I was eighteen. A-Levels over. I wasn’t ready to go to University. I took a year off.
People use their years off in a variety of ways. As I later found out, some go and work in India for Mother Theresa. Some travel. A few teach in South African townships. Only one, to my reckoning, spent it in his bedroom trying to write a musical based on the story of Macbeth in the style of Marillion. That one was of course me. Having duly half-completed this work, I arranged a meeting with someone at North West Arts to get advice as to which of the North West Arts Establishments might most be gagging for a musical based on Macbeth in the style of Marillion. I actually went armed with a pen and pad to note down names of theatres which would might become potential players in the inevitable bidding war.
There followed a slightly odd three quarters of an hour during which a confused member of staff, more used to dealing with applications for theatre in the community grants, tried to comprehend what was being asked of her. I soon got a feeling that the feeding frenzy regarding my musical wasn’t going to happen, that when my particular rasher of artistic bacon was dropped into the piranha tank, the waters would remain decidedly un-choppy. Beating a slightly abashed exit, I noticed something in a rack by the door. Amongst a series of leaflets of upcoming events at Oldham Coliseum and Bolton Octagon was one for ‘writing courses at the Arvon Foundation’ in Hebden Bridge.
Perhaps the best move I ever made in my life was to pick up that leaflet.
Taking it home I spotted a course was being run by Willy Russell and Danny Hiller called writing for theatre. Maybe because the fevered brow imagines what is not there – which incidentally was probably the title of a song from my musical Macbeth – I saw the word ‘musical’ between ‘for’ and ‘theatre’. It was not until I applied, and in the last week of my year off attended the course that I realised this word was missing. Up until that point I had no intention of writing any words for theatre that didn’t have guitar chords over them. On the first night we were asked to write a monologue, two minutes in length, before supper.
I did then what I realised later most writers need to do. I panicked before a deadline. I couldn’t write dialogue. I could only write songs. So I did the other thing that all writers need to do. Look what’s in front of their eyes. I wrote a two minute comic monologue about a boy trying to write a musical. And I read it out. And people laughed. And in that moment, on the arm of a chair in a log-smoked room, surrounded by 18 strangers, a playwright and a director, my life changed for ever.
And – thank god – the musical version of Macbeth in the style of Marillion remained unfinished.
Tim Firth began writing for theatre shortly after attending an Arvon Foundation Course when he was 18. He has since written the musicals Our House, This is my Family, Calendar Girls the Musical, The Flint Street Nativity and most recently The Band. These have variously won Olivier, UK Theatre and Whatsonstage Awards for best musical. His plays including Neville’s Island, Calendar Girls, The Safari Party were all performed in the West End and are still performed worldwide. His films include Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots and his television series Preston Front, Money for Nothing and, for children, The Rottentrolls have won BAFTA, Writer’s Guild and RTS Awards. The latter was just voted one of the greatest children’s series of all time.
Arvon is 50 this year and to celebrate we want to hear your stories. Writers are at the heart of all we do, and we want to celebrate your Arvon stories as we look ahead to the next 50 years. Please submit your story in any form – anecdotes, poems, short fiction, drawings, scripts – to be published in our anniversary booklet and featured on our blog. Submit your stories here.