Passionate, poetic, political playwright: interview with Sarah Hehir

Sarah Hehir photo

Sarah Hehir

Sarah Hehir is a Medway based poet and playwright whose first radio play, Bang Up, won the BBC Writers Prize in 2013.

For the past two years she has collaborated with Sam Hall, 17Percent’s founder, to write short plays which made up 17Percent’s portmanteau Rochester Litfest productions: in 2013, she wrote the parable-like The Fourth Circle,  and in 2014, Blood Red, a twisted Romeo and Juliet story which is revealed backwards.

Sam caught up with Sarah to find out about the progress of her first full-length stageplay: Child Z. Sarah and Little Pieces of Gold production company have recently successfully raised £4,500 via a Kickstarter campaign to support an Arts Council England application for touring the play next year.

In 2012, Sarah first heard the story of ‘Girl A’ on Woman’s Hour. ‘Girl A’ was one of up to 50 young girls who were groomed by a paedophile ring of nine men in Rochdale. After repeatedly alerting the police, Girl A’s complaints were finally listened to, and the gang were jailed in 2012. But only after a frontline whistle blower, tired of reporting the scandal to the police and managers, and getting nowhere, went to the papers.

Sarah has a link to the area, her first teaching job was in Rochdale, and it struck her that she had worked with a lot of vulnerable young girls of a similar age, so was enraged by the apathy and sloppiness which had failed the girls in the case. Sarah says there was a culture of believing that the young girls were making ‘lifestyle choices’ and ‘voting with their feet’. Although, how was that possible, she asks, when the girls were only 14 and 15?

There was an attitude from police and high up within social services that these usually poor, working class girls, often with behavioural problems and troublesome (or troubling) backgrounds, were just not important, or not a priority target area, in a cash strapped, target driven area where, not long after ‘Baby P’, the focus was on safeguarding very young children.

With the recent Rotherham case echoing the Rochdale one, the play is becoming more topical and important, an indictment of a system which repeats its mistakes over and over again. Sarah says “I worry that small media storms, such as happened after Rochdale, blow over. When it came to the Rotherham scandal, Rochdale was hardly mentioned.”

Sarah’s response was to write Child Z – to expose the issue and ask ‘why’ about the many disturbing aspects of the case.

The playwriting process

After a 15-minute short play written by Sarah, March, was selected to be showcased at Little Pieces of Gold (LPoG), producer Suzette Coon heard about Sarah’s idea and asked her to write a 45-minute play for the LPoG rehearsed reading series, which was performed in November 2013 at The Drayton Arms. As a result of tweeting about it, Simon Danczuk, the MP for Rochdale, got in touch and invited Sarah to Rochdale, to talk to him and Sara Rowbotham, the whistle blower social worker, from the Rochdale Crisis Intervention Team. The social worker was interviewed in 2012 at the Home Affairs Select Committee inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation. Sarah also interviewed the father of Girl A.

Child Z, however, is not a straight dramatisation of the facts of this case, but inspired by it, though the factual details do remain close to the true story. She says the original 45-minute play is a very different one to the play now: it has gone through over 20 rewrites, and starts where the first play left off. The challenge has been to make 3D characters of all the individuals portrayed in the case, when it would be easy to portray a stereotype, for example, of an indolent, Fat Cat Council Leader, out of touch with his staff and the situation.

Sarah then watched the Select Committee inquiry, and spent time researching further, then she wrote and rewrote, making the characters and structure of the play suitable for doubling, so it can be performed by just three actors. The play was then given another rehearsed reading at Bread and Roses theatre, where further feedback was given.

The most surprising thing about the play is that although it necessarily covers some very heavy material, “you can’t shy away from acknowledging that these young girls were raped, repeatedly…” that it is also a play with much humour and compassion, and the usual richness and depth of language that Sarah, an accomplished poet, always uses.

Non-traditional structuralist

At this reading, and knowing Sarah’s short plays, another aspect of her writing really struck me – that is, an interest in structure, and in non-traditional, non-linear narrative storytelling.  The play is designed for three actors to play all the roles, with interjections of off-stage sound montages. As structure, is something I am also very interested in, I asked Sarah about this.  “I’m glad you noticed that,” she says, “because I work very hard on it.” After criticisms of the structure of her early pieces, Sarah now consciously does a lot of planning, she also finds that non-traditional structures work better in the context of low budget fringe productions, it gives you the opportunity to ‘think more creatively’. She also enjoys the challenge of limitations and deadlines, in both the plays we collaborated on for the Rochester Literature Festival, there was a series of rules to follow, or elements that had to be included.

Future plans include a play called Zero Down,  for Abla George: a play set in a nursing home, amongst what appear to be health workers. The idea at the play’s core is to ask can life be reduced to a single tweet in our soundbite culture? She is also working on a TV series.

Child Z will have a short run in London, in June 2015, followed by a national tour. Please watch this website for further details.




