Playwright Stef Smith: ‘I tread a thin line between darkness and light’
The Edinburgh Fringe has historically been successful for Stef Smith, who won a host of awards for Roadkill in 2010. This year she brings Enough – a show about air stewards. She tells David Pollock about falling into playwriting
Stef Smith smiles when it’s put to her – not at all seriously – that she’s an ‘accidental’ playwright. “I’ve heard that said before,” she laughs, sitting in the bar of Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema before a read-through of her new play Enough, one of the centrepieces of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme at the Traverse Theatre.
Smith’s swift rise to recognition as a playwright is a story that bears repeating. It began when she was 22 years old, not long graduated from the drama and theatre arts course at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University, and trying to build up her CV in the industry around Scotland. In 2008, she was introduced to theatremaker Cora Bissett, who was starring in David Greig’s hit, Edinburgh-set romantic comedy Midsummer (A Play With Songs) at the Traverse.
Smith had chosen the university course with the vague aim of specialising in directing and going to work in community theatre, which had inspired her growing up amid the hills and glens of the Trossachs. A keen poet when she was younger, any writing for theatre she had done was incidental – short scenes to practise her direction in university, or unseen personal projects she was playing around with.
“Cora read some of my writing, then asked me to be part of the process of making Roadkill,” Smith says, referring to Bissett’s site-specific show about sex trafficking, which was then in the early stages of development. “Initially it was to help with the devising process and write some monologues, then we got to the end and she said: ‘Would you like to write the whole script?’ ‘Okay…’ I said. ‘Sure.’”
When it premiered at the Traverse at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010, Roadkill was acclaimed, winning a Fringe First, a Herald Angel, the Amnesty International award for freedom of expression and the Total Theatre award for innovation, among others. After a transfer to Theatre Royal Stratford East, it later picked up the Olivier award for best production in an affiliate theatre in 2012.
“After it happened, everyone assumed I was a playwright,” says Smith. “I thought: ‘Okay, I’ll try this on for size’, and the rest is history. Now I can’t imagine it happening any other way. I don’t have any great ambitions to direct, and certainly not to perform. It hasn’t been a clear road – I don’t feel like I’ve climbed the ladder to get to where I am – I’ve taken many side roads, and I’m thankful for that.”
Despite Roadkill’s huge acclaim, Smith was unable to give up work selling bath bombs for minimum wage in Lush in Glasgow. “I was too broke. I remember standing at the till reading Joyce McMillan’s review [of Roadkill] in the Scotsman. Joyce had taught me at QMU. It was surreal. I worked there for two years after that. There’s a misconception that if you have a hit, suddenly the phone starts ringing, but I didn’t get a full-length commission until Swallow, almost two years later.”
In the meantime, Smith initiated small, self-started projects, including The Silence of the Bees, a site-specific work at that branch of Lush, which she describes as “the first and last piece I’ll write and direct”. The cast was great, but “conversation with a director is a massive part of my process. You surprise each other in moments, by talking around a play – I take up a lot of a director’s time, we have many coffees and glasses of wine”.
Most influential upon Smith’s work was the Traverse’s former artistic director Orla O’Loughlin. She commissioned and directed Swallow – a triptych of interwoven stories about women dealing with contemporary city life amid hints of magic realism – in 2015, when it was also a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe. Then The Girl in the Machine two years later, about the relationship of a couple hard-wired into social networks.
“She was the first person who sat down in front of me and said: ‘I want the play you want to write’,” says Smith. “That’s an incredible invitation.” With some positive words about the ability to access theatremakers professionally at all levels in Scotland – compared to the far bigger scene in London – Smith says she and O’Loughlin, now at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, will collaborate again soon. Her major plays with other directors are Human Animals at the Royal Court in 2016, an ensemble piece about a dystopian city overrun by wildlife, and this year’s Nora: A Doll’s House at Glasgow’s Tramway, a feminist re-imagining of Ibsen.
