We won a writing award for Past Tents! But do we deserve it…?

We won a writing award!  This our first writing award as playwrights – our play PAST TENTS continues to punch well above its weight.  How did we manage to win against such fearsome competition?  It’s hard to say, because we don’t actually believe it yet.  Maybe we are conditioned not to.

I cannot talk for Seth, but in life, never-mind as a writer, I am utterly devoid of self-belief.  I always assume the worst, find praise impossible to take and always expect bad news.  In this article I will examine this further – peel back the onion of my head and try to look inside at the murky mess that is me, then make sense of things.  I’ll explore how it’s possible to find success, because if I can be nominated for and even win awards, maybe there’s a lesson in here somewhere?  For me?  For fellow creatives?  Or just for those who have to fight against the impossible odds to get their art, hard work and vision out there.

Even writing this article feels self-indulgent.  I am just not programmed to enjoy success or accept praise.  I often talk about the life of working-class actors and why it is so hard for us to achieve things and even when we do, we often struggle to celebrate it – always feeling like frauds, like we’ll be found out – imposter syndrome rules our thinking; holds us back; limits us.  The lack of a financial safety net, the lack of parent-imbued confidence.  Childhood trauma?  The deeper I dig into my brain, the more excuses I find.

Maybe I am making too much of this?  Perhaps it is the neuro-divergences that make me feel less worthy?  Maybe all that’s happened is, I’ve won another fight; got away with it – but there’s still guaranteed failure looming behind the corner?  Seth’s character in Past Tents, Alan, describes something similar in the play – it’s like a monster whispering promises of ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘you don’t deserve this’, ‘you will fail’.  That’s how I often felt at school – I wasn’t academic; I was constantly told I ‘wasn’t good enough’; ‘try harder’; ‘stop failing’. 

What is most astonishing about the nominations, never-mind the wins, is that we had to entirely self-fund the play’s tour in 2023 (at a substantial loss) because we were refused funding.  Twice. So despite spending days on a meticulous lottery funding form, on a system so hard to use (seriously, try doing it with ADHD – if my laptop accuses me of assault, I have no defence – it took a pounding, bless it), we didn’t get the funding.  Once again, my face does not fit and that is exactly what I expected.  Phew.

I have just (through gritted teeth and lots of swearing at said laptop) applied for two lots of funding for 2024, so we can spread the word about men’s mental health with the play, but both of theses are, of course, doomed to failure.  Even if I knew rich people who would support us (I don’t) I’d be too afraid to ask for help for fear of rejection.  I hate that this my default.  I hate that I am not more confident.  I hate that I hate myself for this stuff. I could go on.

I make myself sound like a whining victim, right?  Probably – but try living in my head for a while and you’ll see the complicated mess I have to deal with up there, and how hard it is to try and stave off the dark thoughts and depression – the play after all, was born from that.  Mental health has never been something I’ve found easy – those who watched that play will see Seth and I put it all in there – it’s raw, real and hurts and I’m writing a follow up article that explores it in more detail later, so enough on that. 

Perhaps my lack of self-belief is a shield I use to stave off any thought I might actually have done a good job?  It’s hard to accept any level of success, so I’m ashamed to say, when we won the award, I cried like a baby.  Failure comes more easily for me.

Let me add add some light to proceedings.  The shows we were up against in eight categories, were almost entirely well-funded – some of them to incredible levels.  We are talking hundreds of thousands of pounds or more in some cases.  Here are some of them:

The 39 Steps, The King & I, The Little Shop Of Horrors, 42nd Steet, Heathers, The Lord of The Rings, Edward Scissorhands, The Ocean At Th End Of The Lane, The Bee-Keeper op Aleppo, The Mousetrap, The Sponge-Bob Musical, The Hound Of The Baskervilles and others. I don’t begrudge any of them their success or funding, after all, they deserve it, I don’t, right? Wrong.

Our little self-funded play was amongst some crazy big names – and Seth also won BEST ACTOR 2023 too for his performance as Alan (Mark Keegan was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor as Virgil and me for Best Actor as Justin’).  It’s amazing to think we were even in with a shout, never mind having any chance of winning.  I am still making sense of it.  You may have picked up on that.

Without funding, we couldn’t afford to hire a Stage Manager, ASM or a permanent tech.  Some theatres helped with some of this, but we made every prop ourselves (there are hundreds – I spent an entire day in my garage building a realistic looking sheep poo, for example. I was so proud), did the set design, costumes, did all our own PR, liaised with all the theatres, the get-ins, the get-outs, marketing, posters, delivered leaflets at every venue, press releases, invited reviewers, social media awareness campaigns, managed the accounts, designed lighting, sound, a video and of course we wrote it, rewrote, rewrote it, rewrote then rewrote it again, all whilst suffering from crippling self-doubt.   

