Welcome to Writers in Various Stages of Development #039 with Clare Plested.
Clare is a comedian, actress, writer, improviser, and a self-described Poundland version of Sally Hawkins. She does A LOT. She’s a member of multiple improv teams, joined the BBC Writersroom for their 20/21 Comedy intake, writes and performs critically acclaimed one women shows, has a project in development with Hopscotch Channel X and she even writes a new Panto every year – OH YES SHE DOES!
When did you start writing?
I started writing plays with my cousins from about the age of 8. Mostly, as a vehicle to show off my incredible performing abilities. I bloody love attention and this hasn’t diminished at all in 41 years.
Our murder mystery show one Christmas, ‘Mr Plastic Bag’, is still fondly remembered by my family for its dramatic final twist. Although, I mostly remember it for my Uncle Donal not paying as much attention as he should have. If only 8 year old me knew then that 30 years later I’d be getting the same tepid response from Edinburgh audiences in the basement of an Italian restaurant – maybe I’d have let him off the hook and allowed him to finish his Snowball.
You’re a character comedian and improviser. How does this influence and support your writing?
I can’t write anything decent until I know who my characters are. Who are they? What do they want? Why do we care about them? I visualise which actors I see playing them. I often develop characters by taking quirky traits from people I already know, so that they’re rooted in some sort of reality and then I push them to extremes.
Nothing is funnier to me than people who have deep emotion or attitudes towards something and if you can believe why they have that strong point of view you’re more likely to accept why they then behave the way they do.
Improv gets you to make decisions about emotional states very quickly and that can help when I’m writing. I also look for ‘game’ – an improv tool – in each scene.
You’ve trained in long-form improv with The Free Association, Groundlings, iO, and UCB. I’m a bit of a comedy nerd so the UCB has always been a magical place in my mind. I was lucky enough to perform at UCBNY twice and see some amazing shows over there. What led you to the UCB and what was your experience like?
I trained with various instructors from UCB over the years in England and in NY when we performed there with The Committee and Ladies of FA County in 2019 for the Del Close Marathon. I love the UCB’s laser focus on game. I became an absolute nerd for it too – listening to their podcast and rehearsing so much to nail it.
When I discovered ‘organic’ improv I struggled a little but over time I realised all the different techniques are more tools for your toolbox (can’t believe I’ve just written that) and there’s no one ‘right’ way to improvise.
I feel like I have been fortunate to watch several stand out improv shows. Groups that have done knock out shows I’ve seen are Sorry, Sweet FA, DNAYS (which I am now part of so that feels good!)
UCB in New York was a victim of the Covid pandemic and they’ve now lost their theatre. I believe the school has now moved online and performers are starting to establish new spaces. I know there’s always been controversy surrounding the theatre and their policies, but it was a sad day when the news broke. What impact do you think this will have on the scene?
It’s hard to know but I honestly don’t think you’ll ever be able to stop people improvising – it’s addictive. Particularly for show offs like me. UCB was becoming a bit of machine… hopefully a new and exciting scene will emerge.
Are you a full-time writer/performer or do you balance with a day job?
I balance paid writing work with my work as a freelance Personal Impact and Communications Consultant (I know, what the hell is that title I’ve bestowed on myself?!) and being a mum to a 2 and 8 year old. It’s a cliche, but it’s a constant fucking juggle. I’ve learnt to write wherever and whenever I can – even if it’s 1am and I’m breastfeeding.
I perform more as an improviser at the moment as it fits in better with family life. I have to constantly asses which plates are spinning well and which need attention.
When did you sign with your agent and how did it happen?
I signed with my agent this year and I could not be happier. I needed some help with a film option contract and then a treatment commission. I emailed agents asking for help/representation – some replied, most didn’t.
My friend Atlanta Green, who I met on the BBC Writersroom, recommended I get in touch with her agent, Julia Mills at Berlin Associates, so I did. Julia and I met on a zoom which lasted a couple of hours – by the end she offered me representation. She’s absolutely brilliant and I really feel like she has my back.
You were selected to join the BBC Writersroom Comedy intake in 2020. The BIG goal for comedy writers everywhere. What was your submission and can you describe the process you went through to join?
I had never submitted to the Writersroom before but I was turning 40 in 2020 and it was a huge catalyst to make me write something. Honestly, if the pandemic hadn’t happened I’m not sure I would have been able to do it but with my husband off work I had a window of opportunity to write it.
My script was called ‘Mother Mary’ and it’s a half hour visual comedy about a calamity prone new mum who tries to slay motherhood at 40 despite it biting her on her (still) bleeding arse.
I found out I had made it to interview stage and could not believe it. I prepped so hard for the interview. I tracked down a couple of people who had been interviewed before and asked what questions they had been asked – this was invaluable.
I caught up with loads of comedy tv and really tried to gauge the current climate and what different stations made. I was so pleased I did. This was a big part of the Writersroom – not just improving your writing but getting to know the business of selling and pitching shows to networks. As the interview was online I put post it notes all around my computer screen (my memory is awful) reminding me what I liked, didn’t like, where I saw myself in 10 years etc.
What has the Writersroom experience been like and what’s been your highlight?
I’ve bloody loved it. Although it was done entirely on zoom – I felt like we met some great people and I’ve learnt loads. The highlight is the group of fellow writers I’ve met – what an inspiring and supportive bunch. We met IRL for the first time last month and we had a BALL.
You were long listed for the ERA5050 TellHerVision Project and the BBC Caroline Aherne Bursary Award. You’re clearly doing the right things to stand out from THOUSANDS of entries. What does it take to grab the attention of judges in competitions?
