Originally written for The Stage.
Conversation with Alistair McDowall is cluttered with cultural references. Names of books, films and comics all fly off the playwright’s tongue; a rich and varied vocabulary of influences, from Sarah Kane to William Faulkner. “If I’m not working I spend all of my time consuming,” McDowall explains, “reading novels and plays and watching films and TV and listening to music and reading comics – whatever I can get my hands on.”
This passion for culture in all its forms – “generally I’m just a fan,” McDowall enthuses – filters through to his plays, which often marry the mundane and the fantastical. Brilliant Adventures shoved a time machine into a Middlesborough housing estate; in Captain Amazing, an ordinary dad is a reluctant, cape-clad superhero. “I think my plays sometimes feel quite noisy,” McDowall suggests, attributing this background buzz to all the cultural “stuff” that has influenced them.
“I was just obsessed with stories in any form,” he says of the many narratives that fed his creative imagination in his childhood and teens. After years of dreaming about making films, McDowall put on his first play with friends at the age of 16 and discovered a way of immediately bringing his ideas to life. From that point onwards he didn’t stop, continuing to write plays throughout school and university and staging his work in fringe venues after graduating.
The turning point came when Brilliant Adventures won a judges award as part of the Bruntwood Prize in 2011. For McDowall, the timing could not have been better: he had lost his day job in an art gallery the day before the prize was announced. “When I look back at that, the overwhelming feeling I have about winning it is just relief,” McDowall remembers. “I didn’t really have that much time to suddenly get above my station; it was just like yes, I can still eat.”
McDowall is frank about the economic restraints that hamper many would-be theatre-makers, who he describes as being “robbed of their talent” through financial circumstances. “There’s no reason why I should have been able to see this as a career,” he reflects on his own relatively modest background. “I just never really considered doing anything else other than making stories.”
When discussing his own stories, McDowall keeps coming back to their strangeness. Brilliant Adventures, which premiered at the Royal Exchange in Manchester after being recognised by the Bruntwood Prize, is “quite a peculiar play” according to its writer, while he describes his latest play Pomona as “really odd”.
Pomona, which is about to receive a production from McDowall’s fellow University of Manchester alumnus Ned Bennett at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, was born from the place that its title refers to. The playwright describes this desolate strip of land awaiting development in Manchester as a “ghost town” and recalls his desire to capture it on stage somehow, at the same time as being interested in conveying the experience of living in the 21st century.
“I wanted to write something that was more led by a certain kind of state of mind and mood and tone,” McDowall explains. “It feels internet-y in its form and structure and it’s about a certain type of anxiety that seems to me to be very, very contemporary.” And perhaps even more so than his previous work, it is strewn with pop cultural detritus, from TV shows to fast food.
Despite his interest in all the other cultural forms that inspire his work, McDowall keeps coming back to theatre because it’s a medium in which “you can do anything”, a realisation prompted in his teens by binge reading the plays of Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
“When I think of the things that had the biggest impact on me, it’s quite often that they reminded me that you can do whatever you want,” says McDowall. “You can do whatever you want, as long as you do it with passion and integrity and craft, you can do anything.”
Theatre is a “collective imagining,” he adds, later going on to describe a play as a magic trick. “I think the magic trick is almost aren’t we all having fun making this magic trick together, rather than actually trying to deceive you that it’s anything other than a magic trick,” he explains, capturing his interest in both narrative and theatricality.
The one thing that theatre-makers have to do, McDowall insists, is justify why their stories belong on stage. There might be no rules, but the question the playwright always asks himself is “does the audience still need to be in the same room for this to happen? And if the action could continue without them, if the equation is complete without them, it just doesn’t feel like it’s the best use of everyone’s time.” Or, putting it another way, “I’ve asked all these people to turn up, so I’d better fucking put on a show.”
Photo: Manuel Harlan.