One of British theatre’s rising stars tells Cariad Lloyd how she swapped cultivating cells for cooking up fresh new drama.
Sam 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
Cariad is part of improvised comedy troupe Austentatious!, who you can (and should) catch at the Underbelly Edinburgh from 6–31 August. Cariad & Paul: A Two Player Adventure takes place at the Pleasance Courtyard from 25–29 August.989 Views
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