Michael Cameron speaks about Ruby Murray, his writing, and Northern Irish theatre

Michael Cameron interview

By Conor O’Neill

After sell-out shows at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, and now selling out theatres in many of Northern Ireland’s biggest and most renowned houses, Belfast playwright, Michael Cameron took half an hour out of his hectic schedule to chat with CultureCrush NI about his meteoric success, how a health scare led him to writing for pure enjoyment, the importance of collaboration, singlemindedness, his writing habits, his views on the arts and, of course, the subject of his play, Ruby Murray.

I found him to be relaxed, somewhat self-effacing and most of all, very passionate about theatre.

Michael Cameron profile

I began with the obvious: so, from the civil service to theatre, can you tell me how that occurred? I assume you’ve always had an interest in writing?

“It happened in different stages. I was a career civil servant, for most of my working life I was very lucky to be working as a political officer for the secretary of state and things like that. I spent a lot of time in London and if I could get away early enough I’d go to the theatre and watch whatever show I could get into. My job involved a lot of speech and policy writing so I was always very comfortable with the written word. From that point of view words and the theatre have always been in and around.

“In 2015 I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder and had to give up my job. When I was at home I just wasn’t able to cope with endless days of nothing happening, so I thought, ‘well, maybe I could write a little’. I started to write little blogs and stories, so that’s how it started.”

So is this now your fulltime career or a side project?

“I fell really comfortable with where I am now, because in 2015 I was sitting at home feeling very sorry for myself with this illness that was never going to go away. Here we are now. A few years on and it’s like writing has gave me something to live for again. It’s really impacted my life and not just the writing, but the people I’ve met, the places we’re doing things in; it’s just a really great boost for me. I hope it is a career and there’s more things to come from this, but for now I’m just really enjoying the moment and really thankful for it.”

At the Lyric’s opening night you spoke very highly and eloquently of Sam McCready. You sent your script of to him and he replied to you saying, ‘It’s all about the story. Rewrite it as a monologue’. What was the script like before then?

“Well, what happened was I’d seen a painting of Ruby Murray in Belfast, I couldn’t afford it at the time, and then couldn’t find it again as the gallery closed down. I then, fortuitously through social media I got speaking to the woman who painted it. I got really interested in Ruby and her story. This was around the time I was just writing as therapy. I knew the songs but I had no idea what her story was.

Ruby Promo Pic

“So I get looking online and at her website and through that I made contact with her first husband Bernie Burgess and her son, Tim Murray, who were both at the opening night at the Lyric which was fantastic. They were sharing information to me, at this point I got to thinking about a story of some sort and then a script; a multi character script telling the story of all the individuals involved. At that point I was introduced to Sam by a third party and he very kindly looked at it and came back to me and said, ‘Look, it’s a great story, there’s so much in it, but rewrite it as a monologue’. I then went to see both Sam and his wife, Joan McCready’s own one actor shows {Robert Harbinson’s No Surrender and Helen Lewis’s A Time To Speak} and once I saw those two consummate performers give versions of a story using one person and no props, I really fell for the intimacy of it and thought, ‘Now I know what he means’. This is an intimate story of Ruby Murray telling it in her own words, it doesn’t need the multi character approach. The seeds were sown.

“Every time I would write a draft, Sam would look at it. He never rewrote anything, he just encouraged me and drew the story out of me. He made some salient points and advice on cuts or edits or add-ins and I would just get on with it for a while and that became the development of what we have today.”

As a writer do you just hand the script over to the director (Richard Orr directs the Ruby that’s currently on tour) or what sort of collaboration do you have with Richard, or the set designer, costume etc?

“My own ethos is that I very much like collaboration. I got used to that with Sam but I was always like that, I always preferred being able to bounce ideas off others. Like writing a speech to be read out in parliament, I would ask, ‘Is that bad? Have you any thoughts on this?’.”

I interject, ‘And also nice to have someone else to share the blame if it all goes wrong’. Michael laughs and carries on.

