Hosanna Johnson reflects on being part of Gate Generations, a digital series inspired by 40 years of the Gate, and her work on ‘George’ inspired by Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.
I am a member of the Gate Young Associates, so I was able to work on the Gate Generations Project from its early stages. The plan was to look through the Gate’s archive of plays over the last 40 years and pick one from each decade that grabbed our attention. From the hundreds of plays listed I found an adaptation of George Orwell’s book Down and Out in Paris and London and thought that this is the type of story that I was interested in visiting. Exploring the lives of homeless people from the 1920s was important to me after spending time in a women’s refuge as a young teenager. The adapted version of the book was first performed at the Gate Theatre in 1979 and thereafter at the Edinburgh Festival in 1984. This was done at the hands of Writer/Director Lou Stein. The play text itself could not be found so Ellen, the Artistic Director of The Gate, suggested I write my own adaptation of Down and Out in Paris and London.
I love writing for theatre, so I agreed. However, this was my first time writing for theatre that will be put on. These conversations all happened on Zoom due to Covid19 but that made no difference to my mental state; I would write this play as if theatres were open and it would be staged. I have never adapted a play before and to create a short, 10 – 15 minutes in length, from a book of several pages spanning lives in two different countries, was a challenge. I read the book and marked out the sections I liked the most and wanted to explore in my own work. Chapter XXX (30) had a page where George and Bozo, a screever (someone who makes street art on the pavement), had a chat about their lives and life on the road, or as we would say today, the life of someone experiencing homelessness. What I really enjoyed about this chapter was the focus on space and how Bozo spoke about the stars. Bozo had almost no lust for anything else in life after his fiancé died and his leg was crippled in an accident at work shortly after, stopping him from being employable during that time. The vast empty space made Bozo feel less alone: ‘Life on earth, he said, is harsh because the planet is poor in the necessities of existence. Mars, with its cold climate and scanty water, must be far poorer, and life correspondingly harsher. Whereas on earth you are merely imprisoned for stealing sixpence, on Mars you are probably boiled alive. This thought cheered Bozo…’ I have felt a similar sense of peace and safety when looking up into the night sky during times of difficulty and spotting familiar constellations.
I soon learnt after a draft, that books and plays need different things and that I needed to squeeze the drama of a play into a few minutes whilst remaining connected to the original book. I wanted women to play my parts for practical reasons – we have a lot of acting female Young Associates at the Gate – but it is also a side to homelessness and poverty that is rarely recognised and can have added stigmas attached, as a homeless woman deviates heavily from what society expects. However, I don’t think the specificities of gender is so important to tell the story and during rehearsal he/she/they pronouns were used to describe the characters which reflects homelessness affects the queer community disproportionately. The only limitation for what I set in place was for the characters not to talk about homelessness. I was interested in exploring how different people may respond to similar situations and how that might change them. And welah, I have written a play… A play for the stage or Zoom probably? But then the Associate Director of the Gate, Yasmin, suggested an audio play. I thought that was a great idea and, naturally, asked her to direct the play.
Audio plays are very interesting and I really had to think about each line so much more carefully than initially thought. During the redrafting, rehearsal, and recording process, each moment, line and word was refined to make sure it was necessary and moving the story forward – this was especially import as sounds were all my audience had. That being said, it definitely wasn’t limiting. The play worked well for audio and we got creative in so many ways to make moments land and to create a world through sound alone. The process was incredibly informative and gave me a massive taste of what it will be like to be a professional writer. It was great to work with such a clever director and actors that brought their all to it.
I felt a mixture of being incredibly humbled by the fact that other people were investing their time and energy trying to create, and strengthen, something that I thought about in my head. Whilst at the same time, feeling really pleased that I was able to make something that other creatives were able to analyse and draw intentions from and work on in such a brilliant way adding their own ideas and thoughts and meanings in ways that I couldn’t have thought of.