Sue MacLaine

Sue MacLaine is a theatre-maker, writer, performer and director with a singularly driven voice. She writes scripts that are intensively researched and constructed. Her work is inventive in form, poetic in language, full of wit and dead-pan humour. She casts a fearless gaze on both herself and her subject to write scripts that are bleakly funny and challenging whilst remaining compassionate and warm. She is particularly interested in marrying form with subject.

Still Life: An Audience with Henrietta Moraes continues to tour art spaces and galleries and was short-listed in 2012 for a Total Theatre Award in the category of ‘Innovation, experimentation, and playing with form’.

Sue’s show Sid and Valerie co-created with Emma Kilbey was part of Summerhall’s festival programme in 2013 and Sprint Festival in 2014 and the Sid Lester Christmas Special has become a festive season highlight.

Can I Start Again Please combines and collides two languages in an attempt to comprehend an incomprehensible action. In 2015 it won the Total Theatre Award in the category of ‘Innovation, experimentation, and playing with form’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Sue is developing a new work entitled ‘vessel‘ that has been co-commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre and The Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts with support from the University of Manchester and The Place. The show will open in October 2018.

Sue is also a qualified, registered and working British Sign Language/English interpreter specialising in rehearsal/performance interpreting.

Wrathfully compassionate to an audience

 PC: What is theatre?

SM: I don’t know… I think that we all come together in a space and we slightly heighten our personalities or we choose to show certain parts of ourselves and not others. So I think theatre is a place which offers the opportunity for people to be the best versions of themselves.

PC: What do you mean by ‘versions’?

SM: As a writer/performer I use who I am and my autobiography as a starting point for the things that compel me. Then it’s about finding whether or not the things that personally compel me can have a public resonance and whether or not I can make what is personal, publicly accessible. To do that I have to do quite a lot of work both as a writer and as a performer – or I choose to do that work.

Different performers and companies have a different relationship with audience don’t they? Some can be challenging, some can say: “You’re there and I’m here, whether you get to where I am is not my concern.” Whereas I think my overriding philosophy – if that is the right word – is to be wrathfully compassionate to an audience. There is challenge both in the form of my work and also in the things that I’m talking about, but, for me, it’s really important that that’s a compassionate challenge rather than a sort of throw-down challenge.

Still Life – Sue MacLaine Photo by Matthew Andrews

I don’t want them to be sitting back.

PC: How do you blur the boundaries between performer and audience?

SM: In terms of thinking about the audience when I’m making a piece, I want to say we’re here together. I don’t presume that my life history or the things that I’m interested in interrogating in my work are particularly unique to me. I don’t have the monopoly on these stories. I have a perspective on them but I don’t have a monopoly on them.

I’m interested in trauma and how you absorb and integrate that into your life as a human being. The absorption of it and the acknowledgement of it is important for me. I suppose I apply that to the relationship with the audience: there isn’t necessarily a hierarchy. The details of the stories I present might be different but I never feel like I am trying to educate people.

PC: How do you establish that tone at the start of your work?

SM: So far I’m always on stage or the performers are always on stage as the audience come in. I’d say that is the same for most contemporary performers. I’m also always on stage when the audience leave as well. I don’t tend to enter and exit much and that feels like a choice that breaks down that artifice of arriving.

I use quite a lot of silence in my work and I find that to be a really thrilling place.  I think that, to some extent, has been informed by my experiences in therapy. I learnt about there being this third space in therapy: there is the therapist and then there’s me, and then there is this third space which is what is happening between us. That third space can’t really be articulated in words but it has a huge amount of information within it that requires an active engagement. That’s what I expect from my audience: I don’t want them to be sitting back.

PC: How does a decision like being naked as Henrietta in Still Life fit in with that?

SM: I say it in Can I Start Again Please – “Nothing bad is going to happen here. There is no problem here, I don’t have a problem, we’re alright.” At the start of Still Life I’m sitting in a robe when the audience come in, and then I stand up, take off the robe and I do a 360 degree turn, quite slowly, quite definitely, until I’m back facing the audience. I’m standing and I’m naked and the first line is: “This is what we’ll be working with today.” That is sort of it for everything that I do, it’s like: “This is it…”

I’m doing that work because then I know that in the creation of something and the decisions I’ve made, I’ve gone as far as I possibly can to the places that scare me – I don’t mean that I’m scared to be naked in front of people but each phase of a show is really thought through. I think about work for a long time so that I’m really clear about the psychological, dramaturgical, personal and poetic decisions that I’m making. Having done that thinking there was no way that Henrietta couldn’t be naked. I make several decisions that trigger other decisions which lead to more and more until it’s clear what has to happen.

Can I Start Again Please – Sue MacLaine and Nadia Nadarajah – Photo by Matthew Andrews

The imperfection of memory

PC: How do you collect and record those decisions?

