactly. Better way of putting it.
I think writing is the best thing for writers to do. Because it gives us the most access. I love the 10 minute genre because I can get 10 minute plays. I got one going up in Australia, I got another one going, in a couple places in the States.
They're small places. First place would be like, just keep writing. And, don't worry because I've got rejected, I've got accepted by New York and rejected by Iowa. You know, how does that work? So just write, enjoy it, enjoy the people you work with, figure out your goals.
If your goal is to make money, you have to do different stuff. You have to really be engaged process. You have to think differently, but if your goal is to write, you know, just be happy with those who enjoy it, let go of those who don't. And enjoy what you're doing. And then it's a fulfilling hobby.
It's a fulfilling calling, that's why I still enjoy it and I can't not do it.
What I usually tell folks is find your why. Which sounds very business speak, but it is very applicable to playwriting in that it is a very Competitive world. It's a very tough world.
It's also extremely wonderful and you'll get opportunity to work with a lot of collaborators and say yes to a lot of things. Maybe say yes to too many things. I think it's a very powerful thing. If you could sit down with yourself for, however long it takes to figure out why it is you want to write.
Is it just a need that's within you that you feel like you have to do that for wellbeing? What does that mean? Is it to meet people? My why is to create compelling roles for women, particularly women of a certain age, like myself, who may not be the traditional ingenue type so that when everything else is kind of going wrong, or when I'm like, I don't even know if I want to keep writing.
I just had that terrible production. I just had this terrible review. I'm just feeling worn out and weary. That keeps me going and gets me back into it. And it gives me a lot of strength. So if someone out there wants to go on this incredible journey, I would definitely start with that and that will help sustain you through the tough times and the good and give you focus during the good.
Thank you so much for coming to speak to us today. It's been a joy to speak to you. If people would like to hear more from you, where can they go?
Well, if you enjoy this and just horror audio theater at large, you could spy my work at Frequency Theater or I'm also featured on the Rabid Foils podcast as well.
Oh, wonderful. So everybody has to go over there and do that.
On YouTube at Ed Sebelius. There is some songs out there that I've done, and then you just kind of have to look up my name and Google it to see where it goes.
They can go to my website, which is www. bethanydickens. com. There you will find a link to my new PlayXchange profile.
For those who might have new PlayXchange, you can read the vast majority of my plays are on there. It's like social media for playwrights? I think it's like twelve dollars a year. You can post your plays on it so people can find them based on tags, based on your name.
Production companies can reach out and ask for the rights that way. If you're a playwright just looking at other people's stuff, you can leave a recommendation. It has to be purely positive, so it has a very Welcoming vibe to it. So if anyone out there is interested, it's just a new play exchange.com. Check it out.
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