Mike Elliston’s magic story-maker

By April 29, 2015 February 21st, 2018 Blog, Dominic Kelly, Salon:Lab, Theatre, Writing

salon:lab, the salon:collective’s writer development programme, will celebrate its second birthday next month. The lab has worked with 14 writers over its two years and for the second year running has helped create a new Camden Fringe show. Mike Elliston, one of our 2014 writers, is back this year as a mentor. Mike is also a creative producer with the salon and fitted in the salon:lab sessions around work on his latest project with artistic director Dominic Kelly, leading to a rehearsed reading of his own play TRAILER/Trash on May 15. But first, Mike and Dom helped our 2015 writers, Lucy Gallagher and Sanee Raval, take their writing to the next level. Mike tells all.

The support of salon:lab last year made a huge difference to me as a writer. Being able to hear actors read the scripts aloud meant I could incorporate amendments into the script at an accelerated rare.  Having Dominic’s critical eye cast over the script helped me to spot inconsistencies or gaps in narrative and character development.   Finally, it’s always good to have a deadline and the weekly turnaround of the lab sessions encouraged me to produce new material and discouraged my old habit of procrastination.

I truly appreciated Dom’s hard work and effort with the piece that I submitted for his microscopic analysis in the salon:lab 2014. So this spring I was flattered and privileged to be sitting on the other side of the fence alongside Dom, as a mentor to salon:lab’s two new writers, Lucy Gallagher and Sanee Raval.

I was particularly interested to discover during the initial selection process that both pieces – although wildly different – drew on the storytelling culture of the Indian subcontinent, while being firmly set in 21st century Britain.

Lucy had never written a full length play before but had been inspired to write Fats and Tanya by a cousin’s experience of being involved with a women’s refuge.  Since Lucy loves creative writing and favours theatre, it was a natural step for her to commit her story to a play.  But with relatively little experience of playwriting, Lucy was overly worried that she didn’t know what she was doing. She was especially concerned that an audience might not like one of her two characters, Tanya.

We certainly didn’t need to coach Lucy on how to write good, very actable dialogue.   At the first of her four in-depth sessions, Lucy showed us that she not only has a very good ear for dialogue, she also possesses a savage wit.  Her two characters leapt off the page immediately and there really was never much concern that an audience wouldn’t like either or both of them.

Lucy mixes sharp wit and humour with a deep sense of human tragedy and loss

The main area that I focused on with Lucy was looking at the craft – the structure, the nuts and bolts – of the play.  How to turn longish sequential passages into sharper, punchier scenes, move things around a bit, accelerate (or slow down) the pace by intersecting the dialogue with theatrical devices.

It’s daunting to bring first-draft material to any gathering, hear it read aloud and then face the scrutiny of the mentors.  I favour a much more organic approach, ignoring the flaws of any first draft material but seeking out the areas that can benefit from layering, subtle or otherwise.

Over the four sessions, it was clear that Lucy’s confidence as a writer was growing, ably supported by Ravi Meah who was her guide on the Bengali elements of the text and also her sounding board.  Every writer needs that kind of support.   The eventual script Lucy presented is a highly accomplished play in which she mixes sharp wit and humour with a deep sense of human tragedy and loss.  Her skill at being able to lead an audience through the highs and lows of emotions on a highly emotive subject such as violent abuse against women shows that Lucy is a writer we need to sit up and take notice of.

Sanee’s magical illusion began to take on a life of its own

We could not have found a greater contrast for Lucy’s mainly naturalistic style than Sanee’s The Glass Coating: an epic, lyrical, wandering parade through Indian mythology, human trafficking and science.

Initially Sanee, a salon actor who holds a degree in biology, began writing The Glass Coating over Christmas period. When he saw an opportunity to put it in front of Rikki Beadle-Blair’s Angelic Tales selectors, he ratcheted up his effort and began to weave a magical construction, finishing a first draft very quickly.

Sanee presented us with several very different first drafts which was possibly indicative of his approach to writing – unsure which direction to settle on, which characters or complex relationships to develop or hold back on.  We understood his challenges, especially given his relative inexperience at playwriting alongside his stated ambitions to get the play funded to a high level in order to realise not only its immersive set capabilities but also its scientific content.   Indeed, I found the work challenging because, not coming from a scientific background, I didn’t want to influence this area of Sanee’s interest through my own ignorance.

Again, structure was a big part of our job in hand – made more exciting by Sanee’s long and descriptive stage directions which included segments of audio-visual representations as well as intimations of the much more traditional shadow puppetry.   The play is potentially epic, so to make Sanee’s task more manageable we helped him to narrow his focus. With the 15-minute reading for the salon:lab audience in mind, we concentrated on the opening segment both technically and theatrically.

Now we were able to imagine more closely the demented mind of Ba, the afflicted grandmother of the scientist Adi, who spoke in a free flowing torrent of her native tongue and Indian English.  Once layered with Ba’s mythological retelling of the creation of the world and tales of the gods sending messages to Earth on the tails of kites, Sanee’s magical illusion began to take on a life of its own.

And by stylising the opening with its suspended cages which the doctor and scientist characters were both imprisoned by and escaping from, the visual metaphors within the piece began to feel more solid and imaginable.

I was delighted with the eventual public airing of both pieces at the So and So Arts Club. They were enthusiastically received and beautifully played by the salon:collective’s pool of actors who did themselves and the texts proud: Arinder Sadhra and Louise Devlin in Fats and Tanya; Arinder Sadhra, Yusuf Bhaimia, Andrea Luiana Bonfim and Marc McCardie in The Glass Coating.  Thanks also to Sandeep Garcha and Meena Rayann. Plus, I’m excited that Fats and Tanya will be performed at the Etcetera Theatre in August as part of the Camden Fringe. Booking opens in June.

mike cropped headshot

Mike Elliston, back in salon:lab as a mentor


Last-minute notes from Dom for Sanee and Lucy

Before the reading:last-minute notes from Dom for Sanee and Lucy



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