Laura Wade - The Hottest Young Playwright Around?
Philip Fisher meets the Critics' Circle, George Devine and Pearson young playwright awards winner and Olivier nominee.
Even on a wet and windswept day in the gardens at Russell Square, the hottest young playwright around, Laura Wade, appears without a hair out of place with a big, if slightly shy, smile on her face.
Still only in her twenties, the fair-haired Miss Wade always looks elegant and gives the impression of a high-powered business executive on the way to the top. Amongst a community where shabby is chic, this is both refreshing and makes a big statement about her outlook.
Currently, she has been enjoying the early success of Catch, an experiment commissioned by The Royal Court in which she joined April de Angelis, Stella Feely, Tanika Gupta and Chloe Moss to write a collaborative play.
Ian Rickson put the team together and they worked on and off for a year creating a play about society today and particularly women's place in it. Even she sounds surprised as she says that the quintet managed to work democratically and had "a five-headed boss". Sadly, unlike the Booker Prize judging panel, if there was any dissent, the world will never find out about it.
The collaborative process is interesting as each member of the team wrote scenes from different parts of the play and involving different characters as a starting point. Some of these ended up in the play and from then on, the team carved up the work based on "which parts of the story each writer was most interested in having a crack at".
The group clearly had great fun in maintaining anonymity and, even at rehearsals and read-throughs with their director, they took collective ownership and might hide the identity of an individual writer.
While unwilling to go into detail as to who had written which part, Miss Wade did suggest that the answers would surprise. "One of the joys was that we could write characters with different ages and ethnicities that we wouldn't normally write - some aren't by the obvious person".
This has clearly been a great developmental opportunity and by the sound of things, rather fun. "It's been an antidote to the loneliness of writing alone. You get an insight into other people's working methods. None of us were trying to be rock stars or divas, it was a well put-together group".
Laura Wade has "wanted to work in theatre since I was tiny". She does not come from a family that has a history of working in the arts but was hooked by regular trips to the Crucible in Sheffield - her home town despite the lack of accent - from around the age of five.
Since early teens, she knew that she wanted a career in this field and tried out acting and directing before starting writing seriously while still at school.
The tyro playwright was lucky enough to have a work experience opportunity shadowing director, Brian Jones and then playwright Mark Davies (best known for Taboo) at the Crucible. Davies suggested that she try writing a play and a work completed before her 18th birthday received a production in the Crucible Studio.
While at Bristol University studying drama, a couple more plays were produced and then in the three years afterwards, while still living in the south-west, she saw 16 Winters produced in the Basement Theatre at Bristol Old Vic. This sounds a fascinating play, exploring the life of The Winter's Tale's Hermione during her long exile from the court of her jealously raging husband, Leontes.
During this post-University period, Miss Wade also worked full-time as an administrator in both a recruitment agency and a lettings agency and enjoyed the office life as well as the opportunities that it gave her to eavesdrop on potential material.
After moving to London, the first intimation of success was an opportunity to write an adaptation of WH Davies' little-known novel Young Emma for the Finborough Theatre. This was directed by Tamara Harvey, now a friend, and commissioned by Neil McPherson who "finds mad little novels to adapt". The experience worked well: "we had a really good time and it opened lots of doors".
The real breakthrough year was 2005, during the early part of which two major productions were staged. By the end of the year, Laura Wade was one of the most feted playwrights in town, winning the Critics' Circle, George Devine and Pearson young playwright awards and receiving a nomination for the Olivier.
Colder Than Here is a contemplative play about death, hardly something that one would expect to see penned by a young female writer. It was written in 2003 and took a long time to make it to the stage at Soho (where she was also a Writer on Attachment) because Abigail Morris, the theatre's artistic director at the time, was on maternity leave but determined to direct this play herself. She made the wait worthwhile by casting Michael Pennington, Margot Leicester and Anna Madeley to ensure that a hit would result.
"The initial idea came from a newspaper article. I've always liked graveyards. They are remarkably atmospheric". This then developed because "I was interested in the idea of personalising the process of death and it was a new and potentially an emotional subject".
