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.
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.