Born in 1978 to working class parents (father a coal miner and mother a former childrens' residential carer and seamstress,) in Castleford, West Yorkshire; I grew up with my younger brother in quiet safety. Until the miners' strike of 1984 when I saw the government of my country go to war with my town, with what seemed like the whole of the north of England in fact, and with everyone I thought of as normal people (the working class.)
That year-long battle and the socialist principles my mum and dad held to, had a profound effect and is what I believe has lead to me focusing on unheard, unrepresented and marginalised voices in my work.
By the age of sixteen I had not only realised I was gay, but my peer group were getting to know about it too. It was a difficult couple of years. At eighteen I ran away to university in Hull to read Chemistry. In my time there I found out who I was. I found my voice. I grew. But was at the same time deeply unhappy and depressed, on a course I no longer wanted to be on. I fell back to my childhood obsession with theatre and decided I would be an actor.
I auditioned for drama schools but wasn't offered a place anywhere. I left university part-way through my third year, but remained in Hull. I worked in a nightclub and then a pub, but towards the winter of 2000 events led to my having some kind of breakdown. Neither belligerent pride nor shame for the position I'd found myself in could keep me in Hull now, and I made the call to say I wanted to come home.
Back living at my mum's; grey-skinned with dead sunken eyes, I was a frightened shadow of what I had been only months previously. A friend offered me a part-time job in his gay club in Wakefield and my confidence grew. Another friend, who I was working with there got me a full-time job in a bingo hall at the same time and my face regained its proper shape and colour. I still wanted to be an actor and decided that to keep my hand in (psychologically at least) I would put my energies into writing plays. I had done a lot of it as a child mostly for my own amusement, but now I was going to write something great. Something that would propel me into a world I had no access to, and from there I would become an actor.
In the week between Christmas 2000 and the new year I completed my first play; it was a gay Cinderella story set in Leeds. I scoured the internet - which was still young - for places to send it to. One of those places was the Bush Theatre in London. In those days you had to print your plays out and send a hard copy. Having found in me the courage to let someone else see my work, I posted it off believing I'd created the best thing since sliced bread; hoping my genius would be acknowledged and that the Bush would beg me for the rights to produce the play.
That didn't happen. That probably never happens. But with no experience of the theatre world or way into it, I didn't know this. What happened instead was that I got a very nice letter back thanking me for sending it in, which also included just two or three lines of feedback. They liked it. It wasn't for them, but they liked the characters, they liked the dialogue, and they thought it was funny. After a moment of crushing disappointment; my fantasy of overnight stardom smashed into a million tiny shards, I felt myself filling with pride, from my gut upwards. It was warm, and it felt good. It was powerful. I could do this. I could be a writer. To this day I am indebted to the Bush for giving me that.
And the two other places I sent it to; the less said the better. It's irrelevant. After that letter from the Bush; they were irrelevant.
Over the next couple of years I set about being a writer, and the plays I wrote I sent to Marcus Romer at Pilot Theatre, who were at that time based in Castleford. He indulged my constant emails. I don't know if he ever read any of the plays, and looking back I'm not sure that it mattered. What mattered, is that I felt I wasn't shouting out into empty space.
And then it happened, and in the weird and twisted way that things are bound to happen when you're outside the world you're trying to get into and when you know you have no choice but for your journey to be an unconventional one. You've grown up somehow loving something you have very little experience of, in a town where culture is Rugby League and the arts are something for southerners and pansies. This means there are no warning signs; there are only straws to be clutched at.
On a gay dating website I got talking to man who it turned out was a professional actor and theatre director. I'm twenty-five at this point and he's considerably older. I ended up sending him a one act play I had written. He liked it, we met, we got on. He decided he would produce and direct it. I wrote a companion piece, he assembled a cast and we had the first read-through. I cried during the read-through. He thought it was the subject matter, but it wasn't; it was that this was the first time I'd ever heard my words come out of other peoples' mouths, and until that point I hadn't been sure that such a thing would ever happen. (I couldn't know it then, but it turns out I cry at every first read-through; only now I manage to hide it better.)
After that first read-through, the actors went home and he made us something to eat. And then he came onto me.
