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Interview

Disability Arts Online spoke to Catya Wheatley and Hanne Olsen, the new editors of Disability Arts in London (DAIL) Magazine

Head and shoulders photo of Danny Start

Danny Start

Former NWDAF information worker Danny Start is currently establishing a strong reputation as a playwright. Joe McConnell talks to him and asks about his play I Love you Angela, which was recently broadcast on Radio 4.

In I Love You Angela, the central character, Jamie, has to simultaneously deal with the discovery of epilepsy and the heartbreak of an unrequited first love. This is further exacerbated by Jamie's mourning for his father. Danny weaves together the themes of letting go and moving on in a highly compelling tale that never becomes moralistic or clichèd.

Jamie's passion for metaphysical poetry is humorously contrasted with Angela's attachment to popular culture. She finds John Donne miserable and depressing. The portrayal of the couple's blossoming friendship is initially both lively and upbeat, but the play grows steadily darker as Angela cannot reciprocate the depth of Jamie's feelings.

A great strength of the play is the way in which it faces the issue of Jamie's coming to terms with the onset of epilepsy. This totally shatters any tragic but brave expectations. Jamie's emotional journey through the experience of disability and how it eventually helps him to deal with other aspects of his life is totally convincing. This is unquestionably an insider's perspective.

The dialogue is lively, authentic and cleverly sprinkled here and there with the poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

Is I Love You Angela autobiographical?

I suppose it is a little bit. Some time ago, I was on a train pulling into a station and saw I love you followed by a different name spray-painted on the wall. This set my mind off thinking of a story about a boy waiting for his lost love to come back. The parts about epilepsy come directly from my own experience, from when I was young and wearing my heart on my sleeve.

Tell us something about your journey as a writer.

Most writers will tell you that you're meant to be a writer when you're constantly creating stories in your head. One day, you start taking that inner voice seriously and decide that you want to put these things down on paper. I started back in the early nineties, during a period when I was unemployed. I got hold of a computer and started writing, pouring it out. Everything: poetry, short stories, the beginnings of a novel. I used to work from 7 in the morning through to 4 in the afternoon just writing.

I eventually became interested in writing film and television scripts. This led me onto an MA course in Writing for the Screen at John Moores University in Liverpool. This was a confidence booster after having been in the doldrums for quite a few years. My confidence was low and I was quite isolated, but the course definitely gave me a kick start. I got back into the world of work again: the civil service, North West Disability Arts Forum and the British Council of Disabled People. All the time I was writing alongside these day jobs.

Back in 2000, I was one of four writers commissioned by Soho Theatre, Graeae Theatre Company and Writernet to write a stage play for disPlay4. The other writers chosen were Angela McNab, Jamie Beddard and Kerry Hood. Through this project, I attended workshops with professionals from radio, television and theatre. A piece of my work called Looking for Kay was showcased in London. This was seen by a literary manager, Laura Harvey, which led to a commission from Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. The Anniversary Waltz played in 2003.

The theatre had a very small performing space. They wanted me to write a two-hander. I had this story knocking around which is about this couple on the day of their third wedding anniversary. Danny, the husband is under the thumb of his domineering mother and his wife, Lynne, is recovering from a car accident in which she's damaged her spine. Their anniversary falls on the same day as the anniversary of Danny's mother. There is a lot of tension centring around the mother son relationship. The patronising of disabled people also feeds into the story. The way Lynne's experience manages to tell a bigger story appealed to many people who saw the play.

On the back of that came the Radio4 commission. It's been step by step but I think I'm gradually getting there.

Does disability impact on your art?

I think it informs everything I write through my emotions and sensitivities. As to whether I write about my disability. I don't know, to tell you the truth. I Love You Angela is informed by my experiences of epilepsy. The Anniversary Waltz was about a young woman with a spinal injury. These were elements that informed the stories without being what the stories were really about. I don't want to preach. I just want to write human stories that people can understand at an emotional level - the things we all go through: a whole range of human emotions from love to loss. Of course my experience as a disabled person is going to filter through.

I find work that is laden with messages quite repellent. Human stories built on common human experiences such as love or grief can tell bigger social or political stories. My training as a writer has taught me to avoid dialogue where the character tells you everything about his back condition, for example. As soon as I hear this in a play, I wince. I hope that my writing is able to catch the commonality of human experience in an unpretentious way.

The play has a strong sense of place, but could also have been anywhere.

The play had to be in that location. It had to be from my city, because I could write in a natural manner then with all the nuances, accents and dialect. Not in that stereotypical scouse way though, which is dead easy to do and into which I can easily swing myself, if I want to. I wanted to write a straightforward story set in a fantastic city without all the clichès that we've seen over the years in those dreadful sitcoms like Bread.

Favourite writers and influences?

There are so many. At the minute, I'm a big fan of Paul Abbot. I think State of Play and Shameless are brilliant. I also love Jimmy McGovern and was a huge fan of Alan Bleasedale going back to GBH of about 10 years ago. I would love to write stuff like that for television. I like those New York tales of Woody Allen: those smaller more intimate stories. There was a wonderful film recently called Sideways in which nothing much happens, but manages to tell a lot about a load of things.

What are your plans for the future?

I am working towards earning my living as a writer in order to really develop my art. One of the best ways to do that is through writing for television soaps, which would allow you to earn a living wage, while allowing you to concentrate on other work.

The financial thing is important right now. I've just managed to have a bit of a sabbatical for seven months. But the time has come to go back to work. This will probably be an admin job somewhere which is not going to make me very happy, but will pay the bills. Recently, my good friend and mentor, Kaite O'Reilly, advised me to write to the Peggy Ramsay Award. I did and a month later a nice cheque came in the post. The Radio 4 and Graeae commissions have kept me going for about seven months. But now the cupboard's bare. I managed to do a day job for five years and write after work. You build up a discipline. The minute that framework is no longer there, you sort of flounder for a while. It's a constant juggling act. But that's part of the engine that keeps you motivated. You've got to be around people as well to feed your art.

I've got a raft of radio ideas which I've sent out to independent production companies, and tons of ideas which just need working on. The Graeae commission is in a bit of a stop-start position as they are currently concerned about getting their new theatre capital project off the ground.

I'm also working on some film scripts. One of them is called The Hill of Dreams which is a gothic horror story based in and around Liverpool. I'm a big fan of Arthur Machen who wrote loads of gothic horror stories at the back end of the nineteenth century. A lot of his stuff really influenced me. His stories are very esoteric and really out there. They appealed to me at a time when my impairment kicked off; they appealed to the part of my mind that wondered and dreamt about things.

There is also a long-cherished project called The High Wire Man which is a sort of semi-autobiographical story. And I've got loads of sitcom episodes lying around.

There's a frightening amount of material on my computer - please, someone, commission me to go further with it.

Advice for people wanting to get into writing?

It's a question of sticking at it. It's a very lonely business. At first, when you're hammering away at the computer keyboard you think there's this big impenetrable world of writing. But once you finally get your foot in the door you realise that it's a lot smaller than what it seems from the outside. It can be a very lonely business, but you've got to keep hammering away without getting discouraged. Go to writers' workshops, meet people, and feed your art all the while.

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