Interview with Jim Burke about writing Bestiary

Where do you live?

On the Plateau, Montreal.

Where are you from? Hometown?

Manchester, England

When did you start writing?

I regularly wrote songs for a punk band I was in during my late teens, but I began writing professionally in the late ‘80s – articles and film/ theatre reviews for various newspapers and magazines. I started writing plays some time in the early ‘90s. Most of my early plays were spoofs written with a fellow drama student – a spoof skinhead musical, a spoof British gangster thriller, an evening of spoof horror tales – all great fun to write, and a useful grounding in genre conventions. My first “grown-up” play was Cornered, a two-hander about those guys who do the rub-downs and rally the fighters during boxing matches.

Why did you start writing?

The good answer is “because I had a lot of things I wanted to say”, but the true answer is probably “because I wanted to get out of a lousy factory job making specs”. The punk songs didn’t do it, but the newspaper writing finally got me out of there.

What inspires you?

A variety of things, really, but it’s often just an image, or even the sound of a word. For instance, the impetus for writing Cornered was having spotted the word “cornermen” in a boxing article. I’m really not interested in sport, but that one word seemed to conjure up something almost Beckettian in its image of people stuck just outside the place where real life is happening. Direct inspirations would include the great playwrights like Ibsen, Pinter, Mamet, the Jacobeans etc. I’m also taken with playwrights who have no pretensions to greatness but who are fantastically entertaining (Martin McDonagh for instance).

What inspired this play?

Although I wrote it in 2003, the idea for it came to me about ten years before. I think I was in a bad mood over some break-up and was listening to a Nick Cave album (as you do), which put me in a twisted Old Testament mood, which made me think of the Jonah and the Whale story, which made me wonder what the hell was in it for the whale. I wanted to expand the idea of seeing religion, politics, morality, etc, from the points of view of sacrificial animals, and when I came across a photo of Laika the Soviet space-dog, it all came together. The “monkey” episode was an after-thought, because I felt as though the play had to be a triptych structure, but I think its pretty crucial thematically to the whole piece now, as well as being such an incredible-but-(allegedly) true story.

What do you write other than plays?

Writing regular blogs about theatre and related topics on my website has been keeping me busy. I often write just for myself to keep ideas bouncing around, stuff I would never dream of showing to other people, but a lot of it leaks into my plays at some point.

Do you have a day-job? What do you do other than writing?

I teach Creative Writing at Dawson’s Continuing Education dept. I also teach English for a couple of companies. I’ve started a theatre company called Theatre Funhouse for which I have lots of plans (both realistic and implausible ones), but it’s early days yet.

What time of day do you write best?

Basically, if I haven’t sat at my desk by 9am, that writing day’s probably gone, no matter how convincingly I tell myself I’ll catch up later.

Where do you write? (coffee shops, home etc.?)

If I don’t do that 9am thing at home, then the only hope I have of writing is finding a quiet coffee shop. Too many distractions at home, like dirty dishes, wallpaper, empty space, etc.

How long did it take you to write this play?

About four months, but it was originally a BBC commission, so they were pretty much on my case to give it a quick turn-around. Usually it takes anything from a couple of months to a couple of years (or two decades in the case of one as yet unfinished and maybe entirely imaginary masterpiece).

What do you like best about writing for theatre compared to other mediums?

Having your writing picked to pieces by actors and directors then performed in front of complete strangers is a much more reliable guide to how it stands up than having a pal read a short story in front of you and say “mm…pretty good…er…interesting ending…” Theatre writing gives you the best of both worlds – the solitude of writing and the camaraderie of putting it on.

What is the greatest challenge you think writers face today?

Maybe an overload of information these days, which can make you bounce around from subject to subject without anything actually sticking. Things must have been a lot easier when the world was smaller and our horizons narrower. Or maybe not. Related to all that, of course, is the internet – the fact that most people’s writing tool is also a window onto the world and therefore the perfect procrastination machine.

What kind of support do you have for your writing?

I’ve had a lot of support from Playwrights Workshop Montreal, and since coming to Montreal, I’ve had a lot of generous reactions to my work from various theatre folk, which has definitely kept me going. Before that I had tons of support from an English new-writing organization called North West Playwrights.

Do you have a website/blog? Can I contact you?

I’m on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/funhousetheatre.  And Twitter, though I’ve kind of let that one lapse. My website/blog is on www.theatrefunhouse.wordpress.com. You can contact me on theatrefunhouse@yahoo.com

 

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