These are still early days, but a TV production company has commissioned a script of Colder Than Here so there is a strong possibility that a much wider audience will have the opportunity to enjoy this really original play.
Before Colder Than Here closed, Breathing Corpses, about death again though from a very different viewpoint, had opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. This was a play written when some free time appeared because the Morris pregnancy delayed the Soho project. It had a remarkably short time frame, written in three-and a-half months and produced little more than six months after its conception.
Once again, the young playwright had a cast to die for and she is still grateful to actors of the quality and reputation of Niamh Cusack, Tamzin Outhwaite and James McAvoy who were all willing to appear in it even though each only got around quarter of an hour of stage time every night.
She also pays tribute to the much less experienced actress who starred in this play. "I love Laura Elphinstone: she is a gorgeous actress. She isn't like anyone else".
It also contain an element of happy irony, since by overlapping with its predecessor, "I got my difficult second play out of the way without even noticing". Because both were about death, they "helped each other through" and projected Laura Wade into star status.
This young lady is a real theatre enthusiast who has a great understanding and love for the art-form. She is also greatly appreciative of the opportunities that she has received to work with fine actors: "the great thing about working with wonderful actors is that you can see what is wrong with your play".
That led into a discussion about her second play at Soho, Other Hands, which "I just kept watching because they were such wonderful actors". When you have talked the likes of Anna Maxwell Martin, just glorying in the success of her stardom in the BBC's Bleak House at that point, into appearing it is hardly surprising.
Other Hands is a play that contrasts a very driven young lady, Hayley (played by Miss Maxwell Martin) and the very different ostensibly mouse-like Lydia (Katherine Parkinson).
Interestingly, when asked which their creator identifies with, the answer is equivocal: "I can feel both like driven Hayley and unworldly Lydia. She's just a bit too nice and kind for this world".
In reality, no one could be as successful and as prolific as this writer without having a large degree of (the nicer side of) Hayley in her.
As a writer, Laura Wade has been accused of neatness and symmetry (manifested by the effortless elegance that anyone who has met her will have noticed) in her plotting, which seems no bad thing but she appears a little put out and emphasises that "I have a knee-kick reaction against obviousness. I like to go against the expected: for example a woman beating a bloke up in Breathing Corpses".
The future looks bright with a commission from Hampstead, which will be an opportunity to work in a bigger theatre on a play about which she was coy, only willing to reveal that "It's not about death". There is also another commission from the Royal Court, this time to work Downstairs.
That would be more than enough for most twentysomethings but finally, Miss Wade is adapting Jane Austen's little-known novel The Watsons for West End producer David Pugh. This might prove fatal as "it could get me lynched by the Janeites".
That just leaves the National and the RSC, as well as the main stage at her favourite theatre, the Crucible in Sheffield, to complete a glittery set and one imagines that these gaps will soon be filled.
She would also like to expand her horizons. "I'd love to do TV and film too but can't imagine writing a novel. I suspect that writing plays will always be my main love. I love the puzzle aspect of it."
With this kind a success and these opportunities, it is not surprising that Laura Wade relishes her life in the theatre. "I love to have a job I can do in my pyjamas. The variety is appealing and there is nothing better than the moment when you have a breakthrough in constructing a play". She does though admit that "I always go through a certain amount of blood sweat and tears".
Of her career to date, this modest writer says "it was all very unexpected and rather lovely. The challenge is to keep going". In this, she would like to emulate some of her favourite writers from different generations. After a little thought, the first name that comes to mind is Caryl Churchill, closely followed by Richard Bean, Martin Crimp and a man that she is happy to call Simon "Wonderful" Stephens (thanks to his guidance at the Royal Court Young Writers' Programme) from contemporary writers.
A little more prompting about the three to four visits to theatres every week suggests that while not a Shakespearean scholar, his plays and those of Jonson also appeal, where for the most part musicals do not.
It will not be long before peers and students begin to include the name of Laura Wade in lists like this and the accolade will be richly deserved.