*** Shakespeare in Shoreditch Festival 2016 runs from 20th – 30th April ~ http://www.r-ft.co.uk/sins/ follow this link for information and to buy tickets ***
Amy Rosenthal is a highly acclaimed playwright and also know for having followed in the footsteps of her father, the late playwright, Jack Rosenthal. Amy is one of the playwrights for Shakespeare in Shoreditch Festival, and I caught up with her to ask her about this latest piece and what else the future holds for this talented lady.
Hi Amy, thanks for talking to Break A Leg Review, first of all tell us about Shakespeare in Shoreditch, what can the audience expect from your piece ‘Pelican Daughters’ and where did the inspiration come from?
A pleasure to talk to you! Shakespeare in Shoreditch is a festival of theatre celebrating Shakespeare’s connection with this part of London. I’m one of four playwrights commissioned to write one-act plays for the festival – my fellow-writers are Lulu Raczka, David Watson and Charlene James.
We were asked to write a play inspired by Shakespeare, Shoreditch, the theme of storms, and I’m very obedient so I made sure to jam in all three. I used King Lear as a springboard, partly because it features a memorable storm, but also because I was interested in turning the relationships on their heads. Lear makes it obvious from the start that he prefers his youngest daughter Cordelia to the other two, and it struck me that the “wicked sisters” Goneril and Regan have probably had to put up with that all their lives. As an eldest child myself, I wanted to look at the nature of being the firstborn, and how in some cases we never stop striving to reclaim the full attention of the parent.
So: Pelican Daughters is set at the 80th birthday party of Leo Shine, one-time king of his East London stamping ground. It focuses on his eldest daughter Gaby, who wants to be her father’s favourite, if only for a day. It’s about family dynamics, a shifting city and a gathering storm, and I hope it’s funny.
How do you feel when you watch your work interpreted and performed? Are you adept at stepping back and allowing other creatives to ‘take over’?
Writing can be isolated and a bit self-punishing, so it’s fun to reach the collaborative part of the process. Watching and listening to a good director and good actors interpret a text is the reward for wrenching the work into being. I’m not a natural at letting go, but I’ve got better at it. I’m a worrier, and even if I bite back my concerns in the rehearsal room, my pinched little face gives me away.
You’re an acclaimed playwright, with many credits under your belt, was there a piece of writing that you felt was a turning point in your career?
My first full-length play Sitting Pretty was written for my MA in Playwriting at Birmingham University in 1998, and kick-started my career. It’s in some ways very conventional, but probably braver than anything I’ve written since; I didn’t care so much about being judged at twenty-five. But the real turning point was a play called On The Rocks, first produced at Hampstead Theatre in 2008. It’s about D.H.Lawrence and his attempt to convince Katherine Mansfield and her husband to live with him and his wife in Cornwall. I’d struggled with writer’s block for some time (as did Mansfield) and this play was a breakthrough. Lawrence loved the symbol of the phoenix rising from the ashes and I felt like one myself. I’ve since learned that you have to rise from the ashes more than once.
Is there a piece you look back on and that you would re-write if you could? If so, what’s the reason for your choice?
Early on I wrote a two-hander called Henna Night that gets performed a lot. I’m grateful for its longevity, and some of the productions have been lovely, but the play itself makes me wince. It’s very raw and confessional, and I didn’t cover my tracks enough. If it’s played with a light touch, it can just about get away with it, but weighty, sentimental readings expose all the flaws in the script.
Do you have particular performers in mind when you write scripts? Can you imagine specific people in the roles?
I don’t often think about casting whilst writing, but I do like writing for actors when I get the chance. I work regularly with the Oxford School of Drama on their graduate showcase – it’s exciting to tailor a play to bring out the qualities of talented young actors and makes the process feel less introspective. I’m working on one play with a specific actor attached, and I’ve workshopped a musical with actor-improvisers, who are so inspiring that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the roles they create.
We know that you also write musicals, do you have a preference over genre? Do you find certain genres easier to write than others?
I don’t find anything easy to write! I grew up on musical theatre and I love it, and would challenge anyone who sees it as a poor relation to “serious drama”. I’m relatively new to the genre and again, the collaborative aspect is great. Writing the book for a musical feels less ego-driven than writing a play, because I think a good book-writer serves the composer/lyricist, and most of the big moments are songs. I like both working in both genres, but if pushed to choose, my ego would probably win.
I expect you are asked this next question a lot, but did your father influence your career choice and does his work influence yours in any way?
Watching both parents at work had a huge influence. I spent lots of time in rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms, and took it for granted that the theatre was home. I’ve been influenced by their work ethic and inherited from both of them the desire to make people laugh. Initially I wanted to act, and studied Drama at university, but realised after about nine minutes that I’m a terrible actress. It was a nice surprise to discover I didn’t care; that I had more of a facility for writing, and that the playwright plays all the parts, and never has to stand on stage unless it’s a post-show Q&A.
My dad’s view of humanity influenced me, it sings out of everything he wrote and although our voices are different, we shared a sensibility. He was a wry optimist. He wasn’t naïve, he was socially engaged and his plays were (in my view) political, in the best sense of the word – never overt or didactic, always striving to see both sides. But his world-view was ultimately hopeful.
Who were your influences when you were growing up and has a writing career always been your goal?
Katherine Mansfield, Chekhov, Sondheim, J.M.Barrie, J.B.Priestley, Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, ABBA. That’s also my fantasy dinner party; I’d put Katherine Mansfield in between Benny and Bjorn.
Finally, are there any future projects you can tell us about, yet?
My new play Fear of Cherry Blossom opens at the Cheltenham Everyman Theatre in May – it’s a contemporary story about two Jewish sisters, one of whom has become a committed Buddhist. I’m working on a musical with composer Karl Lewkowicz about Queen Victoria’s last great love and developing another musical with Adam Meggido and Duncan Walsh Atkins of The Showstoppers. And I’m adapting two of my dad’s TV plays (Eskimo Day and Cold Enough For Snow) for BBC Radio 4.
Huge, huge thanks to Amy, interviewing her has been a real pleasure and I can’t wait to see Pelican Daughters!