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Female Arts present Female Arts Scratch

Female Arts Scratch poster


Our friends over at the very excellent gender equality arts magazine Female Arts present an evening of exciting work-in-progress short plays, comedy and performance, on Sunday 23 November. Female Arts Scratch includes rehearsed readings of new work from  associate artists The Minty Crimples and The Thelmas. Also from Mind Your Head and SYS theatre. New writing from Shapour Bernard, Serena Haywood, Naia Headland-Vanni, Sophie Porter, Effie Samara, Amie Taylor and Wendy Thomson. Comedy from Carmen Ali and Lotta Quizeen.

Female Arts was founded in 2011 at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. This is their first production featuring work from their talented review team who are also playwrights, directors, actors, theatre-makers, comedians and artists, striving to improve the representation of women on stage and screen.

“Statistics show that for every 3 men on stage, there is 1 woman. We’re reversing that trend, until we get to gender-equality on stage!”

Female Arts Scratch
23rd November 2014, 7.30 – 9.30pm
Ticket price: £5
Book online
Bread & Roses Theatre
68 Clapham Manor Street, Clapham, London, SW4 6DZ
Nearest Tubes: Clapham North / Clapham Common

Twitter: @femalearts @BreadandRosesTC #FAScratch

Read our earlier post on Female Arts.


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Whoop’n’Wail Represents…

Whoop'n'Wail Represents...

Whoop’n’Wail Represents…

Ali Kemp and Deborah Klayman of Whoop’n’Wail theatre company have collaborated with 17Percent before, on our evening of plays inspired by HG Wells, She Writes: What’s through the door? produced in 2013, and several of their short plays have been showcased at She Writes. We are very happy to announce our support for their new showcase, Represents…

With brand new plays from both male and female writers, Represents… is a showcase with a difference.

Consisting of six fifteen-minute shorts, each piece of writing must pass the Bechdel Test – they must include at least two named female characters who, at some stage, talk to each other about something other than a man. Inspired by Alison Bechdel’s now famous 1987 comic strip, The Rules, the Bechdel Test has become the benchmark for gauging fair representation on stage and screen.

The Launch features work by both established and emerging playwrights and directors invited by the curators to kick off this inaugural event.

For future events, each night will have an overarching theme, with pieces selected via an open submission process. Each submission will be read, six selected, then Whoop ‘n’ Wail will invite applications from directors and pair them with playwrights.

Whoop ‘n’ Wail have committed to achieving gender equality on the UK stage by creating a night of entertaining and engaging theatre. Represents… is both timely and of paramount importance while equal representation is at forefront of the industry’s consciousness. It is presented in association with 17Percent and with the kind assistance of Waterloo East Theatre.

Plays featured in this launch show are:

Dust by Sarah Davies, directed by Norman Murray
The Final Frontier by Sam Hall, directed by John Mitton
Three Women in a Music Box by Dan Horrigan, directed by Alice Bonifacio
On the Horizon by Adam Hughes, directed by Sarah Davies
My Bloody Laundrette by Ali Kemp & Deborah Klayman, directed by Paul Taylor
Cause for Alarm by Deborah Klayman, directed by Emily Bush

Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents…THE LAUNCH

Monday 17th November 2014 @ 19:30
Monday 24th November 2014 @ 19:30

Tickets: £8 (£6 conc)
Waterloo East Theatre
Brad Street, London, SE1 8TG
Box office: 020 7928 0060


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Plays from She Writes 27 October

We had a varied selection of plays at She and He Writes our experiment in male and female showcasing. We had aimed to present a 50/50 ratio of plays but in the end we had more female writers than male. We will repeat the experiment next year when we will open one evening up to male writers and mixed teams.

This was the last She Writes in short play showcase form this year, as the next She Writes (24 November) will showcase just one full-length play – ‘Politic Man’ by Alison Mead.

Plays presented:

Advice to my younger self  by Sam Hall
A 40-year old woman sees her 20-year old self going up the escalator at Angel tube station and is torn by whether she should intervene and change the direction her life went in.

Extremism by Barry Fentiman
Freedom fighter and folk hero Guido Fawkes speculates on how he will be remembered after successfully blowing up parliament.

We could see the sea (extract) by Naila V. Tantinya
A bittersweet monologue dealing with growing up, self-image and loss.

Stay by Dylan Oscar Rowe
A couple wake up in a strange flat, with no knowledge of how they got there. As the play unravels we learn that it’s not simply a story of a one-night stand with too much wine the night before.

I saw him on the 8.55 by Maggie Drury
A dark tale of obsession on the train.

Aphrodite can wait by Sam Rapp
An epic tale, spanning the life of one boy, from his birth to his death.

Safe distance by Allie Costa
A girl has missed the last tube. It’s Alec’s first night working there. He finds not all is as he thought with this pretty young woman.

Nobody by Helen Ryan
Two women meeting in a park. But they are not there just to feed the ducks…

We also had a short ‘flash fiction’ performed and written by Razz Saunders.

Thanks to our readers: Clementine Croft, Dylan, Sam, Barry, Sam, Razz and Malek Montag. Photography by Bill Gooch, Man in the Attic Photography.

