Interview: Stephanie Silver, Monologues of a Tired Nurse

Who better to write a play about what it’s like to work for the NHS than someone who does it every day? Stephanie Silver was inspired by her own professional experiences to write Monologues of a Tired Nurse, which has its final run this week at the Lion and Unicorn as part of the Camden Fringe.

“I’m a nurse and have been for the last eight years,” says Stephanie. “I was working on a cardiothoracic intensive care for a while; it can be a tough environment. I was going through some personal problems and having some episodes of feeling very down about my job. I sat down and wrote some monologues to get some feelings off my chest and Tired Nurse kind of happened.

“It’s a brutally honest account of how it feels to work within the NHS in a understaffed, underpaid and emotionally draining time. The stories are fictionalised, but based on real life encounters of how it feels to be a nurse or any another healthcare professional working in today’s health service on an emotional and personal level.”

The show’s been in development since 2015, since Stephanie performed it at one of the first ever Actor Awareness scratch nights. “It’s changed a lot since then,” she says. “Even after performing it at Edinburgh 2016, we changed it up for the London run at Baron’s Court in 2017. I want it to be as visceral and engaging as possible to really grab the audience’s attention, and the director Simon Nader has always been fantastic in bringing the vision of the piece alive.

“Nurses definitely relate to the play. Anyone who works in the public services in any capacity, whether they are a teacher, policeman, fireman or army officer, can relate to the level of pain and stress in the play and the feelings of never being good enough, especially in the current climate with all the cuts and pressures to work faster and be more efficient but with twice the work load. An army veteran told us in Edinburgh it was some of the most honest accounts of working on the frontline he had seen – that meant a lot.

“I’d like people to see the human, the person behind the professional. I’m sure most people do but the papers and government spin so much crap that it is infuriating. Health care professionals aren’t cogs or robots, they’re people trying their best. And if you want a great health service providing the best care then please look at who you vote for and how you treat the people you meet at point of service. Make a conscious effort to invest in our healthcare in more ways than just saying, ‘I pay my taxes, so I am owed this’.”

After doing some acting as a child, Stephanie trained as a nurse before returning to theatre as an adult. “When I was ten I was in Goodnight Mister Tom, a TV film, and then at 18 I did a summer course at The Poor School, but after that thought I couldn’t afford drama school so I should do a sensible job, and kinda just stayed until I turned 28! Then I thought fuck it, time to probably do some acting before it’s too late. I also had a brain haemorrhage, which soon makes you realise that if you keep leaving things you might be dead before you actually get to do them!

“Juggling the two jobs is doable. Must actors have many jobs, it can feel like two very different worlds! Mainly it’s hard work, long hours and no sleep. I hardly see my friends but I’ve been trying to work on balance. I don’t waste time, I write everyday, and I do one thing everyday for my acting, whether it’s write an email or read a bit of a play or watch something to inspire me. I also do emails on the tube, on the toilet – anywhere really. You can sleep when you’re dead, right?! My mum always says that!”

As well as writing and performing in Tired Nurse, Stephanie’s also set up Glass Half Full Theatre, a company dedicated to creating daring, provocative work. “I really love writing and find it rather depressing waiting around as an actor so decided to produce my own writing,” she explains. “I’m not very well connected as I come from a zero theatrical background, so I got involved with Actor Awareness and met a lot of like-minded people looking to create work. At one of their first scratch nights, I performed Tired Nurse. I asked a mate along and then we decided due to the amazing response to take it to Edinburgh. That was financially not a great idea but it was one of the best experiences.

“I also got heavily involved with Actor Awareness and realised that there a lot of actors just not working – a lot – and what a brilliant thing if I can produce work. So I created Glass Half Full, dedicated to creating thought-provoking contemporary plays with a strong social, political, ethical, domestic backbone; plays with messages aimed at a young demographic, about the world we live in today and the kinds of world we could live in. So hopefully we are making thought-provoking challenging plays. Fingers crossed!”

