Playwright Peter Arnott speaks to Emma Hay about being terrible at making up stories, winning a Fringe First and Firebrand Theatre Company’s new production of White Rose coming to the Traverse Theatre 28 years after the original.
Could you tell us a bit about White Rose and where the inspiration came from?
This was a long time ago – nearly 30 years now. Basically it was my first commissioned play and it was for a show at the Edinburgh Festival with a student group. I was told it would be in May in a small space with 3 actors but it had to be big. And so I started looking at WWII, ’85 was the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. At that time, the Cold War was heightening; it was everywhere and I wanted to do something about this. I came across a book by Bruce Myles called Night Witches about Russian women pilots, in particular the story of Lydia Litvyak the so-called White Rose of Stalingrad.
What was so compelling about Lydia’s story?
She had a very short career – she started fighting in 1942 and died in 1943 but in that time she shot down eleven German planes. She was an extraordinary person. In the 80s, Soviet military history wasn’t something you could come across very easily – there was no Wikipedia – I had to make some of it up. So we end up with a kind of love triangle in the Battle of Stalingrad. There’s Lily, her engineer and her boyfriend and it’s their story. At the same time, we were heading into the fall of the Soviet Union and it was a very exciting time in politics UK – we were six years in to a Tory government and it was confrontational, the miner strikes were happening and unions were breaking down. Lydia’s story seemed to fit in well amongst all of that.
28 years after the original production, do you still think this story will find a place in contemporary culture?
It’s been nearly 28 years since the first production and it’s about a time that is much more distant now – then, the war had finished only 40 years earlier and now it’s nearly 70. I remember being at the Traverse and members of the British Soviet Friendship Society congratulated and thanked me. You know at that time the Soviets were what we saw as the ‘evil’ force in the world and now its radical Islam. I’m very interested to see it now, living in a different world and with a different enemy. White Rose, at the heart of it, is about young people involved in a struggle – a world-changing struggle. If there was any turning point of WWII, the Battle of Stalingrad was it. If the Russians hadn’t won, we wouldn’t be here now. It’s that important. One thing I discovered that I’ve kept with me all this time –there are always tiny little human stories happening inside this huge epic ones. In White Rose, sections are intimate and low key and other points are enormous. I don’t know how it’s going to go but it’s got a strong cast and the director, Richard Baron, has done loads. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
The original production made your career and was a significant time for the Traverse too. What changes have you seen at the Traverse in the last 30 years and how has the Scottish theatre landscape been affected by it?
It’s changed completely. You think of the history of the Traverse in three stages. I was part of the tail end of two. The first stage was producing international work that wouldn’t otherwise have been seen here. Back then, the Traverse was a theatre club so you weren’t buying a ticket, you were buying a membership for the night and this allowed them to get round the censorship of Lord Chamberlain’s office. The theatre White Rose was produced in was in the Grassmarket and it was a death trap – it would never pass as a theatre now. The new building that opened in 1992 is a new place in lots of way – it’s state of the art, it’s a public place. One of the biggest changes now is the National Theatre of Scotland has been doing a lot of new writing – it used to just be the Traverse. Since NTS are producing more new work, the Traverse’s place in Scottish theatre will adapt. The other thing now is that we have the question of independence hanging over us too. And with Orla in place now, who knows what stage four will be…
Some of your work is set in key historical moments or around major events. What do you as a playwright get out of blending fiction and non-fiction? How does that enrich the stories you want to tell?
I’m completely terrible at making up stories. I’d much rather find one than make one up. I find it easier – there are so many so good ones out there. Even things like The Breathing House – it’s so different from the true stories but it was still based on that. Recently I’ve been experimenting more – for example the show I wrote for the Fringe last year, Why do You Stand There in the Rain?, which won a Fringe First and is coming again, most of it is quotations. I made up a story that tied things together to give it an emotional core. It’s also a way of mixing things up – you can be absurd, add songs, just be playful.
You’re currently writing a play for the Genomics Forum – what do you think we can get out of blending science with art?
I’ve just sent off a second draft of my new play for them– so fingers crossed. I have a good feeling about this one. I pitched two ideas to Genomics – one was about a family and their story which is centred round a boy who died – that’s the story they wanted. This one is made up but it’s made from research. I’m not a scientist but I appreciate that there’s a way of understanding the universe through science. As with all opinions and beliefs, you come back to asking what does this tell us about the meaning of life and the worth of life? How do you relate it to everything else? How does that affect how we think of other people? Does it? Maybe when somebody dies. So this play is really about the impact of those questions and ideas.
Is there anything you’ve not done yet that you’d like to do?
I haven’t made a movie yet – written three scripts and none have been made, but maybe that’s just ambition. I have drawers full of notebooks and I’ve always got stories. If I have a career plan, it’s that I wait for someone to come along and ask me for a story – finding the stories is more fun for me than trying to write them.
Firebrand Theatre Company’s production of White Rose will open at the Tower Mill, Heart of Hawick, Thursday 21st February before embarking on a Scottish tour.
Follow Emma on Twitter @emmalhay