Gail Louw: A playwright with a passion

The play about Duwayne Brooks has attracted much praise
The play about Duwayne Brooks has attracted much praise

Playwright Gail Louw won the 2014 New Writing South/Brighton Fringe Best Play Award.

Playwright GAIL LOUW won the 2014 New Writing South/Brighton Fringe Best Play Award for Duwayne, about the friend of Stephen Lawrence, the black teenager murdered by racists in 1993. She talks to Naomi Pitkeathly about her work and what inspires her.

How long have you lived here?

I’ve lived in Hove for 38 years. In a little triangle - Palmeira, Brunswick, Wilbury - the same telephone number, my kids at local schools. I’ve been extremely happy here.

Duwayne is a remarkable play. I was swept into his story by the clever staging. It was unrelenting - an emotional rollercoaster.

Tony Milner, the director, staged it brilliantly. And the casting really works. Adrian Decosta relates so personally to the part, and his agonies are highlighted by the solidity of the other actors.

Why focus on Stephen Lawrence’s friend?

I saw a drama about Stephen - and Duwayne Brooks stood out to me. I wanted to know his story. I wanted people to hear that he was not "the boy who ran away and changed his story".

Is that the driving force behind your plays: revealing the hidden story?

Yes. Years ago, reading up about the war, I found this story about a young man called Herschel Grynzspan. He was 17, like my son, and I could hear his voice. That made me want to learn to write for theatre. "Herschel" has had workshops, readings, rewrites, but it’s never been performed. It’s very strong. I have such an attachment to this boy, but I haven’t made his story known. I still feel I’ve let him down.

But not Duwayne.

No. I’m very, very happy people are getting to know what an amazing person he is. And it’s his voice that makes the play real. My kids’ voices are in Duwayne, actually. He’s under his duvet and people are asking him: "How are you?" "Are you all right?" He says: "Fine. I’m fine..." That’s what kids say. And, of course, they’re not fine at all.

Your plays are based on real people. How much research do you do?

Oh, don’t say research; it’s not. Research is bigger. Looking up stuff on the internet is reading. But I love it. You’re learning all about someone, contacting people. After Shackleton’s Carpenter [about the polar explorer], I met an admiral, a major-general - people you’d never meet. You go into another world.

Duwayne Brooks is admirable. But you describe Stella Goldschlag – the Jewish Nazi informer in Blonde Poison - as a monster. Why choose those people?

I do tend to choose rather flawed characters. Shackleton’s carpenter is like that: dour, argumentative. Even Marlene, which is a play about the end of Dietrich’s life, staying in bed 24/7. Her life was absolutely disgusting. I watched her films, interviews, documentaries - massively absorbed that character. And then you’re creating this quite horrible woman. But it’s the story I wanted to know.

What about some advice for aspiring playwrights?

First, do a course. Mine was at Sussex. It was great. Secondly, write about things that interest you. And get it down. I read until I hear the voice clearly. The first draft, you do on your own, but then it’s a collaborative process.

Like a writers’ group?

Yes. New Writing South’s script-reading service has been extremely useful. You pay for a report. Until you hear the script, at a dramatic reading, you don’t get a true sense of it.

Does playwriting make money?

No. If I’m lucky, I might make £6,000 this year. Putting on a play is expensive. Thank goodness for the Arts Council; they made Duwayne happen.

Finally, is there a new play in your head?

There is. But it’s early days. But I never stop. It’s like studying. I just carried on learning. Now it’s playwriting. I just keep on keeping on.

You can follow Gail Louw on Twitter: @gailzalouw