Glass Half Full have lots of exciting plans for the year ahead: “This is our last run of Tired Nurse as we’ve been doing it for the last year. The immediate aim is to look to produce our show Walk of Shame for EdFringe 2018. I also produce new writing nights every so often. Hoping to do one of those in September so keep an eye out on Twitter, the event is called A Series of Short Plays – we did the first event in May, and it was a great night so we aim to be back with that but with a twist!

“We also have a play called Our Big Love Story, a story of racism after the July 2005 bombings which we are getting on its feet for production in 2018. That’s enough to get on with for now…”

Catch the final run of Monologues of a Tired Nurse at the Lion and Unicorn from 16th-19th August.

Interview: Nina Brazier and Hanna Grzeskiewicz, The Winter’s Tale

This Friday, RADA Studios Theatre will play host to a unique interpretation of The Winter’s Tale from award-winning contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. The hour-long piece combines live music with Shakespeare’s drama, focusing on the jealousy and fury of King Leontes when he believes his pregnant wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend and is carrying his baby.

“It’s the original Shakespeare play, pared down to an hour of its core elements and portrayed through a musical as well as a theatrical perspective,” explains director Nina Brazier, who adapted the original text for the production. “The Hermes Experiment are a group dedicated to pushing the boundaries of their craft, and it is their first project involving theatre.

“Alongside The Hermes Experiment, composer Kim Ashton and myself have led the devising process with five extraordinary actors: Christopher Adams, William McGeough, Sadie Parsons, Robert Willoughby and Louisa Hollway. The music plays an equal part as the text in bringing the drama to life, with the actors, the music and the musicians become intrinsically intertwined.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The Hermes Experiment are Héloïse Werner (soprano and co-director), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Marianne Schofield (double bass), Anne Denholm (harp) and Hanna Grzeskiewicz (producer and co-director) who explains, “We’re a contemporary ensemble made up of harp, clarinet, soprano and double bass. We are mainly a musical ensemble, but we are very interested in working with different art forms – we have worked with a photographer, dancers, and now also actors. Aside from work with other art forms we commission new music for our group, and have commissioned now 40 composers to write for us, arrange better known works, and improvise. We started in late 2013, soon after we all graduated from Cambridge University, which is where we all met – and we all wanted to do something unique and innovative musically.

“We’d been planning to do a project that fuses music and drama for a while – we were interested in what would happen if we brought all these creative minds together, and we hoped that the practice of the actors and the musicians would be enhanced by working with the other – and luckily we think it did! We had a few ideas, but eventually settled on Shakespeare: people know the plots so we could play around with it, the musicality of his language lends itself to working with music, and who doesn’t love Shakespeare!”

The show was developed during a residency at Aldeburgh Music in September 2016. “The devising process gave us permission to think in a completely new way about how we approached the text, and allowed us to explore Shakespeare from a musical as well as theatrical perspective,” says Nina. “During the process we used movement and gesture as much as text and music, feeling that we were creating a theatrical language that extended beyond the written and spoken word. As composer Kim Ashton said in his blog, we began ‘layering text, music and movement together in a variety of ways, such that each strand is dominant or subordinate at different moments, sharing equally in the unfolding of the narrative’.

“This heightened theatricality is fully integrated with the music, not only extending the emotions of the character but communicating the symbolic content of The Winter’s Tale.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The piece was first performed in a one night showcase at the Cockpit Theatre in December, where it was well received by critics. “It’s a completely new and original way of seeing Shakespeare,” says Nina. “Following our performance at the Cockpit, The Winter’s Tale was described as ‘groundbreaking’ (The Reviews Hub), ‘resourceful and inventive’ (The CUSP) and ‘skilfully crafted’ (London Theatre 1). The performance ‘gripped the capacity audience from beginning to end’ (Early Music Reviews) and was seen as ‘an exciting trend to start’ (Schmopera) with ‘tautly-directed action’ (The Evening Standard).”

The show is far from the only project for The Hermes Experiment, who have a busy year coming up. Hanna explains, “After The Winter’s Tale, we have about a month off and then we are performing as part of Colourscape Festival, we are doing a recital as part of the Park Lane Group concert series, and in November we are going to Russia to perform at a contemporary music festival in St Petersburg. We will be revealing even more projects we have coming up in the coming weeks so keep checking our website and social media for updates!”

