Playwright Lauren-Shannon Jones about life as an artist, theatre, and how we look at ourselves
© Photo Andrej Kapor
A „darkly playful interactive tour through a nervous breakdown“ is how the play Viva Voce is described on the website of the 2018 Dublin Fringe Festival. The one-hour play offers a female perspective on the history of madness, a mesmerizing performance by the playwright herself and a tumultuous installation of a talking cloud. A few weeks after watching it, I meet playwright Lauren-Shannon Jones at the Irish Film Institute to discuss her performance at the Fringe Festival and other projects. What follows is a two-hour conversation about life as a writer, collaborating, performing for the first time, the audience, social media, rituals, mental health and much more. Read about Lauren’s main insights, ideas and perspectives below:
1. On developing a play, collaborating and working in Dublin
For Viva Voce our point of departure was just me writing by myself. Way too much. And then bringing in people like director Luke Casserly, dramaturg Thomas Conway and also an actress, Karen Killeen and we just went into the text together. I don’t have difficulty letting others into my work. I think it’s partly because I’m a very depressive melancholic person. It’s natural for me to say „Please take notes, make it better. What’s wrong with it, tell me!“ I watched the video of the show back and was like: „I’m never going outside again.“ But that’s also a bad habit because I just need to center myself and say „This is what I did.“ But this is what I love about collaborating. It’s a really nice way to work. Writing by yourself can make you neurotic! Because I keep going over the same ideas and themes and sometimes things can become inhuman, unrealistic or dishonest. When you open it up, somebody else has the chance to say: „This once happened to me and I felt like this.“ It makes you feel more connected in a simple way. You’re not performing to an audience with 60 versions of you. With collaboration you have a good chance of making something more human. We developed the play for the Fringe Festival in the Fringe Lab. It’s great there are spaces like this! It’s huge and you can rent space and make work there. This is one of the reasons why Dublin is such a great place to be an artist. But we’d like to take Viva Voce elsewhere as well. After the festival we now have this massive list of things that were wrong with the play. So now we’re sitting down and try to fix it. We have to simplify it. I think giving it space within itself would be a good idea.
2. On becoming a writer and self-development
For a long time I was making things and would not really understand why I was making them. I was just writing without really engaging with the topic or why I was writing about it. For ages I was thinking ‚Oh, I’ll just focus on this for a while’. But then I had a massive nervous breakdown. And I realized I had to actually think about what I was doing. Living a superficial life can be really destructive, you know. To engage with what is really going on with people is important. I made an adaption of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman which is fascinating! It’s about these strange patterns in which people digest the other and the strange and Freud used it to illustrate his ideas about Das Unheimliche and that’s what’s really interesting about it. But the play I wrote basically turned into this horror story. I suppose taking distance from humanity through the genre of horror was comfortable. But you can always see the true neurosis behind it and that’s what’s fascinating! I have limited patience for fantasy. I never really understood it, I never got into Harry Potter books or anything like that because I just couldn’t find interest in it. Research, talking to people and finding what’s interesting about them … that’s much more appealing to me than imagining it. It feels more honest to me, you know. Or maybe I just have no imagination.
© Photo Tristan McConnell
3. On the sense of self
I think nothing is ever on one side or the other. I think it’s always both. I’m really insecure about my work but I’m also not really affected by bad reviews. It’s weird. I don’t know why. People are weird. I’m not a fan of self mythology like saying „I’m the kinda person who always does this“. However, it’s good to have the feeling that you’re not alone with certain kinds of things. Like star signs! I find them endlessly fascinating. I somehow don’t believe in them but I can’t get enough of it. I called my mum the other night and asked ‚Mum, what time was I born? Like, what time exactly!‘ to find out my ascendant. I don’t think it’s true but I’m into it. I can’t explain it. I think everybody does wanna know what they’re like. I’ve no idea what I’m like but I really wanna ask people. I don’t think you can really know yourself because you’re so plagued by all the small lies you tell yourself to survive. I have no idea what I look like. The pictures that I like the most of myself are the ones where my brother would say „That looks nothing like you.“ It’s weird being people. I like it.
