THE NOISES is a very unusual play for several reasons. Firstly, the writer, Jacqueline Saphra, is mother to the director, Tamar Saphra. The play has been written from the point of view of a dog. It has a sound design which is another character in the play ... and every performance has fully integrated audio description for blind and visually impaired audiences.
We interview mother and daughter team to find out more.
The writer Jacqueline Saphra
LPT: Hello Jacqueline, could you start us off by giving a brief overview of the story.
Jacqueline: The heroine of this story is Luna, a dog, the family pet of Ma, Pa and teenager Ellie. We see and hear everything from Luna’s perspective. Ma has locked her in a small room, and from there, Luna tries to piece together and make sense of the dialogue she is hearing from inside the house as well as getting to grips with The Noises coming from the outside world. When Ellie, Luna’s only real friend, goes out into alone in the dark, Luna is fearful of losing her. As the night goes on, The Noises are getting faster and louder and Luna, still locked in her room, knows she must find the courage to somehow escape; she must save Ellie from a terrible and imminent danger she senses but can’t quite comprehend.
LPT: The premise is so original, where did your ideas come from? And what can we expect to see?
Jacqueline: I was not a dog lover until we gave in to our youngest daughter and adopted a very traumatised rescue animal I thought I could never love. How wrong I was. I found myself becoming increasingly attached to this trembling creature and more curious about her history. Because she couldn’t tell us what she’d been through, I began to imagine her life story from myself. I could hear her telling me things! This had to be a play. From there it was a slow process of finding empathy, discovering the voice, sensibility and diction. From this central character, a clear story began to emerge. I firmly believe that all creatures on this earth are connected and I know that we share something like 84% of our DNA with dogs. I’m not going to spoil it by telling you what you will see, but I can tell you that you won’t see a woman in a dog suit wiggling her ears and wagging her tail. You will be entering a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar.
LPT: Was there something really driving you on to write this play?
J: Fear is a big part of it: the fear that I feel as a mother when my children come home late or aren’t in touch, fear for the future, fear of violence and fear for the innocent. And who is more innocent than a child or a domestic pet?
The other big part is that sticky thing, love. What does love really mean and how can we harness it to find the courage to act; to take the risks necessary to connect with each other and do something good in this world?
Also, there is a huge creative challenge and madness in writing a play for a dog! The plays I enjoy most are the ones that leap into the unknown and challenge our reality; theatre has the unique capability to bring audience and theatre-makers together to create a world in one space and time through building a mutual imagination.
LPT: The play was shortlisted for the 2017 Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting in 2017. It’s taken a while to bring it to the stage, what did that journey involve?
J: Mostly it involved banging my head on the desk through endless, endless revisions, drafts and re-drafts based on feedback from Tamar as dramaturg, but also from a network other writers and theatre professionals I trust. Writing a play is like planting a huge forest, then entering it and trying to put the trees in order without chopping them down. It’s immense and kind of impossible in a glorious way.
LPT: As an award-winning poet and a commissioned playwright, do you find that writing poetry and plays are two very different skills? How does your poetry feed into the playwriting?
J: Poets have a long and honourable history in theatre going right back to the Ancient Greeks, on through Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, right up to the writers like Sarah Kane and Alice Birch. My training as a poet has given me discipline and certain structural and language tools to bring back to my playwriting: the art of distillation, stripping the work back to its essence, thinking hard about metaphor and harnessing it to serve the story. And finally, not being precious about any bit of writing unless it truly serves the whole.
One of the things I’ve rediscovered is the joy of channeling a voice completely different to my own. In my poems, however hard I try, I can always hear my own voice coming through. When writing this play, creating a central character who is not at all like myself, suddenly I found I’d vanished - and created a character with a mind and will of her own who had the capacity to surprise me.
I can’t let this question go without mentioning the thrilling art of collaboration. With poetry, you leave the white space on the page for your collaborator (the reader). In writing a play, you leave space for all the other artists and art forms to make the final work. As we enter rehearsals I’m aware of our team’s wonderful interdependence and I know I’m not alone.
LPT: In this mother and daughter collaboration, who’s the boss?
Oh, she is. Always has been! But seriously; I don’t think there is one. We have the benefit of a very long relationship behind us. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses very well. There is a mutual respect combined with a willingness to be tough with each other. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be working with someone who understands me and my work almost as well as I do, and sometimes better.
The director Tamar Saphra
LPT: Hello Tamar, it’s so unusual to have a mother and daughter team working so closely. How did it come about?