Catch The Winter’s Tale at RADA Studios Theatre on Friday 11th August. And you can follow The Hermes Experiment on Twitter and Facebook for news and updates.

Interview: Anthony Orme, Sanctuary

2040. The war is over, and the world is resolved… so why can’t Kari remember anything? What is S.A.M. and how can she escape Sanctuary?

So begins Anthony Orme’s feminist sci-fi thriller, Sanctuary. “In the aftermath of the war, Kari Allwood wakes in a cell with no recollection of how or why she got there,” explains Anthony. “We see as she struggles to survive her life as a woman in the army and to comprehend the mistakes that she has made and conquer her own mental instability. Tackling the subjects of women at war, PTSD, and the essence of human self-preservation, Sanctuary creates an exciting and thrilling whirlwind of a show that will leave you questioning your own view on life as we currently understand it.”

Anthony was inspired to write Sanctuary by two main factors: “The first was my own history and exploration of mental health and its effect on my own life, and secondly the lack of representation of women in war and theatre,” he says. “Having struggled with mental health issues all my adult life but never really having a way to present parts of it, I wanted to create a piece that discussed this as well as being entertaining and enthralling – which is where the idea of Sanctuary was born. From there I started to look closely at PTSD and the women who suffer from it and how little we hear about them, much like strong females in the arts. All three combined became the perfect inspiration for a play.

“I’ve always been a massive fan of sci-fi. I think when done correctly, it enables viewers to see and acknowledge problems in their own society without even realising. The entertainment and escapism of future and the unknown wraps the audience in a blanket of theatre and art which allows them to soak in the political and social undertones of a piece. With a piece like Sanctuary there is no other genre it could have been. Plus it’s also very rare to find a strong piece of sci-fi on stage and so I was very up for taking on the challenge.”

As writer and director, Anthony is full of praise for actors Elizabeth Robin and Catalina Blackman. “They are two of the most hardworking and dedicated cast I have had the pleasure to work with. Sanctuary is not an easy play – it’s intense, real and a challenge for any actor, yet these two incredible women have been stoic throughout. Both characters are equally challenging – one is never on the stage and so has to express empathy, fear and desire using only her voice, while the other never leaves and has to hold the show and bare a lifetime’s worth of emotions alone and exposed. They truly are artists of their craft.

“It’s fair to say that we have had our fair share of personal trauma throughout the rehearsal process, which leaves me in even more awe of the incredible performances they have delivered.”

With themes of feminism, LGBT, mental health and war, Anthony believes every audience member can take something from the play. “Maybe I’m biased, but I feel that Sanctuary speaks to people from all ages and creeds,” he says. “I might add that due to very adult themes and language it may be best to restrict the viewing to audiences above the age of 16… but we all learn sometime.”

In addition to winning Best Play at the Stockwell Play House One Act Festival, Sanctuary is also Bechdel approved. “The Bechdel Test and Bechdel Theatre are in my opinion one of the most important companies in the arts at the moment,” says Anthony. “Their aim is to bring awareness to pieces of theatre that have strong feminist bases. The test is simple:
1. Are there two women on stage?
2. Are they talking to each other?
3. Does that conversation involve anything except men and relationships?
Congrats – you have been approved.

“Why it is so important to me? In short, there is too little theatre around with strong female characters, and too much that thinks their characters adequately represent real women. It has always been a strong passion of mine to create parts for women and to prove that feminism and equality aren’t fads… they are here to stay. Having Sanctuary Bechdel approved not only proves that we have been able to, but also helps to raise awareness of this glaring issue and highlights to fellow feminists the theatre they should be seeing.”

London and Merseyside-based Now You Know Productions was founded four years ago. “We started as most small companies do, with a few friends, in a bar, wanting to take a piece of theatre to the Edinburgh Fringe, and we did,” says Anthony. “We took I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change up and haven’t looked back since.

