Interview with Blis-ta director Róisín McBrinn — Clean Break



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Roisin McBrinn Headshot

Interview with Blis-ta director Róisín McBrinn

Roísín's experience of working with Sonya Hale and directing Clean Break's audio drama Blis-ta

What made Sonya special as a writer?

So much of what made Sonya the extraordinary writer that she was, was about who she is, which I know might be an obvious thing to say, but it's not always the case that you can make that direct connection between how you meet someone and then how you meet their writing. But her energy, her fun, her dedication to poetry and to words was also how she presented her own self, which was always just a glorious thing. I'm not alone in saying that her loss is hugely about the artist that died, but it's equally about the most extraordinary human being who just touched so many lives with real joy, kindness and boldness. All of those things are definitely reflected in what we have of her as an artist also.

Can you tell us a little about her evolution as an artist and how, when and why she was offered a full commission?

So, a lot of what I know is second hand, because I wasn't at Clean Break at the time. As the story goes, from the outset Sonya was someone who blew people away in both her acting and writing courses she was taking at Clean Break. Lucy Morrison, who was looking after the artistic programme at the time, took Sonya on for a full commission. She wrote a short play for Clean Break in 2013 called Hours to Midnight about a woman who had just left prison and the very immediate pressures, particularly on someone struggling with addiction problems, and performed in Meal Ticket at Latitude Festival in 2014.

Was it unusual at a time for a Member to be commissioned in that way?

It definitely was unusual. It's very much central to what we're trying to do at Clean Break at the moment, in terms of ensuring that our Members voices are at the heart of everything that we do. But at the time, she was the only Member on commission to the company.

How did Sonya's past influence her as a writer?

I mean, it's a bit obvious to say thematically…it's all there in the play, two girls living on the streets and it's about dependency on substances and about sex work. But it is something deeper than the themes. It's a more unedited approach than you might get from someone who has experienced it more intellectually or in a second-hand way. There's just no apology in Sonya's truth and the fact is that when we talk about unheard stories, I think it's become a kind of a byword in the industry, but through her lens, it's every nuance of it that is unheard. The whole thing is so fresh, and, you know, that was who she was. It's hard to think that she would have brought that freshness without what she lived as well.

Can you hear Sonya’s voice when you listen to the play?

I had this really spooky experience when we were recording the play at the National Theatre (who gifted us time and space right in the middle of the lockdown to support Sonya). We knew that Sonya had left the hospital for the last time and there was a lot of emotion around the whole process. I felt almost stupid that I hadn't felt it before, but I think it was something about Ria and her interpretation. In the character of Cherry, there's so much of Sonya that's just completely vivid. Ria, with her accent was the perfect embodiment, and they both hold a kind of playfulness that's really big.

Blis-ta was originally commissioned a number of years ago. How has the play evolved over time?

Well, it was one of those commissions that just took a very long time. And there were loads of reasons for that. Sonya was at a very early stage of her development as an artist when it was commissioned, and she was also doing lots of other creative work, but she was also battling with her health throughout that period. But it took what it took, and I know she loved it in the end.

We performed it live as a staged reading at The Bunker in 2019 as part of our 40th anniversary celebrations. It might have been that that was its life span, and it was what it was, but after that it continued to evolve in parallel with her growth and who she was and where she was going and what that meant and how her mind changed along the way.

The other thing about Sonya is that she had so much to say, her lyricism and her connection to poetry was unbelievable and the flow would sometimes just come at this mad rate. In the introduction to Blis-ta, Lucy Kirkwood mentions that Sonya once sent her a version of the play that was something like eight hours long and I had a 10 hour play at one point and I just loved the fact that she just couldn't stop which was a brilliant thing, we're so lucky that we got some of that flow.

Was Sonya involved in the decision for Blis-ta to be an audio drama?

Yes, she was. It wasn't the first choice; we didn't leave The Bunker saying it’s not a stage play let's make it into an audio one. We were talking to the Arcola about putting it on there and there were various different conversations. But then Sonya got in touch late last August and said I haven't got long to live so hurry up and do something! It was a tough challenge not least because we were in a pandemic, but we came up with two versions of how we could do it in that timeframe with the restrictions that were in place and we offered her those two. One was to be that we would rehearse the play and stage it and then film the staging and the second was to edit it and make it into an audio play. When I handed her the two options, she pounced on the radio version! She could hear it, I guess, and we were lucky that it didn’t take much to make it right for audio and that was largely because of her lyricism and because her words were so evocative.

To be responsible for that voice, how did you go about casting Ria and Ambreen?

Ambreen was attached to the project for a long time. Amongst the ways Sonya liked to work was to hear it, so we facilitated that on many occasions. Ambreen and Sonya had loads in common, Ambreen is a writer too, they respected each other as artists and they developed a gorgeous friendship so, in a way, we were never going to do it without Ambreen. Ria had also been involved in it from the early stages and I remember calling Sonya, who was in hospital by that time, and I suggested Ria and she said “yes, yes, yes” so it was a done deal! The pair of them are so brilliant, we were very lucky to have them.

Did you have to change the way that you approached your preparation and planning for directing the piece?

I've never directed a radio play before, so I got some help and advice from a brilliant radio director called Jessica Dromgoole and a brilliant woman called Abigail Gonda, who kindly gave me loads of Audible recordings to have a listen to, to get a clear idea about what I liked.

It wasn't until I was making it in the booth, that I realised - yes there's some technical things that are different that are easily resolved but in fact there isn't that big a difference between the processes it's about working with those actors to embody the text and to get the truth from it. And we just had a great laugh. It was one of those mad things where we knew how important it was, we knew where Sonya was through those days and just how real that was, but we were kind of with her in those ways because of the words and we really laughed for the whole of the recording in a way I hope celebrated her through that time as well.

What could you achieve with an audio drama that you might not have been able to achieve with a live theatre piece?

We are really excited about this venture for all of the obvious reasons, for how much we love the play, how much we love Sonya, how important we believe this story is, but it's also another digital venture for us. One of the big things that’s happened to us in the past 18 months is that we've sped up our digital ambitions in a major way. We have ensured that all of our Members have MiFi and tablets and the possibility to access what is our online engagement programme and we have made a film which is also going to be released very soon. We have developed some major relationships with partners to create really dynamic events and this is significant as well in that journey where we are hoping to continue to create work in the audio sphere.

Do you think this allowed you to consider accessibility and reaching new audiences?

Whilst we've really missed live performance and being with our audiences in theatres and sharing our work, one of the exciting things about lockdown is that we have developed and created and extended a new audience through our work with our academic partners, legal partners, and women sector partners. The exciting thing about that is, of course we are always interested in making new friends, but also that some of that has been international and the potential of that reach is really exciting and emboldening for us and you know it's all about access and that is one of the big wins of this. Someone from Spain can see your work in London but also hopefully someone who couldn't have afforded it can access work and there were also elements around physical and visual disability that we hope will make this piece an extension of our work and reach more people.

What are your aspirations for this piece, for Sonya’s legacy and the audio drama in Clean Break’s repertoire?

We want as many people as possible to hear this and that's massively connected to everything we do. Sonya was a Member of Clean Break and she in so many ways summed up the best of that, she was an incredible friend to so many of her peer Members, she was a shining light for all of us in the amount and the quality of the work she achieved, and she was just a woman that we should hold high for everything that she did in her life and the transformation that she realised in herself and the generosity that she dug into to share it with us. So, the more people that hear this the better, we want to shout loud and proud about Sonya as an artist.

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