THERE’S sometimes a defining moment in life, one which prompts a decision that changes the course of what you do.
For Lee Mattinson it came at Live Theatre in Newcastle while watching a production of Tom Hadaway’s play The Filleting Machine.
In that Eureka moment he knew what it was he wanted to do – write theatre.
Growing up in Workington in Cumbria, Lee, who now lives in Gateshead, had seen only an occasional musical or amateur dramatic show. Nor, he admits, did he read very much.
So, watching Hadaway’s gripping drama unfold on stage, he recalls: “I’d never seen theatre about real people, who argue, who I could relate to. I never knew it could be like that.”
Speaking at Live where he now works and where his latest play, The Chalet Lines, can be seen tonight, it’s clear Lee – now 31, with successful short plays including Me And Cilla and Swansong to his name – never looked back from that defining moment.
Yet he had seemed destined for a rather different path when he first moved to the North East to study for a fine art degree.
He liked it here so much that he stayed on. Then he took a writing course at Gateshead College – “I’d never written before, but I fell in love with it” –- and followed up with an MA in novel writing in Manchester.
Back in the North East, he took a job in a cafe next to Live Theatre, then worked in the theatre itself, including in the bar where he started watching plays on a regular basis.
“I got a chance to watch shows and saw a lot of brilliant theatre,” he tells me. “I might see a show 30 or 40 times and I saw what works and what doesn’t with the audience.”
Until his decision to become a playwright, he’d only ever written prose and had never tackled dialogue before.
But he’d found his niche. Taking a play-writing course at Live, he became involved in its new theatre projects and one of his short play ideas won a BBC competition.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “That became Me and Cilla.” The play, involving a pre-op transsexual and a Cilla Black tribute act, has also been adapted for BBC Radio 3.
Lee’s knack of writing about people in society who are not usually given a say, often mixing the extraordinary and the ordinary along the way, clearly strikes a chord with audiences.
“I write about people who haven’t got a voice, people you haven’t seen in theatre, people who are struggling on their own and I give them a voice,” says Lee. “I discovered that was more interesting to me.”
And words satisfied his creative streak in a way art did not. He says: “At art college you always tell a story in pictures and people say that a picture tells a thousand words, but for me it never did. However, I finally found a language I could express myself in.”
Now working full-time at the theatre as a box office administrator, Lee writes in whatever spare time he has.
Never troubled with writer’s block, he jots down in a notebook a funny line he thinks of or perhaps a comment overheard on a bus.
He adds: “There’s something of me in everything I write – and I pinch a lot of my best lines from friends!”
Something one of them said about tantric sex, for instance, has made it into The Chalet Lines, which has its reading tonight.
It’s still a work in development and Lee is eager to see what the audience makes of it. He admits it’s always an anxious time as he sits in the back of the auditorium.
“When I get the first laugh I’m more relaxed,” he reveals. “It’s always nice to make someone laugh and if it’s 200 people at the same time, it’s the best feeling.”
The Chalet Lines is a comedy drama set in Butlins centring on the relationships between women in one family who have been holidaying in the same chalet for generations. On this occasion, it’s the 70th birthday of Nana Barbara, who sounds something of a battle-axe so no doubt sparks will fly.
Lee says that when he writes he always starts with the drama then builds in comedy around the “massive heart” he aims to create in his stories. Combining the comedy and drama is, he says, hard work: “There’s no middle ground. The friction that comes from the two joining together makes brilliant theatre.”
He always likes to think outside the box, as in a project involving the National Theatre when, given The Pitmen Painters play as inspiration, he chose to write not about art but about community. Another play, his youth theatre commission Jonathan Likes This, was inspired by Facebook but takes an unusual twist.
In 2011, there’ll be more work of his to look out for at Live and next summer he also hopes to take his play Donna Eats Sh*t – a sad yet celebratory tale of two geeky-sounding misfit pals – up to Edinburgh.
The Chalet Lines is at Live Theatre, Newcastle, tonight. Call 0191 232 1232 .