Review Fix chats with playwright Sue Bevan, who discusses her upcoming production, An Audience With Shurl.
About the Production:
What’s a girl to do when, at just fifteen, she’s forced to give up her newborn for adoption? Follow our tragicomic Shurl in her search for connection in what feels like an ever-shifting landscape. The play draws upon Sue Bevan’s own experience of losing her child to adoption when, at the age of 15, she gave birth to her in a poor, tight-knit neighborhood.
About the MITF:
The Midtown International Theatre Festival returns for another summer of quality stage works. New York’s oldest continuing theater festival will present 100 plays in 23 days.
One of the leading reasons to visit New York in the summer is the theater – from Shakespeare in the Park to the best of Broadway. New York is also known for its amazing theater festivals. This year, the venerable Midtown International Theatre Festival takes its place as the oldest continuing summer arts festival in New York. To usher in this honor, producer John Chatterton presents nearly 100 new and fascinating live stage works – plays, musicals, variety acts, short plays, solo projects, and so much more. Visit www.midtownfestival.org for further info.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Sue Bevan: My creative process is pretty diverse. Many moons ago I took a Masters in Contemporary Theatre Practice in which we explored a whole range of methods for producing theatre – writing, devising, collaborative, alone, hi-tech and low – and I draw on different things and use different processes for each piece on which I work. Recently I’ve set up the only professional theatre company on the small island in the UK where I live, and we’ve just brought to the stage a play for which I won an international award when it was first penned as a one-act play. It’s been great working with a bunch of other women in this process, and it’s been very different from my work on the show I’m currently bringing to MITF. In the case of An Audience With Shurl, the process was mostly a pretty solitary one. It began with the character, Shurl, and writing a little in her voice, drawing on memories and life writing. But then it took a turn towards responding to a variety of stimulus: music works well for me, and in the case of one particular fictional scene I simply spoke spontaneously the whole scene from start to finish as I listened. This first draft is still in the show almost exactly as first voiced. With another scene, I walked the riverside and watched the story as it played in my mind’s eye. That one needed a greater degree of editing. In yet another, I was influenced by photographs of the place where I grew up. At times I will simply place myself in a black box and wait, or go to an art gallery, research a field extensively, write a poem. Something usually results. I rarely share much of my work beyond immediate family until the first draft is complete. In the case of this solo show, after its first few outings with two live musicians as well as recorded music and lots of fancy lighting states, I was forced at one point to pare it right back to two lighting states, one woman, one story. It undoubtedly grew enormously as a result of this honing and crafting, and the final product (albeit that it is still organically changing in nuanced ways) is now totally coherent and much more powerful.
Review Fix: What makes this different or special?
Bevan: I’m open to working in any way at all, depending on where the piece takes me. I’m not sure if this is necessarily different or special, but it does make life interesting! The freedom to explore a range of practices, and to weave technology through some pieces while keeping others technically simple and yet still captivating, is a constant delight. I love the complete ownership of the process that comes with the solo show I’ve written/devised, directed and performed, and that feels pretty special from my end. From the response of audiences and reviewers, they also seem to think it produces something wonderful for them. That certainly feels good, but it’s also a rather risky business, leaving nowhere to hide if the audience hates it. Fortunately, I haven’t had to contend with that yet! I hope New York doesn’t prove to be a first in that sense.
Review Fix: What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Bevan: Getting An Audience With Shurl off the ground was a terrific learning curve for me. I had a twenty-year break between previous tentative forays into the world of theatre and then working on this piece. Back then I’d been developing work in a cooperative company I’d established, which had grown to some dozen women. Now, this time around, I would be working utterly alone. Somewhere along the line, I’d lost confidence in my own creativity. But I was determined that having spent twenty years working in a different (more financially secure) field, I was now going to do my utmost to ‘make it’ in theatre – whatever that meant! I had no road map, no idea where I was heading, and a truckload of self-doubt, but I kept telling myself that one day I would take that giant leap and ‘give up the day job’. So I developed this solo show while I was still teaching and lecturing economics and international business and performing on the side. Then little by little my confidence grew as more and more people gave me terrific feedback and the 4* reviews rolled in. When Shurl was nominated for the Outstanding Performance Award at Prague Fringe – alongside fully professional, internationally-touring, seasoned actors – my mind was made up. I quit teaching, and for the last two years, I’ve been Artist-in-Residence in a school. This summer I go totally freelance. I’ve now performed Shurl more than fifty times – in London; in South Africa as one of only five non-African shows invited to the triennial Women Playwrights’ International Conference, where it received a standing ovation; in Boston, where it was invited for the launch of a network for Babyboomer women; in Sweden, where it ran alongside an international sculptor’s exhibition on migration; and for the whole month at Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So what did I learn about myself? Well…that I should believe in my creative abilities and the power of the show I’ve developed; that women really do belong centre-stage, and that includes me; that I have, in this piece, a voice others want to hear, and not just women; that I have more stamina and tenacity than many people half my age; that some things are universal – and An Audience With Shurl clearly captures something which is. Oh, and that it is possible to launch yourself as an artist at the age of sixty!
Review Fix: How does it feel to be a part of something like this?
Bevan: There is something about being part of a festival that replenishes the human and artistic spirit. Theatre brings together such diverse voices and exciting people, and they all believe in the value of Art. Meeting others from across the field and across the world is always an enriching and exciting experience. So, it feels both thrilling and terrifying in unequal parts. Fortunately, the thrill wins out – so far!
Review Fix: What are your ultimate goals for this production and for the future?
Bevan: ‘Ultimate.’ Gosh! Well, I guess there’s short-term and long-term. I’d like the show to be an artistic success here in The United States, and to touch people in the same way that it has in other parts of the world. When I performed in Boston a while back, people kept telling me, ‘This is such a New York piece – you really have to take it there,’ and now I am, so I hope you guys love it. And then…well, it would be great if it were to be picked up by a producer over your end of the pond, and rolled out more widely! Theatre doesn’t come more portable than this – I can travel with the entire show (set, lights an’ all) in the trunk of my car – and I’ve yet to find someone left unmoved by it. So you never know…
Review Fix: What do you think your audiences will enjoy the most?
Bevan: One of the reviewers described the show as, ‘Storytelling at its very best!’ and audiences love being taken on a journey to another time and place. The Americans, of course, tend to adore the British accent, albeit that mine is Welsh rather than English! They are also often fascinated by where the line between autobiographical material and fiction is drawn, and will wait around to talk with me after the show. Darrel Bristow-Bovey wrote in (South Africa’s) Cape Times: ‘That hour gave me what good, honest, crafted, generous art can give: we were strangers in a room, intimately sharing something. We weren’t alone.’ I hope people will come out feeling they aren’t alone.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Bevan: After MITF I’ll be off in September to San Francisco Fringe with the show, and hoping to find some other venues to perform while in New York – fringe theatres, bookshops, libraries etc.. I’m also planning to take An Audience With Shurl to Chile next year to work on a performance involving simultaneous translation into Spanish, which will then be taken to Patagonia where there’s a large Spanish-speaking but proudly Welsh community. Back in the UK I’m in the early stages of putting together a national and international tour of Shurl, as well as a national tour of Mum’s the Word. And in between it’s a case of creating new shows and getting on with the writing of two half-written plays sitting on my desk. So…here’s to more theatre!