Ones to watch in 2018: playwright Frances Poet

Frances Poet has spent years working in the theatre, but her debut full-length play, which opens at the Traverse in April, marks her transition from editor and commissioner to fully-fledged playwright, writes Joyce McMillan
Frances PoetFrances Poet
Frances Poet

It was the autumn of 2015 when Frances Poet finally felt able to say to herself, “Yes, I am a playwright.” She was 36, she had two young children aged five and three, and she had come into playwriting via many other jobs in theatre; but when an early draft of her forthcoming Traverse play Gut was shortlisted for the 2015 Bruntwood Prize, she felt she had come home to the work she truly wanted to do.

“It was a great feeling,” she says, over a cup of tea in a Glasgow cafe, “and I really don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t taken a year out to have my son in 2010. At that point, I had already stepped back from my ‘career’, if that was what it was. I had a little bit of time to think about what I really wanted to do, and to start doing it; and that was what made it possible to make the change.”

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At the time, Poet was literary manager at the National Theatre of Scotland, a job that involves not writing, but editing, judging and making recommendations on the plays of other writers. She had been in the job for four years, and loved working closely with the NTS’s founding director Vicky Featherstone and associate John Tiffany; and before that, she had done similar jobs at the Bush and Hampstead Theatres in London.

“But you know, you really can’t do both at the same time,” says Poet, “that is, be a writer and a literary manager. When I first got the job at Hampstead, I had this strange moment with a playwright. I was already trying to write a few things, and he was mentoring me. We finished the session, and then he said, ‘Oh, and would you like to commission me to write a play for Hampstead?’ And I felt this shift, this change of status and role, and I realised there was an incompatibility there, and that for a while, I would have to focus on the literary manager work.”

Born in Yorkshire in 1979, in an East Riding village that endowed her with a strong, down-to-earth Yorkshire voice, Poet grew up in a family that was not theatrical, although she had a couple of grandparents who loved theatre; and after doing some acting at school, she moved on to St Andrews University, where she rapidly established herself as a student actor and director. She also met her future husband, film and television editor Richard Poet; and they both began a love affair with Scotland that brought them back across the Border soon after they married. “We just didn’t want to be in London,” she says now. “It’s a great city, but we didn’t want to make our life together there. Then the job at the National Theatre of Scotland came up, and that was that – we moved back to Glasgow.”

By 2010, though, Poet was pregnant, reassessing her life, and feeling ready to make the move back into the relatively precarious world of playwriting. She worked with the late, great David MacLennan and his company on their superb 2012 Play, Pie and Pint political cabaret, The Jean Jacques Rousseau Show; and with MacLennan’s encouragement, Poet went on to write her first play, a 50-minute supernatural study of love and opportunism called Faith Fall, which appeared at Oran Mor in October 2012, soon after the birth of her second child.

Since then, there have been brilliant short ‘Classic Cuts’ adaptations of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, Racine’s Andromaque and Strindberg’s Dance Of Death, and Poet’s two-handed version of Andromaque, retitled Who Put The Blood, has just been revived at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin by its original director, Graham McLaren. In the past year, Poet has also worked with Dominic Hill at the Citizens’ on his brilliantly vivid and visceral short studio version of Macbeth, with Cora Bissett and Adam Kashmiry on the National Theatre of Scotland’s smash-hit Traverse Festival show Adam, and with Lu Kemp at Perth on a forthcoming full production of Richard III. And she is now looking forward, come April, to the Traverse production (with the Tron and the NTS) of her first original full-length play, Gut, which will be directed by Zinnie Harris.

“I just love all these script projects that come to me from other people, and that really call on my skills as a wordsmith, if you like,” says Poet. “But the trick is also to find time for your own ideas, your own projects. That can be hard; but I now have Gut more or less ready for the stage, and two other plays taking shape – one called Fibres, about the asbestosis crisis faced by so many families, and one provisionally called White Eyes, about a future in which gender has been almost entirely abolished.”

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Gut is also a play about family, revolving around the difficult judgment calls parents have to make about how much freedom to give their children; and that direct, no-nonsense concern with familiar human dramas and tragedies seems typical of Poet, as a writer who combines a deep human warmth with a memorably sharp and vivid way with language, and a ruthless edge of creative courage and vision in handling it. “I love Ibsen,” she says, “I love the way he creates these protagonists who face dilemmas that absolutely draw the audience in. And that’s why I love live theatre best, although I have written for other media; that challenge of drawing the audience in, and making them a living part of it.”

For the most part, though, Poet’s main feeling at this moment in her career is one of gratitude, particularly to a Scottish theatre scene that she feels has made it possible for her to change track in mid-career, and to become the writer she needed to be. “I am grateful,” she says, “maybe above all to David MacLennan, because like so many other people I feel that without that great man and his openness and encouragement, I just wouldn’t be the writer I am today.

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“But I’m also grateful to institutions like the Scottish Playwrights’ Studio and Cove Park, for giving me space to write with two young children in my life; and I’m grateful to the whole creative community in Scotland, for being much more open, I think, to the possibility that people can be more than one thing, and that you maybe have to be more than one thing, to make a creative life work. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s a smaller community than in London, or because people have a chance to know one another better, and to see aspects of each other that are not being fulfilled. But for me, it’s been wonderful; and now, I just can’t wait to see what this year brings.”

Gut is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, from 24 April-12 May, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 15-19 May,;