Tonight is a big night for playwright Morna Pearson.
When the 27-year-old from Elgin steps up to receive a cheque for £10,000 from artistic director of The National Theatre Nicholas Hytner on London’s South Bank, the receipt of such a sum will not only allow her more time to write.
It will confirm the arrival of one of the freshest and most vibrant voices to come out of this country for years.
As The Herald can exclusively reveal today, Pearson will be announced tonight as the winner of this year’s prestigious Meyer-Whitworth award for new writing for her debut professional play, Distracted.
Pearson’s remarkable caravan park set piece of grotesquery involving two young boys wowed audiences when it played as part of The Traverse Theatre’s Cubed season in 2006.
With commissions already ongoing for The Traverse, Paines Plough and BBC Radio Scotland, further doors look set to be opened for Pearson.
She’s already followed up Distracted this year with the equally strange Elf Analysis as part of A Play, A Pie And A Pint’s lunchtime programme.
It’s unlikely, though, that glitzy awards ceremonies will turn Pearson’s head from the very singular world her work occupies.
It was quite a shock for Pearson to find out that Distracted had even been shortlisted for the award, which, since 1991, has become a major barometer of new writing talent.
Open to writers who have had no more than two plays professionally produced and funded by the Royal National Theatre Foundation, previous years have seen the likes of Terry Johnson, Philip Ridley and Conor McPherson scoop the prize.
Pearson isn’t, though, the first winner from Scotland.
Previously three plays which premiered at The Traverse have been acclaimed.
In 1998 David Harrower’s second play, Kill The Old Torture The Young, won.
In 2001 victory was shared between Henry Adam’s debut, Among Unbroken Hearts, and Gagarin Way, which marked the arrival of Black Watch writer Gregory Burke.
Pearson, then, is in pretty good company.
“I didn’t even know The Traverse had entered it”, she confesses.
“I’d seen it advertised, but then the deadline passed and I thought, oh well, maybe no-one thinks its good enough to put it in for it.”
As anyone who saw Distracted will know, it was more than good enough.
Of the play’s roots, Pearson admits she isn’t sure where the idea came from.
“It started with a granny,” she says, “and then aspects of the wee boy came from my brother who used to be really into dinosaurs.
Oh, and we lived in a caravan park when I was younger.
I think I was only about three or four, but there’s all these vivid images of that time that must have had a big impact on me.
Also, my dad used to work with geriatrics in a hospital, and I used to go there and have all these slightly off the wall old ladies coming up to me and telling me things I didn’t understand.”
For all its raw vernacular observations, Distracted is far kookier than any piece of auto-biography Pearson’s comments may suggest.
In tone it more resembles DBC Pierre’s novel, Vernon God Little, which looked at an even more fantastical white trash world.
Sat in The Traverse bar on a break from her job as a library assistant at Edinburgh University, Pearson is one of the most unassuming writers you’re likely to stumble across.
Get her talking, however, and beyond her initial shyness lies a fierce off-kilter imagination which, more than any other writer of her generation, isn’t scared to take a leap away from boring old naturalism and into a magical realist world of her own design.
Pearson was attracted to drama from an early age, and knew from the age of 17 that she wanted to write.
Opportunities, she points out, were limited in the North East of Scotland, and “I never really identified with anything I studied, so I suppose I just wanted to use my imagination to create my own world.”
Moving to Edinburgh, Pearson specialised in playwriting on Queen Margaret University’s drama course.
“In my first two years at uni”, she recalls, “I wrote all these short twenty minute plays that weren’t particularly good. I was trying to write sort of straight, normal plays, just trying to find my voice, I suppose, and not write like anyone else.”
Following graduation, Pearson joined the Traverse Young Writers Group after realising that she “needed some sort of system above me to make sure I kept on writing.
I was also a bit shy of sending stuff out, and wanted to see what The Traverse was like before I showed them anything I’d written at uni, which were plays about kids with disgusting examples of the adults in their lives.”
It was at The Traverse where Pearson’s special voice began to flourish. Her earliest play, Untogether, about a boy and a girl with “mad families” received a performed reading as part of the Royal Court Young Writers festival, and was produced in Sydney by the Australian Young Peoples Theatre.
Significantly, rather than naming any playwrights as influences, Pearson mentions comedy subversives such as Chris Morris and Steve Coogan.
“Pretty crazy stuff”, says the woman whose last play was about an office worker avoiding her sex-obsessed colleagues by seeking advice from an elf living in the stationary cupboard.
Any perceived oddness in Pearson’s work, though “hopefully isn’t just for the sake of it, but is more about being entertaining. Elf Analysis was done really quickly, and we didn’t really have time to go into some of the more serious things. It was”, she laughs, “just a bit wild.”
Pearson’s eyes light up when she gets into her stride about her work, so you can almost see her physically blossoming.
If she wins any more awards, such confidence might well become permanent.
Because the Meyer-Whitworth isn’t the first award Pearson has picked up.
In 2006, as well as penning internet only drama JCN 16 for Raindog Productions,
she won the inaugural Rod Hall Memorial Prize, founded in honour of the late literary agent.
The Meyer-Whitworth award, though, is a major breakthrough for Pearson.
This year the award was administered for the first time by Playwrights Studio Scotland after Arts Council England withdrew its support.
As well as Playwrights Studio Scotland director, Julie Ellen, judges included The Herald’s own dance and performance critic, Mary Brennan.
Any accusations of local bias, though, are unfounded.
It was the award’s third judge, Stuart Mullins, director of children’s theatre company Theatre Is, after all, who was initially bowled over by the power of Pearson’s Doric accented tour de force to leap off the page.
So impressed was he by Distracted that he’s already been in touch with her with a view to future work.
With Pearson currently juggling her time between her three commissions, the library and a part-time book-keeping job, he may have to wait some time.
In the mean-time, Pearson’s confidence is growing by the day.
“I can take risks with my writing that personally I wouldn’t have the confidence to do”, she admits.
“Not that I’m interested in getting my views across. I’m more interested in entertaining.
I’ve got a feeling there’s nothing else I can do.”
She pauses a moment, and looks worried.
“I’m still emerging, I think, amn’t I?” she asks nervously, unaware how much she’s already arrived. “I don’t think I’m quite there yet.”
The Herald, October 30th 2007