Written by Cariad Lloyd

Voices

Odd Job: Sam Holcroft

One of British theatre’s rising stars tells Cariad Lloyd how she swapped cultivating cells for cooking up fresh new drama.

Sam Holcroft_Standard IssueSam Holcroft’s play Rules for Living recently opened at the National Theatre, with a cast that included Stephen Mangan. But becoming a playwright was not a natural progression for Sam: at first she was headed for a career in biology labs.

What did you want to be as a child?

I wanted to be an actress. Ever since I played the Lion in The Wizard of Oz at primary school. But as I grew up, I became more and more self-conscious and I started to suffer stage fright. I was good at science so my teachers encouraged me to pursue that instead.

I went to university to study developmental biology, and started to think that I might make a good scientist one day. I loved labs and pipettes. But I’d caught the theatre bug very early on, and there was no getting rid of it. By day I was working in a lab happily pipetting growth hormones into dishes of cells, and by night I was happily writing plays for my student theatre. When the time came to choose between a PhD or pursuing creative writing, I chose the plays.

How would you describe what you do?

I write stage plays for the theatre. This means that I write the script, which the director, actors and design team use to create a production of the play. Mostly I write plays that have been specifically commissioned by theatres. Often it will be an ‘open commission’. This means I have the freedom to write about any subject I like.

Other times I might be writing to a brief: a theatre may ask me to write on a certain theme, or to adapt a book or true-life story for the stage. It usually takes me a year to write a play. But most recently it took me three. It was a tough nut to crack, but ultimately more rewarding.

I work from home. I try to stick to ‘normal’ working hours – nine ‘til five. It doesn’t really work. I’m usually up in the middle of the night, jacked on caffeine, racing to meet a deadline!

How did this become your job?

It took a while. I spent 10 years temping or working in various part-time jobs. (I can pretty much fix any photocopier.) Playwriting doesn’t pay very well when you first start out. So it takes time to earn enough to go full-time as a writer. But stick at it and it does pay eventually. One commission will lead to another, and momentum will slowly build. The day I was able to quit my part-time job and announce (to myself) that I was a full-time freelance writer was one of the best days.

“Telling stories for a living is a huge privilege. I get paid to make things up and smash them together in ways that are hopefully entertaining.”

Has being a woman affected your work?

Yes, I reckon so. I think when you’re a writer you put a lot of yourself into your work, and I’m a woman, so I expect that’s embedded in the writing. I’m very lucky to have been championed by a lot of brilliant women. My work has been directed by a series of formidable female directors. But the theatre industry needs more women – many more women – we are vastly outnumbered by the men. So come and join us!

What’s the best thing about your work?

There are so many things I love about this job. Telling stories for a living is a huge privilege. I get paid to make things up and smash them together in ways that are hopefully entertaining. Being a freelancer affords me huge flexibility. I don’t have to ask anyone to take time off to go to a doctor’s appointment. I don’t have to log my holiday days (although I probably should). I can start work when I want, and stop when I want.

But maybe best of all is collaborating with other theatre people. As a writer you spend a lot of time alone, writing. So those rare weeks of development and rehearsal, when you’re in a room with lots of creative people, buzzing with energy, are the best part.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Someone posted a quote on Facebook. I printed it out and stuck it above my desk. It comes in handy whenever I feel like a complete fraud and everything I write is rubbish (which is at least four times a day).

Ever tried, ever failed, no matter.
Try again, fail again, fail better.
– Samuel Beckett

@ladycariad

Cariad is part of improvised comedy troupe Austentatious!, who you can (and should) catch at the Underbelly Edinburgh from 6–31 AugustCariad & Paul: A Two Player Adventure takes place at the Pleasance Courtyard from 25–29 August.

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Written by Cariad Lloyd

Cariad is a comedian, actor, improviser and writer. Her dream is to one day pay off her student loan and to finally find the perfect concealer. @ladycariad