Experimental playwright Eve Leigh is becoming an increasingly intriguing voice in UK theatre. She talks to Matt Trueman about her new play The Trick, which uses magic as a metaphor for grief, on leaving space for other artists and how her work in game design has influenced her writing
Eve Leigh has a theory about making theatre work. “The first thing is not to bore audiences,” the experimental playwright says. “But before that, thing zero is not to embarrass them.” Well then, what embarrasses audiences? “Being asked to believe something that’s not really happening.”
Safe to say Leigh won’t be hiding behind the fourth wall any time soon. Naturalism is not for her. Instead, she swims in the same waters as Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp and Tim Crouch and, at 34, she is an increasingly intriguing voice.
Spooky Action at a Distance – named after a colourful Einstein criticism of quantum mechanics – staged by Royal Welsh students, brilliantly juxtaposed the anger rippling across the world with the spread of migrants and refugees. Her debut, Silent Planet, cross-examined subversive storytelling among Soviet dissidents, while Stone Face questioned communication through the case of a non-verbal child raised – and abused – in isolation. It set Buster Keaton against Josef Fritzl.
For her next script, Leigh has written a magic show. Forget The Illusionists though, The Trick uses magic as a metaphor for grief – a means of dealing with the disappearing act that is death. Premiering at the Bush this week, it hinges on a bereaved woman and her deceased husband – “his ghost, if you want” – but Leigh’s script is really a string of illusions that offer a new way of looking at letting go after loss.
“It’s about belief and magical thinking,” Leigh continues. “It uses illusion to look at the ways we construct coherent narratives in our brains that might differ from the biological realities around us.” Sometimes, in other words, we ignore facts for comforting falsehoods. And she knows what she’s talking about. Leigh used to be a palm reader, her partner is a close-up magician and the play was itself written out of grief – a hard process, but a helpful one too. A place to put painful feelings down.
The Trick wants to help. It is performance with a pragmatic purpose in mind – “an attempt to build structures for dealing with grief.” Its roots are religious, born out of Leigh’s own Buddhist practice and the Jewish mourning ritual of sitting shiva. Her director, Roy Alexander Weise, comes straight from Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night, centred on a similar funeral rite.
Such set structures can be reassuring, says Leigh. “Having to think on your feet can be very taxing when you’ve lost someone you love. How might I design an experience for audiences, without reference to any particular denomination, that will take us through these feelings and help us collectively reckon with loss.”
First non-theatrical job
First theatrical job
Assistant stage manager at the Arcola.
What do you wish you knew when you were starting out?
The importance of having fun in show business. The more you enjoy your life, the better your work is going to be.
I you hadn’t been a playwright, what would you have done?
Game designer. I’d do my other job, just better paid.
Any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
On press night, I like to light a match and let it burn down to my fingertips, but I don’t expect to be cursed if that doesn’t happen.
That’s a sign of Leigh’s evolution. Her work in game design and dramaturgy has, increasingly, informed her writing practice. “A lot of the plays I’ve written coming down the pipeline are very different from those that have been put on.”
She has, she says, grown more formally adventurous, seeking inspiration in restless artists such as Roland Schimmelpfennig and Young Jean Lee, writers that refuse to repeat themselves. “I’m making more striking choices on the page. I’m leaving a lot of creative space for other artists. I feel that’s how the most exciting theatre is made.”
Raised in New York by a musician father and visual artist mother, Leigh knew early on, she wanted to follow suit. “Just knowing it can be done, that you can actually work in the arts, that’s worth it’s weight in platinum.” By 16, she’d tried her hand at directing. By 17, she’d done a full play – The Dumb Waiter. At Cambridge, on a scholarship, she “directed like a maniac,” 18 productions in just three years. She had her first West End transfer, Lisa Kron’s Well, within three years of graduating, then, during a National Theatre directing course, changed tack. “We weren’t quite speaking the same language,” she recalls. “I ran out of excuses not to write.”
Without training, Leigh never questioned her practice. “I didn’t ask questions – why theatre, what works – I just knew I liked it.” The Trick comes five years after her full-length debut, longer than might once have been the case, and she’s now evolving on the go.
Funding cuts have hit emerging playwrights hard. Emerging experimental artists all the harder. “It does lead to conservatism,” she says. “It’s much easier to programme someone with a track record. A lot of people are very frustrated. There aren’t many opportunities and you have to stick around.”
Leigh seeks to stay positive, seeing patience as a virtue. She’s sought overseas residencies (“immigrant hustle”), created participatory shows and dramaturged devised work. All of it, she says, pushes her practice on. “I’ve just had to write a shit ton of plays that haven’t been produced yet. That’s cool. I’ve got a really deep bottom drawer.”
Born: New York City (1984)
Landmark Productions: Silent Planet, Finborough Theatre (2014); Stone Face, Finborough Theatre (2016); The Curtain, Young Vic Taking Part (2016)
Agent: Jessica Stewart, Independent Talent
The Trick runs at the Bush Theatre until March 23