SM: I’ve got endless journals. I had a ring binder with different sections for Can I Start Again Please because it was probably the most complicated. I tend to follow the academic thing of: read above, read around, then read specific to the thing. I make lots of notes and then at the end of each week I go through those and carry forward what I want: there is a gradual distillation of things.

What tends to happen is that I don’t actually write anything to do with the play for a really long time. I might have a line: so in Can I Start Again Please there is this paragraph that arrived quite early: “Nothing bad will happen here, everything bad has already happened, this is the aftermath, the flip-flop washed up on the shore, the teddy-bear in the wreckage.” I just let that come and live with me; I really don’t try and make it do any more work than it has already done. I don’t introduce it to other thoughts for a long time, instead it all just builds. Then I get to this point where there is no more thinking to be done. I don’t know when that comes but I know when it’s right and then I sit down and write pretty much the first six to ten pages. Those don’t often change, they certainly set the tone. I pretty much wrote Still Life in one go and that was then edited back. By the end, all the component parts have earned their place.

PC: How does memory influence your work?

SM: I’m fascinated by the imperfection of memory; the nostalgia of memory; about who you’re talking to influencing your memory and how you want to sell yourself. That comes through in everything that I have written, you know Sid tells the same stories over and over again. Henrietta talks about this memory and that memory. Still Life is constant poetic snippets, she never quite finishes stories: she introduces names of people and never explains who they are, so she is snatching at memory.

PC: How do you capture the idea of imperfect memories and the limitation of language in Can I Start Again Please?

SM: The precision of language and either it’s failure or it’s success was the whole dramaturgical underpinning of Can I Start Again Please. What happens when you put these languages in parallel and then all of a sudden they start to clash and collide and work up against each other? It meant that nobody owned that story, nobody knew whether I was Nadia’s [Nadarajah] interpreter or if Nadia was my interpreter in the piece. There’s some English and then there’s sign language; there’s sign language and then there’s English; they’re working in tandem or they’re working simultaneously. And then there is the scroll we’re both reading from so it’s a pre-prescribed version of something because it’s written down but it seems to be really true: it seems to be happening in the moment.

I set myself the task to tell the definitive version of what happened to me as a child. It failed, but as a piece of theatre, to present that attempt and to see the failure of it was the whole piece.

PC: How did you control that failure so there was space for interpretation?

SM: There are very few times when we look at each other, it’s all straight out, so when I say: “Don’t interpret that.” or “Are you interpreting that?” or “Why have you stopped interpreting?” It’s not clear if that is me saying it to Nadia or Nadia saying it to me. As the piece goes on that becomes a question to the audience, it becomes about you having to do that work: “I’m just going to pause while that is interpreted.” and “Why have you stopped translating?” That is as near to a dénouement as I’m ever going to get in the piece. There is a lot of silence in it when we go: “Here have that…” and it is up to people to fill those gaps.

Sid and Valerie – Sue MacLaine and Emma Kilby – Photo by J.J.Waller

It’s about witnessing and being witnessed.

PC: Did you want to capture the fragility of semantics – the fragile meaning of words?

SM: I was interested in the fragility of cognitive schemas in a way. I could say to you, in what would seem to be the clearest terms possible: A, B, C, D. If you have no schema to pull up to meet that piece of information coming in, it’s not going to be fully understood. #Metoo has happened after Can I Start Again Please and this notion of telling people about trauma and abuse is complicated because telling doesn’t make anything better if nobody understands what you’re telling. The complexity can be lost and it becomes so reductive that actually I would prefer not to tell – I’d prefer not to speak about it unless you can talk about the nuance.

PC: Does theatre allow for that nuance?

SM: I think it does. It demands: “Look, stay with me, stay with me on this and I’m going to do this.” If I have won that engagement with an audience, either at the beginning of the piece or if I’m constantly working on respecting that engagement then they’ll follow me into complex ideas.

Reflecting on ‘What is theatre?’ again, I’m slightly weary of making any sort of headline: ‘Theatre is…’. I’m uncomfortable about it because that would be pinning stuff down, but if I had to have a t-shirt printed I’d say it’s about witnessing: it’s about witnessing and being witnessed.

PC: How does playing yourself connect with more traditional forms of acting?

SM: I don’t know whether I am playing myself, I think I’m a rinse: I rinse stuff through me. It’s a bit like the old photographic system: I’m the developing solution rather than the photograph.

PC: How do you finish your shows when they deal with the difficult themes of trauma and abuse?

SM: Still Life and Can I Start Again Please both end with long finale speeches which are incredibly poetic and are a bit like an epilogue: they take everything that happened and go – [exhales].

PC: Do they act as a kind of compression chamber for your audience?

SM: Yes, I don’t want my audience to be brutalised at all. I think those long speeches take people out of this relationship that they’ve had with me and all of a sudden lets some air in.

Watch the documentary about the process and tour of Can I Start Again Please here.