As writers, there comes a time when we must admit the truth: we are all, at the heart of it, liars. After all, what is a good story if not a good lie?
So when I heard that a group called Liars’ League is returning to Leeds after a brief hiatus, promising to champion ‘really good’ writers by providing actors and a rapt audience for their work, I interviewed co-founder Richard Smyth to find out more.
Named in The Guardian’s top 10 UK live literature nights last year, Liars’ League was launched in 2007 in London by a group of actors and writers who wanted to bridge the gap between writing and performance. Over the last 8 years, the group has performed at a number of events, including Beacons Festival, the Sedbergh Booktown Lit Festival and special events for the Society of Authors, and this year they will be doing gigs in Darlington, Bedale and at Leeds Big Bookend.
An impressive CV, then – but what is Liars’ League?
‘The premise,’ Richard begins, ‘is pretty simple: writers write, actors read, audience listens, everybody wins.’ At bi-monthly shows (monthly in London), audiences can expect performances of 5 or 6 stories (the winning submissions are chosen by the crew behind Liars’ League) plus an interval and a quiz, with the whole event captured on film for the Liars’ League YouTube channel. ‘It’s a really exciting process for both the writer and the performer,’ Richard enthuses, ‘and it translates into a great experience for the audience.’
I wonder about the similarities between this group and existing platforms such as the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Playground (which targets works-in-progress) or Script Yorkshire (which encourages and promotes new writing). Is Liars’ League based upon a similar concept?
‘There are lots of groups and programmes that do a fantastic job of nurturing and encouraging new writers,’ Richard replies. ‘Writing is tough! Everyone can use a bit of support, and helping to provide that support is a fantastic thing.’
‘But personally, I’ve always been a bit of a non-joining writer. Writing groups are an ace thing but they aren’t for everybody and they’ve never really been for me. And I’ve found that the Liars’ League is great for that kind of writer – it’s supportive, and exciting, and buzzing with new talent, but it’s not a writing group and it’s certainly not a workshop. It’s a showcase for your best work.’
And, as our interview continues, this is a point that is emphasised time and again: Liars’ League are only interested in your ‘very best stuff’. Although Richard is keen to stress that ‘we really are as open-to-all as we could possibly be’, he is also adamant that ‘we don’t want to read works-in-progress. When your story gets read at LL, it means that a lot of work is put into it, by you, by our editors, by our actors – with incredibly rewarding results. There’s nothing quite like seeing your work performed. We provide an amazing showcase for the best work our writers can produce.’
Whilst such upfront honesty about wanting to showcase only ‘the best’ is undeniably refreshing (I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t endured some painful open-mic poetry slams in the past), as a writer myself, I can’t help but feel that familiar kick of self-doubt when I think about the level of work that Richard seems to be looking for. I can’t be alone in this: as a breed, writers are prone to attacks of confidence and neuroses, perhaps because we so often work in isolation. But I do wonder what Richard might say to a writer who wants to submit a story but is feeling under-confident about doing so.‘The same thing I’d say to all writers everywhere, at any time: fuck it, just have a go. The thing to remember is that if deep, deep down in your doubt-ridden, neurotic writer heart, you really, honestly think that what you’ve written is great, then we’ll probably think so too.’
He continues: ‘I really hate the idea of anyone feeling too scared or unconfident or intimidated to send us their work. I know how tough it is to write something really good (and that applies whether you’re an established professional author or just making a start on your first-ever story). And every writer knows (or learns very quickly) that rejection is not the same thing as failure. Not writing: that’s failure.’
‘And just in case I’ve made us sound a bit mean, (a) we’re not, we’re honestly really lovely people, and (b) if we think a story is dead good but just not quite right for the event in question, we’ll happily give you constructive feedback. Write us something! We promise to treat it kindly.’Treat it kindly, that is, with one exception: ‘The first rule of Liars’ League Leeds is: no poetry.’
At this, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for poetry – what did it do to deserve such an emphatic rejection? – and I also begin to wonder whether there are other genres that are similarly shunned from the group. I assume that playwriting is welcomed, seeing as Liars’ League is, at its heart, a performance platform?
Apparently not. ‘Short fiction is what we do. It’s all about stories,’ Richard emphasises. ‘We’re very clear on that. Prose all the way. It’s about telling a story, rather than staging a play.’
So no poetry; no plays; no works-in-progress. We have now firmly established that Liars’ League is looking for good short prose, and good short prose alone.
This is, however, far from restrictive when it comes to creativity, as is clear from the impressive range of past submissions, including: a couple squatting in John Lewis at Christmas; fathers poisoning their families; a man accidentally ejaculating on the Tube. ‘The stories we choose can be funny, sad, dramatic, action-packed, silly, foul-mouthed – it doesn’t matter. As long as they knock our socks off.’
‘Socks’. Now that would be an interesting theme for next month…
Join Liars’ League Leeds for their comeback show on Thursday 19th March at Crowd Of Favours pub in Leeds. Doors open at 7pm for a 7.30pm start.
The theme for this month’s Liars’ League is ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’. Email entries between 800-2000 words to [email protected] by midnight on Friday 6th March.