“Since our first outing, Now You Know has grown and developed into the company it is now, a company who creates new and exciting theatre that constantly tries to break the mould and highlight the real issues at hand. We are always looking for the next best play and team and constantly growing. Commercial theatre to some extent has forgotten what theatre is for, which is to enlighten, to teach and to empower… we have not forgotten this message.”

Sanctuary opens at the Tristan Bates on 14th August. “I think people should come and see the play because it’s exciting, different and the themes are important,” says Anthony. “It’s not just another millennial piece of theatre where boy meets girl – it has a message and a purpose, one which I think matters. That’s why we decided to go to the Tristan Bates, a space that prides itself on fringe theatre at the front of change.

“Also having won best play, as well as highly commended directing and acting at the Stockwell Playhouse One Act Festival, people don’t need to just take my word for it.”

Book now for Sanctuary at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 14th-19th August.

Interview: Julian Bruton, HOT MESS

HOT MESS is a coming-of-age story about love, sex, connection and relationships,” says Julian Bruton, co-director of Vernal Theatre Company. “The play is about twins, Polo and Twitch, who have returned to their hometown to celebrate their 25th birthday. Inherently one twin can love, the other cannot. The story unfolds on their big night out, as the twins and their friends come to terms with their dichotomy.”

The play was written by Ella Hickson, whose other work includes Oil and Eight, and was first performed in 2010 at the Hawke & Hunter Below Stairs Nightclub as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. “I think what makes Ella Hickson’s work special is how it explores and challenges themes and subject matters that are relevant to audiences today. Her latest play, Oil at the Almeida, is a brilliant example of that,” says Julian.

“I was attracted to HOT MESS by its unique form. When it comes to plays, I admire plays that are unique, adventurous and different in their form. Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court is a good recent example. An integral part of the form of HOT MESS was its direct storytelling to the audience; the lack of fourth wall. I was also drawn to this play because of its focus on younger characters and their experiences pertinent to them. I feel there are not a lot of plays that solely explore characters of that age range.”

In light of this, Julian thinks the play will particularly appeal to twenty-somethings and teenagers, but he hopes it’s also got something for other audience demographics: “I think people should come and see the show because it’s entertaining and funny, with a good dose of pathos and a thumping soundtrack. Another reason to see the show is because it’s very relatable. It’s a play about love. In an age of social media and phone apps such as Tinder and Grindr, exploring the challenges of finding love and connection couldn’t be more relevant. I’d like audiences to have an entertaining experience and as part of that, to delve and ponder the play’s explorations of love, sex and coming-of-age.”

HOT MESS opens at the Lion and Unicorn on 22nd August as part of the Camden Fringe. “I’m looking forward to being part of the buzzy atmosphere of Camden and its equally exciting festival!” says Julian.

He’s just as excited about the play’s cast: “They’re a group of actors who are really active and in the thick of it. Timothy Renouf has recently finished filming the upcoming feature film, Game Over, with Mark Heap. Gareth Balai has only just finished appearing in The Taming of the Shrew at The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre with Lazarus Theatre Company. Katrina Allen recently performed in a new play, Baby Come Back, at the Leicester Square Theatre, and Natalia Titcomb graduated from the Guildford School of Acting this year.”

Vernal Theatre Company was founded earlier this year by Julian and co-director/producer Kieran Rogers. “The company started when Kieran and I met at the Director’s Club, as part of the Director’s Cut Theatre Company,” says Julian. “We also met and worked with Katrina and Timothy as they were members of the Actor’s Club with Director’s Cut.

“As a company, we have an aim of producing new writing in the future. We aim to produce theatre that is current, exciting, bold, entertaining and provocative.”

Book now for HOT MESS at the Lion and Unicorn from 22nd-26th August.

Interview: Claire Rammelkamp and Danica Corns, A Womb of One’s Own

The founding members of emerging all-female theatre company Wonderbox – who include Danica Corns, Carla Garratt, Claire Rammelkamp, Holly Bond, Larissa Pinkham and Olivia Early – met as members of the National Youth Theatre. “We got so comfortable with each other that we started oversharing about sex, periods, emotions, mental health, politics, relationships, wanking… the list goes on,” admits Claire. “So we decided to carry on doing that as a theatre company, and turn it into art. We want to explode taboos and share unheard stories with some filthy, fabulous feminism.”

