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Thursday, June 23, 2022

New writing in Oxford: An interview with Shaw Worth and Kirsty Miles

Cherwell Stage speaks to writer/directors Shaw Worth and Kirsty Miles about Tibet, Taylor Swift, and staging your own writing.

In Week 4 of this term, the Burton Taylor Studio will welcome a double bill of new student plays from Love Song Productions: Wednesday, Death Meditation by Shaw Worth, and She Felt Fear by Kirsty Miles. Ahead of the plays’ opening nights next week, Cherwell Stage spoke to the two writer/directors about Tibet, Taylor Swift, and the process of bringing your own writing to the stage.

What made you want to write this play?

Shaw: I’ve been doing yoga seriously for about two years now, and that entire world has more or less kept me going through the whole pandemic. The range has been from sinister MLM wellness promoters to ascetic nuns in Tibet zooming me on their three months a year off from solitary retreat. At first I was just interested in their specific language, but then as I stayed on we became very close in the various yoga/meditation groups, and in a philosophy that’s all about facing pain head-on we had a lot to work through together in 2020. There’s a funny safety in the uncomfortability of the mat. They taught me a lot. So I wanted to write a play for them out of gratitude about that trust, what happens when it’s broken, and what a yogic approach might look like when things fall apart.

Kirsty: I had wanted to write a play for a long time and when it came down to what I would actually write, I pieced together my interests. Having played the clarinet and saxophone for many years, the soundscape of plays has always been important to me and inspired me to get a composer and live musician on board. The central plot is a simple love story, because I think there is nothing more compelling! Most of my creative writing is done in the form of poetry and songs, so I made the writing and exchange of those crafts the fulcrum of the love story. 

What other pieces of media would you cite as inspiration and why?

Shaw: Writing-wise, Annie Baker’s recent plays, especially Circle Mirror Transformation and The Antipodes; she plays with technical sets of vocabulary very beautifully. Brian Friel’s Faith Healer as well. As for the staging, and the reason I wanted to try essentially static yoga on stage, definitely William Forsythe’s ballet In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated as well as Amina Cain’s novel Indelicacy, which is about a woman sweeping an art gallery over and over.

Kirsty: Sooo many! I think to write a play you’ve got to be constantly re-inspired. It requires so many exchanges between characters and demands inhabiting so many different psyches. It’s not like writing a poem where you can be carried along by a certain emotion you’re feeling. For much of the writing process, I was watching the National Theatre’s Hedda Gabler on Drama Online and very much liked the idea of having a central female character who is incredible but also hard to like. I like it when we are afforded that complexity!

How has it been directing your own writing?

Shaw: I knew it would be a challenge. This is my first time directing, and outside of writing and then handing over plays I don’t have a lot of theatrical experience. It’s very weird having to translate yourself to other people. In a way, we’ve had a tight blueprint, since all the yoga is written into the script, but investing those poses with meaning and making them accessible to speak and act in has been something we’ve had to develop. Honestly I feel like it’s been communally directed – our amazing Assistant Director Mina Moniri as well as all the actors have been so helpful in pulling an entire vision out of the page. 

Kirsty: Both incredible and scary! It feels amazing having so much creative control over something but it can also be nerve-wracking as so much of it comes from you. You just hope that people around you tell you if you have a bad idea! At first it felt so vulnerable having my script read out loud, writing feels so personal and suddenly all these people are reading it and forming an opinion of it in their heads. It feels really special though having really built something from the ground up. ‘Written and directed by me’ also sounds like it would make Taylor Swift proud, which is all I strive to do.

Any memorable rehearsal stories?

Shaw: Too flatulent to name names. What happens in the Teddy Hall music room/dungeon stays in the music room/dungeon. Gillian Konko’s non-human levels of flexibility.

Kirsty: We had a very chaotic rehearsal trying to stage our party scene. We hadn’t yet chosen the music for it and so ended up playing a ‘Filthy Drum n Bass’ playlist on spotify. Everyone also somehow forgot what it looked like to have a party so we had an impromptu dance to ‘Classic’ by MKTO. 

What has your favourite part of the process been so far?

Shaw: I wrote the play very visually, so to see it with real-life bodies in real time has been amazing. Having such a physical orientation as well has been really fun in rehearsals. Child’s pose is like the ultimate therapy for line-learning stress. 

Kirsty: I think I’m just so excited to have learnt that writing a play and directing is something I enjoy. It feels like I’ve found another limb. I love being in rehearsals and being around a new group of people consistently. 

What has been the most challenging part of the process so far?

Shaw: I think finding the right balance between silence/stillness and movement/dialogue. Because all those problems are embedded in the script – how can you give a character a physical language when they’re supposed to be in a (stunning) Warrior II? How does a play work when four out of five characters are anchored in place for around 80% of the scene? And finding rehearsal rooms. We’ve had some close shaves with several Porters.

Kirsty: Ooh I think energy levels! The urge is to throw myself completely into making the play, but it’s been hard to remember to preserve energy for academic work and that I should have boundaries with my time even with my own creation (I say this, typing at 1.30am. Still learning).

What do you think makes your project unique?

Shaw: The yoga element is definitely the most salient feature; it brings the first half of the play closer to performance art or dance than a traditional stage play (although there’s plenty of dialogue throughout). The poses are sort of their own voice in the class. Probably the only play  this term to reference Pennywise the Dancing Clown and a 12th-century Tibetan ascetic practice in the same line.

Kirsty: I think the integrated live music, the way poetic language seeps into it and the collision of the two!

Give us a quick synopsis of your show!

Shaw: Sandra, a yoga teacher in a small studio, takes a class on a Wednesday night around the theme of impermanence. It comes out (for better or for worse) over the course of the class that her husband, Doug, also a meditation teacher, is very sick, and due for a total laryngectomy the next day; in other words he’ll never speak again. That night, Sandra goes home to Doug to talk. When he leaves for the hospital, she finds herself alone on stage to reckon with everything that’s happened.

Kirsty: In the words of Bethan Draycott playing the rebellious Lily: “a classic story of boy meets girl and girl falls for me instead.”

Describe the show in three words.

Shaw: Ow! (hamstring, grief)

Kirsty: Enchanting, lyrical, romance (all words taken from Max Morgan, our Assistant Director: he seems to be able to describe it much better than I can).

Why should people see your play?

Shaw: When I describe it to my friends all I can talk about is the genuinely amazing cohort of actors we have. They are so good. Rehearsals have been quite weepy. Otherwise I think it’ll be something a little different from what you might expect of a normal night at the theatre. Come find out what that means?

Kirsty: Some truly virtuosic performances from our actors. We’ll take you from extreme silliness to intense grappling with the human experience. So many creative ideas from our cast and crew distilled into just one hour. Or, in the words of our welfare rep, Jack, “because Oxford students need a lesson in emotional intelligence”. 

Both plays run at the BT Studio from 8-12 February: tickets for Wednesday, Death Meditation, at 7.30pm, are available here, and tickets for She Felt Fear, at 9.30pm, are available here.

Image Credit: Katie Kirkpatrick

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