Despite learning to do all those other jobs, it is as writers we truly value the award most.  We were up against the likes of Neil Gaiman & Joel Horwood – people we worship as writers; we are blessed and slightly bemused to have come out on top.  Obviously it was a mistake – Cormac Richards pressed the wrong button on his computer and gave us an award by mistake.  Yeah, that’s it!  I checked – we did win apparently.  Damn!

The one thing I do know in this industry, is that it is important for creatives to make their own work – sitting at home waiting for auditions, hoping for success doesn’t work. You must find a way to get work out there.  That takes a lot of self-belief – which is always my first stumbling block – but by writing together with Seth, I manage to convince myself, for just about long enough, to have a go.  Seth and I have sacrificed a lot emotionally and financially to bring the play to audiences – suffered successes and disappointments along the way – but ultimately we both knew we needed to make those huge sacrifices to get our work seen.  Seth makes all of it easier for me.

It would be wrong not to mention Seth’s friend Sean Smith, a fellow writer/actor who took his own life just over a year ago.  Sean’s loss deeply affected Seth the play offered us a chance to talk about mental health in men – an attempt to raise awareness and get people talking. Sadly, suicide is one of the biggest killers of men in the UK and is a subject close to both of our hearts, but we had a responsibility to get it right and represent the issues properly – so we validated our writing with a number of Mental Health charities including Manup?, who read the play and gave us the reassurances we needed. The play is dedicated to Sean’s memory.

Perhaps that why the play resonates with so many people?  Maybe that is a lesson for me?  Write what is real – no matter the premise or genre of the writing – make the characters real people you can empathise with. Part of muy process now is to really understand what motivates and demotivates my characters and I spend a lot of time trying to get inside their heads, before unleashing them on an audience. 

In Past Tents ee also mix utterly ridiculous comedy in with the darkness.  Laughing at despair feels like a very British thing to do – there’s nothing like a little self-deprecating comedy and I think we got the balance right.  Big laughs offer relief from the hard bits – the hard bits shock the audience expecting the laughs: it’s a potent mix if done well and with care.

The thing I learned most through this process, was to leave everything we had on stage every night – some nights were better than others of course, but we never gave less than our best to each performance.  As director, Seth always ensured we gave our all – he sets high standards and I utterly respect that – he constantly pushes me to be better and give more. But the play is about the three of us – Mark Keegan, our third wheel in the play, was a superb choice as Virgil; he instantly understood his character and gives a show-stealing comedy performance every night. Great casting matters. 

It is important to be meticulous and brutal in the writing.  Seth and I spend and exhaustive amount of time looking specifically at every line.  Is it a clue?  Does is build upon the character?  Does it make people laugh?  If none of those, we deleted or rewrite it.  We also analyse every line through our audiences.  What is landing, what isn’t?  Where can we find the silence in the noise?  Is anything causing a drag in pace? Where can we affect people or make them laugh more?  Our process is meticulous – the attention to detail is insane and often results in writing room clashes as Seth and I healthily argue things out.  We are brutal – even if we love something, we’ll remove it if it doesn’t land.  We are constantly trying to improve and never take out audiences for granted.

We are also constantly upgrading the props and costumes, making them better, more interesting, more relevant, more… bizarre.  We constantly strive for a perfection we’ll never find; but keep aiming for it anyway.

It isn’t easy to bare your soul on stage.  To expose audiences to your writing, acting, directing, producing, set design, costume design etc… What if people hate it?  What it’s not funny?  What if I fail?  What if I am not good enough? Damn that Imposter syndrome.

I think it’s about time I started to believe in myself, isn’t it?  About time I started to accept that with Seth’s help, I am actually quite good.  But if I do that, maybe I’ll stop trying so hard to prove to the world I am good enough.  I may have won a few awards, but maybe I’ll never win this battle with myself.  Maybe that’s my secret – the things I perceive as my weaknesses may actually be the driving force behind my success? Best not to tamper with it too much then!

Whatever the truth, Seth and I want to thank Cormac Richards and everyone else who has given us great reviews, nominated us for awards or told us how much the play matters to them.  We love every bit of feedback, constructive, complimentary or otherwise and we hope we keep touching people’s hearts and laughing bones, in the way we have.

We are currently planning a scary three-week stint at a (soon to be announced) small theatre in London this September to get the play launched to a new level – as well as performances in Eastleigh in May and Leicester in July (with others hopefully soon to be announced).   I hope you can come and see it and judge for yourself – after all, we have nearly 40 ‘5 star’ Facebook reviews from audience members who seem to like it.  Hopefully you will too –I guarantee I won’t take that for granted.

I am about to post this article on my website now and await the inevitable crippling anxiety caused by it (of course).  Don’t judge me, it’s how I am. It’s how we are.  

After all, we are award winning writers, aren’t we? 

Aren’t we?

David J Keogh 29/01/24

Past Tents website: https://www.pasttentsplay.com

Past tents Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pasttentsplay/reviews

Cormac Richards 2023 Awards: https://theatreplays.uk/cormac-richards-theatre-awards-2023-the-winners/

Current Tour Dates: https://www.pasttentsplay.com/box-office-tour-dates