In that moment I had to make a decision. Do I politely decline, suggesting that muddying our relationship could be detrimental to our production? Or do I, in that moment now realising that perhaps the realisation of this production isn't really about my abilities as a playwright at all, but is about persuading me to have sex with him. That this is my chance, to make real what I've been working towards. That this man may not have a lot of power within the theatre industry, but he has more than I; he provides a road in, that a door has appeared that wasn't there before. I'm not a virgin. I'm not exactly chaste. I've had casual sex with men I wasn't that interested in. So would it be so bad? And surely it would be worth it, if it means I get my ticket in. So what it's not a free pass, so what I have to pay for it; getting this production on and getting in, that's what's important.
So I slept with him.
And I'm not suggesting it was ever his plan to use me, and to use my inexperience and my lack of confidence in my own work to shag this shy young man. I'm not suggesting he ever planned any of it, or that he ever realised what he was doing. But he was still doing it. And in my naivety, I thought I could control it. I thought the power would be in my hands. That I was the one playing him; that some sexual give and take would be a small price to pay if it meant I got my first production and could call myself a real playwright.
I was wrong. And anyone looking on would have seen instantly how wrong I was. But no one was looking. There was no one to tell me that this isn't the way things work. There were no other roads in. There were no other doors.
It was a couple of months down the line, rehearsing plays that I feared would never actually be put up before an audience, that he persuaded me to have a threesome with him and a man who would probably help the production financially. I agreed to it; it would be worth it. And in all honesty, the man was attractive. I wasn't bothered about the sex, but I was beginning to be bothered about why I was having the sex. Incidentally, the third man never did give us any money.
On the same afternoon he persuaded me to agree to go down to London to have some pictures taken. In the days before broadband and high quality internet porn, there were pay-per-view sights where you could see pictures of young men masturbating or playing sexually with other young men. It was one of these sites I was going to be photographed for. It would give us the money we needed; and if I didn't do it, we'd have no money and the production wouldn't be able to go ahead. I agreed to it.
I didn't feel good about it, because at twenty-six now I was older than most of the young men modelling for these sites. But I did look quite a lot younger than I was.
The night before going down to London I was working at my friend's club. He could tell I was agitated about something. I told him about the modelling, and that I was apprehensive about it; that under other circumstance I would be so flattered and would jump at the chance, but that I was uncomfortable with this situation and I wasn't sure what to do. He told me it sounded like I already knew what I wanted to do; that perhaps I should stay there that night where I was among friends, cancel my trip, rearrange it if I wanted to, and that if there was no other way, he would lend me the money we needed.
I took his advice, and that was the first sensible decision I had made in this entire fiasco. And it was in that moment that I could see, as clear as if it were written in neon lights right in front of my eyes; that I had been exploited sexually, that I had allowed myself to be used and even pimped out by a man whose power was only fractionally greater than my own. That was a turning point.
The next time I saw the director, he wasn't happy. His friend wasn't happy about me cancelling the photoshoot; he'd been looking forward to shooting me and had arranged for another young man to join in (he had also no doubt been looking forward to the sexual favours he would have been getting from me as well as part of the deal.)
He quickly calmed down and suggested that as the actors wouldn't arriving for a while, we should go into the bedroom. I said no. Lines had blurred, our relationship had become complicated. The production was more important than sex, and we should be more professional about it. So instead we should use the time to discuss the logistics of the little tour we were organising (that I had somehow booked, managing to persuade theatres to give an unknown production dates on splits, and even getting out of paying deposits or signing contracts.)
To his credit, he took it well. And I never slept with him again.
Soon after I met the man who would be my partner for the next eight years, and I never stayed over at the director's house again. The production ended up falling apart, but not because I had refused to pay for it with sex. Everything was in my name, and I was very lucky to get out of it without being sued. The theatres were all incredibly good about the cancellations at what was pretty short notice; and no one in the industry has ever mentioned it since, so I assume everyone must have forgotten or haven't linked who I am now with that production all those years ago.
I was devastated by the collapse of the production. It really knocked the wind out of me. But it was a massive learning curve on so many aspects of how to and how not to make a production happen. I learnt how to produce, and I also learnt that nothing is in the bag until the curtain goes up on opening night.