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IdeasTap Underbelly Award 2014 winner Hiraeth tours Wales

Photo from Hiraeth

Sunday 26th October – Saturday 15th November

After a much-lauded, sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (winner of the IdeasTap Underbelly Award 2014), ‘Hiraeth’ is going home to venues and rural village halls across Wales with live music, Welsh cakes and a Twmpath.

“Hiraeth, along with its creator/performer Buddug James Jones, is undoubtedly this year’s find” (The Evening Standard).

In the summer of 1989, a farmer’s wife gave birth to a baby girl. In this moment Buddug James Jones became heir to her family’s three hundred year old farming dynasty. Now as a modern young woman, Bud is desperate to change her destiny. Leaving five generations of tradition behind, she sets out alone into the big smoke encountering men, heartbreak, drama and hilarity along the way.

Hiraeth is a Welsh word with no direct English translation; it is a mix of longing, yearning,
nostalgia, wistfulness and desire – a pride you feel for your roots and a sadness for the loss of a  way of life. The show rejoices in this universal emotion with which everyone can empathise even as Bud wrestles with the knowledge that her departure marks a time of change and sounds the death knell for the family farm. Through one woman’s struggle to escape and let go, Hiraeth explores the decline of Welsh identity and tradition.

26th – 27th October – Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
28th October – CARAD, Rhayader
30th October – Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Aberystwyth
31st October – Torch Theatre, Milford Haven
1st November – Garnswyllt Welfare Hall, Ammanford
3rd November – Wells Little Theatre, Wells
5th November – Catrin Finch Centre, Wrexham
6th November – Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tydfil
7th November – Neuadd Bro Fana, Ffarmers
8th November – Gwynfe Community Hall, Gwynfe
12th November – Dragon Theatre, Barmouth
13th November – Magic Lantern Cinema, Tywyn
15th November – The Muse, Brecon


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Alison Mead’s new play at She Writes on 24 November

We are delighted to announce that three4all theatre will present a reading of Alison Mead’s new play ‘Politic Man’ as part of She Writes (at Roundabout Nights) on 24 November.

Set in run down Bermondsey during two world wars, ‘Politic Man’ is the true story of Alfred Salter and his wife Ada, who between them, stood for local, mayoral and parliamentary elections throughout their lives while living and working in one of the most impoverished areas of London: Bermondsey.

They both shared strong convictions of integrity and hope and held high the principle of hard work for the good of the people. But while proving they were all in it together with their electorate, they put their own daughter’s welfare at risk – eventually losing her to scarlet fever.

When Alfred is elected MP in 1922, he is seen by his colleagues as a man of principle and by the opposition as a nuisance. His principle being “truth at all costs”.

The Salters began a  revolution in this small and choking area of London, turning graveyards into playgrounds and encouraging the planting of trees and flowers on every street and in every yard. Their shared values created a better life for every inhabitant. A microcosm of an ideal world. The Salters suffered in their life while others prospered from their efforts. Can the ideal ever be achieved and is there a leader who can take us there?

See a preview of the new play on 24 November, 7.30pm.
She Writes at Roundabout Nights, The Alexandra, Chatham, ME4 6RJ

Poster for She Writes

24 November, She Writes

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Photos from The Spirit of my Dream

Here is a selection of photos from The Spirit of my Dream, 17Percent’s production for the Rochester Literature Festival.

The plays which made up the show were: Lover never returns more by Sam Hall – in a pastiche of Restoration comedy, Aphra Behn and Nell Gwyn are birdwatching in a wood… Blood Red by Sarah Hehir – in a fairytale, an obsession turns to something dark and bloody… The End of Things by Maggie Drury – in a futuristic time, after the event, what remains when hope has gone?

Thanks to Man in the Attic Photography for the photos.

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Comments about the show:
“Very good writing and acting”
“Great play, great acting, really enjoyable”
“Intriguing production with brilliant performances”

“Loved the structure. Slick, emotionally truthful. You should tour with this!”
“Another triumph for @17percent with the fantastic The Spirit of My Dream.”
“Well that was an amazing high quality performance!!!! Well done @17percent

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Dream rehearsals

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Some preview photos from the rehearsal tonight! Come along on 4 October and see the full show. For one night only.

The Spirit of my Dream
4 October 2014, 7pm
Chatham Grammar School for Boys
Chatham, ME4 6JB
Buy tickets

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She Wrote… 29 September

Yesterday at She Writes at Roundabout Nights we had a preview of our production for the Rochester LitFest The Spirit of my Dream; and plays by Sam Rapp (Contrast), SJ Horan (All that glitters), Allie Costa (She Walks), Eleanor Rodda (an extract of Old Rabbis in the Sky) and Effie Samara’s A brief history of the world told by a dangerous girl.


Clemie, Emma and Heather read ‘She Walks’ by Allie Costa

The Spirit of my Dream

Clemie and Heather in ‘The Spirit of my Dream’

Our next show is our quarterly ‘They write’ event – open to both male and female writers. The theme is ‘Journeys’.

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Cast for The Spirit of my Dream

You can see the cast for The Spirit of my Dream  here – it’s next Saturday!

Buy tickets here.

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