Charlotte O'Leary gives us a glimpse into her world as a writer and talks about writing The Academy of Melancholy...
1. How did you and Guy come up with the storyline? Were there a lot of storyboards and mindmaps and rejigging?!
Guy initially had an idea about a nurse in the Old Operating Theatre, and as soon as he mentioned a ballsy nurse who goes into a male dominated operating theatre I immediately thought of my great grandmother who was an equally determined woman. That’s where Margaret comes from; they’re both very similar, having to care for families after being widowed who have an inherent sense of right, and who try to change the world. I then visited Karen the curator at the museum and asked how a female might get into the theatre – only men were allowed in – and she casually said they’d pop on a coat and pretend to be a man. That started off the whole concept of Margaret dressing up. I then discovered there was a woman called James Miranda Barry who lived her life as a man to be a surgeon, but she seems far more brutal than I wanted Margaret to be.
I did a huge amount of research, reading piles of medical books about surgery at that time, pulled out the stories I had a reaction to (either laughter, squirming or squealing), wrote them on postcards and laid them on a big table to see if I could get them into some sort of structure. Once you’ve decided on your characters you literally carve and chisel away until you’ve got a plot, I then wrote that up and rewrote it many times.
2. How was working within the parameters of the Operating Theatre? Were there ideas you couldn't follow through because of the space?
Working in the Old Operating Theatre posed a number of problems (including no liquids and mind the floor) but the main issue was the fact that it is an operating theatre, which meant that when we tried to write scenes that would be performed in the space but weren’t set in the space it became impossible. The first draft of the script had to be completely reworked so the entire story could be told in one place, which was very challenging, particularly since women weren’t supposed to be in the theatre. We compromised and had scenes when the nurses come in to clean after the operation, who could then chat about what had been going on.
3. Did you struggle using the medical language? How did you go about researching that aspect of the writing?
I have a fantastic friend, Dr Sanjay Pawar who is a GP and also a media doctor who works in TV and radio – in fact he’s Radio 1’s GP on The Surgery. He has been reading drafts of the script, researching and advising on procedures and medical terms. What has been quite incredible is how similar operations then are to the way they are performed now, the doctors in that era were really laying down guidelines for how things would be done.
4. I imagine that writing in that period was also quite a challenge? Did you do anything in particular to help you with that?
My mother has been a wonderful resource for getting that time period right. Her grandmother, who was born in 1864, lived with her for most of her childhood, so she knows that period well and has been advising when I’ve got it wrong. It’s simple things, such as the hierarchy between characters, which is much more defined in that time period. Flossie makes lots of references to Huntley and Palmer biscuits which were the very posh biscuits from that era, which was another one of my mum’s suggestions! Otherwise it’s been a matter of double checking everything in medical books, for example when they apply a bandage what sort did they use? What was their attitude to it – did they reuse it or bother to throw it away if it was dirty? There are so many things to consider. The Old Operating Theatre have also been a wonderful help.
5. Who is your favourite character in the show?
I love all of them as I’ve spent so long carefully crafting them! I really like Margaret, although I don’t think I’d want to take tea with her as I’m sure she’d tell me off – I’d not be neat enough or I’d say the wrong thing – but she’s such a wonderfully strong female in the days far before feminism. Flossie is brilliant because she’s potty and unintentionally very funny, she comes from a difficult background and coming to work for her is a total pleasure. Dr Haighton is fantastic because he’s so rude and bullying, and has some cutting lines. Dr Edwards is marvelous as Margaret’s nemesis, he seems so brutal on the surface, but underneath he’s an excellent teacher who really does care for his students.
7. Do have any advice for young, aspiring writers?
Get plenty of life experience, you need to have as many stories locked in your head as possible. Get training if you can, I am about to complete an MA in Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London and the 9 Masters teaching on it have given us all the skills we need to write stories. Get a research book and write down every idea or note you have that you could use. Go to art galleries and look at art for inspiration, every picture has a story behind it. Watch as much TV, see as many films and plays and read as much as you have time for. And work out a way to write properly, full time, everyday. There are plenty of books out there that tell you to write for ten minutes a day, but I write all day 6-7 days a week, and you need to find a way to do that if this is to be your career. Remember the other writers you’ll be up against are writing full time, so you have to too.
When I entered the operating theatre my first thought, before how incredible it is to see the oldest operating theatre in the whole of Europe, before thinking about the people who must have been healed, or who died here, before even noticing the terrifying sets of amputation saws behind me, was that this would make a fantastic performance space! Ha, yes theatre does take over your life a bit. The tiered seating, the small yet well formed performance space and the incredible natural drama of the space - everything pointed towards doing something theatrical here.
I was totally intrigued from the moment I spotted a tiny spiral staircase at the doors of an old church. Er, is this the place? I twisted round the creaky little stairs and found a small shop selling dismembered body parts (in plastic), miniature skulls (made from rubber) and various creepy sounding books on dissection and bodysnatching. Curious. After getting a ticket I wandered up another, slightly larger, staircase and found myself in a big room in the roof of the church I had entered: the herb garret. A huge mixture of different smells hit my nose and as I walked through this mysterious place, ducking under rafters and avoiding the jars full of half dissected lungs and hearts I noticed a narrow passageway with a sign above it saying 'Operating Theatre'. I carried on, regularly getting distracted by interesting facts on 19th century health care (or lack of it) and occasionally by gruesome instruments used for healing (or torture?)
Since May the project has moved forward at an incredible speed. I am so fortunate to have found such a dedicated and talented creative team of people including a writer, musician, marketing team, graphic designer... and the list goes on. The Academy of Melancholy is the first production that the Dream Team have brought to life in London and I am very excited to have the team back in action again.
The Academy of Melancholy is written by Charlotte O'Leary and inspired by real stories from the operating theatre's long history.Through the play we follow Margaret who, from the first few pages, dresses as a man, why? No women are allowed into an operating theatre in the 1820s and her life aim? To become a surgeon. The script is nearly finished - yes, I am stupidly excited to read it! - and tickets are on sale. I want as many people as possible to see this incredible space and, what we hope will be, a powerful piece of theatre. Let's keep in touch over the next couple of months.
Happy New Year everyone!