In the next couple of years I wrote an article that got published and my partner and I set to organising a reading of the two-one act plays, but that didn't come to fruition. And then we moved to Birmingham and I joined a script writing group. The group was called PostScript and met in the Old Joint Stock; a pub that since then has converted it first floor into a theatre. This group not only attracted writers, but also actors, directors and producers. My time meeting with them every fortnight was a very important part of my development; this was my first real experience of being around people who were making work. I wrote a play about small time gangsters called Monkeys in Toy Town. It was passed around members of the group and was getting a really good response. It ended up being selected for production by local theatre company New Mercury Theatre. And in the August of 2006 my work went in front of an audience for the very first time. I was real at last.
I won't pretend it was all plain sailing. I won't even pretend that I was happy through all of the process or that I have remained friends with all the people involved. It was another learning curve; this time learning that I wouldn't allow myself to be disregarded in future productions. It's interesting that the only person I've stayed in touch with, and have become very good friends with; is the young man who did the lighting, and who is now a successful actor.
Two weeks before Monkeys in Toy Town opened my partner and I had moved out of the UK to Jersey in the Channel Islands with his job. We came back for Monkeys in Toy Town; we weren't going to miss my first production.
I stayed in Jersey for nine years; half of those years with my partner, until we split up and he came back to the UK.
He's still my biggest supporter and my best friend.
For the first few years there I was busy with my own projects; the first draft of a novel I'd started in Birmingham, and a feature length screenplay I got conned into writing and never got paid for. I began writing feature articles for a magazine there, and that went on for eighteen months;, and around the same time I got involved with the Jersey Arts Trust (now called ArtHouse Jersey,) and joined a new script writing group there. I was a winner on the Channel Islands Radio Drama Competition and my short radio play The Boy Next Door was made and broadcast on BBC Radio Jersey. In the same year I was a winner on the Jersey Arts Trust New Plays Project with a short play called Birdsong, and I got my first experience of what it's like working with a director that respects you. It was a phenomenal experience, and it taught me a lot about our rights as writers and what we should expect from our relationship with a director. I've never had a bad experience with a director since then, and I put it down to the confidence I was given in being allowed to trust myself and expecting to be respected. The next year I won again with a short play called Dinner at Pharaoh's Table. And on the third and final year of the competition; this time for full-length plays, I won again with a play called The Kids Got Lost. But a year earlier, myself and a fellow double winner (and soon to be triple winner like myself) had decided to create a new platform for new writing at the Jersey Opera House in their new studio.
It came about at the end of a week we spent with Paines Plough and a group of (now very successful) very up and coming writers from the UK, which culminated in our taking part in their Come to Where I'm From project. Which in itself was a wonderful experience.
The studio at the Jersey Opera House was brand new, and we were meeting the Creative Director of the Opera House, Jasmine Hendry for the first time. We; Ben Evans and myself, decided we would create a kind of curated scratch night to allow ourselves and other writers in Jersey to develop and test out techniques through staged readings of short plays. A few months later Plays Rough was born, and we opened to a full house.
This was the beginning of 2012, and Plays Rough continued in that format until a year or so after I left Jersey in 2015. It's still there now, popping up each year to make work for the literary festival in Jersey. There was even a syndicated version of Plays Rough in Oxford, and there's also sometimes a stolen version (the name anyway) that pops up in London every now and then; and which is nothing at all to do with Plays Rough proper in Jersey, or Oxford.
Ben and I became minor celebrities on that little island; often talked about in the local newspaper, seemingly always on BBC Radio Jersey and popping up on the television from time to time as well. We, and Plays Rough were known and very well respected by the arts community in Jersey, and it was a really lovely feeling.
I knew I had to come home though for my career to progress. Jersey had given me the space to work on my craft, and now I was doing things in the UK as well.
A short campaign piece Boris Got Buggered had done four nights in London, I'd been commissioned to write a TIE show by Birmingham-based Rage Arts, and I'd been invited to put on a staged reading of the Kids Got Lost at the Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall. I didn't know it, but this opportunity would set the course for my career.
To be continued...