Image credit: Max Johns

‘One of the reasons I’m a playwright rather than, say, a novelist, is because I love connecting with a live audience in shared space’ explains Bea Roberts, Devon-born playwright and winner of this year’s Theatre503 playwriting award. Roberts is devoted to making work that challenges both herself as a writer and also her audience’s attitudes towards the West Country world that she hails from:

‘It’s become increasingly important to me as a place to locate my writing and tell interesting stories of the lives people have in rural communities that involve things like taking drugs, having access to email and being an actual human in the twenty-first century rather than sitting whimsically on a hay bale.’

Whilst the West Country setting is prevalent within most of her work, that’s by no means to say she follows a prescriptive structure or form in every project. Instead, Roberts described an attraction to the new and unknown in her writing.

‘I think there’s an element of masochism in it as I seem to only get excited about projects that also scare me a little and force me to confront that horrible little voice we all have that tells us we’re going to fail.’

She also explained the important role comedy plays in all her work: ‘I love writing comedy, when I first started writing it was all I could write and I genuinely don’t think I could create a piece of work that didn’t have some element of comedy in it. But more than that, my sense of humour is how I cope with life.’ But her writing isn’t purely comedic; it’s also dark and Roberts seems to move seamlessly between humour and tragedy. I was interested in why she chooses to focus on this delicate intersection between genres.

‘I think it’s one of the most fascinating places to take an audience where something is both darkly funny and also sad…we’ve all had that moment where something terrible is happening but someone cracks a joke and it’s horribly funny.’

Take a look at the variety of work she’s written and you’ll immediately notice a pattern of experimentation, moving between different forms and styles bravely and unashamedly. And Then Came The Nightjars, winner of the Theatre503 playwriting award, follows a fairly traditional dramatic structure. Roberts started the play shortly after completing her masters –  ‘I was still very new to writing and I wanted to craft a ‘proper’ play by which I mean a drama with a fourth wall, long, real time scenes of characters trying to negotiate their relationships under pressure from internal and external forces.’ Three years and many drafts later, she got the itch to do something entirely different and eventually arrived at her most recent piece: Infinity Pool.
‘I spend my time trying to craft scripts in such a way that the dialogue and stage directions are expressive enough to convey the whole experience of a play as I imagine it in my head. I wondered what would happen if you just presented the audience with the script – would the dialogue be enough to carry the story without actors interpreting it for them?’

Infinity Pool is a re-telling of Flaubert’s novel Madam Bovary. It’s a love story in an immersive blend of projection and sound; a one-woman show communicated predominantly through a powerpoint presentation and performed by Roberts herself. As a show without actors, I was interested in as to whether Roberts felt Inifinity Pool was still a live experience.

‘I suppose the best way to describe my role in the show is as a silent narrator; I am delivering almost everything live. For example, I’m timing the delivery of all the dialogue so I can respond to the audience as much as possible and time the comedy properly…I guess it’s a similar argument to seeing electronic music live; they’re still musicians and they’re still performing but they’re using samples and loops and non-acoustic instruments.’ She adds, ‘And I’m going to stop talking about electro now before I fully show up my age and lack of coolness.’

This bold and experimental piece seems to affiliate itself with a whole canon of contemporary performance experimenting with technology’s capacity to engage with real human emotion. Roberts has re-located Madam Bovary and placed it inside the very real world of the internet, a world that is evidently just as affecting as any reality, if not more so – ‘I can honestly say it’s the only show I’ve ever done where people start confessing things to me afterwards because they feel like they’ve seen a private part of their inner world on stage.’

I asked Roberts what advice she’d give to young writers and theatre-makers at the start of their careers. Among other things, she described the importance of an open-minded approach to your art, which is something that certainly resonates in her own work.

‘Try not to close your mind to anything by making decisions on what you like and don’t like and how you’ll work’.

And Then Come The Nightjars will be on at Theatre503 later this year and Infinity Pool is touring to Exeter, Plymouth, Bristol and beyond.