Limerick writer Erica Murray is currently Artist-in-Residence at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. She’s been selected for the Channel 4 Playwrights Bursary Scheme and will debut her new play All Mod Cons at the Lyric next month. Erica joins me now from our Belfast studio.Erica before we talk about the play, tell us a little bit about the Channel 4 Playwrights Bursary Scheme. What is it and how important is it for young playwrights?
It’s so important. To me anyway I’m just absolutely over the moon to have been awarded it. Basically, every theatre in the UK each year is asked to submit a playwright that they’d like to champion and luckily the Lyric picked me. We had to go to the Channel 4 offices, me and the Literary Manager Rebecca Mairs, and do an interview with seven people all really high up in the theatre industry in London including Sir Richard Eyre which was really cool. They asked me a few questions about the play I had written, which is the play that’s happening at the Lyric next month – All Mod Cons. Then they rang me shortly after that and told me that they were going to award it to me, and it basically means that I have the support of the Lyric all year round. I have a little desk there, I have the support of the Literary Manager and the whole building really. It’s so nice to have a place to go write and I’m working on a new play for them. It’s just like a dream come true actually. It’s brilliant.You’re following in the footsteps of Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson who also won the same bursary and who also have links with the Lyric.
I know, it’s an honour. My absolute other favourites like Lucy Prebble, Nancy Harris and yes Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson are total heroes. It’s so exciting.Let’s move on to the play, it’s called All Mod Cons. What’s the inspiration behind it?
It’s funny, I’m never really sure at the time of writing where these characters come from. It’s usually people that come into my head like the characters in this play Jean and Gary and their real-estate agent Ian, and I just can’t stop thinking about them, so I keep writing them, I keep coming back to it. That’s when I usually know I’m on to something with this play and it’s only now - actually today was our first day of rehearsals so it’s the first time seeing all the actors reading it out - it’s only around now that I start wondering ‘where did this come from?’ I think some of the themes in it like sibling relationships, I’ve sub-letted for a long time, so it’s looking for a place to call home. I guess just the kind of ‘can you really change who you are as a child or growing up?’ and how you might revert back into someone you don’t necessarily like when you are back with your family or back with a community that you grew up in.Yes, because the person who is coming back is Jean and she’s come back to her home where her brother Gary now lives because their mother has died. We find out quite quickly that Jean is a transgender woman. Initially there’s tension between them, that’s because of the decision she’s made around her sexuality?
There’s tension between them I think more so because they’ve been estranged for eight years. So, Jean has come back to Ireland to make a go of it with her brother. I describe this play as a relationship drama, but the relationship examined in it is with the siblings, so Gary as well has changed. He likes to think he’s changed just as much. He used to be this thug on the streets that might beat people up, now he’s this sort of reformed hipster that’s totally woke and he’s trying to show Jean that he’s totally changed from who he was growing up and Jean herself has changed who she was from when she was living with Gary. So, it’s about how they navigate this new relationship now that they’re sort of each other’s life raft I guess. They’re all the family the other has left.The casting calls specifically for a transgender actor because Jean is a transgender woman. So was it important to you because there is a lot of debate around that issue, you know actors are empathetic, that they can empathise into any role but you didn’t feel so when it came to the role of Jean?
I just felt it was very important to represent Jean correctly. The play isn’t a trans story, it’s not about her journey to becoming a transgender woman but it is an integral part of her character. I did a lot of research and development, this brilliant trans actress Rebecca Root with her support and encouragement and now with Mariah Louca who we have playing Jean this time around, it was just really important to me that she was represented accurately.So you went to London to cast her?
Yes we went to London. We auditioned a few people here but they didn’t necessarily suit the role of Jean and then we moved to London and auditioned over there and we found Mariah and she’s fantastic. I’m really excited.Did you have any trepidations about approaching the subject of transgender because it’s caused a lot of controversy, especially around the language and terminology used.
Yeah of course. I suppose like with any character I do my research, I ask people who might have had that experience but again I write from my imagination and I have to stay as truthful to that as possible but saying that I know what you mean and I did, like I said, invest in the brilliant trans actresses who have helped me. Their encouragement and support again has been fantastic and I think that’s really important. But it was like any other character, I would do my research if I was writing about someone much older than me or a male character like Gary in the play. You use your imagination but do your research and ask people you trust.Now you’ve had this play in the Lyric for some time as you said that’s all part of the bursary. So how much has the script changed over time?
It’s funny you ask that because I developed it on the New Playwrights Programme with Rebecca Mairs and it was the first Playwrights Programme they had. I had written it alone in my bedroom in London and I’d taken time off work and I thought I’ll just give myself a few weeks and see what comes out. That was the very first draft and I wouldn’t show that to anyone now, but it did get me a place on the New Playwrights Programme and through that I developed it. I did about another two drafts during that, we had a public reading and then a year went by and the play was programmed. I sort of thought I’ve changed as a writer, I’ve grown a lot it terms of my own style and I suppose you just get better doing something for a year. So, I did another draft of it for this time round, to make it feel fresh and I guess you’re always using your experiences. Just keeping it alive I suppose. I have this term of keeping the characters alive on the page and whether that’s finding jokes that you find not as funny now and using something else or something that might have influenced you along the way and putting that in. Just to keep it fresh.As a writer who has been developing something on your own and then you’re constantly interacting with either actors or theatre professionals during that year long process, do you find that pressurising as much as that is illuminating for the text?
Yeah absolutely but I think the weird part of me loves the pressure. I have a thing about deadlines. I just love a deadline. Once I have a deadline there’s something in my brain that just knows it’s coming up and it just works extra hard and things just fall into place and problems that are in the text that I’m trying to iron out, honestly if you gave me an hour they’d probably flood out. If you find you’re looking into the abyss and you’re not really sure if anyone’s ever going to read it I find that quite hard. I have to self-deadline for those sort of projects. I knew the play was going on and I have the most amazing director on board, Ronan Phelan. He is just, I actually think he’s a genius, he’s so brilliant. He’s been so helpful in the process. Also Rebecca Mairs. I’ve kept it really closed. I just talk to the two of them about it and I think we’ve got there. I’m really happy with the script now and I’m really excited by what Ronan’s going to do. The set looks amazing.I don’t know where you based it first but the Lyric then chose you, so therefore presumably was it initially set in Limerick or another place?
No it was initially set in a fictional Irish town and each scene has the name of an address where they’re viewing so it’s set in the middle of a flat hunt, so a highly stressful situation that lots of people know. Those names are based on places I have lived and so the feeling or the tone might kind of be there. The set changes place and dynamic very quickly, it’s very cool.So maybe they have northern accents but it’s not necessarily there?
They do. Other than Mariah we have all Belfast actors because I guess the Lyric have decided to produce it so they wanted it to feel rooted here. It’s funny, we had the first readthrough today, the actors were like ‘that’s such a Northern Irish thing’ and maybe it’s just an Irish thing. It’s been really interesting working and hearing it read out today.
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