We asked Karen Ardiff, the writer of the award-winning ‘In Skagway’ to share a few words about her background, the development process of the play and advice for writers…
What is your background?
I was born in Dublin, went to the Samuel Beckett Centre at Trinity College, Dublin and did a degree in Modern Drama and English. I then spent the next twenty some years as a professional actress before beginning to write in tandem with this. I’m still an actress.
What made you move from acting into writing novels and plays? How did you start writing?
I had always written – privately as it were – poetry, journals etc, but had never attempted anything ‘longform’. Then one evening when I was visiting my late father Ciaran, he told me a true family story that gripped my imagination. It seemed to me to have growth in all directions and dimensions and it became my novel ‘The secret of my face.’ A while after that was published, a long time collaborator and friend Paul Meade of Guna Nua Theatre company with whom I had worked as an actress, asked me if I would accept a commission to write a play. I said yes although I had never considered doing such a thing until he asked me.
Can you choose your favourite genre?
I don’t think I can. My shelves are stuffed with novels, poetry, popular science, nature writing, plays, detective fiction, short stories, programmes of plays and playscripts. Live theatre is exhilarating at its best, but so is the moment in solitude of reading a poem that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. I do love childrens fiction though. I’ve rediscovered it since becoming a mother and it has reawakened a sense of wonder that is not quite activated by anything else.
How did this play develop? How does it relate to ‘The Goddess of Liberty’?
This play moved from being a linear narrative – a kind of picaresque journey through time and across a continent in a very early draft, to where it is now; a play that to some extent obeys the unities and occurs within one physical space. After a couple of drafts I had the opportunity to work on it with the Fishamble New Play clinic, which afforded myself and Paul a couple of readings with actors and then discussion with Fishamble’s dramaturg Gavin Kostic. That was so incredibly helpful. Guna Nua and the Civic Theatre then premiered the play in Ireland as ‘The Goddess of Liberty’ (In Skagway had been my own preferred title).
The production of ‘In Skagway’ at the Arcola gave me an opportunity to revise the script mainly by ‘filleting’ it and making it more muscular, and in this I was greatly helped by the director Russell Bolam and the wonderful cast, with whom I worked for their first week before handing the script to Nick Hern for publication as the playscript/programme.
What would your advice be to other women who may not have started out as writers?
I’m not sure many people start off as writers without having worked as something else before… I suppose if you want to write you will write. I wouldn’t rush to quit the other thing though….
Why did you decide to tell this story?
I had been fascinated by the story of the Alaskan Gold rush since finding a copy of a book by Pierre Bertrand in a bookshop in Monterey, California when I was touring there as an actress many many years ago. Then, ten years ago, my mother suffered a devastating stroke and our family was plunged into that strange world where there is no room for sentiment and dark humour is a vehicle that gets you further forward on the road. When I sought to write about the latter place, the former came immediately to mind.
I decided to tell this story because on so many personal levels I needed to tell it.
We don’t see enough plays telling women’s stories, and often one reason given for this is that women’s stories won’t be marketable enough. As this play has been the recipient of various awards then this is a play that proves that as a misconception! But knowing that, why did you decide to tell the story entirely with women?
Quite simply, the story was about the three women T-belle, Frankie and May. They had always been the principle characters in my mind, because their story was the one I wanted to tell. Nelly the Pig was the only character who could conceivably have been ‘male’ but I was far more interested in how two very different young women would speak to one another. For the record, one of the first person narrators of the novel I wrote was a 67 year old man, so it is not a policy of mine to write only from the female perspective!
The play also has two key roles for older actresses, another thing that is still rare – were you motivated to write the characters for older actresses through your own experiences, of there being overall fewer good roles for women?
Can you describe the playwriting scene in Ireland currently? Are there many opportunities and/or support for new writers?
I mentioned the Fishamble Play Clinic which helped me, plus commission and unbelievable support I received from Guna Nua. There are many many companies and organisations supporting the development of new writing in Ireland. The Abbey, Rough Magic, the Stewart Parker trust, the list goes on…
‘In Skagway’ is at the Arcola til 1 March. Booking info here.