Interview with Jenny Davis

Writer Jenny Davis is founder of Missing Pieces, which produces staged and rehearsed readings of classic black plays and new writing at Bristol Old Vic. From launching in a pub, funded with her own money in front an audience of 30 people, the now Arts Council funded programme attracts audiences of over 100 people to see the work of writing talent such as Winsome Pinnock,  Kwame Kwei Armah, David Addai and Dipo Agboluaje. A longstanding scriptwriter for BBC1’s ‘Doctors’, and an award-winning short film screenwriter, Davis explains why she is excited about Missing Pieces’ one week's residency at Bristol Old Vic in September, highlighting the ‘best of’ from previous seasons, inspired by Bristol’s creative landscape and intends to challenge the view that there are enough ‘black events’.

What is Missing Pieces?

Missing pieces is a series of script in hand or rehearsed readings of Black Caribbean and Black British plays, both classic and new writing. We put on a season of six readings, covering a whole diversity of work. It is about bringing out what is already in the canon of black theatre, which reaches back to writers from the 1950s to contemporary new writing. Missing Pieces shows people that the canon is already out there. And we bring the writing to mainstream and black audiences so that they can see this part of our rich legacy.

Why did you feel compelled to create the programme?

It happened by default. I have always been a writer and I’ve always been around stories. I was aware of a lot of writers when I studied Post-Colonial Black Writing at Warwick University years ago. Then I started script reading for the Alfred Fagon Award for a few years and saw a new generation of black writers coming up, such as Michaela Coel who won the award with Chewing Gum Dreams – a 40 minute monologue – when I started. It was exciting that Theresa Ikoko’s Girls went on to Soho Theatre. All these amazing plays got picked up, but there were also fantastic plays that didn’t make the shortlist. I thought, it would be awful if some of these plays just went back into a drawer and didn’t see the light of day. It is about knowing there are writers out there like Winsome Pinnock who is having another resurgence. I did a radio interview and the presenter said, as we are seeing a lot more black events, is there still going to be a need for Missing Pieces? You would never ask that about Shakespeare or of Tom Stoppard. There is a plethora of writing out there that is mainstream and white, but no one questions that choice of work that we can see several times over.

You are a playwright and scriptwriter and started your career in London. What made you take up writing as a full time career and move to Bristol?

I have always written stories, since childhood, but I never thought of myself as a professional writer. I trained as a social worker and didn’t write for quite a while. It was only when I decided to go to university as a mature student to study again that the love of writing came back to me. At university there was a group of black students on the film and drama course who were fed up with not seeing any plays or work that reflected them in the curriculum. So, I offered to write something that they could perform, which was a play that they put on at university. It was called Sisters of Grace with an all-female cast. It went well. Then I did a Spread the Word course for black women playwrights, run by Winsome Pinnock at Oval House, that led to a few other writing opportunities. I was still working as a social worker while writing. Once your play is out there, and you have a professional production under your belt, other commissions begin to trickle in. But, in my case, there was nothing big enough to enable me to write full time.

I moved to Bristol in 2003, after living in Reading and London. It still feels like a new city, one that is very creative, vibrant and manageable with more opportunities. My play toured in Bristol, so I had more currency as people had seen my work. I did a short site specific play called Wedding Chorus produced by Show of Strength as part of their Trade It season, which featured other writers such as Sandi Toskvig and Catherine Johnson of Mamma Mia fame. It was a great project as they engaged with Bristol’s past and brought the audience into these stories. My piece was based on sex tourism and a trip I’d made to Gambia, and the relationships I saw. I then developed a film script for the former Film Council Competitive Screen competition called Finding Hermione. It was a joint winner. And I produced a short play with Bristol Old Vic called Remembrance. It was a case of being a writer in the right place. Writing and producing are the two things I now do. I was in the BBC Writersroom and one of my scripts was picked up by a script editor on the BBC show Doctors. I’ve now written for the show for five years and I’d like to develop more projects for TV and film.

What is your favourite episode of Doctors that you have written?

There’s one episode called Lost Boy about an older man who is a retired writer/poet who thinks that he is being hassled by a young boy who keeps coming into his flat and leaving things burning and haunting him. It turns out it is a figment of his imagination and may be the result of early onset Alzheimer’s. It was a poignant story to write as my mum was ill at the time. I think there was a bit more soul in that story as it was based on someone I knew, and I got to show the sadness of his situation. And that he needed and got help. I received a letter from the actor who played the role thanking me, saying how much it had moved him to play the part.

What’s next for Missing Pieces?

What’s next is our week-long residency at Bristol Old Vic Western Studio in September. We will be featuring Crowning Glory by Somalia Seaton, so it’s head down to make that happen. Beyond that I am focused on expanding the script in hand programme to two other regional venues.

You can find out more about Missing Pieces here.

About Jenny Davis

Jenny Davis is a producer and writer, who writes for the BBC1 day time medical drama ‘Doctors’. Davis is founder/producer for Missing Pieces at Bristol Old Vic Weston Studio, and as a writer, she is currently developing a stage play about Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. Davis’ other theatre credits include, ‘The Front Room’ (Oval House), ‘Wedding Chorus’ (Show Of Strength), ‘Fifteen Minutes of Wonder’ ( Bristol Old Vic) and ‘Looking For Mr Darcy’ (Bath Ustinov). Her film credits are ‘Out Of Nowhere’ (BOVTS) and the award-winning ‘Little White Lies’ (123 media). Davis used to work in the public sector, with adopters, foster carers, parents and children, all at divergent points of the care system. Davis lives in Bristol.