Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Centre Stage on What's Peen Seen?: Isley Lynn

Isley Lynn is a playwright and poet whose work has been produced and supported by National Theatre Studio, Nabokov, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Arcola, BAC and IdeasTap. This year, she received Special Commendation from the inaugural Soho Young Writers Award. She recently graduated from the Royal Court Young Writers Programme.

Lean, currently playing at Tristan Bates Theatre, is Isley’s first full-length, original play. She began writing it during her last year of university. At the time, she was in a relationship with a man who had been suffering from anorexia for four years. They discussed his disease openly, and he was thrilled when she said his experiences had prompted her to write a play. After having her own preconceptions shattered by his testimony, Isley was motivated to share this deeper understanding of the complexities of anorexia, especially in instances where body image isn't the primary cause. She was also interested in portraying an anorexic individual that was male and older in age, a character rarely represented in our cultural understanding of the condition.

You’re well known for writing and performing poetry – how has it been changing your focus to playwriting for Lean?

I actually consider myself a playwright first and foremost. I've been writing poetry since university and it took off a bit faster because there were a lot more opportunities to share it, like open mic nights. And as I performed it myself I didn't need to get a whole team together, it was just me in charge of getting the work out there. The plays have just been waiting in the wings until recently, but they've always been there.

Lean is concerned with a couple struggling with each other and with anorexia – can you tell us a little bit more about the play?

When I started writing I was interested in how someone's strength can also be their weakness, that love can exist alongside hate, and what happens when the rules of a long-term, intimate relationship suddenly change. When Tessa returns to the house, she and Michael haven't spoken in over a year.  She tells him that she's moving back in and joining him in not eating in hopes he'll see what he's doing to himself and start again. Michael chooses not to. That's all in scene one, and the rest of the play follows from there.

What was it that encouraged/inspired you to write a play on the subject of anorexia?

Everything I write has a strong element of autobiography, and in Lean it came from being in a relationship with an anorexic man. That doesn't mean that the play is a true story, but his story was key to this one, and I'll always be grateful to him for his honesty and generosity when talking about it with me - while writing I could come to him with any question and he'd happily help me through it. I hadn't come across a male perspective on the disease, and I felt it was important to make sure there was at least one out there in the world.

How have you found the experience of writing about such a difficult subject?

I didn't see the subject as "difficult", perhaps because I had such a direct link to it, but also because like any subject the more time you spend with it the more parallels you start to see with your own experience. Everyone has a relationship with food, for most people it's a complicated one, everyone has been in love, and love can also be complicated... If you strip it down to those bare essentials it's clear how many overlaps someone has with something they may otherwise feel totally separate from, which is definitely how I felt before I met this man and wrote this play.

Tell us a little bit about the process of creating/developing Lean?

Lean received its first reading at the Theatre Royal Stratford East during their Angelic Tales new writing festival. As part of that it was developed with the enormous help of Rikki Beadle-Blair and John R Gordon - I owe both of them so much for showing me how to write from the pit of my stomach and the bottom of my heart. Then I sent the script to Chelsea Walker and she liked it enough to ask me for a coffee, where we proceeded to finish each other's sentences and stay long enough to get kicked out of the cafe. I knew then she was who I wanted to direct it. Since then it's been wonderful working with a creative team who are all at the start of their careers and yet somehow already at the top of the game.

Photo: Richard Lakos
What do you hope audiences will take from Lean?

I love drama because, to me, it's the art of empathy. It's the act of sharing a space with other people who might disagree or maybe don't understand, and allowing them to shift their perspective. Sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn't, but I feel pretty confident that Lean will at least dispel a few myths about anorexia, particularly male sufferers. I also think they'll laugh and cry and be very uncomfortable and take relief in the little moments of tenderness that our cast (Laura Hanna and Tim Dorsett) make so beautiful and moving.

What have you enjoyed most about writing Lean?

Every time I write something it forces me to open my thoughts to new ways of looking at the world, to seeing it through someone else's eyes, and Lean was no different. Mostly I enjoyed writing something that felt meaningful to me, talking with people who could help me with it, and striving to provide an insight into that very specific world.

How has your experience as a recent graduate of the Royal Court Young Writers programme helped you as a playwright?

I've been to a lot of writers groups and courses, but the Royal Court was by far the most thorough and practical - it was different from a lot of others in that they didn't ask you to write in groups or pairs, and they spent more time working on improving your own ideas and scripts than doing exercises that generate new ideas in the session - all this meant that I was able to focus on what I wanted to write, not just writing for the sake of it. Leo Butler - our tutor there - was instrumental in helping me make the right decision when it came to handing Lean over to a director (back when a few companies were interested in the script).

What advice can you offer to those in the early stages of a career in playwriting?

Take every opportunity that comes your way, but don't wait around for them to present themselves. It's a long game, so while you're waiting for a commission or an attachment make sure you're always working on something in the meantime. Lean was first completed in early 2010 and it's only just getting its premier, but if I hadn't had it in my back pocket when Chelsea came along it wouldn't have happened.  Be ready for luck.

What are you looking to for your next project?

I'm always working on a few things at once, so whichever of those crosses the finish line first will be what I look at next. Until then I'm on commission to Fickle Favours in Belfast to contribute to their upcoming women writers showcase Shakespeare's Sisters, am enjoying preparing a short piece for the 33% Festival at the Ovalhouse theatre as part of Around The House, and have just been invited to join the Royal Court again for one of their future Studio Groups, so I'm looking forward to the near future!

Lean runs until 23rd February.
@TristanBates @StripTheatre

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