They’re turning their attention first to the issue of abortion in their debut production A Womb of One’s Own, which runs at The Space from 15th-19th August.  “The play follows the story of Babygirl, an eighteen-year-old fresher who was raised Catholic by two strict elderly women and ends up getting pregnant the first time she has sex,” says Claire, who wrote and performs in the play, as she and fellow cast members Danica, Larissa and Carla bring Babygirl to life, revealing different aspects of her personality and an absurd cast of characters. “It starts off as a coming of age comedy; she’s learning how to flirt and get drunk, she’s exploring her sexuality, she’s trying not to embarrass herself on a date. Then all of a sudden she’s facing much bigger challenges.”

A Womb of One’s Own was inspired by Claire’s own personal experience: “I had an abortion at university, and I had no idea how to handle it because no one had ever spoken to me about abortions. Fortunately, I have a very supportive Mum and friends. Babygirl doesn’t have a mother, and she’s only been at uni a few weeks, so the play explores what it would be like to go through an abortion feeling totally alone.”

One of Wonderbox’s aims is to break the taboos surrounding abortion and get people talking about what’s traditionally been a difficult subject. “We’re still oddly hung up on old-fashioned notions of propriety when it comes to discussing abortion,” says Claire. “It used to be the same for divorce and homosexuality. Even periods. One in three women in the UK will have an abortion at some point, and yet people are largely silent about it. If we all spoke about it more then women wouldn’t feel scared or ashamed. We’ve still got a lot of education work to do to give women control over their own bodies and we need to make sure we don’t go backwards – like with Trump’s abortion gag order.”

Despite the heavy topic, Claire and her co-founders are quick to point out that the show is at times irreverent and laugh-out-loud funny: “I’m a firm believer in laughing at essentially everything, especially myself. We didn’t want to be didactic – an audience will pay much more attention to a comedy full of sex jokes than a lecture. It also helps to humanise a character; once the audience have shared a joke with Babygirl they’ll have more empathy when she starts having a hard time.”

And it seems to be working; they’ve been thrilled with early responses to the show, which include an endorsement in February from actor Paul McGann. “Our first performance was to a bunch of queer, feminist, theatre-lovers, so we were really preaching to the choir,” says Claire. “But then our second audience had middle-aged people, older people, Tories, and a vicar. The vicar was especially fond of it.”

Of course, starting a theatre company isn’t always easy, and co-founder Danica has no hesitation in identifying their biggest challenge: “Money! We’re a young, unfunded theatre company so this is of course the first and biggest obstacle we are having to overcome – but we are getting creative with how we do this. Finding rehearsal space free of charge has been and remains one of the biggest challenges we face, and so far we have been getting round this by using gardens, living rooms and empty classrooms at our universities/previous places of study. We even once did a voice warm-up on Clapham Common. Social media has also been a great alternative to a website for us in the first instance to help build our online presence while funding is scarce.

“Around 90% of the work we put into the company and the show is not in the rehearsal room,” she adds. “We’ve all had to turn our hands to other things and use our skills and knowledge effectively and efficiently. We’re lucky enough to have a photographer, a designer, a marketer and members with lighting technician knowledge within our company, so we haven’t had to hire anyone in yet – which would come with a cost. However, while we’re all working hard on this to get things off the ground, we have found it difficult balancing being creative and making the art with the admin and running the business side of the company – it’s a bit of a juggling act at the moment, and we’re still figuring this out. One of the things we are finding so important is timetabling separate rehearsals for creativity and meetings about important business stuff.”

Claire’s hoping that the show will speak to everyone, whether or not they have personal experience with abortion: “I hope if they’ve had an abortion, they’ll feel a sense of community, and that anyone who needs an abortion in future won’t feel so alone. I hope it encourages people to share their own experiences, and I hope it will make other people more understanding. I also hope everyone will wet themselves laughing.”

A Womb of One’s Own is at The Space from 15th-19th August.