An Interview with Sara Joyce

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New writing, female directors and mental health in the arts

The director, who is part of the Old Vic 12 and currently has two shows at VAULTS Festival, talks to London Calling about working with writer Milly Thomas on Dust, which is coming to Soho Theatre after a huge success at Edinburgh Fringe last year.

London Calling: In a few words, can you tell us what the play is about?

Sara Joyce: It is about a woman called Alice, who we meet at the point of her death, and she is kind of stuck in an after world that forces her to relive the moments leading up to her death but also to witness those that were close to her dealing with the aftermath and the consequences of her dying. It’s dark but it is a comedy.

LC: How did you meet Milly and how did your collaboration start?

SJ: I had known about Milly as an actor and we have a lot of mutual connections within the industry, but she wrote to me essentially saying ‘I have this idea and I’d really like to work with you, is it something you’d be interested in talking about?’. At that point she had maybe a page written, just a few scenes. So we met and it happened organically and we started developing it together. Most of my work is on new writing; I love developing stuff from the seed idea. It is very much Milly’s idea and absolutely her writing but bouncing back and forth and drafting scripts and sharing, that’s how I always find the best work is made.

LC: At the moment, with the Golden Globes and the Oscars coming up, people are once again talking about female directors, or the lack of female directors. As a female director, how is your personal experience?

SJ: There is a bit of me thinking well, I don’t know any other way of being. I just am inherently female. But it is interesting. My personal feelings change and waver, sometimes I will admit I find it a bit exhausting. When I got into theatre making I didn’t have an eye on the responsibility of having to change a system or tackling injustices in it based on things that are out of your control. I waver between being really excited to be part of a time of great social change within culture not just within the arts and being on the frontline, getting to work with people like Milly and my contemporary female directors. I feel excited to be part of that.

But I will admit that sometimes I am sick of having to either blast my way through walls or find ways around them. I feel like I am building up a momentum around the work I’m creating and I am incredibly proud of it and now I see a lack of parity in the opportunities open and available to me. Looking at the places I want to go, I know I want to run a venue, I know buildings I want to be a part of and you look for the equivalent of yourself at those places…so often work that is female lead is on the outskirts. I think that we need a bit more space within the decision-making positions for risk and different types of people. It’s not about just gender. I remember being quite intimidated when I first started out over here about the fact that I hadn’t trained at Oxford or Cambridge. I felt that put me on the back foot of being a director. It’s insane when you think about it. Why should that stop you telling stories? All you need to tell stories is to really have something to say and have the ability to communicate your message. We should have space available for everyone to do that. It’s not about kicking people out or telling other people that they can’t any longer, it’s just that London is a big place.

Milly Thomas in Dust, courtesy of The Other Richard

LC: What is your directing style, what is important to you in the rehearsal process?

SJ: I’m very reactive and responsive to performers. I love performers, I love working with them and I’m not a big fan of creative hierarchy. I’m not much of a person for telling people where to stand and how to say things. I always feel like it is a real privilege to have people with such a capacity to think creatively and to add to ideas. I love ideas and I love trying things out and playing with them. I’m always looking for the very best way to tell a story but in order to get there you really need to try as many options as possible. I really love working with creative teams and actors and writers, I could talk to them forever. Being a director means to streamline all the input and create an alchemy whereby you are getting the absolute best out of everyone. I do believe in leadership and following an idea but first it is about identifying what is the idea, what is the story that we are trying to tell, what are we trying to understand and provoke. And then the director is the person staying on track and carrying the team and considering the audience and how to involve them.

LC: Dust is addressing mental health, which seems to be one of the central issues of our time. Particularly in the arts with precarious working situations, pressure, the judgmental nature of the industry …

SJ: It is a huge subject and I think there are various facets to it, starting with the mental health of artists creating the work. The system of how we make art obeys a capitalist and consumerist structure and I think that’s really damaging. The perceived way of being in this world directly contradicts the way being an artist is. I think that can have negative effects on people’s emotions, if you are expected to exist in one way but you are another. I can’t speak for everyone, mental health is such a broad subject and it applies to people in such different ways. Milly and I have talked a lot about duty of care, the responsibility you have to an audience to not leave people feeling like there’s no agony to turn to but then we also had to recognise that we can’t take on personal responsibility for how people feel afterwards. We just present a story and it’s one very particular strand of mental health that is specific to one person. One of the fascinating things about making this show was how people who don’t struggle with mental health exist around people who suffer terribly. How we can express that lack of understanding? What we are trying to do is open a discussion.

At Fringe, we had no idea how people would respond to what we had created but it was quite overwhelming. Sometimes I would sit in the audience and really see the effect it was having and of course for a director that is the dream, to leave an emotional impact on people. What is hilarious though is I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much making a show. It sounds a bit macabre to say that but both of use humour a lot and I think there’s a real honesty to what Milly has written and an authenticity that isn’t often seen. There’s something about hearing someone speak these truths and thinking “Oh yeah, I have these thoughts but I didn’t know you were allowed to.”

Dust is at Soho Theatre 20 February - 17 March. Tickets from £14