Why I wrote Tristram Shandy for the ADC

WILL DALRYMPLE isn’t convinced that there’s all that much wrong with the student writing scene.

Willow Wigglesword made some interesting and not entirely inaccurate points in their article on Saturday.

But based on how I managed to get my own adaptation of Tristram Shandy, a book so strange that it seems to elude adaptation, to be performed at the ADC this week, I think that the article amounted to lazy idealism.

I read Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne two years ago. In it, Tristram tries to write his life story, but gets so distracted and diverted that he isn’t born for several hundred pages. Immediately I began thinking about how I might put it onstage. I thought for two years, and the play went from Corpus to the ADC to Pembroke to Peterhouse Deer Park, until I began to write the first draft. It’s bloody difficult to decide what you want your writing to look like, but once I’d settled on the idea of going ‘big’ the ADC was the only venue in which my ideas could work.

It’s ‘Live at the ADC!’ for a reason.

The book is a huge, sprawling mass of ideas and I needed a huge space to put them in. Tristram, in my version, is on a book tour and is hoping to wow his audiences into buying books. How do you superficially ‘wow’ an audience? Lights, sets, bangs, crashes. The ADC has all of them. Hence I called the show ‘Tristram Shandy: Live at the ADC!’ to tell the selection committee, and anyone who saw the poster, that the play had to be at the ADC.

Okay, yes, here we do look like a pretentious bunch of thespian twats.

Okay, yes, here we do look like a pretentious bunch of thespian twats.

If I had been offered Corpus playroom I’d have turned it down (easy to say, I know, but getting Tristram Shandy to work on the ADC is difficult enough; god knows how anyone would do it at Corpus!). If, as Wigglesword suggests, you don’t want your play at the ADC there are so many other places to put on a play, so don’t apply for the ADC. If you do want a particular venue then chances are you’ll get it.

A difficult thing to come to terms with as a student writer is that the ADC has to select a reasonable number of plays that will sell. If your show isn’t going to sell out – Tristram Shandy certainly isn’t likely to, though I believe it to be the best thing to ever happen to theatre ever – you have to work harder to convince them that it is worth putting on.

A sorry sight...buy tickets please.

A sorry sight … buy tickets please.

By the time I pitched Tristram Shandy I had redrafted the script three times. Yes my revision suffered, yes I was stressed, yes it meant that it not being selected would have been even more upsetting, but everyone risks something when they share their own creations with others. If you do think your play is good enough to be staged you’ll compulsively pitch it.

I don’t know what the exact criteria for selecting plays are. I do know that I was not (and still am not) ‘inside’ the theatre elite, and that because of this I wasn’t outside it either. I took a real interest and that’s all that’s needed; if you have confidence enough in your own material, you don’t need to have been ‘on the circuit’.

I’m in the stripy maroon t-shirt. Christ, I was thinner then.

This is especially true because once you get a slot you get to assemble your own cast and crew and collaborate. You create your own group, and the wider machinations of the ADC matter only to the extent that they are there to help you put on your play.

Writing and directing Tristram Shandy: Live at the ADC! has taken over eight months of my life, covered my bedroom in papier mache willies (you’ll have to come see it to find out…) and cardboard models of French Battlefields (again, come and see!), and kept me awake at night in fear of letting down old Laurence Sterne. It has also been the most fulfilling experience of my life, brought me into contact with a group of the most extraordinary friends I could ask for, and is going to be worth every single drop of blood, sweat and tears that it has wrung out of me.

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The things I do for theatre…

I don’t think that the theatre scene in Cambridge is without its nepotism and elitism. I do think groups and cliques quickly form if you aren’t fast enough off the mark. But it is not impregnable, by any means. Nobody owes you or your writing anything unless you want people to come see it because you’re proud of it. If you can see it nowhere but at the ADC then that’s where it belongs. And if you get knocked back (as I have many, many times) then curse the philistines and write something else that they can’t refuse.

‘Tristram Shandy: Live at the ADC!” is running at the ADC from the 21st to the 24th of October, 11pm. Tickets can be bought here.

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University of Cambridge ADC debate student writing Theatre tristram shandy will dalrymple willow wigglesword