Sam Potter has had a long and varied career in theatre, most recently seeing her debut play, Mucky Kid, open at Theatre 503. She shares with A Younger Theatre her thoughts on playwriting, career changes and dealing with rejection.
What was the inspiration for Mucky Kid?
I had known about Mary Bell since I was a teenager because the village I grew up in, in Norfolk, housed Wayland prison and there was a rumour at school that Mary Bell lived somewhere nearby. However, apart from knowing that she had killed two small children when she was ten, I didn’t know anything more about the case. It must have been somewhere at the back of my mind though, because when I had my first child, I found myself wanting to learn more about Mary Bell. I suppose I wanted to try to understand why she had murdered two children at such a young age.
How did you conduct your research and then shape that into a play?
I started by reading the two books that Gitta Sereny had written about Mary Bell, and then moved on to newspaper archives and comment pieces. In the second Gitta Sereny book, Cries Unheard, I came across the fact that she had escaped from prison at the age of 21 and gone on the run for three days and I thought that story would make a good play. The play I initially wrote was a straight chronological dramatisation of that real event but I felt constrained by that shape – I felt I couldn’t talk about the subject as a whole in any depth because at that point in her life she had no understanding of why she had done what she had done. I then started to think about writing a broader play and Paul Robinson at Theatre 503 encouraged me to take the story out of sequence. […] The eventual shape of Mucky Kid came out of me trying to express what I’d experienced in my research – which was a sense that people who are damaged don’t hold a linear narrative of events. There is an element of confusion in their own minds about how things had happened. When I found the shape I have now I knew it was the right shape because it was a different shape to any other play I’d read.
Tell us a bit about your career to date and how you came into writing?
I directed for a long time – the best part of 10 years. I worked at the NT, RSC and Glyndebourne Opera. I loved assisting but when I went freelance and started directing my own work I basically realised I was in the wrong job. All my creative ideas were about what I wanted to write, so although it seemed like a crazy decision at the time, because I had built up a good level of experience as a director, I just bit the bullet and decided to follow my heart. I started Mucky Kid, which is my first play, in 2010 and for the last three years have been essentially teaching myself to write. Alongside all my work I have always done literary work of one sort or another, when I was directing I used to script-read for the NT and Soho, and then that developed into becoming the Literary Manager at Out of Joint and now the Creative Associate at Headlong. I think it’s good for writers to be a part of the theatre world and I love working on other people’s plays as well as my own, so its suits me to do both.
Has your work as a director and literary manager shaped how you write plays? What was it like changing roles?
I think the two things have shaped me in different ways – having worked as a director means I have a very clear and practical imagination about what is achievable on stage. I also know what actors are capable of. I love seeing them stretch themselves so I try to write them parts where they can do that. Having worked as a literary manager means I have a lot of knowledge to fall back on, obviously, but I also find it really creatively stimulating to see what other people are writing. There’s nothing better than reading something brilliant. Good plays have so much energy in them because they are blueprints for a performance – they’re just bursting with it. Changing roles was horrendous – not so much the handing over, more that I hadn’t appreciated that writing feels so much more personal than directing. I’m still not used to that yet.
What was it like working for Out of Joint?
I learnt more about theatre from Max [Stafford-Clark] in two years, than I had during my previous 10 years working all over the place, so I’m enormously glad I worked there. The best thing about working for a smaller company is that you get to see how everything works. I was sat next to the person doing marketing and press, I could hear the producer setting up dates with theatres, I was part of the commissioning process and saw first-hand how those plays were chosen and developed. Before working at Out of Joint I had worked mainly in big institutions where you never see any of that stuff –at the NT, for example – the marketing and press all happens several floors up from where the work is made. It’s like a separate company. Working for a smaller company is actually a lot more useful for when you go on to make your own work.
What advice would you give to young theatre makers who are thinking of writing a play and trying to get their work produced?
I genuinely think the most important thing is to focus on your work. Really work hard at writing the best play you can write. It’s very easy, especially when you are young, to get distracted by the other stuff, the business side of things, but the work is the thing you have control over and it’s ultimately the most important thing. Also – almost every play that makes it to the stage will have been rejected somewhere along the way, Chimerica for example – so don’t be disheartened if that happens, just send it to the next person. I would also say that to make sure your work is at its best you need to hear it out loud. Everything gets thrown into sharp relief when you hear plays. So make sure that happens before you send it anywhere.
What’s next for you?
I have just been appointed the Creative Associate at Headlong, who are a company I have admired from afar for a long time, so I’m thrilled to be working with them and I’m just researching a new subject ahead of writing a play in the New Year.
Mucky Kid playied at Theatre 503 last year. For more information see the Theatre503 website.