Dave Windass has had a quiet few years. A pinned tweet on his twitter account states that he’s “given up writing to lay one-fingered piano parts over the Amen break.” Yet he’s returned to writing with Pale Blue Dot, a collaboration between E52, illustrator and comic-book artist Gareth Sleightholme, electronic music producers The Broken Orchestra and others. So we asked Dave to explain himself in order to discover what the hell’s going on.
Tell us about the evolution of Pale Blue Dot. How did the play come about and why?
As a company (E52) we decided to get involved with the national Season for Change agenda, which proposed the widest and wildest creative responses to climate change from artists and arts organisations, and were considering what we’d create in response. All very worthy, obviously.
At the time I couldn’t think of anything worse than creating a piece with an environmental message because I was finally in the mood to get back to maybe writing something funny, if I was to write anything at all, so part of me was hoping that someone else would come up with something and perhaps I’d work on that as a producer or sweep the stage or be a dresser, if they still exist.
Anyway, shortly after this I was sat on Hornsea seafront on one of those wild and crazy family outings to get a bag of chips and sit on the beach to scoff them, and we watched as this big fat bloke called Steve traipsed past us with his assorted family members, a real rag-taggle mob of Sports Direct clad people, with Steve’s long suffering partner bringing up the rear. Nobody seemed to be having too much fun and Steve was carrying, closely like a new born babe, what was clearly his prized possession – a football. And, you know what Dads are like when they’ve got a plan for everyone else, he forced everyone to pick teams and have a game there on the beach. Which went on for a while, with Steve shouting at everyone as if he was Brian Glover in Kes. At some point, one of Steve’s kids looped the ball over Steve’s head, it sailed over him like Chris Waddle’s wayward pen versus West Germany at Italia 90, and the ball promptly landed in the sea. Steve was aghast and, again, started yelling at everyone else to get in the water and get it. They’d clearly had enough and all turned their back on him. So Steve turned around, to check on the ball’s progress, and it was already in deep water and was getting further and further away. The others found something else to do, leaving Steve just stood there, hands on hips, watching his dream getting away from him. He didn’t budge, just watched the ball until it was a mere dot on the horizon. And then, gone. There was something both moving about this, and also laughable because we’d already made the assumption that he was a horrible bloke that didn’t deserve a break, certainly didn’t deserve a nice football and probably didn’t deserve the support of his family, either. Bloody men, eh?
Anyway, I wrote that all down on the back of a postcard as the kernel of something that might become a comedy. I think the following day, looking at the postcard wondering how to avoid developing the idea, it suddenly struck me that the image of the ball becoming a small dot was similar to that image of the photograph of the Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe when it turned its cameras round for one last pic before heading onwards and further and further into space. The Earth as an insignificant speck of dust. And then, I suppose, everything got out of hand, although I can’t remember writing the play now, although I must have because we have a script and it’s got my name on it.
We were at Blue Dot festival a month maybe after our Hornsea trip and I bought some research material there, as they have a good tent full of science books because it’s that kind of festival, and I read a load of Carl Sagan and all this other stuff about rising sea levels, global warming, all that. I’d also been listening to (American comedian) Lewis Black’s bit about the fact that humanity’s legacy, when we die out leaving the planet to sort itself out, will pretty much simply amount to plastic, and nothing else. And the Earth will just deal with that and forget about the blip of our existence when we did our best to mess the place up. I’ve also got a copy of Robert Graves’ Greek Mythology which I dip in and out of constantly. I was listening to The Broken Orchestra and told Pat from the band that I wanted to work out how my text and their words would come together on something at some point in the future. And I also wanted to work with Gareth (Sleightholme) again because I just love what he does with his illustrations. So, yes, that’s about it. I told Andy (Pearson) some sketchy idea about a woman being the sole survivor following an eco-disaster in the near future, and how this would all be a piece of magic realism, and he sent me away to write it, which is kind of how we work – he just tells me to go away and get on with it because he finds my company unbearable and in the unlikely event that I follow an idea through and get something finished he’ll read it and we’ll take it from there. Which is what we did. I wanted this woman in the play to get talking to a mythical creature along the way and E52’s Jo Hill – seeing the Disney-style commercial potential of manufacturing a load of plush toys that we could sell to audiences in the future – suggested a caracal, which made everyone laugh but me because I had to Google to find out what one was. But that was that. I think the reason I can’t remember writing it is mainly because the piece is the sum of its parts – Gareth’s early sketches influenced me, as did the Broken Orchestra’s tunes, actress Sarah Brignall who’s performing the play is a ceramicist so we included a potter’s wheel, the caracal took on a life of its own, and it all just sort of happened. Although it can’t have, really. There were probably three really boring weekends when I sat on my own and hammered it all out, and maybe they were totally traumatic and I’ve cast them out of my mind. Yes, that’ll be it. Writing = hard work, tenacity, commitment, discipline and editing. It is not alchemy.
