Playwright Stef Smith, who made her name with a play about human trafficking, talks to Susan Mansfield about the many challenges of her latest project
Stef Smith is no stranger to tough subject matter. After all, her first full-length play was Roadkill, the Fringe hit directed by Cora Bissett which was acclaimed for its hard-hitting, original take on the story of women trafficked for the sex industry. But her latest play, commissioned by Glasgay!, is guaranteed to start a debate or three.
Cured, which opens at the Arches on Tuesday, examines the phenomenon of “conversion therapy”, which claims to “cure” gay people of being gay. Conversion camps may be thought of as a phenomenon of the United States Bible Belt, but Smith believes the underlying ideas are also creeping into secular Europe.
Smith is clever and chatty and warns me that “the licence to talk is one that I take too freely”. The challenge in making the play, she explains over coffee at the Tron, has been not laughing the idea out of town. “It would be so easy for me to get angry about it, or to laugh at it,” she says. “But I set myself the challenge to see the other side. I wanted to understand: why are people engaging in it? Why are people choosing to go to those clinics?”
What she uncovered was a set of ideas which she found even more disturbing: people who believe being gay is abnormal, or even dangerous, who see their sexuality as a scapegoat for other failures in their lives. But she wraps all of this up in a play about “love, identity and the Golden Girls” where actresses Julie Hale and Mary Gapinski play four very different women.
When Smith wrote the script for Roadkill, she was a new graduate from Queen Margaret University. In the three years since, she has become one of Scotland’s most talked about young playwrights, and one of the busiest. In the last few months she has had a play at Oran Mor (Woman of the Year), has written a play for young people in Aberdeen about mental health issues (Grey Matter) and taken part in the highly successful Whatever Gets You Through the Night, which was revived for the Fringe. At the same time as Cured, another new play, Swallow, will receive a rehearsed reading at the Traverse.
To research Cured, she watched hours of YouTube footage of men and women who claimed their lives had been changed by conversion therapy. “It’s quite common for men and women who have gone through treatment together to start a relationship, which is a whole other level of surreal. I watched this clip about a man and a woman who had got together after they had both been ‘converted’. The woman said, ‘It’s great because he gets to pick all the colours for the bedroom, and I do all the DIY’. And I’m thinking: is that not because you’re a lesbian and he’s a gay man and you’re just building a life together? It’s hilarious, but also desperately tragic.”
Smith was commissioned by Glasgay! producer Steven Thomson because he felt the festival needed more female voices. “For me Glasgay! is a place to tell a story you couldn’t tell elsewhere, and that is very much about the politics of sexuality. I was also interested in female stories about what it means to be an older gay woman, or someone who comes out later on in life, because it’s a really different landscape.”
Smith grew up in the Trossachs town of Aberfoyle, first encountered theatre through the youth theatre based at the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling and was inspired enough to apply for a degree in directing at QMU. “I entered university hardly knowing anything about theatre, so my first year was a crash course in learning everything I probably should have known already. I saw so much theatre at the Traverse, and when I think that I’m writing for them now, I have to pinch myself. That place has launched the careers of so many of my favourite writers.”
Another great inspiration was playwright David Leddy, and it was while working as assistant director on his play, Sub Rosa, at the Citizens’ Theatre in 2009 that she met Cora Bissett. “She then rented my spare room in Edinburgh during the Fringe (when she was appearing in David Greig’s Midsummer), read some of my work and really liked it. The following March, she asked me to come along and be part of the development process on Roadkill. I said, ‘Sure!’, a bit wide-eyed and not knowing much really. A couple of weeks later, she asked me to write the script. It was a huge whirlwind.”
Roadkill opened on the Fringe in 2010, part of the Traverse programme but transporting the audience by minibus to a flat in Leith Walk where the story of a vulnerable young woman trafficked from Nigeria was played out. With its uncompromising approach and its fine performances, it won a clutch of awards, including a Scotsman Fringe First, and transferred to London, where it won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Affiliate Theatre. It has since played in Paris, Chicago and New York.
Smith says the play’s early success almost passed her by, as she was back living in Glasgow working as a shop assistant in Lush. “I remember one day on my way to work, someone from the company rang me and said, ‘We’ve won a Herald Angel’, and I remember thinking how surreal that was, because they were all off to the awards ceremony and I was selling bath bombs to people. I don’t think it was until months later when I looked back and thought ‘Oh yeah, that was pretty cool and exciting’.”
But she has been able to travel to see the play on its US run. “That has been pretty exciting, I’m not going to lie. Now when I go and see Roadkill I tend to watch the audience to see how they react. I don’t think the American audiences were quite ready for the intensity of it.”
Still just 26, she remains grounded about this early success: it has opened doors, but it has also made it harder to experiment with new work under the radar. “I think that kind of success can sometimes skew your idea of yourself. I’ve still got a lot to learn and I’m learning all the time. I feel like I’m making work this year that I couldn’t have made last year. But it’s funny to think I probably won’t have another show that’s as successful as Roadkill.”
I wouldn’t be so sure. Smith’s work is smart and thoughtful, with no shortage of substance. She says that the one thing that links her plays is their “social conscience”.
Her play at the Traverse – first advertised as Doll Parts, now called Swallow – is about the tendency of twentysomething women to self-destruct. “It’s about young female anger, I suppose, and how that presents itself. I feel like in the past few years there has been a closing down of identity and a kind of regression.”
Next month, she’s off to Canada for a month’s residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta on the edge of the Canadian Rockies, where she’s keen to explore native American storytelling and man’s relationship to the natural world. “The terrible thing is that I’m not very good with wilderness, I’m not a very outdoorsy person,” she laughs. “My partner said: ‘Do you have anything suitable for snow?’ and I said: ‘I don’t think so!’ It looks like a phenomenal place, just the landscape alone – it’s like the Trossachs on crack isn’t it?”
Cured is at the Arches, Glasgow, from 22 to 26 October, for more information see www.glasgay.co.uk. Swallow will have a rehearsed reading as part of Write Here 2013 at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 23 October.