Ahead of new play I and The Village opening at Theatre503 on 9 June, Hannah Roe met up with playwright Silva Semerciyan during a break in rehearsals at the LOST Theatre. They talked plays, patience and even discovered they’d studied the same postgraduate course at the same university!
H: Tell us a bit about your background – what inspired you to pursue playwriting?
S: Well I had a teacher for a class in Jewish drama at university and we had to write journal entries for it every so often. One day he said to me, ‘why don’t you take a playwriting class before you die?’ those were his exact words! And in my head I thought, ‘I’d like nothing better actually’, so I took his introduction class and it’s almost like all the other courses I was taking fell away. I had a little bit of a wobble with my core subjects because I was so focused on playwriting; I thought it was the greatest thing in the world! But then I kept thinking ‘no, no, that’s not a proper job’ so I left it and went off to do some “proper jobs” in my early twenties before realising I was climbing the wrong ladder. So I retrained and did a performance degree which was really useful because I could get an insight into what it’s like to actually be inside a play. It was kind of a drawn-out process before I finally admitted that what I wanted to do was just write plays. I took a masters course called the MPhil (B) at the University of Birmingham (now the MRes) and that just opened so many doors. I met my agent at the final showcase event as well as contacts at the National Theatre who championed my work and gave me all sorts of opportunities at the Studio. It was the best thing I could have done. I remember at the time though people kept saying, ‘well if you’re really a writer, you don’t need to do any training’, but it wasn’t about that. It’s just a great way to meet industry contacts and Steve Waters, who was the course convenor at the time, was an excellent dramaturg for I and The Village, so it was invaluable.
H: What is I and The Village about?
S: It’s about a town trying to come to terms with why a young woman in their midst one day walked into a church she’d attended all her life carrying a gun. It follows the story of investigators trying to get to the bottom of it and finding out through the townspeople why they think it happened.
H: Why do you think it’s important that we explore and engage with topical issues in a theatrical forum?
S: For me, the main thing with the theatrical forum is that it’s much more open to non-natural styles – so I and The Village isn’t naturalistic; moments play naturally, but overall theatre affords a more theatrical realisation of it, so you can synthesise ideas in a way you can’t in other mediums. That’s why I chose theatre and why it’s my favourite. It can be many different styles and modes, and people are really comfortable with that. Things can be used symbolically in a much more potent way than they can in film perhaps because a stage contains so few elements that nothing is accidental. A gun is such a strong symbol so when it’s placed on a stage for a deliberate reason, it has enormous impact.
H: What has your role been in rehearsals?
S: Well the first week was about deciding what I really thought of the script as it stands in terms of the flow of the overall offering; the length of scenes, scrutinising every line of dialogue. And because I was using six actors to tell the story of multiple characters in the town, I had to see if there were any elements of confusion and how we could reallocate those lines. It falls to both my personal judgement and everyone’s collective judgement on what could be a good solution. It was personally about getting the script in the best place it could be for the actors so they could proceed into rehearsals without me. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk to the actors about their characters and to offer my insights from having grown up in the part of America that the play is set in.
H: When you sit down to write a play, do you have any routines or rituals? How do you write?
S: I’ve got this thing called ‘The Magic Hour’; it’s that moment between waking and dreaming when you’re lying in bed. I always let that time solve any kind of problems or puzzles I’m having. I’ll come up with the line of dialogue I can’t get right or the whole idea for a project, anything. It works every time. I tend to be in my most creative state when I’m not fully awake and I do my best writing when I go right to the computer immediately after waking. Having a small child has interrupted that slightly because now she’s the first voice I wake to every morning, so The Magic Hour comes a little earlier now!
H: And is she showing any signs of following a creative path?
S: Yeah we made a puppet theatre out of a cardboard box – she loves sitting behind it but her stories always come to an abrupt end and always involve some kind of fantastical element like an ogre. ‘And then they went into the woods, the end!’
H: You’re an award-winning playwright with some great credits under your belt – what has been your most valued achievement in your career so far?