4. On being in between projects, freelancing and rejection
I’m in a weird stage of my life right now. I finished the playwriting masters, did the Fringe show and then left the country. My partner was touring with his theatre company so I went with him to Boston, I went to Amsterdam, I went to London and then came back and just stopped. I had no idea what I was doing and got immediately…not seriously depressed but I still thought ‚Oh, shit.‘ So, at the moment I’m just trying to orientate myself and decide. That’s the thing! That’s the thing with these kinds of professions and freelancing and all that stuff: I think the idea of work is losing its power in a lot of ways, the idea that we need a 9 to 5 job in which we have to function. It’s good to set people up so they know there are more things to do. But that way you also have to strike your own path. And if you have any tendency towards melancholia or depression…it’s tough. You don’t have the cradle of someone telling you that you have to be there at this time and do that. You have to say it to yourself. You need to decide what you’re gonna do and make that happen. Once you get sucked into a project, it’s really relaxing. You know what you have to do, now you have to make it good. That’s your only job. And then you get there or you don’t. But in between those projects it’s a lot of re-orientation. You met me in a very strange time.
And also, you’re gonna be refused a lot. And you feel quite childish in your reaction, you feel exposed in your want. Because wanting something and showing that is a very exposing thing to do. It’s very vulnerable. That’s why people play games when they’re dating like, „Yeah, I guess you’re ok“ or whatever and not „I want you, I love you, I need you“. Because then, when people say no, it’s devastating.
5. On mental illness, ‚madness‘ and art
I think those motifs are recurring in all art. With Viva Voce I was trying to exorcise the elements of damage that come with a mental breakdown. I tried to put an end to my weird cyclical ways of thinking, find them and pin them down. But it didn’t work because the show feels unfinished and I have to go back and make it better. I tried to name the monster. That’s what they do in exorcism, right? They name the demon. That’s part of the process, you know.
A lot of the first part of Viva Voce is from a really good book called Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi. It’s the history of madness. It’s case studies of the famous female patients and the famous male doctors who would observe them and write about them. And that’s just that pattern: the idea that a woman is something to be figured out and the man to figure her out. That’s sort of an archetype.
6. On performing for the first time, working with the audience and the classics
I’ve never performed before Viva Voce. It was difficult because I have this anxiety of situations where I can’t leave which was why theatre was actually always difficult to go to for me. It’s not acceptable to stand up and leave a show. It was scary to know that I have to be on this stage for a certain amount of time. It’s a strange space. Including the audience into the performance was the most calming part for me. I like talking to people and I’m curious about them and I would’ve liked to include more of it but logistically that’s difficult when you don’t know exactly how the place you’re performing in works. But audience participation and breaking the fourth wall is something I need to look into more. If you are the person with the panic attack on the bus or faint in public (which is my fear, I’m a total fainter), people are usually just kind. The majority of people will catch you. And that’s exactly what interacting with the audience felt like. You open up that channel and people are actually really sweet and up for it.
It also feels weird to pretend the audience isn’t there. It adds this level of artifice that is unnecessary and strange. We know that they’re there. I don’t really like musicals or play plays. Classics are brilliant and they are there and famous for a reason. But I don’t fully understand why we keep doing them without changing anything about them – without deconstructing them. I think, again, if you want to do a classic you need a reason, get inside it, this is what you should – well, actually nobody should be doing anything … but I still think we’re kind of done with this. Also, I don’t think it’s enough to have a woman play the role of a male character in those classics. It’s great, it’s fantastic! But the canon is hugely underpopulated with female parts, female writers, female makers. Slotting them in doesn’t really solve the issue. Hamlet could never have been a woman. Nobody would have listened to her for that long. Ophelia doesn’t have more than three lines in a row. Shakespeare drowns her.
7. On studying theatre and playwriting
I did a masters of fine arts in playwriting. We had modules for analysis but it was mostly focused on practice. But the analysis modules were my favourites. I love writing essays about other people a lot more than making my own work. If I could stay in college for the rest of my life it would make me so happy. I think studying has made me a better person, a better artist and I think it’s made me feel very calm in the world. I think the more you engage with people and their (cultural) writing, the more you relax. I’d love to do a PhD. Years of reading other people’s stuff. The research stage is so nice. A reading list! I love it! I will admit that I have no idea how PhDs work. Can you just go and do one? Or maybe you have to propose a strand of research and maybe get funding. I’ll look into it. Usually the answer to most things is that you just walk in somewhere and ask.
