Tamsin Rees is a playwright and artist. She is currently an Associate Artist at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, and was a member of the first Royal Court Writers Group North. The stories told through her work are rooted in the North East and explore sexuality, class and power.
We spoke to Tamsin about people-watching, writing characters you want to have a drink with, and finding the beauty in the mundane.
How did you first realise that writing plays was something that you wanted to do?
I didn’t do amazing in my first year at uni – I’d dropped out of art school, and worked and travelled for a little bit before going back to uni, and I was really embarrassed that I was doing quite badly. I just couldn’t sit still, my concentration was really bad. So I did a creative writing module, because I hadn’t done any since school but I remembered enjoying it. I was going to choose prose but lots of people were signed up for it, which made me a bit nervous, and everyone doing poetry seemed a bit wanky, so I thought, “Let’s try script!” (laughs).
I didn’t even realise it was a thing that people did. I thought there was Arthur Miller, and then Shakespeare, and I thought, “Well, I’m not either of them, am I?” (laughs). But my first script class was with playwright Zoe Cooper, who’s now supervising my PhD, and one of the first things we were shown in her class was The Kitchen Sink by Tom Wells. That play made me realise, “Oh my god – plays can be fun, and normal!” So that was my first introduction. I didn’t even know how to write a play – I don’t even think I turned up with a notebook, because I didn’t even realise how it worked.
The way I think about it, when I was at art school there was a pattern cutting tutor, and he said that for him pattern cutting and fashion was the best vehicle for him to express what he wanted to say. I realised that wasn’t the best vehicle for me. I started doing illustrations, but a lot of it was words, comics, and typography. When I did the script workshop I thought, “This is the vehicle! This is how I can say all the things I’m trying to say.” There are so many types of plays, and so many ways of writing a play; there’s such variety and potential with it.
Your work often digs into the themes of sexuality and class. How do you explore such vast and complex topics in your plays?
I’ve realised that I’m always character-driven, rather than structurally driven. I went to a workshop a couple of years ago with the playwright Sam Potter, and she said that if you put it into a binary, there are two types of writers. The first type is a worm, who will find a nugget of inspiration and they will bury their way forward with that and create the story somehow. And then there are eagles, who will have everything as a bird’s-eye view; they will see all of the plot points and exactly where everything clicks. And I thought, “I’m definitely a worm!” (laughs). I’m always interested in interesting characters. So rather than thinking, “I want to write a play about class or sexuality,” I think of a character who interests me, someone who I want to have a drink with, and see what happens when they’re in this situation and how they react to it. I’m interested in everyday stories, where the small is important.
“Whenever I write about queer characters, I never want their queerness to be a source of conflict.”Tamsin Rees
What interests you about writing around these themes? Is it down to your own personal experiences?
I like to write characters that are queer, because that’s just how it happens. I find that different to writing about queerness. Whenever I write about queer characters, I never want their queerness to be a source of conflict. This might change in the future, as I grow older and my writing changes, maybe I’ll have more confidence to be able to tackle queerness in different ways. But I think there is an element of writing what you know. For me a lot of it comes down to writing the world as I see it and experience it, or maybe would like it to be; and then I show it to other people, and I want to see if that’s also the way they see and experience the world.
For the play I’ve just finished writing, set in Newcastle, there’s a girl who’s twenty-three from the Midlands who comes into a clinic for an examination. There’s a nurse there called Julie from Peterlee who’s fifty-four. And they’re making small talk while they’re waiting for the doctor, talking about what the girl is doing at uni. The girl says she’s doing fine art, and starts to explain what a tutorial is to Julie – then Julie is like, “I know what a tutorial is.” The subtext of what’s not being said is what I find interesting in terms of talking about class and sexuality, and those assumptions. Like, just because Julie’s got an accent that she won’t know about fine art or university. For my PhD I’m looking at the possibilities of silence, and how female desire and anger operates within contemporary narratives through silences. That came from noticing in my work that what’s said is when things aren’t explicitly said – when it’s said through subtext, or when there’s space for the audience to understand what’s happening.
How do you come up with and develop your characters?
It always depends on the play. Usually they just come from little nuggets which I make notes of in my phone, and eventually I’ll put them in a Word document and keep adding tidbits. Some are from real life; people that I find fascinating, strangers that I’ve met in the street, or whatever. I’ve always liked quite radgie women (angry women, for those not from the North East!). It seems that I keep coming back to women who smoke a lot and have a lot of tinnies.
