I spoke to Laoisa Sexton about her writing process as an actor/playwright, and about her new play The Pigeon in the Taj Mahal – which is having its world premiere at The Irish Rep through December 31 – and what her future plans are on stage and screen.
I really only got into writing because I’m an actress and there is a serious lack of roles or good roles available– and I thought instead of, you know, moaning about it, I’d put the head down and go make something.
It was a learning curve at first, I know how to talk to a director as an actor, but I had to learn how to speak with a director as a writer. I had a good friend who’d worked at the Royal Court on new plays and they take them seriously there so I realized it was okay to say stuff, it's just how you say it, but I have learned you have got to collaborate with the right people and find the right collaborators. That's the hard part.
I am lucky to have Alan Cox directing this new piece. He's an actor too, and he uses improvisation to get to things, but he is also respectful to new writing, and comes with a strong vision.
I want to be actor in the rehearsal room and if the playwright is needed I'd rather do that outside of the room with the director.
As I write a play, I act it out as I go along anyway, I record it listen to the voices, so there will be a zillion drafts before it is unleashed into the ether. My first produced play, For Love, I wrote quite fast, although it probably was simmering in the quagmire of my noggin for a while.
I am trying to make work for myself and to make more female characters and tell female stories or stories with women in them, and women you have not seen on a stage before and for stories I can be part of as an actor.
It's not a vanity thing, it's just my vision includes my life as an actor. I wrote the part of Friday for myself in my new play.
I don't think people question this if you're a male actor and have written something for yourself but they do if you're female.
I’m still very much an actor and maybe I will write things that don’t concern me in time, but for now, I just can’t wait to get on the boards. Writing is so solitary and such a hard process, so very, very hard. I don’t really enjoy that part of it at all.
Everyone sees things different and you are really never sure what they see until you're in the rehearsal room, everyone is coming from a different point of view. I put a lot of pop music in my plays and sometimes a director thinks it’s sort of thrown in and it’s really not. It’s there for a reason to underline something in the charter or that particular moment. When I did The Last Days of Cleopatra, I had a whole song play at the end, and I was told "you can't have a whole song in your play"- but you can... you can do anything in the theater, it's just sometimes people don't see what you're seeing, and sometimes you will have to fight for those things but that's what the arts are about, that's what an artist is, it's a strong point of view about something. For some people, a play is something you hear but for me it’s something you see too. I like the space in between and the images, most of the time I start a play with an image or a series of images.
The Irish Rep produced my debut play in 2013 – and I was shocked that they did – it went really well and even received NY times Critics Pick. Then, I did my second play on my own (self-produced) and they came and loved it, so when I wrote this I sent it on to them directly.
They loved Pigeon right off the bat and offered me a reading and then they wanted to do a production, so it has been very exciting and loving experience. The Irish Rep is a very special nurturing place in that way.
For Pigeon, I had actor John Keating in mind. When I was younger and I first came to NY I used to see him in plays and thought he was incredible. I’d been in a few readings with him- the Irish crowd all know each other here in NY. We got chatting a while back and I asked him “If I ever wrote something with you in mind would you tell me you’re busy or would you come running?”. And he said he’d come running. So that was that.
John Keating plays Eddie The Pigeon who lives on an abandoned campsite on the outskirts of a seaside town in the West of Ireland.
The play sets new Ireland against old Ireland, urban against rural, technology against mythology and community based folklore against contemporary modern speech all under the roof of grinding poverty. There’s a hen party who go to this rural seaside town to celebrate and get lost and lose their phones, they’ve no power and they stumble across this man and during this night, they must all learn to communicate and speak each other’s language.
I guess it's also a play about empathy.
People have said to me that new Irish plays aren’t important because we’re not outside surrounded by bombs or civil war and that’s bullshit, because wars go on in kitchens everyday and are just as relative. I think it's important to put things up on stage that are representative of who we are now, as one day maybe it will be called upon, who knows.
I think all plays are about coming together, then you go off and maybe you learned something, or maybe you didn’t. But hopefully in between there will be dancing too.
I think it's important to put who we are on the stage, in all its beauty and ugliness. I have heard many people say to me, I would not want to spend anytime with any of those characters (in my plays) but isn't that true of most plays or films, interesting to watch it play out but who would want to live in that world or with those people. Isn't that why we watch films or go the theatre? Either that or to combat loneliness or depression and everyday banality.
There’s a lot of talk of workshopping plays and readings and I think “do you want to talk about it and sit on your bum or do you want to do it?” I mean you can workshop a play to death you know and an early death as well.I like things fresh and maybe a bit raw too. Tender.
I’d love to have my plays done in Ireland and the UK. I think they happened in New York because that’s where I was geographically at the time really. I'm back in Dublin now but I hope that happens.
I’ve started a film version of this story. I think it’d make a great film. I wrote a film and a TV series of my first play, For Love but it had three women in it having messy sex, taking drugs and drinking so everyone just compared it to Girls or Sex and the City, because that's just the way things are boxed you know. It's a hard fight to get female stories or at least stories with fully fleshed out female characters made, or at least that has been my experience so far.
I hope to get some self penned films made in the next few years. I have another new play too. I love the theater, that feeling you get is like no other, I could do theater everyday for the rest of my life, I'd be a happy girl. What’s amazing about the theatre, is that it’s one of the last ‘live’ things we have and no one can destroy that ever because no matter what people will come.
-transcribed by Steve McMahon