INTERVIEW: Emerging Playwrights Samantha Nerida and Elise Wilson discuss their creations
In case you didn’t know, the Perth theatre scene is thriving right now. Two writers at the forefront of this are Elise Wilson and Samantha Nerida, who have penned two very different and very thoughtful pieces showing at the Blue Room. Nerida wrote the script to the coming-of-age tale See You Next Tuesday, a moving piece we called “as much of a hormonal rollercoaster as being a teenager is,” which sold out all its tickets on its debut run (waiting-list spots for shows until July 6 available here). On the other hand, Wilson created the script to the “stylised mystery” Floor Thirteen, which shows until July 13 (you can still pick up a couple of tickets here). We were lucky enough to get the chance to delve into their brains and discuss how these beautiful works were made.
What was the starting inspiration for writing these respective pieces?
SN: I knew I wanted to write a show for a (frequently forgotten about in theatre) genre in ‘Young Adult,’ I knew I wanted to create a strong and relatable 17 year old female character, and I was participating in Barking Gecko x ATYP’s Fresh Ink program at the time, so that’s really where it all started.
EW: We had a clear concept for the form and style of the work before we came up with the narrative. The physical nature of the piece was inspired by dance and physical theatre companies including Gecko, Chunky Move and Kidd Pivot. Then, Marshall, Courtney and I discussed what type of content would support a highly physical piece, and we decided to play with the concept of memory malleability.
Neither of you directed the performances currently showing at The Blue Room. Did you have much influence over the final production once the script was written? Is it hard “letting go”?
SN: It’s a complicated feeling! On the one hand, I specifically sought the incredible Alexa [Taylor, director of See You Next Tuesday] out so that she’d bring all of her talent and freshness to the script, rather than directing it myself as I have in the past, so that was very intentional. On the other hand, I am also a director, and feeling your work travel in a direction you’re not in charge of can feel strange. All in all though, I couldn’t be more proud and pleased with the team that came together to mount this, and even if I’d been asked to have any input on the final product, I’m glad I didn’t.
EW: Interestingly, rather than completing the script and then handing it off to Marshall to direct it, the majority of the writing process occurred in tandem with rehearsals; I’d write a section and then in the next rehearsal the cast would begin choreographing it, so I’d watch the rehearsal and edit the script as we went along. This meant I could adapt the writing to the performers and the instinctual choices they’d make when working on a new section of text. The rehearsal room was super collaborative and open to all voices, so I was fortunate to have some influence over the final production. However, I tried to only speak up if there was an issue with “clarity” and ensuring it all “made sense” within the logic of the work, rather than imposing my personal preferences about how it should look.
The next few questions are directed at Elise. First, how does one approach script-writing for a heavily physical performance-based play compared to one that is more dialogue heavy?
EW: Before I began writing, I was involved with physical workshops with the cast which investigated the type of movement language that the work would be using. As a result, I knew that Marshall, the director, planned to choreograph movements to my dialogue (rather than, say, music) so that each word or phrase is physicalised. So, when it came to writing, I tried to write sections that both complemented and challenged this style. I would write lots of dialogue with verbs and actions but then I’d also write things like “but you know whatever” and became curious how the performer would physicalise a phrase that has no clear actions or images.
The releases for Floor Thirteen promises an innovative melding of technology and theatre. What are some of the unique challenges and benefits that come with emphasising technology in a piece?
EW: The main challenge that we encountered with technology was coming across unforeseen technical difficulties a week before opening night. We had discovered that with a total of over 1000 cues for sound, lighting and projections, the speakers would begin freaking out at different sections of the show (and so did we). But luckily we managed to fix the glitching with hours to spare before our preview performance.
Nevertheless, the benefit of using technology in this piece is that when the projections, lighting and sound design work together, we can create almost any desired atmosphere. It also supports the script to flow between locations since it flips between being set in a party, a childhood home and Kings Park.
How have you attempted to draw out the themes of our memory bias and imagination in this text?
EW: Our protagonist, Phoebe, spends most of the show recounting her memories. However, she recounts the same memory multiple times, including new context and different details each time. As the audience receives new information with each retelling, Phoebe contradicts herself. This implies that her perceived version of events has been extremely selective and/or imagined, due to her attempts to gain sympathy or admiration, and to avoid listening to her guilty conscience.