On twitter you claim to have given up writing, is that the truth? Because writing Pale Blue Dot would suggest it isn’t.
Years ago I went to a writing workshop at which John Godber was invited to speak. And he came in, showed us his notebooks, which was a very interesting insight into his working practices, and then promptly broke his glasses, which was really funny, but was also the cue, or rather excuse, for him to leave, and he’d only just got there. But as he left he turned around to us all and, rubbing his glassesless eyes, said something about writing being a disease, or a curse, that he couldn’t shake off. He seemed extremely troubled by it. And that was someone who was at the top of their game, who could basically do what he wanted and didn’t have to answer to anyone. So not the most positive workshop for a roomful of developing writers. But it is like that, really. I don’t particularly crave the solitude required by the discipline of writing full-length pieces of work because I like going out too much and, on the other side of making theatre I am, generally, uncomfortable with collaboration because I’m pretty awkward in the company of a roomful of artists and actors and that usually manifests itself in heavy doses of sarcasm that can be misinterpreted as being really arrogant and awkward and troublesome and needy. Or I’m bored, and I just disrupt the room, which was a skill I learned at school. I’m frustrated with theatre, not because I don’t like it because to me it’s the most exciting thing when it’s done right, but because I want to do something different and I can’t quite work out what it is at the moment. But I do like fucking about with music production software and keyboards and midi controllers and, while that’s probably not the answer to my creative woes, nor is there any future in it for me, I like the immediacy of it all. It reminds me of when I found playing on a typewriter just incredible, joyous fun. I’m attempting to get back there and inevitably that will involve words, and text, and writing. I have ideas, and some of them are suitable to turn into plays. I’ve got notebooks full of really bad poetry. I have notebooks full of unattributed dialogue. I once wrote a speech for Paul Hudson, the BBC weatherman. I might turn all that into a musical, so I get some return on the investment I’ve made in midi controllers.
What’s it like working with Andrew Pearson?
As I may have alluded to in a previous response, we have a shorthand way of working. We were thrust together by circumstance – we both needed a creative outlet – and I think our idiosyncratic personalities complement each other. I’m a latecomer to theatre, really, and Andy is of the theatre. So I respect his knowledge, while I also question it in order that we don’t end up making theatre about theatre. I think our creative influences both collide and, again, complement each other’s. We have a few things in common – politics, for one – although mostly it’s our adoration of the avant garde guitarist Derek Bailey. We don’t really talk about this but I think there’s something in Bailey’s grating, annoying, provocative music that we’re trying to replicate in both the work we create and produce and the stuff we present at Heads Up Festival. We simultaneously want to welcome audiences and challenge them, make them comfortable and alienate them, to like what we give them and also make them agitated by it. We crave a level of mainstream success while being countercultural. Neither of us are cool, in any way shape or form, and therefore we are. We’re both outsiders, which is why we ended up working together anyway, although I have a constant sneaking suspicion that Andy would be a member of a club if he could find one that would accept him. And that adds a tension, creatively, that serves us well. I don’t think either of us want to dumb work down – we’ve got an unwavering confidence that the people that get in front of our stuff, whatever their social standing, are intelligent and want to join us on a ride into the unknown. I actually think we both have the capacity to drive the other mad – we’re both very annoying in different ways – and when we’re not working on a project or between projects, we get very little done, productively, other than generate a host of impractical ideas. We both know we could live without the other but we keep clambering back in the ring for more. There’s a point, though, in the room, when stuff happens, and then I like him a lot and admire his talent and his capacity to understand what’s been going on in my tiny mind, and I don’t have to articulate it because he’s already ahead of me. Together, we’re probably almost a full decent person, a formidable force, a fine double act. We’re Gilbert & George, The Krankies, Tom & Jerry, or whoever. We’re both desperate, I think, to innovate, and dare to tread where more sensible people might not bother for financial and mental health reasons. We’ll create a venue in an empty, unloved space, present work in places not fit for purpose, do things on moving trains, that over-reaching level of craziness. And then others pay us the biggest compliment and adopt our MO as theirs. It’s nice to find someone as silly as me, who’s up for being bold with not enough budget. I’m very jealous of Andy’s baby grand piano, too, so for me we work together in the hope that one day I can buy one too.