Well, thank you, but I honestly have no idea. I suppose I write recognisable but very silly characters. I also love physical humour.
You’ve written and performed 3 critically acclaimed one-woman shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What advice do you have for anyone who is looking to create a one-person show?
Go easy on yourself. You could have a fantastic show and feel like it’s not gone well. It’s a pressure cooker of an event so try not to compare yourself to others.
I think I was shy about contacting people to see my show too – don’t be. Expect no one to turn up but contact everyone, be persistent and proud of what you have created. Support others too – see their shows, champion them – it feels good and keeps you grounded.
The last two shows I’ve performed up there I’ve taken my daughter too. It’s a mad bloody thing to do Edinburgh with a kid but they’ve been my happiest shows. You can’t get too far up your own arse when you’re wiping someone else’s.
I did Edinburgh once… I really enjoyed it but we all came home a little more broken than before we started. How do you survive the Fringe?
I drink. A lot.
Some of your work is available online. What advice do you have for writers who are considering the web as a tool to get their material out into the world?
I have a little content online and would love to do more. I feel like I missed the boat a bit with filming characters. I’ve always tended to concentrate on live shows but it’s so good to have work that’s instantly available to people.
I need to take my own advice and do more!
You and Adam Brown are currently commissioned to write the Newbury Corn Exchange Pantomime 2019/20/21.
I was actually born in Newbury and know the theatre well. How did you get involved in this amazing opportunity and what has the experience been like? I imagine the pandemic has caused all kinds of trouble!
Ah! I love Newbury!
Adam and I met at Middlesex University and that’s where we formed our comedy theatre company (Plested and Brown) with Amanda Wilsher who is the ‘and’ in the middle (Amanda also co-writes the Panto with us). We became resident theatre company at New Greenham Arts around 2002 I think?!
We would tour our own shows during the year and then perform Panto at the Corn Exchange at Christmas. We have a long history with the venue and became commissioned writers for the Panto in 2019. All three of us have a huge love for Panto and Newbury (Adam is originally from Hungerford) so it’s the perfect gig.
We managed to get 2 and a half weeks of shows there last year before new restrictions closed us down. We felt so proud to get a show up and running and it took A LOT of work – particularly from the production side. We’re hoping it will be a little easier this year…
What do you have planned for this year’s panto and where can my Newbury peeps buy tickets?
We are doing Cinderella this year, tickets can be found here.
You’re also developing a musical, The Perfect Wife. What can you tell us about the project? What is the process like for writing a musical?
It’s a long process… This show began in 2000! It was originally a two-hander comedy show written by Amanda, myself and Adam – performed by Adam and me and directed by Amanda. It’s had various incarnations over the years but ten years ago we turned it into a musical with the help of Paul Herbert.
We then had a hiatus while Adam went to New Zealand to film the Hobbit and we’ve recently gone back to it. We all believe in the story so much that we can’t let it go. Debbie Isitt has come on board to help us develop it and it feels very exciting.
What’s your number one tip for creating characters?
Base them on some form of reality then take them on a flight of fantasy. We have to believe their motivations and why they do things. Don’t be afraid to think visually with characters; think in terms of physical comedy as well as dialogue.
Want vs Need is always important and people will break your balls if it’s not spelt out for them!
What advice do you have for writers who may be struggling to find new opportunities?
Keep writing, keep asking. Find a group of like minded writers at roughly the same stage as you to share scripts, ideas, woes and successes with. It will keep you motivated.
Writers are often told that they need to find their voice or USP. What does this mean to you and how can writers hope to find theirs?
I think voice is about your unique world view or take on life.
We all have different life experiences and frames of reference – when we write true to those then it feels like our script and not someones else’s. Two people can write about parenthood; but their thoughts and views on it can be very different.
I once went out to buy nappies and came home with a cut glass whisky decanter – that’s my level of parenting so I start from there. It’s the specificity that’s key. If it feels authentic then it jumps off the page. Neither one is right or wrong, just different.
What are you working on at the moment?
A treatment for a comedy sitcom with Hopscotch Channel X, another new sitcom and the musical.
What are your current goals?
I’m always embarrassed to express how ambitious I am but as I get older I care a bit less.
So, fuck it, I want a BAFTA.
So… going back to your post-it note from earlier, where DO you see yourself in 10 years time?
With my own comedy series – preferably in it as well but not necessarily. I’d also love to be writing on other people’s shows – perhaps as a part of a writers room.
If you could reboot any series or movie, what would it be and what would you change?
I was thinking about Big Business recently with Bette Middler and Lily Tomlin. Now there’s a movie I would love to re-write and be in.
Are there any books or scripts that you would recommend to other writers? (can
also be podcasts, youtube videos, blogs etc)
If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your career?
Keep clinging on girl.
What’s the worst part of being a writer?
Knuckling down and finishing the damn thing. Also thinking that you’ll never have any good ideas ever again. Contacting people.
What makes you laugh more than anything?
People in the shit. Probably because I feel like we’re all in the shit all the time but we’re all just trying to pretend we’re cool.
My improv buddies are the funniest people I know. It’s embarrassing how much they make me laugh.
Since this will be published on Halloween, what is your favourite horror movie?
I honestly can’t watch horror movies – I get SO scared and think about them for weeks. I was properly scarred from watching Child’s Play around age 11. Oh, and that one with the bees – Candyman! Still terrifies me. I’d much rather watch Hocus Pocus.
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