“I write a lot about female experience and I’m always keen to give the stage to female voices,” Smith says. “I tread a thin line between darkness and light, that juxtaposition feels very modern and contemporary. I write about mental health, but I think all playwrights do; about survival, a theme that’s very important to me as a queer woman in the world; and about conservation, both in an ecological sense and as conservation of self, of culture, identity and family.”
Smith was raised in the village of Aberfoyle, in a landscape she describes as very beautiful, but difficult for a teenage girl. Her mother was a secretary, her father an engineering teacher and her sister is now a social worker, although her maternal grandmother – whom she never knew – was from the Isle of Skye and sang Scots Gaelic folk songs at the Mod, the annual festival of Scottish Gaelic arts and culture, and the only artistic connection in the family.
Q&A Stef Smith
What was your first non-theatre job?
Chambermaid at a local bed and breakfast.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Assistant director on David Leddy’s Sub Rosa.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s scary to say no to work, but it’s okay. Your time is your biggest commodity.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
It’s too tricky to name a single influence.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Try not to feel alone. Find the people who support and champion you, and make sure you do the same in return.
If you hadn’t gone into theatre, what would you have been?
I would have worked with animals.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Nothing out of the ordinary. I try not to be too superstitious. I do press-night cards and make sure I give everyone a hug before the show opens.
Kirsten Adam, a friend from a nearby village who is now producer of the Connections festival at London’s National Theatre, asked if she might like to check out the drama group at the University of Stirling Macrobert Arts Centre. “I’m not a very good performer, but I certainly enjoyed it,” says Smith. “I met a tribe of people I hadn’t previously encountered, and after a while Mari Binnie, the woman who ran it, asked if I’d considered studying theatre. If it hadn’t been for her saying that, I wouldn’t have.”
Smith had originally intended to study anthropology (“because I love history and people”), but her actual choice of course taught her “everything – it was as practical as it was academic and cultural theory blew my mind, learning about queer theory, about Foucault. I came out a very different person from when I went in”.
As we speak, Enough, directed by Bryony Shanahan, is a few days from opening, and Smith’s return to the Traverse stage confirms her as one of Scotland’s most relevant and intriguing playwrights. “It’s about two friends who are air stewards. It’s a really hard one to talk about, because there are a lot of surprises,” she says. She started writing the play before Donald Trump’s election as US president and the #MeToo movement. “A big theme is friendship, which is underserved in playwriting, especially long-standing female friendships of the Thelma and Louise variety.
“The role of being cabin crew is fascinating,” she continues, “because it encapsulates somebody who is there to serve you but also look after your life. They’re still icons of glamour and grace, which I find extraordinary as I’m not that woman – I can’t do anything in high heels, never mind serve 150 lunches. They have to be incredibly tough and deal with some terrible members of the public. Glamorous and graceful and tough, that’s such an interesting Venn diagram of a modern woman. So what’s underneath that?”
Beyond August, the Traverse associate will focus on some upcoming television work, as well as developing more with the Royal Court and National Theatre of Scotland. “I want to work as diversely as possible, but to continue challenging myself,” she says, as rehearsal time approaches. “You have to be a bit nervous about what you’re making, otherwise you’re not pushing yourself. To maintain that within my work is where I want to be – on the edge of the unknown.”
CV Stef Smith
Training: Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
• Roadkill, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (2010)
• Falling/Flying, Tron Theatre, Edinburgh (2011)
• Remote, NT Connections Festival (2015)
• Swallow, Traverse Theatre (2015)
• Human Animals, Royal Court, London (2016)
• Nora, Citizens Theatre, Edinburgh (2019)
• Fringe First award for Roadkill (2010)
• Herald Angel award for Roadkill (2010)
• Amnesty International award for freedom of expression for Roadkill (2010)
• Total Theatre award for innovation for Roadkill (2010)
• Best production at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for Roadkill (2011)
• Olivier award for best production in an affiliate theatre for Roadkill (2012)
• Scottish Arts Club Theatre award for Swallow (2015)
• Herald Angel award for Outriders (2017)
• New playwright award from Playwrights Studio Scotland
Agent: Davina Shah
Enough is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from August 1 until August 25 (not August 5 or 12)
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