Tamar: I know to others it might be, but it actually doesn’t feel particularly unusual to us! We’ve worked together a bunch of times over the past three years or so, although admittedly this is the largest project we’ve ever collaborated on. I’ve been gently dramaturging ‘The Noises’ since it first appeared in 2015. In 2016 I moved back home for a while, and we were both working from home a lot and meeting in the kitchen for cups of tea. We started talking about the play more, more drafts were emerging from those conversations and the play was steadily growing. We got a bit more organised about it, scheduling official script meetings in the living room. In 2017 ‘The Noises’ was longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize, and in 2018 we decided to stage it. Before this decision, I suppose we were both doing a bit of a dance around each other for a while, me perhaps more so, because whilst we knew we could work together as playwright and dramaturg, directing this play is a much more complex beast. One thing we have in common though, is that we can’t resist a challenge.
LPT: Is mother allowed in the rehearsal room? Go on, you can tell us … we won’t tell anybody
Tamar: Of course she is. It’s like any other writer-director relationship. We need her there because she knows the play best of all. Every time I tell people about this they always say ‘Wow, I could never work with my Mum!’ and that’s just not been my experience at all. We have such an easy language with one another. It’s actually a real comfort having her there. It’s also a gift to work with such an experienced writer, and maybe it’s also something to do with her being a poet – she’s so robust and receptive when it comes to working on the play, pulling it apart, digging into it and re-shaping it, and her imagination is boundless. It’ll be a joy to have her in the rehearsal room.
LPT: It’s not your usual kind of play, what difficulties do you envisage having to overcome?
Tamar: Well, a human has to play a dog. That’s a challenge. The language is complex – heightened, poetic and experimental. The sound is ‘another character’ in the play, so we’re integrating the sound design into the making of the work. As ever with a fringe show, although we’re funded by ACE our budget is still fairly small, so we’re battling against that. Luckily I’ve recruited a small army of incredible artists to work with to tackle the more challenging aspects of the production.
LPT: You’ve got a fabulous star in Amy McAllister (Call the Midwife and Scorch) for this one-woman play. What did you see in Amy, that made you think, she’d be perfect as Luna the dog?
Tamar: Jacqui and I both know Amy from the poetry scene – she’s a brilliant poet, as well as an actor – and she performed at a big charity poetry event Mum and I organised to raise money for Women’s Aid. We knew from this that she was interested and skilled in playing with language and artistic form. We saw her in Scorch, and found her performance totally electric. Amy’s extremely versatile, brave and energetic as a performer, is very tuned into the rhythm and pulse of dialogue, as well as being incredibly physical, which is a rare combination to find in an actor. Amy worked with us on an R&D of ‘The Noises’, and her natural understanding of the work and readiness to play and explore its world was so energising, we knew she’d be perfect for Luna.
LPT: Although it’s a one-woman performance, sound is used as another character in the play. Could you tell us something about Tom Parkinson’s sound design and its innovations?
Tamar: We start rehearsals next week, and the nature of the play asks that the sound design be built in the room as the play is made. So, I can’t tell you much about it yet! One of the key elements of the play is that you can hear the human family speaking from outside the room. The challenge in the crafting of this is that we hear all of it from Luna’s perspective. The wonderful thing about experimenting with a sound world that we can never fully understand (i.e how a dog hears the world) is that we get to make it up!
LPT: Every performance has fully integrated audio description for blind and visually impaired audiences. How are you managing to incorporate this into the show?
Tamar: The play quite naturally lends itself to being accessible for blind and VI audiences. The language is very active and descriptive, and the sound design is rich. Whilst in bigger spaces with more actors and more aesthetically complex action you might need headphones for audio description, in this one you really don’t. The Audio Description will be played as part of the sound design, so everyone will hear it. There’s not much of it though (it’s mostly at the start), because we’ve made text adjustments so that description is almost fully built into Luna’s dialogue. You may not even really notice it. I’m interested in how access can be artistically integrated into theatre and become another layer to the work rather than an afterthought. There’s also something really interesting to play with in this piece in terms of its relationship with its audience. It’s very confrontational and direct, so the presence of AD adds another layer to this in terms of placing the audience within the work.
LPT: What do you hope audiences will take away with them after the show?
Tamar: The play is about a lot of things, but to me, the offer at its heart has always been one of connection – that amongst the chaos the world throws at us, we have one another, and maybe that’s enough. I hope audiences will be moved and shaken, but overall hopeful. It’s also funny (I hope!) and playful and pretty weird and wonderful. I hope audiences’ expectations of what theatre can be and can do will be tested and expanded. I also very much hope fellow artists in the audience will take away a permission to be braver with incorporating access into their work.
Liam McLaughlin Presents:
Old Red Lion Theatre, 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ
2 – 20 April 2019
Box Office: www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk | 0333 012 4963
@March 2019 London Pub Theatres Magazine Limited
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