“Well, at the end of the day it’s my name on it, so if it all goes well, it’s very good but if it’s bad, it’s still got my name on it, there’s no escaping it. When Richard came on board, we sat down and spent a couple of sessions, about four hours each time just talking through things and he brought some brought some really magical things to it, particularly in relation to the darker side of Ruby, he and I sat down and said, ‘We’re only going to get one shot at this’, and so there is darkness in it, so let’s really go for it and not paper over it. Then we got to rehearsals and we had Libby (Libby Smyth, actor), we had Colm G Doran, the assistant director, Vicky Mohan, who is our stage manager and my emphasis was that this is a collaboration and everybody made super contributions to it at some point.

“If someone said to me, ‘This might work better if such and such’, I’m not the type who would say, ‘Never change a word, it’s a master piece, which, of course, it’s not and so it was enriched by the input by everyone else to get it the final show.

“I’ve been through situations where I’ve kind of given into people for a quiet life, I’m more determined now in this faze of my life that I’m not going to do that anymore; for example, if someone said to me, ‘I’m only going to do this if you do X, Y and Z’, I’ll just say, ‘I’m not interested, sorry, if that’s the way you want to work? Crack on’. I don’t think I’ve ever gained anything from someone with a closed mind because their ideas, opinions and views are fixed and I’m not interested in people like that and I certainly don’t want to work with them.”

So, while you do have a directness of mind, it’s not a democracy of one?

“Certainly not. If you have a director onboard, they’re there to craft everything to shape. They bring the best out in people. They bring their skills and I respect that, so I’m not going to say to them, ‘I really disagree with you on that because…’, and I respect that. It’s the same with set designer Stewart Marshall or Colm or Vicky, these people know what they’re doing. What I do like is to have a discussion about it and have a voice and I like people to be willing enough to say, ‘Now I think about it…’. For example I spent three years researching, writing and developing Ruby so it’s important to me that those three years deliver something that I’m proud of, not something I’m embarrassed by. I’ve sacrificed a lot to get it where it is. That’s different with collaborating, that’s really being passionate and determined to see the story that you have in your head transferred onto the stage.”

Back to Libby Smyth. Did you have her in mind when you were writing the piece or was there a period of auditions?

Riby sipping whiskey

“No. One of the most remarkable things about this play is I never had to go looking for people. I’ve never had to really try to get it somewhere. People have come along, doors have been opened. There’s almost a spirituality about it. It was Sam McCready who immediately thought of Libby. She came and did four hours midweek and then on the weekend did a reading, even in the reading she really touched people. There was no question from then on that she was going to be Ruby. When you look at the reviews, when you look at her performances, we made the right decision. I just can’t think of anybody else as Ruby.

“One of the most amazing things of this show is that people come along not really knowing what to expect, but when they’re coming out after, you can see the emotion on their faces. I’m sitting at the back of the theatre and you can see people leaning in to hear her and the emotion of it; they’re really gripped by her. I’ve seen it I don’t know how many times now and it still makes me cry and I know what’s coming, that’s a credit to her just unbelievable talent as an actress. I just can’t speak highly enough of her.”

Tell me about your writing process? Some writers write in bursts, some wake up in the middle of the night, some sit down from 9 – 5. What is your approach?

“My life changed with the onset of my illness. I don’t have the ability to make every day as I want it to be. I don’t have the power to say, ‘Tomorrow I’ll do such and such’, because tomorrow I may be very unwell. I have to do it when I can. If I had a preference, I like to have periods where I can do a little research and then write something. I like to go out to my wee writing shed in the evening with a glass of wine and try to get into a bit of a groove. I find that’s the best time of day for me, though it’s not unknown for my wife to wake up during the night to the sound of scribbling going on beside her, so I don’t have a fixed pattern. I would like to but it’s not within my gifts at the moment.”

So you’re a pen and paper man?

“Most of the time it’s pen and paper. It took me a while to stop editing myself when I was writing. I would stop when I thought something was spelt wrong, I’ve got over that, I just keep writing. Pencil and a notepad usually, and then I go back and update it electronically when it’s in the form I want it to be.”

Have there been any script changes since the start of the run?

“No. Any script changes were made during the rehearsal period. With it being a collaboration, we sat down after each rehearsal and we had a bit of an open house, you know, ‘Any thoughts or comments?’. For example, Richard emphasising some of the darker stuff, so we’d maybe add a bit in. By the time it got to the Lyric it’s been the same show since.”