8. On how to approach new work
The research stage is great. Underlining things in books. I think that’s why the pathological fear of actually doing something exists. Right now, I could be doing anything. Once you start, you notice that you can be one thing. And that’s quite sadly yourself. And you just have to live with that. But it’s hard to realize that there’s this unlived life. To be anything, you have to commit to being nothing. It’s terrifying.
© Photo Fenna Von Hirschheydt
9. On social media, focus and its effects on theatre
Choice! Netflix! There’s something freeing to not having it. At least to a point. I’m not condoning any kind of fascism here. But freedom is a conflicted thing. It can be torturous. Social media shows you all your unlived lives. Look at all those people and all the things they’re doing. Maybe I should do this, too. I’m not super engaged with social media. I have Instagram because it’s pretty and I like looking at pictures. I was about 17 when social media started coming in, so maybe that’s the reason I’m not too involved. But I think for younger people it’s getting really difficult. I can’t imagine what this is like. It freaks me out. I’ll know when I have kids. If I have kids. What would the choice be? If you’re bringing them up without social media you’re effectively raising someone who cannot live in the world. Cause a lot of jobs require people who have social media skills. I just hope it doesn’t interest them that much. Balance is key. I think when you get into anything a lot, it’s always tied to some neurotic impulse. A lot of people get involved with social media and feel like they should be doing something else, they should be thinner, fatter, more beautiful. Social media affects me in that it distracts me but not in the sense that I feel like ‚This kind of person has such a great life. My life is shit.‘ Everyone’s life is shit in some way. Probably this person’s suffering just as much as I am.
I think this might be why a lot of people get quite emotional in theatres nowadays because they’re not used to that level of engagement without tapping out. Like taking a breath and then go into the water again like when you check your phone during a movie at home. But being held under the water for that long is confronting and intense. We’re not used to this anymore. Theatre might be one of the last spaces of actual presence without phones. And swimming pools. At least if you ignore splash proof phones. The challenge is keeping your focus. This goes for the audience and the creator. I think a lot of art comes from thinking in a very small way. When your mind is in a thousand places at once, it’s not working.
10. On ritual and theatre
I could do with some rituals. Generally, my life is totally unstructured. I think theatre and ritual are closely related. When theatre works it feels like a ritual. It feels like this ancient form of witchcraft. All these disparate elements coming together into something that feels absolute. It’s transformative. I think of Pina Bausch for instance: I’ve seen videos of her stuff and she has some sense of magic in that she understands where someone should stand and how they should move around and cross the stage. And that combination of gestures is magic. And I couldn’t tell you why. It just feels like it. So, yeah, I think Pina Bausch was a witch, a very good one.
11. On advice for beginners and the urge to create
I can only say where I’ve gone wrong and that is not thinking about things enough. Thinking about the reason why you’re doing something. And being underread. I think it’s important to overread and to think about things very deeply. Being a playwright is not the reason for making things. I want to only every be making things because I think there’s something in there that’s transformative. A lot of time I was just making stories for the stories’ sake. It’s very easy to write a story as opposed to try to do magic. Never make things for the sake of making. But rather for the sake of themselves. A project must be so important I can’t think of anything else. It preoccupies me. I have to read everything it touches and I just have to see how it affects the world.
I think you can learn ‚being an artist‘ following a massive trauma. Your world needs to explode. You need to lose something. And within that new space comes the impulse to make things there. It reminds me of the book I’m reading right now by Rachel Cusk who I think is so brilliant. She was writing storybooks but didn’t want to do them anymore but instead wanted to change how fiction works. She worked with essayism and just revolutionized the entire scene. She wrote this trilogy: Outline, Transit and Kudos. It’s about this woman. We know that she’s a writer, we know her name is Faye, she’s going through a divorce and she has two boys, but apart from that she is a cipher, a non-character. And the books are basically her moving through the world and speaking to people. It feels unreal in the sense that people are sharing information with more depth, openness, philosophy and clarity than people usually do in conversation. They’re books written with a vacuum, a main character who doesn’t so much exist as become someone that you can enter. In a way that makes it very theatrical, something like audience participation. It becomes a polyphonic experience.
Where you can find Lauren
On Twitter and Instagram. I usually only use Twitter to promote shows. Maybe I tweet an occasional music video from Youtube on a Saturday night. Then you’ll know: I was pissed and now I need to show the world this Daniel Johnson clip. And Instagram is mostly for pictures of my dog.