Guest Post: Anna Jordan on YEN

Anna on Yen

Yen seems to speak to people of all ages, which for me as a playwright is tremendously exciting. I didn’t really expect it to – I just had a passion to explore the lives of these young characters and I wasn’t sure who would be interested. I am excited that the Yen Sequel / Prequel workshop is forming part of Open Court and I’m very interested to hear people’s ideas. (I’ve already been idly planning a sequel in my head – perhaps one day I’ll put it down on paper!). I think that Yen has caught the interest of young people perhaps because it explores some of the issues and pressures on young people today – especially surrounding sex and masculinity. But mainly, I hope, because it is a story about love. I never write a play to send a message or labour a moral, and the idea of a play “educating” an audience doesn’t sit well with me. I think most exciting thing about a play is when it can start a conversation and make a member of the audience look at the world or young people’s lives with fresh eyes.

Anna on her process

I started writing Yen in 2012. It’s difficult to recall the process as the way I write has changed so much since that time (ironically due to Yen and its success!). What I do remember is I wrote it at a time when writing was a private and personal process. Yes, I was a writer, but I certainly wasn’t making my living as one. I was only very occasionally getting paid to write, and so it was teaching and directing which paid the bills (don’t get me wrong – I loved doing both these things). But the way I write now is very different – usually to commission with deadlines and other people invested in the project from the word go. I’m not complaining – that’s wonderful – but I sometimes feel nostalgic for the way it used to be, when there was less pressure.
The seed idea for Yen came from a news report I heard years ago about two teenage brothers who committed an awful crime. It turns out they had been living at home alone for months, doing nothing but watching hardcore porn, gruesome horror films and playing violent computer games. I developed a strange fascination with how living like that might affect the development of a person. At first it was hard to write characters that lived such insular lives. But growing up I knew people whose lives weren’t a million miles away from Bobbie and Hench’s. I think Yen is a picture of what happens to a person when they are given no nourishment; physical, spiritual, emotional, educational. In particular it explores how we are meant to deal with the challenging moments of life, like love and loss, if we have no tools to do that? What happens if we experience great pain and have no means of expressing it? As the story developed, it became clear the results of this lack of nurturing would be catastrophic for all the characters. I challenged myself to go to some very dark places, if that was what the play needed. I think there are lots of laughs in Yen too, though, and there’s hope. I always think it’s important that plays have hope.
In terms of writing time for the first half I wrote at a leisurely pace, and I think I had breaks- a few weeks at a time. The second half was a different matter, I was working intensively to try to make the Bruntwood Prize deadline (glad I did), writing loads in a short space of time. I really felt because the characters had developed over a long period of time they were really clear and distinct and – it sounds a bit stupid – but it felt as they were talking through me. It certainly seemed to flow – particularly for the last few scenes.
Of course Yen has changed lots since then. I think at present the script that will have a production at MCC in New York early next year is version twelve. One of the things I’ve done which I think is a great exercise is to go through the play seeing it from the eyes of each individual character. It was great to work intensively on improving and developing the play with Sarah Frankom and Suzanne Bell from the Royal Exchange. Then once the brilliant Ned Bennett was attached to the project we spent lots of time talking about the characters, relationships and structure and workshopping the play. Despite the success of the Royal Exchange production there were still bits we weren’t quite content with so we reworked them with the cast before the Royal Court production. We also made developments after feedback from Vicky Featherstone (Artistic Director) and Hamish Pirie (Associate Director) from the Court. What’s right at the heart of Yen has never changed, I’ve always been very clear and firm on themes, story and characters – but I think that the key to its success has been me being open to collaboration (that includes our cast of four incredible actors!) The result is everybody feels they have ownership of the piece and I think that’s wonderful.

YEN Prequel / Sequel workshop is part of Open Court and will take place 30 July. Join us for a day-long playwriting workshop to write your own prequel/sequel to Anna Jordan’s Bruntwood Prize-winning YEN