When Phoebe Waller-Bridge performed her script Fleabag at the Edinburgh fringe in 2013, it landed like a bolt from the bluest of minds. But Waller-Bridge, who is taking the play into the West End for her final run in the role, had spent years honing her craft. Fleabag was the fruit of a long-running short-play night she established in 2007 with her writing partner Vicky Jones. It shared the name of the theatre company, DryWrite, which they still co-run. The pair cut their teeth there without any critics to clock it. The backstory to their success has, so far, gone untold.
At the time, London had quite a few similar nights, all breeding grounds for emerging talent. But DryWrite’s was different – “the least formal, the most rough round the edges and the most punky”, remembers playwright Phil Porter. They were as much about socialising as scriptwriting, and they certainly weren’t showcases. With no industry invites, people made work for their peers – mostly for the hell of it. “It felt like you were part of this great gang,” says The Pass writer John Donnelly. “They felt like the coolest nights in town.”
DryWrite started off at the George Tavern in Shadwell, a rundown old boozer (since renovated). The stairs were rickety, the ceiling threatened collapse and, on one occasion, artists arrived to find a dead owl on the stage.
“It was like a Who’s Who of the great and the good of British theatre today,” says playwright Tim Price. You might find shorts by James Graham, Ella Hickson, Lucy Kirkwood or Jack Thorne being performed by Arthur Darvill, Michelle Terry or Daniel Rigby – and, of course, Waller-Bridge herself.
Not that you’d know. DryWrite’s distinguishing feature was anonymity, partly allowing Waller-Bridge to write undercover. “For a community of people all desperately trying to make a name for themselves, that was an interesting provocation,” Price reckons. It gave writers freedom to take genuine risks, from saying the unsayable to toying with form.
What really set DryWrite apart, however, was that it started to set writers tasks. They weren’t scratch nights, or rapid responses to a subject or theme. The starting points were more active and open-ended: playwriting challenges. For instance, “Funny, Not Funny?” charged writers with toeing the tightrope of taste or tragedy. At what point, it wondered, would the laughter dry up? “What’s in My Box?” was an exercise in intrigue, giving characters containers they couldn’t open – safes, coffins, inboxes, flight recorders. “Guilty?” took horrific real-life crimes – stolen newborns, sex slavery – and had culprits attempt to justify their actions. Other challenges asked writers to pen lyrics that would be set to song and to cook up extended, extravagant fight sequences.
Most nights involved audience interaction. One secret mission set writers out to solicit a heckle, birthing the first incarnation of Fleabag as Waller-Bridge wrote about a woman dumping her boyfriend for someone who was simply much better in bed. Another split the audience according to gender. “The provocation was immediately dangerous,” says Donnelly. “What do I with this? Do I lean into it or do I back away? It gave you a genuine problem.”
Price remembers: “Vicky and Phoebe would spend days and days honing a stimulus for their writers.” “They wrestled with ways to create maximum drama.” That put writers to the test. How do you control an audience’s laughter? How do you hook them in or rile them up? DryWrite was always more interested in effect than expression, encouraging dramatists to do something to their audience: shock them, surprise them, elicit a response.
“It was entirely about entertaining the people in the room,” Donnelly says. “Most of the stuff was pretty ropey, but occasionally something magic would happen.” Someone would hit a rich theatrical seam – and scratchy memories of the time seem to reflect that. People recall images, rather than entire scripts: Darvill with his hand stuck in a vase, reaching for a ringing phone, or Terry winning a crowd round as a grieving mother who had murdered someone else’s child. Fighting nuns. Co-workers scrapping with shredders and staplers. A family argument, except everyone’s dressed as animals. “Seeing a penguin screaming at a donkey, that was special,” says Price with a chuckle.
Inevitably, it grew competitive, and giddiness was par for the course. Jonjo O’Neill remembers “a champagne feeling – more cava, I suppose. It was a very bubbly atmosphere. There was always a sense of being close to corpsing.” The point, he says, is that people were writing and playing for each other, not to impress industry types or bag a commission. “It was all very un-Rada, the opposite of taking yourself seriously in a Chekhov. There was a real sense of community – like a secret theatre club.”
At the heart of that were Waller-Bridge and Jones – infectious personalities who set the evening’s tone. If the duo defined DryWrite’s spirit, the club left its mark on them. Waller-Bridge’s writing still bears its hallmarks – teetering on the edge of taste and relishing moral ambivalence. You could trace Fleabag’s direct address back there, or Killing Eve’s delight in overblown action sequences. Two protagonists that do unconscionable things and retain our sympathies regardless? That’s pure DryWrite.