How do you put a cowboy on stage? An interview with Jethro Compton

Jethro Compton

Jethro Compton is the author of last year’s hit Western play, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (which is now available to perform). As his latest plays, The Frontier Trilogy, open in Edinburgh, we caught up with Jethro to talk about doing Westerns on stage, the challenges and rewards of trilogies and his advice on tackling the Edinburgh Festival


 

How did you come to write The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?

I’d been watching loads of Westerns and playing Red Dead Redemption, which is an incredible computer game, it got me completely invested in that world. It got me thinking – “Wouldn’t it be brilliant to do a Western on stage?”.

Then The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was on television one morning, and I sat and watched it and could see every single scene working on stage. I started pursuing the rights to the film but couldn’t get them, which was a blessing in disguise because it led me to the short story the film was based on by Dorothy M Johnson. I realised I could go much further on the route I wanted to go down with the original story – which is very different from the film – and tell the story I wanted to tell.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

It’s interesting you were inspired by a computer game – that’s a new tool for writers. How did it help?

I’ve not been to America – other than a week in Missouri – but I feel that I know it through films and largely through the computer game Red Dead. I’ve jumped on a horse and ridden across the landscape, I’ve shot the guns, I’ve seen the animals, I’ve learned the way people speak. There’s a town in the game called Armadillo, which was always the town in Liberty, in my mind.

Red Dead Redemption

The computer game Red Dead Redemption helped inspire the world of Jethro’s Western plays

Liberty and The Frontier Trilogy have a vivid atmosphere but they’re not slavish period pieces. How concerned were you with historical accuracy?

Not at all. Even though this is grounded in a world that existed, the beauty of it is that it’s not a world that exists any more. Therefore you can establish the rules and say “this is what it is”, this is the world we live in, and the audience accepts that.

I focused on the story I wanted to tell – the lone farmer versus the big corporate railroad, for example – and stuck to that. If the facts don’t tell the story that I want to tell, then change the facts. I never bogged myself down in the need for ‘realism’, because that’s not my interest.

The Wild West as we think of it never really existed anyway – it’s totally fictional, it was fictionalised even at the time. It stands for something, and it has come to stand for something, and the reality was very different.

Why do you keep coming back to the Western genre?

I felt there was unfinished business after writing Liberty. There’s so much in that world, and so many approaches to it – everything from the old school Western shot in a studio, with people sat round in a saloon, to that Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western feel with those big epic moments with the gunslinger riding off into the sunset. You can’t capture all of that in one play. The Frontier Trilogy deals with things I could only allude to in Liberty – gold, the railroad, religion – and looks at things like change and ‘progress’ in the West from a completely different view.

There’s still so much more. When I write English settings and characters I feel very exposed. Writing the West, I can talk about things in another way and another voice – it’s a great place to have massive discussions and it doesn’t feel cheesy and naff in the way it might do in and English play. The West is an epic world where the reality is harsh – you could actually die tomorrow – so people aren’t polite, they say ‘this is what I feel’ and ‘this is what I want’.

Why do you think Westerns haven’t been done more on stage?

When you hear ‘Western’ you’re immediately thinking of that massive space. Gunfights. Tavern brawls. Train robberies. Charles Spencer in The Telegraph said he turned up to review Liberty out of morbid curiosity – he thought we’d have people riding invisible horses.

It doesn’t easily translate, and you have to create the sense that that world is out there, without just using reported action. How can you take the tension of a gun fight, and make it verbal?

The Frontier Trilogy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The Frontier Trilogy at the Edinburgh Festival

Trilogies are an unusual format for theatre. Why have you written your new plays for Edinburgh as a trilogy, and what challenges does that pose as a writer?

Honestly, it comes down to money. I’m also producing the plays, and trilogies are a great format for festivals. It means, as a producer, you can take one company, one set and one venue and stage three different shows. It also makes marketing much easier – if an audience member enjoys one of them, they’ll come and see the others.

As a writer, it’s hard. You need to make them similar enough that you’re not cheating the audience and people can see how they fit together, but also you want them to be different enough. You can’t cheat and reuse things. The third play in the trilogy – Rattlesnake – was the hardest to write because I’d already used up some characters and structural ideas. But that forces you to try new things and not rely on the things you already know, so in the end that play feels the most different to anything else I’ve written before, and it’s my favourite.

Is there one unifying idea in the trilogy?

They all started as adaptations of Bible stories – really loosely. They’re not any more, they’re new stories, but they are inspired by them. I think they’re universal stories, as Westerns are. The stories are found in lots of different holy texts around the world. It’s good versus evil, the little guy versus the big guy, betrayal… all those sorts of ideas.

I started with those because they gave me a push and helped to structure the trilogy and even suggest characters. They’re also full of key choices, which are narratively really useful, and that dilemma of saying – “Am I going to be this person and do the easy thing, or do I do what’s hard and stick with what I believe?” – which is something an audience can really invest in.

That’s what’s so great about Westerns – these stories are truly life and death, which dramatically takes it so much higher.

Are there any other ways that being a producer has affected your writing?

I’ve written characters and crossed them out because I knew we couldn’t afford them. It encourages you to find ways of telling the story as simply as you can, while still telling the story that you want to tell.

When I was 16 I did a writing workshop with a Cornish writer called Nick Dark, who said –

“Until you absolutely need to leave the location, don’t. Until you absolutely cannot proceed with your story without having another character walk in, don’t”, and that’s something I really try to stick to. You see plays that are unfeasible and therefore limited because only certain kinds of theatre could ever take them on. As a writer you want your shows to be seen by as many people as possible, so bearing practical constraints in mind is important, and it also forces you to find creative ways round limitations.

When I write, I plan down to a word count of how many words will be in a scene and how long it will last, and that helps with the structure of the play.

I use storyboard cards, and I lay them out on three columns. The first column is ‘Action’. The second is ‘Information’, which is what information characters share and when. The third column is images and dialogue and moments that I want to get in – a line that comes into your head as you write, for example, and you don’t want to lose it.

I don’t want to get to the end of a play and realise that I’ve started things that haven’t been resolved. Doing it this way makes it so easy to see where holes are. The only problem is if you work by a window, those pieces of paper blow everywhere…

As someone who’s always produced and directed their own work, would you recommend it to writers?

I think you should be involved in theatre in as many ways as you can. The more roles that you do in theatre, the more you’ll learn. Be a director – even if you don’t do it very well. It means when you’re asking someone else to do something, you understand what it is you’re asking them.

The idea that you can only be a writer or a director is changing. I know people look at me and think it’s a vanity project because I’m writing and directing and producing, but if you believe passionately you’re the right person to do it, then do it.

In terms of taking shows to Edinburgh, you have to know why you’re doing it. If you’re going there to make a lot of money, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. If you’re going there to have a really good time – absolutely. If you’re going there for the experience – absolutely. If you’re going there to try and raise your profile, great, but then don’t focus on how many tickets you’re selling, focus on how many people from the industry you’re getting to see it. Even if you’re losing money, it’s an investment. You can then take that show out other theatres, throughout the year, and that’s realistically where your career will grow.

Edinburgh is a market – it’s where everyone comes to see shows and takes what they want back with them. I’ve been incredibly lucky to take work to Australia and South Korea thanks to Edinburgh. My career is entirely thanks to Edinburgh.

But the most important thing is: make something you want to make. Don’t copy what someone else is doing. If you have something is unique and exciting, Edinburgh can be life-changing.

 

The Frontier Trilogy plays at C Nova as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 5th to 31st August. Visit the show’s website for more details

Buy the script from Samuel French 
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is now now available to perform from Samuel French