Q+A: Anya Reiss

“I’d cry if I was sick and couldn’t go into
school when we had a drama lesson.”

Anya Reiss photo

Anya Reiss

Anya wrote her first play when she was 14 and then became a member of the Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers’ Programme. Last year she was invited to take part in the Royal Court’s Supergroup of young writers.

Her last play, THE ACID TEST, opened at the Royal Court in May 2011 and received rave reviews.

Her debut play, SPUR OF THE MOMENT (written when she was 17) opened at the Royal Court Theatre in July 2010. Since then Anya has won the Most Promising Playwright Award at the 2010 Evening Standard Awards, Best New Play at the 2010 TMA Awards and Most Promising Playwright at the 2010 Critics’ Circle Awards.

She has just adapted a version of Checkhov’s THE SEAGULL.

17%: What inspired you to start writing?

I started writing by accident because I wanted to do something to do with theatre during my half term so did a course at the Royal Court and continued doing them until I found myself with a play on and decided that I better be a writer then.

What/who are your influences?

Writing wise Dennis Kelly, Alan Ackybourne, Martin McDonagh, Charlie Kaufman and the play ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’

As a younger person – do you think that your writing has resonance for a younger audience and will attract a different audience?

Perhaps, I try not to think about targeting audiences or dividing them down into categories. If I did that, I should probably be working for TV. I always just try to write something I would want to see; maybe that means it will have resonance with people in my demographic category and slowly my audience will age with me. But, I hope not, because that will be very depressing. Even though it will probably happen.

What is it about playwriting that you like – rather than other types of writing?

I’m in love with the theatre, I think it’s such a unique experience to watch a play as an audience member. A play can do something strange that screen or books can’t – it’s paradoxically a simultaneously collective experience but a personal one at the same time and that’s something that burns my brain up. I want to create stuff that can torch other people’s heads in the same way good work does to me.

How have you approached the adaptation of ‘The Seagull’?

I tried to approach it with as little fear as possible, so instead of thinking that I was about to murder a classic and find the literal translations daunting I tried to see it as a cheat sheet. That there was a blueprint for a great play and basically I could never do too much damage because as long as I followed the bones of it that great play was always going to be there. In terms of what the director (Russell Bolam) and I did to the text, we were interested in updating it into a 21st century context with as few gimmicks as possible so that we could prove the play as timeless rather than swapping one alienating context for another.

What interested you in ‘The Seagull’?

It’s a play about fame and art and love and everything it has to say about those three subjects is so shockingly modern. I was fascinated to find a play that expressed everything I would say or write about those themes but written in Russia in 1895.

What advice would you have for up-and-coming playwrights?

Just to not be embarrassed about whoring your work around, getting friends and relatives to read it and be honest about what they think. But then also to realise that a criticism isn’t always necessarily right, because even the best work is hated by some. The most important lesson I learned was to not take a criticism as gospel.

What was it like the first time you saw your words onstage – and when was that?

At the end of the half term course I did at the Court they had a few professional actors come in and read everyone’s pieces as a way to finish the week. It is always my favourite bit of any process to hear it for the first time. It can be very cringeworthy and sticky when you hear that stuff doesn’t sound right but when something works the way it did in your head it is the best feeling.

How did you get ‘into’ theatre?

I was always into acting when I was younger. I used to any course going during my holidays, evening classes, every group or club I could do at school. I’d cry if I was sick and couldn’t go into school when we had a drama lesson. And though I did go to the theatre a little it was usually to watch Shakespeare. It was when I started my course at the Court that the thought even occurred to me that people wrote plays still now.

Have you seen any evidence of a gender bias in favour of men or women since you have been writing?

Never. Or at least never when it comes to a play being chosen to be put on stage. However, I do see it in audiences – there is a scary and natural prejudice women have against women and I’ve also seen it in my own writing occasionally. I think and hope I’ve trained myself out of it now but, especially with my first play, I caught myself giving all the funny lines and all the fight to the men and the women countered every point. In the end, I deliberately went through a scene and swapped the gender of the speaker over to counter act my own prejudice. I still do that sometimes just to keep myself in check.

Anya’s highly acclaimed version of ‘The Seagull’ runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 1 December.
‘in a year of remarkable Chekhov revivals, this Seagull flies with the best’ The Guardian

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One Response to Q+A: Anya Reiss

  1. tindle says:

    I do like this young lady’s approach to her work, a little of which I’ve seen, namely, The Seagull, mentioned above, and I certainly enjoyed that particular show. It’s interesting to receive her perspective on her own creative process. She’s clearly an honest writer; I value artistic honestly a great deal. Where there is talent, it is best served by an honest and thoughtful approach, and not subsumed by a simple desire to please, or dragged into areas unsuited to it’s natural place in the world. A sensible, maturing, able and talented young woman, is what I’m seeing here, making her mark. It bodes well, and I look forward to seeing where Anya takes us next.

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