“The play opens with a girl called Megan lying face-down on the beach unconscious, and a boy called Joe is standing over her, panicking. And as the play goes on you find out that Megan and Joe were friends years ago. Essentially, it’s a piece about friendship, but there’s a lot more thrown in with it.”
That’s Jessica Fisher, describing the plot of her play Ghost Town, which is co-commissioned by Lincolnshire One Venues and Pilot Theatre, the company behind last year’s acclaimed Blood and Chocolate. Before the play opens at the York Theatre Royal, I met up with her to discuss how she came to write it.
Jessica Fisher studied English at the University of York. She “kind of fell in love” with the city and stayed there after graduation, while commuting weekly to London to study for an MA in Applied Theatre. She wrote her thesis on the importance and impact of complex subject matter in plays for young people, then became education administrator and youth theatre practitioner at the Theatre Royal, and began writing plays for her theatre groups because “It’s quite often hard to find really good plays for that lower teenage range”.
She won the 2010 Nick Darke Award with Paradise, a play about a guerilla gardener. Then Ghost Town won Pilot Theatre’s inaugural Generation Z competition in 2012. It’s her first professional play, but the characters are sixteen and seventeen years old and her interest in writing for and about young people remains very much alive. “It’s an age where there’s so many decisions to make,” Jessica explains, “that I think it’s really important for teenagers to see good plays that give them the credit that they deserve for being thoughtful and intelligent.”
One of the challenging issues which Ghost Town deals with is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which both Joe and Jessica suffer from. “When I first had it hardly anyone had heard of OCD, and in the last fourteen years it’s become almost quite fashionable to go ‘Oh, I’m a little bit OCD’. There are stereotypes around OCD, about ‘Oh, that must mean you’re really tidy’. I did want to show people how distressing it can be. But so much of a mental health issue is internal that it’s quite hard to find the right way to show that to an audience.”
Joe’s OCD gives him “really horrible, disturbing images about hurting people” and is a central aspect of the play. Jessica explores this using a character called Keira. “She represents different elements of Joe’s OCD at different times, so sometimes she’s very frightening, sometimes she’s reassuring and comforting. Keira has shifted and changed and there’s probably loads that we’ve yet to discover in the next few weeks of rehearsal. But she’s got this amazing presence on the stage. Hopefully we’ll go some way to expressing what it can feel like to have a condition like that.”
The rehearsal process was vital for the play’s creative development. “Last autumn we had the luxury of getting the actors who are actually in the play and we worked with them for two days doing research and development. Having the actors there meant that I could explore the characters more. I like working in a room full of people. It’s quite exciting after you’ve spent months on your own with your typewriter.”
Ghost Town is “massively taking up her headspace” at the moment, but she’s also doing research and development on Paradise and hopes to get funding to bring that to the stage eventually, and has a play “on the back burner” about Sheffield’s first ‘street piano’, an idea that has intrigued her since she heard about it on the radio seven years ago. “There were these students in Sheffield and they were moving house, and they had a piano but they couldn’t fit it into the new house, so they left it out on the street. And then it became a bit of a thing. People would walk past and start playing it. The play that I want to write is about how this random event that happens on the street can change the feeling of a community and it can change people’s relationships with one another. But there’s also something interesting in it about the creativity of the piano and being able to make music and play.”
The themes of creativity and communication have re-occurred throughout Jessica Fisher’s work so far, so the street piano seems like a perfect fit for her.