S: Probably this, actually, because it’s been a long road. The thing about playwriting is it does teach you patience, and I was born impatient! So it’s good to get to a place where things are rounded off with a production. The ultimate prize is seeing it on the stage and knowing it has a life beyond your imagination. This will represent my first four-week run of a play in London too so it’s a milestone for me. It’s taken a lot of believing in the project from the director, my agent and all the people around me. We’ve all carried a torch for it and not forgotten about it just because it was a bit tricky being six cast members – that’s considered a large play and I didn’t realise that as I was writing it at the University of Birmingham. Academia never asks you to be commercially-minded! But I regard each achievement at the time as the number one thing that’s happened.
H: I interviewed Lucy Kerbel of Tonic Theatre last year and she mentioned the Platform initiative which you’re involved in with your play, The Light Burns Blue. What’s it about and what makes it a great play for young female performers?
S: It’s about a girl called Elsie Wright who took five very famous photographs around the time of the First World War. In my play, Elsie and her cousin have taken photographs of fairies and a journalist comes on the scene and threatens to expose her as a hoax, so Elsie has to prove herself to her. The play was created through a devising process, so each character is very individualised and there are some very strong characters. Elsie certainly has a quiet strength about her and theinvestigative journalist is tenacious with her own sense of self and moral code; they have emotional depth. The feedback has been that the characters are all rounded and what makes a great play for a multi-actor youth theatre group is that no one has a throwaway part. It also explores girlhood but not in a heavy-handed, overt way. In the initial R&D sessions, one of the young men I spoke to said he really wanted to see a play where young women rob a bank. And that made me think that we don’t always have to write about girls pushing against the patriarchy; let them be engaged with something that has nothing to do with being a girl that’s just theatrical and interesting, like a bank robbery.
H: How does creating a play from a devising process differ to your usual writing process?
S: It’s kind of double-edged because on the one hand, it seems like you’re going to have lots of help with the creative decisions and generating ideas but on the other hand, when you go off on your own and you hit on something that’s perhaps the right tack, you can’t always write it all in a traditional style because it still has to undergo a consensus. On balance, the thing I really enjoyed about the devising process was not writing in seclusion; you’re in the room seeing those ideas and workshopping them a couple of weeks down the line. It’s great to see things in three dimensions at an early stage. And actors are brilliant at protecting their own turf as characters so no one drops off the page!
H: What has your experience been as a women in the theatre?
S: The thing is, when you’re one of the playwrights being supported and produced, it creates kind of a sense that it’s alright for everyone because that’s your perception. But through Lucy and Tonic Theatre I’ve become aware of the bigger picture, so I do have an eye on ensuring that it’s good for everyone across the board and that there’s equal opportunity generally for both genders.
H: What is your favourite play?
S: I just love Long Day’s Journey into Night. I tried to work my way through all Eugene ONeill’s plays one summer when I was younger. You know when you read something and you feel like they understand you and they’re coming from a place you understand yourself. I think Long Day’s Journey into Night is properly heart-breaking and amazingly conceived. To have four characters that are so well-drawn like that is amazing.
H: Finally, do you have any advice for early-career writers?
S: You have to really enjoy what you’re writing yourself – it has to be the kind of play you’d love to see on a stage.
Silva Semerciyan is an American playwright living in the UK. She won the William Saroyan Prize for Playwriting for her first full-length play Another Man’s Son, which was subsequently developed under commission to the National Theatre. Her other plays include The Light Burns Blue, The Tinderbox (adaptation), Gather Ye Rosebuds (winner of Brighton Fringe Festival Best New Play Award, 2013) and Flashes. Her work has been presented at the Bristol Old Vic, Young Vic, National Theatre Studio, Theatre 503, Yard Theatre, LA Theatre Company, Latitude Festival, Bestival and ReOrient Festival. She has recently completed attachments to the National Theatre Studio and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre where she was BBC Fellow in 2014.
Tickets for I and The Village are available here.