I think there’s something about female archetypes that I find interesting, because all of the stories I write are female-driven, with very few male characters. It always makes me laugh when I’m on a dating app and a guy finds out that I write plays, and he says, “Why don’t you write me into your play?” I’m like, “Mate, I don’t write male characters! Sorry hun, you’re an offstage part!” (laughs) I think again that comes back to writing you know; what I write isn’t autobiographical, but I do borrow from interactions and experiences of my own.
“I like finding the beauty in the mundane, but I also like outside spaces because they’re very neutral, and no-one has ownership within that space.”Tamsin Rees
How do you write dialogue that feels authentic and realistic?
When I was younger, I wasn’t good at maths or science at school because I couldn’t remember any of it. I remember when I was thirteen or fourteen, getting so cross with myself because I couldn’t remember shit. And thinking, how can I remember all of the conversations I’ve had with people – all of the gossipy stuff about who you fancy, which seemed like a really big deal, or the embarrassing stuff that you fixate on because you’re young – I can remember all of that, but not all of this science bullshit?
I think it’s how my brain works – I’m not good at remembering information. I forget details and it’s about the feeling. And I think that’s how I write dialogue; it’s not necessarily about the content. It’s not subject-driven, it’s about the characters and their interaction with each other. I love stuff like Gogglebox, even rubbish reality TV, because I love watching people’s awkward interactions. Or when you’re at the supermarket and you can see people flirting with each other at the checkout. I love people-watching.
How do you decide where to set your plays?
I like writing about places that I find interesting, somewhere that is also appropriate for the characters, and a space that will help the story to unfold. I always like writing outside spaces, because I think they’re the most interesting – a park, a field, a bus stop. I like finding the beauty in the mundane, but I also like outside spaces because they’re very neutral, and no-one has ownership within that space. There’s also a tiny element of danger – if you’re in a field in the middle of nowhere, what does that do to the story? Or if you have to wait in one place together for a bus, how does that then affect how you talk to each other, if you have to be stuck in this same small space together for twenty minutes?
What message do you want your audience to get from seeing your work?
I don’t usually write with a specific audience in mind, but it definitely depends on the story. When I wrote Cheer Up Slug (Live Theatre), it was about challenging the stereotypes of this ditzy young woman, and about sexual assault without actually calling it an assault. Because of that, I wanted people who have experienced that to feel seen, or to recognise this behaviour in their friends or family, and realise that they need to have a conversation. I think with everything I write, I want people to question their own relationships – to check that they’re healthy and ok. And also to see queerness talked about casually and openly, and to know that that’s fine.
What’s it like to have a play put on, and to see your writing performed on stage?
It’s amazing. That’s the thing I really miss, working with other people; because it’s such a team sport. You have this thing that you present to other people, and they add in their vision and how they see the world. It’s so beautiful. I’ve made so many friendships and connections, and I really do miss that. And then seeing it actually onstage – it’s the dress run that I find so exciting, when you see it all properly put together. But when it’s in front of an audience I get so nervous. I have to run outside to have a cigarette and calm down because I get so anxious (laughs). But it’s like a dream. I’ve dreamt up these characters, and amazing people have brought them to life. It’s incredible, and I’m so lucky that I get to do it as a job.
“The most important thing to remember is that only you can write the play that you are going to write. Only you can write that play, and that’s what will make it special.”Tamsin Rees
Which playwrights have you been inspired by most in your work?
That’s such a hard question! I love Tom Wells. I think he writes humour, and tenderness, and really heartbreaking stories all at once – and they are so beautifully crafted. I also think Annie Baker is absolutely magic; I love the way that she writes relationships, and the dynamics between different characters are really interesting. They’re probably my top two.
What top tips do you have for people who want to start writing plays?
I did a workshop years ago with the playwright Ali McDowall, and he talked about filling your tank – if your tank is empty, and you’ve got no ideas, you need to read and watch things to fill that tank up. Your subconscious does a lot of the work. Read and watch as many plays as you can – fill up the tank, so you can see how plays are done and the different types there are.
Do your research around it – what theatres and workshops are near you. Start making connections, and look out for submission windows; there are a lot of opportunities out there. Start sending your work out, and get other people to read it. I think the most important thing to remember is that only you can write the play that you are going to write. That’s a little bit scary – but it’s also great, because you can’t go wrong. Only you can write that play, and that’s what will make it special. That’s what’s so exciting about it.
For more about Tamsin and her work, visit https://www.tamsindaisyrees.com/.