Interview with searingly honest playwright and actor Sarah Milton on the female point of view and other insights
TUMBLE TUCK is headlining the ‘Who Runs the World’ season of work by female playwrights at King’s Head Theatre. What is the burning female point of view that you are most wanting to give with this play?
Tumble Tuck specifically looks to explore the meaning of success in a world where grades, money and medals matter – all through the eyes of a young woman struggling with her mental health, confidence and ability to accept herself.
What I wanted to get across with Tumble Tuck was about establishing self-confidence and the idea of being successful. Of course, these aren’t limited to just women: anxiety, feeling unsuccessful and difficulty with self-belief are common across the sexes.
That said, the point of view that I’m trying to put across with my work generally is that there aren’t enough female voices on stage. That’s why ‘Who Runs the World?’ is such a fantastic festival.
As it’s a one woman show, written and performed by yourself, is the play personal to your own experience in life?
Narratively, the play isn’t based on my own life experience. But in regard to mental health, swimming and having a difficult relationship with a parent, it is. Daisy takes a lot of her anger out on the person she loves the most, which I think we can all relate to.
Where did the inspiration for the story come from?
I was dealing with an anxiety and panic disorder and I’d just moved back home with my Mum to help get a hold of my financial situation and my health. I started swimming at the local pool and got pretty good. The daily exercise was improving my anxiety, along with some prescribed medication.
I then trained one day next to a local swim team; they could have been triathletes, they were that fast. Swimming next to them suddenly made me feel like I shouldn’t be in the pool with them.
I didn’t go for a couple of days and missed the water and started to feel very unwell again. I managed to go back and thought about how I’d compared myself with the strength of those swimmers. Their ability shouldn’t make my swimming any less valuable to me. I thought about how I’d felt a similar feeling to this professionally and growing up with a grading system at school.
Finally, I wrote the swimming race that Daisy describes in the first scene and then out poured Tumble Tuck - the journey of one young woman trying to translate the confidence she’s finding in the water into her everyday life.
You also performed solo in your play ‘The Night Tella’ in Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. Just how much pressure is on you as both writer and performer?
The Night Tella was a spoken word, short fifteen-minute piece about the very sensitive, difficult subject of sexual assault. I never go into a rehearsal with a protective bubble over the script. As a writer you have to be prepared to ‘kill your darlings’ and make the piece work.
I’ve been blessed with directors who know how to identify what works and what doesn’t. There’s an audience who want it all to go well and a wealth of work by the directors, the producers and the technical teams on stage with me so there’s pressure and nerves to an extent, but ultimately you serve the work and the work will serve you.
You are no stranger to pub theatres, as you had incredible acclaim with your play ‘Lucy Light’ (September 2017) at the Bedford in Balham (Theatre N16). What do you love most about pub theatres?
The fringe and pub theatres are absolutely vital to any young artist’s career. It’s where you cut your teeth and learn your voice. What I love about pub theatres is the intimacy of the venues and acclimatising to outside noise.
When Theatre N16 was at Balham, the train station was right outside, and hearing commuters go by would add to the atmosphere. At The Hope Theatre you get the police sirens on Upper Street. At The Old Red Lion, you hear the football fans downstairs. Sometimes the sound of live music seeps into the work and it makes the work feel exposed somehow. The size of the venues also makes it feel like a secret: something that can be shared so sensitively with the audience. They’re beautiful spaces with a different kind of impact which you just don’t get with the main stages of London.
Your first play, an audio piece called 'The Flower Show’, ran for three weeks at The Royal Court during July 2016, making TUMBLE TUCK your fourth play. What have you learnt about writing and acting along the way?
Actually, Tumble Tuck was my second play! My first play was called TidySham, which was long listed for the inaugural Adrian Pagan Award with The King’s Head in 2013. I then joined the Soho Young Writers where I wrote Tumble Tuck in 2014.
One thing I have learnt is that it takes a very long time to go from page to stage – and ultimately that’s a good thing. The Theatre N16 housed my third play Lucy Light in 2017 when I’d written the first draft back in 2015! A rejection from one theatre or production company doesn’t mean a play is bad, it just means it’s not right for them at the time. The journey of a play doesn’t stop at writing it. It becomes a team effort between the cast, creatives and theatre. You have to work with people you trust to get it right.
Is there a particular strand or theme that runs through all your plays?
One theme that does tend to run through all my work is the female-orientated issues. For example, Lucy Light is about the mutated breast cancer genes BRCA 1 and 2 and Tumble Tuck is about defining success and confidence in young women. I tend to choose female-centric stories because there just aren’t enough of these on stage at the moment.
What can we expect of your upcoming performance in TUMBLE TUCK?
A bright pink swim hat and a lot of KitKats!
Finally, what are your ambitions for the future?
To keep writing and performing! I’m currently developing a five-hander play which is being written for a larger scale and hopefully I’ll finish it after Tumble Tuck and really get to explore it further.
Tumble Tuck photography by Alex Brenner
King’s Head Theatre, Islington, N1 1QN
Tuesday 24th April – Saturday 12th May 2018, 7pm
Tickets from £19 (concessions £17) Previews from £11
Box Office www.kingsheadtheatre.com / 020 7226 8561