*ALASKA....1995 by Susan-Jane Harrison. Against the backdrop of Alaska, boy meets girl across a bar. It might be the start of a romance, but this is a parallel universe. R4, 21 Sep 95. (Radio Times)
Susan-Jane Harrison writes:
After leaving RADA in 1994, I found myself with the inevitable actor-waiting-for- work time on my hands. I'd always loved writing, and so I started 'messing about' with the idea for "Alaska". I wrote a monologue for a woman performing in front of men, exploring images of womanhood. She starts off quite calmly, and then, confronted with confusing and contradictory images, she "breaks down", quite literally, spewing out bizarre stereotypic phrases. At this point the writing, I realised that she is the creation of men who do not know women: a genetically engineered construction. The characters of the men, are in the audience, egging her on.
From this came the idea for the play. For me, the play has a kind of bizarre 1950's American comic book atmosphere. It's almost tongue in cheek, but not quite. The characters speak the somewhat stilted language and slang of the past. I find the politics of genetics very interesting, and these issues were emerging into public consciousness at the time of this writing.
I was encouraged to continue in this endeavor by Lloyd Trott, who teaches at RADA, and has been intensely involved in facilitating new writing through various avenues. The class I took from him at college called upon all of us to write monologues for characters from plays we were working on. He and another young writer, Peter Bowen, encouraged me to enter BBC Radio 4’s First Bite Young Writer’s Festival. I finished the play, entered it, and to my amazement, “Alaska” was chosen (poetically, so was Peter’s play, “Quiz Night”).
Marion Nancarrow produced and directed the piece and introduced me to the ways of radio. As an actor in England, I had always felt tremendously dispensable. As a writer in England, I received much more respect (more, it must be said, than writers generally receive in the U.S., where I am now living). She consulted me on all the details, guided me to edit the piece (I re-wrote some of the play - it had to fit 57 minutes or something like that, exactly). She was very helpful, firm about important decisions and sensitive in her approach.
My one disappointment, was not being allowed to play the role of Winona, which in a way I had written for myself. It would have been completely impractical to do this, as I needed to be entirely focused on writing, and available to consult with Marion behind the scenes during recording. (I felt that Winona was a very warm character, and that was one aspect that didn't quite come across in the final recording.) At the same time, it was also very clear that the idea of fulfilling more than one artistic role, was not usual and disrupted the status quo. In reality, I find that artistic people are often committed to a variety of artistic pursuits.
I had a great deal of involvement in the production process, which was wonderful! I chose Michael Sheen for the character of Frank, and Marion, who enjoyed his work, agreed with this choice. Michael had left RADA the year before I started, and I'd seen him dropping in now and then during my time there. I really admire his work, and I felt he understood the character. I had originally written Jack to be American also. This is one of the changes I made during re-writing, solely in the interests of finding a strong older male actor. We didn't know anyone who we felt could really be American for this character. John Bowe was a good choice for the English Jack. I also had some idea, (unfounded, I now think), that having one English character provided a good point of connection for the audience.
I talked quite a bit to the actors about the characters, and they were able to ask me questions beforehand. Stephen Critchlow, a company member, did a wonderful job as Dean. It is a shame that BBC company members don't often get to do large roles, because they are extremely talented. During recording, I relayed notes to Marion who relayed and filtered them as she saw fit. The role of producer/director in radio is so important. You have to be a tremendous diplomat and oversee a variety of concerns. Marion did this very well. The studio engineers were lovely. They seemed to like the play and were very supportive. I was touched by the way I was treated, with respect and with a sensitive awareness of my youth, and ‘newness’ to the whole business.
After "Alaska", I did some more acting and writing, participated in a PAL workshop (a wonderful organisation facilitating new writing - information about this can be found at
and a few years later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where my father's family is from (I was born in London; my Mum is English). I live here with my husband and five year old son. I am happy to say that I am still writing (for stage), and intend to write for radio again (no such thing here as radio plays, alas, so I would approach the BBC again). It's much easier here to be a jack of all trades. People accept the idea of one person doing many things. Directors here, who know my writing, also call me for auditions. Had I stayed in the UK, I definitely would have become fixed into writing only (less writers than actors about and success is mainly about the writing, not about how tall you are next to the leading man)!
I am currently writing a play for stage and expect to adapt it for radio when it's finished. I think it is much easier to do it this way round - I toyed with adapting Alaska for stage and it was very difficult. It involves writing much more dialogue and having longer scenes. I think it is easier to pare down than to expand. Radio is a lot like film (except your palette is sound instead of sight); you can cut from place to place and time to time with rapidity. You use sound to do this, where in film you would use an image. Theatre, of all these mediums, is the world of language. Although I like to write (and to see) characters doing things on their own on stage without dialogue; I think that this is very interesting.
The play "Alaska" is in VRPCC collections.
copyright S-J Harrison and Nigel Deacon, Diversity website
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