The Writer is a provocative new play starting in Auckland this week, which channels female rage (amongst other things). Silo Director Sophie Roberts talks about why she picked the play pre-pandemic, why it’s both great and depressing that it’s feminist themes are so relevant, and why the performing arts sector is still reeling from a destructive two years.
When the play The Writer first debuted in London’s West End, the response was immediate, visceral and strongly divided – always a positive sign, when you’re trying to create a stand-out theatre moment. A play that delves into both sexual and gender politics, it also turned the idea of what IS a play on its head as well (think how Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette was at first a stunning stand-up show, and then skewered the whole premise for the second half).
“It’s still a hard sell; ‘feminist’ is still a dirty word in lots of circles.”
Part of the post-Trump& Me-Too reactive moment, The Writer first burst onto the stage in 2018 and for Director and Artistic Director of Silo Theatre Sophie Roberts, she knew from the global reaction that it was a play that would have the same effect on an NZ audience as well. So she got the rights for it – aiming for the 2020 schedule line-up.
One pandemic later, the show is finally premiering at Auckland’s Silo Theatre this week and, unsurprisingly, the gender/sexual politics content angle is just as topical as ever… which is both a blessing and a curse, Sophie explains.
“That is the frustrating and depressing factor – unfortunately, the play is still very relevant,” Sophie says dryly. “When I re-looked at the play for this year, it was exciting to go ‘Great, we’re finally going to get to do this play,’ and also there’s something depressing about the fact that we still need to do this play.”
The [rough] plot line goes as follows: ‘A young writer encounters an older director on an empty stage. She’s furious about his latest play: it’s lazy, sexist, profane. He likes her rage. He flirts with her, condescends her, even offers her a job. But she wants more than he could ever offer. Forget his small stage and his even smaller imagination. She wants awe. She wants blood. She wants to change the shape of the world.’
The rating for the show warns the audience: ‘The Writer contains adult themes and sexual content, including pegging.’ So… there’s a lot going on there.
“The Writer sits well within a cannon of feminist theatre that we’ve programmed over the past eight years,” says Sophie. “As a theatre maker, I’m personally interested in work that does centre the female experience on the main stage, work that pushes back against that historically very white, very male cannon of theatre. We’re trying to champion for female voices in those leadership positions as well – writing, directing – so it’s not just about who you’re looking at on stage, it’s about who’s in charge of the work that we’re putting on.”
One (rare) good part of the past few years, Sophie says, is that this has become more of a shared concerted effort. “People are more conscious of providing opportunities to a wider range of people – the climate has shifted significantly in the past few years, in terms of gate-keepers getting critiqued, publicly. But we have a really, really long way to go.”
‘[Covid] really exposed how vulnerable the sector is. The whole thing was strung together with goodwill and gaffer tape’
There isn’t a word strong enough to describe just how hard it has been to work in the performing arts sector – particularly in Auckland – over the past pandemic years. “[Covid] really exposed how vulnerable the sector is,” Sophie says. “The whole thing was strung together with goodwill and gaffer tape; it’s not a sustainable career to have in this country. We don’t have a safety net – our jobs were basically illegal for the better part of two years, – and what we did see is a lot of our talented artists leave the sector, because people can’t just not work for two years.”
“We’re not even in recovery mode yet,” she says. “So much of the rest of the country – the rest of the world – has got back to normal a lot faster than us. We’re still hobbling, and we will be for some time.”
And if the professional side of the pandemic years have been a challenge for Sophie, the personal side has been yet another level. In 2018, her father was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer, out of the blue, and died in early 2019. Sophie and her brothers found out that the cancer had come from a very rare gene mutation, called CDH1, and that meant that each of them had a 50/50 chance of getting it themselves.
After testing, it turned out that 2/3 of Sophie and her siblings had it; the nature of the stomach cancer meant that it’s hard to test and tends to only show up once it’s too late to be treated. So, last year, Sophie had her stomach removed.
The recovery period was “long and very full-on”, she says. Her diet consisted mainly of baby food for the first few months and then it becomes a process of learning to eat again. “You feel like you’re a baby for months,” she says. “You lose a lot of weight fast, so your strength and general health is poor.” It took six months to even start to feel normal and now, a full year later, Sophie says she’s still getting there. “You’re learning to live without a major organ – it’s quite a lot to get your head around!”
The nitty gritty of eating, post stomach-removal, is that Sophie can eat mostly everything she once ate – only very small, calorie-dense amounts at a time. “You can’t be pissing around with salad, you have to eat high calorie because you can’t get enough calories into your body, basically,” she says. And one of the biggest adjustments is that she no longer ever feels hungry, so eating becomes a ‘by the clock’ action, rather than an intuitive one.
“Even though it’s only been a year, I’m like ‘what was being hungry like?’ I can’t even remember,” she says. “I can see how people can lose the joy of food – I’ve had an okay time, people have it a lot worse than I did.”
A silver lining of the surgery and recovery is that it has forced Sophie to look after her health and energy – something she says was never a focus with such a busy job.
“I was definitely prone to workaholic tendencies, like most people in the world that we live in,” she says. “I have to prioritise myself in a way that I hadn’t for the past 20 years. And that’s good, at that point of my life, to realise that I have to put myself and my health first, that I no longer have to kill myself for my job, which is what I’d done in the past. I now approach my work in a healthier way.”
It also means that when it comes to picking her next project – what she’s willing to dedicate the next year, two years of her creative life too – she’s only picking the ones that are powerful enough to sustain the energy required. The Writer, she says, absolutely fits the bill.
“I tend to gravitate towards work that is fearless and has an adventurous approach to form; work that demands you put it on, now, that responds to the big questions about the world that we live in,” she says.
Are local audiences becoming more receptive to work that feels strongly feminist in what it’s trying achieve? She thinks for a beat. “I think it’s hard, because it’s a word that people still don’t like. They get a bit eye-rolly, or a bit fatigued, or a bit like ‘I don’t want to sit in the theatre and have a bunch of women yell at me for two hours,’” she jokes. “It’s still a hard sell; ‘feminist’ is still a dirty word in lots of circles.”
“But the things that make us uncomfortable can teach us a lot about ourselves. So we keep having to bang that drum, until it’s no longer such a hard sell for people. That there can be a real variety of stories and perspectives out there – and the realisation the one that we’ve all been force-fed, for most of history, isn’t necessarily the best one.”
The Writer premiers on Thursday 1 September and runs from 2-18 September at Auckland’s Silo Theatre, visit here for more information.