If you were giving advice to writers, a la John Godber all those years ago, what would you tell them?
I’d try not to break my glasses and beat a hasty retreat, although that’s easier said than done given the cheap production methods used these days. I’d be absolutely scared of showing them the inner workings of my notebooks, so that wouldn’t happen. Immerse yourself in your chosen medium, understand it, learn its grammar. Earn your chops. Learn your craft. There is no secret – writing involves having to write. Writing can be a solitary, lonely pursuit, so be aware of that and don’t go there if it doesn’t appeal. It’s easy to be bent out of shape working in the arts, so don’t allow that to happen. Choose your battles wisely; you’ll need to compromise along the way, and to respond to constructive feedback. Maybe don’t fight for every bit of punctuation but do roll up your sleeves and scrap to retain the heart and soul of your stories and characters. Don’t take ‘write what you know’ literally – if this was the case the well would quickly run dry. Plan and prepare. Don’t plan and prepare too much. Do your research but then throw it all aside. Be fearless and write what you want to write – you do, after all, have to live with your back catalogue – and don’t be afraid of having a vision and sticking to that and learn how to articulate that verbally, which is not what writers are good at generally. Finding your own voice is crucial, obviously, and takes a long time, probably much longer than 10,000 hours, but once you have discovered that voice don’t allow anyone to try and distil or dilute it. Seek advice and feedback from people you respect and people that you consider to be better than you. Don’t be rude to the dozens of people that will come up to you and tell you they have a great idea that you should write – just encourage them to write it themselves. Finish what you start. Start writing and get to the end. Get the first draft out as fast as you can but be aware that that’s when the hard work really starts. Don’t become one of those writers who only ever talks about writing. Know the difference between confidence and arrogance – write with the former and never display the latter. Writing is not worth the trail of devastation and chaos you will leave in your wake. Prioritise happiness above everything else. Fuck ambition. Deal with rejection like an adult, not like a baby – there’ll be plenty of it and there’s a reason your work will remain unproduced and unpublished and it’s your fault and nobody else’s. There are lots of other writers who are better than you. Learn from them. Listen. And not just to your own voice. Don’t be pretentious. Don’t be a prick. Declare yourself an artist. Don’t get caught up living the life you think your literary heroes lived – they, too, had to curb their hedonistic desires in order to follow this solitary, lonely pursuit. Every idea you will come up with has already been done. Live a fulfilling life, do wonderful things, that is where stories come from. Pay the rent/mortgage and the bills; you can’t write if you’re living in fear of bailiffs knocking at your door. Don’t do this for the money. Ignore all advice, you know best.
And what next for Pale Blue Dot?
We’ll see how it goes down with audiences in September but we’d like to tour it in 2019 and beyond. Because of the body of work Gareth’s created we’d like to pursue creating a whole graphic novel realisation of the story, so we’re working on that, and then maybe an animated film. As ever, it’ll all depend on raising the necessary investment. Now the script’s locked down my work’s pretty much done on it for now, so I’ve got time to consider where next, creatively. There’s one interesting project in the making involving the adaptation of a book but I’ll mostly be concentrating on laying down one-fingered piano parts over the Amen break. That’ll do for me. For now.
Pale Blue Dot is at Heads Up Festival September 12-14. Pale Blue Dot is supported financially by Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants and the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce’s Chamber Culture Fund.
More information at www.headsuphull.co.uk