So, tell us a bit about the play…
‘Lights! Planets! People!’ is a one-woman show about Maggie Hill, who is a world-renowned astronomer. The show begins with her giving a lecture to a group of 16-18 year old women, to inspire them into the world of science. But Maggie is terrified: she’s suffering with anxiety and doesn’t know if she can get through the lecture, due to her recent heartbreak, and the fact her career has gone up in flames. We then flash back to her therapy session and parts of her life, to build a picture of who she is and what’s going to happen next. Maggie has bipolar, so it’s a play that grapples with mental health, science and women in positions of power.
How have you played with the One-Woman format?
Well, throughout the play there are recorded voices to help paint Maggie’s world. But at the beginning the audience ‘play the part’ of the young women. Throughout the lecture we use recorded voices of these young women, played from the perspective of the audience. This has made past audiences a bit confused, but I quite like the discomfort it creates; it makes them feel like they are part of the action. Because the show aims to raise some ethical questions, I wanted people in the audience to feel like they should start answering those questions for themselves, and assess where they stand on the ethical continuum that we’re presenting. Sometimes I feel like audiences don’t do this unless they’re forced to. We have actually had an audience member ask a question to Maggie in one of the shows, but Karen, who is amazing playing Maggie, managed to answer it on her feet!
What inspired the first idea for the play?
I got asked to do a residency with a group of other artists called ‘This Is Tomorrow’, run by a theatre company called China Plate. They paired us up with producers and academics at Warwick University, in a range of different fields, each of whom gave us a lecture on their subjects. One of these was space science, which was the one that really blew my mind, and I knew it had real potential for a performance piece. So I went away and did some work on it and eventually Warwick Arts Centre commissioned the idea, and I started making it. I decided I wanted to be part of the collaborative process myself, rather than just writing it.
What was the process of developing the play with your actor like, and how did you find directing it?
It was really rewarding because I feel like I became a better writer from the development process. From working in the rehearsal room you get a sense for which lines work. That back and forth process, of having Karen perform early drafts of the text was so informative. We worked through it together to figure out which parts of the script didn’t work, and which could work with the right direction and performance. I think this made us both better, especially as we were the only ones in the room together, which was quite intense, but it meant we were able to be really honest and trusting with each other. From this, we definitely developed a language to improve on both sides.
I also worked with a filmmaker, who did some video work for the scene transitions, which we’ve put in to illustrate specific time frames. Working out how to do transitions can be tricky, so this was great for me, as I love working with film.
In contrast to working in collaboration, do you find writing alone isolating?
I do, but I am lucky in that I have the opportunity of regularly working with other people. For example, working at UEA is great because I’m able to work with students or collaborators half my time, whilst writing the other half. I love that balance.
You’re a poet as well (and you’ve recently had a collection published), do you use poetry in your theatre making?
Yes, I have. ‘Lights! Planets! People!’ is actually my first full length show that hasn’t got me in it. My last three shows before were storytelling poetry shows. Originally I did want to incorporate poetry into this show, but I soon discovered in writing it that there was no room for lyricism within Maggie’s way of speaking, because I really wanted it to be grounded in the realism of the lecture.
Did you have to be very thorough with your research into space science?
I went back to Warwick University to do more work with the faculty there. So, everything in the show is true in terms of space science. Actually, the mission we talk about in the play is based on a real space mission!
This play has been on tour for while now – tell me about where you’ve been, and where you are excited about going…
We’ve been to Colchester Arts centre, which was lovely, and Exeter Phoenix, Vault Festival in London and Falmouth – which is where I’m from. And then after Norwich we’ll be heading to Brighton Fringe for five nights, which is exciting. We have a few more venues after that, but we’re going to continue taking bookings for a while because we love the show and we both have the drive to carry it on. I’ve been thinking about taking it to girl’s schools. So far, we haven’t had many 16-18 year old women coming to see the show, which who the lecture in the play is aimed at. So I would love to take it specifically to them.
By aiming the lecture towards young women, did you hope to highlight the relationship between women and science?
I know that there has been more discussion around the lack of women in science, and questioning why that is, which is a great first step. But the reason I created this conversation between Maggie, who’s 60, and the girls, was because I wanted to answer that question about legacy between generations. I wanted to show what is means for Maggie, who has come to the end of her career and hasn’t achieved the things she wanted to, despite having had all this ambition and ego, which is made more intense by the fact she is a woman. I think the lesson that she needs learn is that it’s not all about ‘being the best’. It’s about legacy and how she contributed to the field. And perhaps she will inspire one of these girls to achieve something big. So it’s about edging closer to the things we want to achieve, but saying that maybe we can’t achieve them all in our lifetimes. I feel like with so many things, such as climate change, to ‘change the world’ is so overwhelming, but we can at least make one positive step. And it’s better to do that than to do nothing.
So what do you think audiences will go away thinking?
I would really love for people to go away thinking about the themes of play, like communication, mental health and women’s responsibility in terms of their ambition and the weight that is on them in positions of power. But I would also like them to go away having learnt something about space science – even if it’s just one image. I think space is something that captures all of our imaginations.
You can catch ‘Lights! Planets! People!’ at Norwich Arts Centre on 8th May.