Phoebe is the protagonist of this production and seems to be quite a complicated character. How was her story and personality created?
EW: Phoebe is a confabulator, meaning that she fabricates, distorts and misinterprets memories about herself and the world without the intention to deceive. Once we had this key fact about Phoebe, we researched what types of people confabulate. We discovered that frequently people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) tend to present this memory error. They sometimes fail to distinguish the actual from the imagined, concocting fiction to nurture their grandiosity. However, since we didn’t want to speak for people with a disorder that we hadn’t directly experienced, we decided not to label Phoebe with having NPD, but rather that she presents a few narcissistic traits. Some of these include: a craving for (negative or positive) attention, a lack of accountability for wrongdoings, a grandiose sense of self-importance, the creation of an ideal “false self” to conceal her low self-esteem, and hyper-sensitivity to criticism.
Moving on now to some questions for Samantha. First, I was lucky enough to catch See You Next Tuesday recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was curious about the choice of having three separate actresses play Evie, what was the thought process behind that?
SN: Thank you so much! Yeah, I wasn’t sure how to accurately represent the scattered and frantic mind of puberty with one performer telling the story. They’d have to be just so, so self aware to properly outline all of the different things they were thinking as the show went on, and when I tried it with one it read more like prose. Embodying those opposing forces really gave a drive and a theatricality to the subject matter, and once I was onto the convention the play really flowed out.
Evie was a very well-developed character; how did you plan out the character arc she would undergo?
SN: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I struggled a lot with the idea of traditional ‘arc’ and ‘change’, as I think it’s a lot to expect of a character when we only know them for a month of their life. I tried to focus on one really specific thing, which could change in one really specific way, which felt more ‘real’ to the development of a 17 year old girl. I decided I wanted her to go from not wanting anything at all to do with her little brother, to maybe seeking comfort in him one night, and then scatter through the seeds of greater, more permanent change for the future (like developing her sense of agency and power).
What do you think are the key elements to producing a good coming-of-age tale? How challenging are they to write?
SN: Ah, coming of age, that old phrase. I never really intended to write one, I just wanted to write a slice of life story about what it’s like for some teenage girls…ones that I didn’t hear about much growing up. But it’s hard! It’s hard to try to remember what you were actually like back then, how much you already knew and how you felt about the world, etc, and not come off patronising or condescending. That was my main goal, really, to not condescend to what is an increasingly mature and switched on demographic.
Adolescent sexuality remains a quite taboo and awkward subject matter and not many media forms address it so openly and honestly. How important is it that these truths are portrayed and how should the topic be addressed?
SN: SO IMPORTANT. Representation is so, so important. It’s the only way that conversations get started, it helps you to feel like you’re not alone, it contributes to our diverse and complex understanding of what life is like for all different people. Plus, making people (especially womxn & non-binary folk) feel heard and powerful when it comes to bodily autonomy and personal agency can do nothing but good. It should be addressed with respect, humour, humility, and empathy. As with all things.
Coming back to both now, are there productions in the Blue Room season you think we should we keep an eye out for this year?
SN: Elise and I are both in The Wolves from Red Ryder Productions, and it’s a KILLER script from the US boasting a cast of 9 fierce young actors, so I think that’s going to be ripper. Also, Cephalopod from Squid Vicious is a show I cannot wait to see. Jess Moyle is a gem, and that show is going to be both touching and sock-knocking-off I’m sure.
EW: I’m so keen for all the shows in this year’s season, however I’d definitely look out for Two Canaries, Playthings, I Feel Fine and The Wolves, the latter of which I’m performing alongside Sam!
Finally, what can audiences expect from your respective productions?
SN: I think you can expect a real deep dive into the mind of an over-thinker going through puberty. There’s something so eternally relatable (at least for me) about the cacophony of thoughts and contradictions in one’s head, and it sure doesn’t let you off the hook for much of the show. There’s a lot to take in, but that’s why I like it.
EW: Audiences can expect Floor Thirteen to be loaded with mind-blowing tech, detailed physicality, and a narrative that will keep you guessing. It’s loud, it’s bold and engages your eyes, ears and even your brain (if you’re paying attention).