Riots, OCD and me: why I wrote Ghost Town

Megan (Jill McAusland) reaches out to Joe
11 Feb 2014 @ 11.09 am
| News
Sheila Atim (Keira) and Damson Idris (Joe) rehearse Ghost Town. Photographs: Louise Buckby for Karl Andre Photography
Sheila Atim (Keira) and Damson Idris (Joe) rehearse Ghost Town. Photographs: Louise Buckby for Karl Andre Photography

Ghost Town is a new play from two acclaimed collaborators: Pilot Theatre – the people behind epic outdoor production Blood + Chocolate last year – and award winning York playwright Jessica Fisher.

It tells the story of lost friendship and betrayal between two friends in an east coastal village.

Joe, a runaway, finds Megan unconscious and bleeding on a beach. She is a childhood friend and their chance encounter forces them to revisit the events that made them fall out.

The third character in the play, Keira, is a manifestation of Joe’s fears.

Jessica developed the play after winning Pilot Theatre’s inaugural Generation Z prize which aims to find new texts and ideas to “excite, challenge and inspire audiences between the ages of 11 and 15”.

We caught up with her as the play prepared for its premiere on Wednesday (February 12).

Where did the inspiration for Ghost Town come from?

To begin with, I started to write a play set several years after the riots, as though they’d never stopped. Like Ghost Town, it was set on a beach and focused on an encounter between two teenagers, Megan and Joe.

I quickly realised this wasn’t the play I wanted to write! I began to develop the characters of Megan and Joe, and their relationship. This became the heart of Ghost Town.

I’m interested in the ways our actions can affect other people, sometimes without us even realising, and this was something I wanted to explore.

Is the play about isolation or friendship?

Ghost Town is absolutely a play about friendship, and it is important to me that audiences can find hope in amongst the darker elements. Joe has isolated himself at the beginning of the play, but it is the interplay with Megan that begins to shift things for both of them.

Their friendship is a complicated one, and they both have memories of being let down by the other.

Friendship is so important to all of us, and I think it makes great subject matter for a play for younger audiences. Megan and Joe both have difficult situations to deal with, and have the power to hurt or reassure each other to a huge degree.

I hope that the play might make audiences think about their own friendships, and the impact they might have on the people around them.

Megan (Jill McAusland) reaches out to Joe
Megan (Jill McAusland) reaches out to Joe

Why did you give Joe OCD?

I have had OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) for over 14 years, so I understand the condition first hand and know very well how distressing and debilitating it can be. It’s also something that is much misunderstood.

I’ve wanted to write about OCD for along time, and as I explored the possibilities of this play it felt right that Joe might have the condition.

I hope that Ghost Town will give audiences of sense of what it can feel like to have a mental illness. Typically, people with OCD are private about their experiences and do a very good job of covering their behaviour and anxieties up, so it can feel very lonely.

I hope that people experiencing all sorts of difficulties – not just OCD – might be able to feel a little less alone when they watch the play.

How do you engage the YouTube generation in live theatre?

I believe very strongly that the best way to engage any audience, from any generation, with live theatre is to make great theatre.

For me, that means being willing to take risks and try new things, to allow an audience to feel challenged and to pose interesting questions about the world and our place within it.

The subjects I like to write about at the moment are fairly universal, so I would hope to engage all sorts of people. I think regardless of your age, or what social climate you have grown up in, human relationships matter, and will be interesting.

How did winning the Nick Drake and Pilot writing awards change your life?

Winning the Nick Darke Award in 2010 made a huge difference to my career. It gave me a boost that I really needed at the time to focus more of my energies on writing.

Having that kind of encouragement about my writing made me feel much more confident to send work out to other places, and to approach people with ideas.

Pilot’s Generation Zed Award had a strong focus on developing a play, which is where Ghost Town came from. The prize for that included some research and development time with Katie Posner [Ghost Town‘s director], the writer Richard Hurford and some actors.

This was invaluable in helping me to shape my play, and learn more about the process creating a script for production.

It can be hard as a freelance writer to find opportunities to workshop your play and try out ideas, so the Generation Zed prize was amazingly helpful.