Naomi Westerman is a playwright and actress, she has written a piece called Puppy which is in VAULT Festival this year on Thursday 23 February and Thursday 2 March. I nabbed an exclusive interview with the lady herself, and do follow this link to book your tickets to see Puppy: http://www.vaultfestival.com/event/puppy/2017-02-23/
Tell me about the piece and your inspiration for it.
The majority of my plays are pretty political – this one is too, but it was a bit of a long process getting there. It was inspired by something completely random. I was walking home one night and noticed some graffiti that read “Dogging ->” I live in Barnes, which is very posh, and you never see things like that. I went home and wrote a ten-minute comedy sketch about middle class doggers in about an hour. The sketch was performed at a shorts night and went down well, so I submitted it to the VAULT Festival who asked me to extend it to an hour. I realised I had a lot more to say about sex, queer sexuality, female sexuality and the politics of sex, so the full play ended up being about a lot more than dogging and middle class manners.
Was it easy to put it all down on paper?
The original ten minute sketch was very easy. Extending it was harder, especially as I was writing to a specific length. There was so much I wanted to put in, but I didn’t want it to be too crowded or chaotic. I made the decision to make the relationship between the two women the focus, and show the politics of the play through the characters.
Is it translating well from page to stage?
Yes, I think so – I intentionally wrote it to be fairly anarchic and non-naturalistic in places, and to allow room for directorial vision. It was also important to me that there be no female nudity on stage, which involved finding different ways to represent the sex and porn scenes. Rafaella Marcus directed an extract of one of my plays at Southwark Playhouse last year (Courting Drama paired us in a weird speed-dating event) and I immediately loved her feminist principles and her bold, experimental approaches to staging more traditional texts. I knew she would be the perfect person to direct Puppy, and the more I see of rehearsals the more I’m reassured of this.
How is the space lending itself to the piece?
Puppy is actually at Morley College, which is not part of the Vaults space itself. I do have another play on in the Vaults proper (Claustrophilia, a kidnap drama, which suits that space perfectly). Morley College definitely wins on the comfort front – we have a proper dressing room, and a balcony level which the director and cast have been playing around with.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the production?
I want them to think twice about attitudes to female sexuality, which is still very much controlled and demonised by a societal mindset still stuck on the virgin/whore dichotomy. Puppy is sex-positive and feminist and confronts some of the difficulties in reconciling sexual empowerment with the potential for exploitation. But mainly I hope they laugh.
Finally, any advice for budding writers?
Read as many plays as you can. See as many plays as you can. Write as much as you can. Never wait for inspiration to strike, just start writing. Redrafting is the hardest part of writing a play, but the most essential. And send your plays off – there are dozens of theatres in the UK that accept unsolicited submissions, and zillions of opportunities to have work staged on the fringe or in shorts or scratch nights.
Huge thanks to Naomi for her time, it was a pleasure to interview you and really looking forward to seeing the play next week.
Jo Wickham first caught my attention in my favourite production of 2016 (that I still work into every day conversation on a daily basis), Steel Magnolias at The Hope Theatre. Jo played Truvy and gave a performance to rival that of Dolly Parton in the film version.
Next, Jo is taking a few roles in a play called Puppy which is written by Naomi Westerman, this is part of VAULT Festival 2017. In an exclusive interview with Break A Leg, Jo tells us about the latest piece she’s starring in and discusses her various credits to date, including her career highlights.
Thanks for talking to Break A Leg, I’m going to kick off with Puppy at VAULT Festival. Tell me about the play and your role in it.
Puppy is about two young women who meet whilst doing a little ‘light recreational dogging’ they start a feminist porn company together and eventually take on the patriarchal establishment. It sounds pretty serious and thematically it is, but most importantly it is really, really funny.
There are six of us in the play in total. The two young women that play the roles of Jaz and Maya, the protagonists and the four in the ensemble of which I am a part, that create all of the other roles.
What can the audience expect?
To laugh, a lot! There is nothing sleazy about the play at all except perhaps the way in which the ‘adult entertainers’ are perceived by the the wider world.
The opening dogging scene is what initially attracted me to the project, Naomi Westerman’s writing and the resulting direction by Rafaella Marcus is nothing short of hilarious and has to be seen to be believed. The unfolding of Jaz and Lily’s relationship is so beautiful and real, Naomi has a real gift in capturing the subtleties of everyday conversation and infusing them with meanings that pack a real emotional punch.