I’ve been reviewing Northern Irish theatre for quite a while now and I think the last four years or so – I run through a list of theatre companies and individuals – I think we’re in a bit of a golden period. Would you agree?

“Absolutely. I think one of the great things about social media is it allows you to keep up with what’s happening and people are posting clips of their plays, you can see a real passion. People are doing things right across the board: there’s experimental stuff, there’s dance stuff, comedy, There seems to be that you don’t have to have a certain type of show, people are just cracking on and getting on with it. I look at any given week and there’s two or three shows that I would like to go and see.

“The only thing that I would like to bring to it, well maybe there is and I’m just not aware of it, is as a new boy to it, well, I’m 53, so I’m not that much of a boy, but I’m certainly new to it, but I do think there’s scope now for Belfast and Northern Irish theatre, is people to have a creative force; a body politic so to speak. I’d love to see some sort of forum where people could come together somewhere and just talk about their experiences and what they’re doing.; the good things and the bad.

“On that point, people in culture will maybe look at politics and say, ‘Look at that’ and they’ll form a very strong op inion on it. Then if you ask them, ‘Within theatre are there no issues, like social issues, are you dealing with mental health issues or bullying or harassment?’. It’s great looking out, but theatre maybe now has a chance to address all these things and make it so there re no outsider, an inclusivity where there’s no elite. There’s a real chance to bring massive theatrical and artistic presence to this place and that’s a brilliant thing I would love to be involved in.

“I think sometimes here the arts needs to provide a stronger voice and do more to fight its corner. It’s not enough to say, ‘We’re the arts, we deserve this’. Well actually, why do you do that? And equally, one of the things that really distresses me is how few politicians are interested in the arts. There’s got to be some way of creating a meeting of the minds. I know how politics works here and the arts really is of very little interest to anybody in politics in terms of fighting for it because there’ s too many other things they think are more important and I think that’s wrong.”

Strong and worthwhile opinions and plans indeed. Hopefully others will share this passion and something comes of it.

And what’s after Ruby? What’s next for you, are you working on another play?

“Obviously Ruby has been four years in development. Some of the time I’ve been sending other stuff off and waiting on feedback. During that time I’ve been having ideas and a few other thoughts. I’ve been working on a play which I’m really interested in. It’s not about a celebrity, it’s about a relationship between two people. The relationship basically runs its course in the space of about 30 days from beginning to end and I think there’s powerful, emotional stuff in that. I’m looking at that, also, if I’m not being too ambitious, I’d love to do a big Christmas show which is a real romance kind of feel good thing and I’ve a few ideas for that. I’m trying to keep busy.”

So, there won’t be another biographical piece?

“I wouldn’t rule that out. One of the interesting things about the play was that people were coming up to me afterwards and suggesting people for me to write about and they’re certainly cracking ideas. It’s just about finding out if there’s a back story underneath the fame of an individual. One of the people that really fascinates me that I’d love to do is Judy Garland, that’s an incredible story. I know there’s been other things about her and I’d have to look at that, but I really love looking at emotion and where that emotion comes from and how other things effect that and the impact on lives.

“I think we need to talk more about our emotions and feeling and if plays can do that, for me that’s fantastic.”

There it is. From the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster, to a life-changing illness, writing as a form of therapy, a chance glance at a picture in a gallery, taking Northern Irish theatre with the story of a half forgotten local international legend to ambitions and hopes of galvanising the minds of both the people in arts and Stormont to more plans and plays in the pipeline. Quite a story. Ruby, I imagine, would be proud!

*As with all interviews, there is always a question you wish you had the presence of mind to ask at the time. What ever did become of the painting that sparked the whole thing off?

When writing this piece up, I fired Michael a quick text. His reply made my night.

“Yes, what happened was that I eventually got to meet Christine Trueman, who is now one of my best friends. She rang me one day and asked me if I could go somewhere and pick the painting up as she was busy. I did that and when I got home I rang her and told her I’d got it and what did she want me to do with it? She said, ‘Hang it on your wall and love it’. Which I did. It’s the first thing people see when they arrive at my house.”

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