Interview by Bessie Yuill
If the first rule of fiction is “write what you know”, then the playwright Sarah Watson’s inspiration is straightforward. “The only thing I knew was how to survive”, she candidly admits.
Watson, whose play Zones will be introduced at the Gala Studio on Sunday 6 October at 2PM, spent her teenage years sleeping rough in Gateshead. With support from New Writing North, she has turned her experiences with homelessness, trauma and addiction into a fantastical sci-fi tale of a brother and sister rediscovering their past.
While becoming one of the most promising young voices spotlighted at this year’s Durham Book Festival, Watson has also been busy developing other scripts and screenplays. Discussing her work here, she talks about its semi-autobiographical elements and her writing process.
Why was it important to you to address issues like homelessness and addiction in Zones?
These issues are so close to my heart. I’ve been the homeless addict suffering from trauma who is invisible. It has been almost a decade since I was living that life, but it seems to me that nothing has changed. The amount of people sleeping rough has increased, if anything, and it’s not right. If the government can make changes to sustain the planet, surely they can make changes to the lives of the forgotten people that inhabit that planet. Zones shows why people end up in these frowned-upon situations. Ultimately, I have written this play because I want to give the people who are ignored by society a voice.
How much would you say your own life and surroundings informs your writing in general?
A lot. It sounds cheesy, but I write as a form of therapy for myself. If I’m dealing with something, I will make a character deal with my problem instead. It’s like I become a puppet master: with words, I am able to make that character do anything I want. I can choose between fight or flight. I can toy with whatever it is that bothering me. By doing this, it helps me to see a bigger picture; I can see things from all angles. It’s my way of dealing with my own messed-up brain.
How would you describe the differences between writing stage plays and screenplays?
I think the major difference is dialogue. With screenwriting you focus on imagery, what things look like. Your dialogue just compliments the scene. But with writing for the stage, your dialogue is the scene. You’ve got a blank canvas, so your dialogue needs to create an image in your audience’s mind. Both are equally challenging. Both need character development, structure and a compelling story. A piece of advice I was given was to “think of a film audience as holding your character’s hand” – they see what your character sees – but think of a theatre audience as eavesdropping on a conversation.
I was mentored by writer Carina Rodney with the bursary I received from New Writing North. Something she would say to me a lot was “take what is useful, get rid of the rest”. I did that so in my play, Zones, the audience isn’t only eavesdropping: they are also holding my character’s hand.
How has New Writing North helped you develop your ideas?
Dramatically. I owe a lot to New Writing North for their support and guidance over the years. If it wasn’t for the encouragement I have received from them, I would never have submitted to anything. I think it’s because of their constant belief in my potential that I didn’t give up. I have been given amazing opportunities to work with incredible organisations.
One of those organisations in particular would be Curious Monkey theatre company. New Writing North encouraged me to get involved with Troupe, Curious Monkey’s theatre group for young people with experience of the care system. Because of this, I am now an associate artist and facilitator for Curious Monkey, and the writer of their film, 360. I can’t thank New Writing North enough for the support they have given and continue to give me.
If you could give one piece of advice to young aspiring playwrights in the North East, what would it be?
Never give up. As cliché as it sounds, it’s true. Submit to everything but also expect rejections. Think to yourself, “at least you’re getting your voice heard.” Also, go and see theatre you wouldn’t usually go to! Every show you see will help develop your craft.
Don’t keep your writing a secret; let people read it. Every writer thinks their own work is rubbish, so you need someone else to say “ya kna what, this is actually canny good, but maybe you could change, this, this and this.” Trust me when I say constructive criticism is a good thing.
Sarah Watson’s play ‘Zones’ will be performed at the Gala Theatre Studio on Sunday 6 October at 2pm.
This work was produced by participants on our Durham Book Festival Reviewers in Residence programme, a cultural journalism programme run by New Writing North Young Writers. Reviewers in Residence gives aspiring journalists aged 15-23 the chance to review books, attend events and interview authors at the Durham Book Festival. For more information about New Writing North Young Writers visit the New Writing North website.
Photo: Rich Kenworthy