There’s a little political history in there too and the audience can also expect to see Nick Clegg in a new light!
What are the vital elements that a script and a role has to have to entice you to do it?
A script has to move me in some way, if it can affect me emotionally when reading it, then I hope that I’ll be able to begin to translate those feelings onto the stage. Also if I can clearly see the characters and the story in my head when reading, then I know that its a work I am going to be able to get on with!
The size of the role in terms of lines that the playwright has written is irrelevant, the size of the role in terms of emotional depth and punch is far more exciting to me as an actress.
Steel Magnolias, my favourite production of last year which still makes me smile, now. What are your highlights of playing Truvy in the show and why do you think it was so popular?
Like most people that are familiar with ‘Steel Magnolias’ I had seen, (many times), the film starring Dolly Parton, Sally Field and Shirley MacLaine etc. and loved it. Even to the point where I was using some of the quotes (“built for comfort, not for speed”!) in my everyday speech. Playing Truvy in such a well regarded piece was an absolute gift but also a little daunting. The role was played so beautifully by Dolly Parton in the film that people will sometimes expect that exact performance in the theatre. As an actress you have to try to not think about that performance (as glorious and memorable as it is), and use the text, your own research and your own experience as a the basis for creating the character and hope that the audience goes with you. I like to think that I did Truvy justice.
As for why it is so popular? I think because it is so beautiful, so sad and so, so funny. People like to be moved when watching a play and with ‘Steel Magnolias’ you get every single emotion laid bare in front of you on the stage. I had no idea when I started the project that the story was real, that these characters were based on real women and that Robert Harling was ‘Shelby’s’ younger brother watching these events unfold as a young boy. I think that this truth is the real key to the stories popularity.
If you could play Truvy again, would you?
In a heartbeat.
If you could play a different role in Steel Magnolias, who would it be and why?
All of the women are so well rounded and beautifully written, each with absolutely cracking moments that, being greedy, I’d like to play them all! I’m a bit (!) too old for Shelby and Annelle now, but I love to be able to see what I could bring to the other parts. With M’Lynn, its her unwavering strength and emotive final scene that are compelling to me. Ouiser’s cutting disdain for others and smart mouth is a real treat for any actress to play. Whilst Clairee’s dignity and wit and zingy one liners are just superb!
What inspired you to become an actress?
I went the long way round! From a young age I’ve always dabbled in acting, my first taste was at about 5 years old playing the witch in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ at my school. I can still remember being pulled out of playtime to rehearse my solo with music teacher Mrs Bull! During the holidays I went to ‘Libby and Bills Drama Class’ which I absolutely loved and have fond memories of. I also used to go to summer schools at East 15 and when older I joined WOADS an amateur dramatic society based at the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford. Later in my twenties, I joined another company there called Sideshow with whom I learned so much about working in theatre. I did a drama and theatre studies degree after my A Levels and up until the age of thirty I was a drama teacher and later head of Performing Arts at a further education college. It took until then to realise that acting was what I had to do, so I said goodbye to my final salary pension and went to East 15 to train as an actress!
Are there any particular roles that you would LOVE to play?
This is such a hard question to answer! Yes. No. All of them!
The ones that spring to mind are Madame Thenardier in ‘Les Miserables’, any of Shakespeare’s women that I am right for, I also hear the part of Doctor Who is going(!). A dream come true would to be in a ‘Star Wars’ film, any part, I’m not fussed! The Jason Howland musical ‘Little Women’ is going into the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester in the autumn, it is an absolutely stunning piece and I’d love to be considered for Marmee. I’ve also been involved in a lot of new works recently, so to be able to originate a part in a play, musical or on TV is really exciting to me. I’ve also always fancied myself as a grizzled and hard bitten TV detective!
What have been your career highlights so far?
Playing Truvy obviously, as soon as the play was announced at the Hope Theatre I wanted the part so badly! I feel incredibly lucky to have got it. Playing the Bakers Wife in ‘Into the Woods’ was another career highlight. I adore Sondheim and I even did my dissertation on ‘Into the Woods’, so to play her years later was a real dream come true. One of the best parts of my job is meeting new people and creating exciting work and sometimes being lucky enough to leave a job having made life long friends.
Finally, what would you say to encourage people to come and see Puppy?
Its hilarious, crackingly written, will teach you something new, starts at 6:30pm and lasts an hour!
Break a leg, Jo! Can’t wait to see this next week. Thanks also for your time and a brilliantly insightful interview. Delighted to be able to have featured you.