Interview: Polly Stenham
Art by Ruth Crackett
I felt very cool, as I not-so-coolly arrived at a rather fancy spot in Soho, just on time to meet Polly Stenham: the hugely successful English playwright and screenwriter with fingers in many juicy pies, and a resilience that many writers aspire to. From success at the early age of 19 with her critically acclaimed play That Face, which premiered at The Royal Court, moved to the West End and then New York, gathering numerous awards along the way. She then went onto successively write Tusk Tusk, No Quarter and Hotel, as well as short films, co-writes and screenplays. Stenham is a seasoned playwright with a strong footing in the London (and international) theatre scene. Now aged 31, she shows no signs of stopping, with film adaptations in the process, and an exciting upcoming production of Julie (an edgy, contemporary London take on Stindberg’s classic Miss Julie, starring Vanessa Kirby) which will run at the National Theatre from May this year.
Stenham is warm, friendly, open, confidently assertive, but not arrogant. She is petite and bird like, with a powerful and commanding voice; a voice you only want to listen to. In one of the many stylish, but cosy rooms of Soho House’s members only club, I feel more than comfortable sitting down to chat with her as we sip peppermint tea with lashings of honey - an antidote to the cold that she was suffering at the time.
We talked about theatre comforts, the leap between playwriting and screenwriting, embracing the inner critic, overcoming doubt, protecting our internal space for the imagination, the smell of inauthentic showboating, and being a young successful artist today.
“I’ve been very lucky,” says Stenham as we broach the topic of her young success. Her success catapulted her into a world of showbiz, responsibility, and the inevitable media attention that comes with being a woman in the spotlight. “At the time I was like: leave me alone, I’m old, take me seriously. I think I didn’t actually understand how young I was until I got older.” This mindset has only supported Stenham’s immersive approach to continuous writing, disallowing any doubt taking over: “I knew less about the craft when I was younger, so it was really blind instinct… the more you know about something doesn’t make it necessarily easier.” Yet one can’t question her skill when reading her first play That Face, a play that deals with emotions with a rare maturity; it punches you with the morbid realities of family dysfunctions, mental health and its destructive consequences.
“You’ve just got to keep bloody going. You don’t actually have much time to freak out. It’s freaking out that’s the enemy of it all.”
She seems to have taken this whole “young writer” thing in her stride as I probe her feelings about her age and how it has formed part of her identity. I want to know if it’s annoying to always be known for creating such a successful play so young: “I have no problem with that. I’d rather be known for being young than for being a girl.”
So, what about being a girl in the media today? I assumed there is more prejudice towards young women in the playwriting world where Gibson, Minghella, Pinter resided, but Stenham asserts that she does not feel discriminated within the industry – a refreshing and albeit indeterminate response, much like the reality of it all. “It’s a complicated area because I probably get more press exposure than a boy would, because I’m a girl. I get more fashion stuff, get more of that shit. In that way that’s unfair,” she says, pondering my question about prejudice in the industry. “How much of that is useful? How much of that is not taking me seriously? How much is that just fucking publicity… I haven’t figured it out, I don’t know if I ever will. But, I certainly have opportunities boys don’t in the media; but then boys have an easier life than I do, because they’re boys.”
There’s a definite uncertainty about her feelings on this subject, and I don’t blame her. Stenham embraces her youth, “I don’t feel like I’ve had less opportunities… If anything, I think being a girl has been celebrated. Being young has been really celebrated and I have never ever felt like the [Royal] Court have patronised me, not once.” I am intrigued by her response, if not inspired by her openness to the inherent murkiness within the gender disparity dialogue.
Catapulting into theatrical stardom with the Royal Court Theatre meant that Stenham decided to leave university after her first year of studying English at UCL and pursue a career as a playwright. Was it a good idea? 12 years later, her continued success and appeal speaks for itself; “I think it would have been really hard to get back on the [writing] horse… You just get more damaged, don’t you, as you get older?” I nod profusely as she says this, observing my own self-criticism as a 26-year-old writer. “It would be easier to be paralysed by the success, whereas if you’re young you’re just a bit like, oh well, it’s just happening again.” At such a pivotal age in anyone’s life, she was blessed with the guidance and support from the Royal Court, which at the time, was under the reign of Dominic Cooke when she joined on a young writer’s programme. Learning on the job was essential for Stenham, who hit the ground running as she went on to write three plays in quick succession. It’s “the best way to learn… I’d never had a play on, so it was just kind of boom boom boom and you know you can’t fucking buy that level of education to learn in such an exposed, fierce way.”
Stenham has an undeniable love for the Royal Court and speaks fondly of it as a place of comfort and nurturing, “they really trained me...that’s why I think the royal court is such a great place to incubate talent, because to have that kind of encouragement to develop your voice… you don’t get that in telly or films, as you’re serving something else, whereas they’re serving you…. you’re really allowed to grow.”
“People watching people… I find that boiling point really exciting, you see a sort of change. I think theatre is the medium for that."
It comes as no surprise that theatre is at her heart’s core, more so than the lucrative world of film which she has both feet in. Stenham co-wrote Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological horror The Neon Demon (2016, starring Elle Fanning) which she confesses to have been a “pretty difficult experience.” Refn is a Danish off the wall auteur, and although I didn’t pry too much detail about the specificities of her experience working with him in Denmark, it’s apparent that it was certainly an exciting and beneficial learning experience as a screenwriter, yet far from the “sovereignty” inherent in being a playwright in the land of Shakespeare, where it’s the writer’s name on the poster, unlike in films which are very much the directors, actors and the producer’s “gig.”
And that can be tough for a writer, for anyone in the cut-throat industry, “it’s just a different league” she says, “I kind of fled back to theatre after that.” Stenham stresses, however, that she thoroughly enjoys the challenges and new thrills of screenwriting, “I’m glad I did it because I wouldn’t be so innocent in it all again” and “it gets you out there…it opened lots of doors [having a big film credit].” Writing a screenplay is entirely different to writing a play.
Why theatre? Surely, she could make more money writing films, have more reach. “I think that with theatre”, Polly beckons me in as she begins to whisper as though conscious of an audience, “people watching people… I find that boiling point really exciting, you see a sort of change. I think theatre is the medium for that. It’s personal, and you sort of come in after it’s been cooking for fucking ages.” For her, these extreme situations where characters are on the brink of something is what makes her tick. She writes plays for the love of theatre - I can’t agree with this creative approach more wholeheartedly.
“It takes a lot of people to make this sort of stuff happen.” It’s not just the writers that make a stage production what it is, of course. It’s an entirely collaborative, comprehensive, creative and technical process. This is a process that Stenham by no means takes credit for. “You really are as good as who’s looking after you and advising you. And that’s so important, the culture that you’re in, we don’t exist without that culture… the casting directors, the directors, artistic directors, and stage management… I get a lot of credit for a lot of people’s hard work really. Which isn’t necessarily really fair.” This humble opinion is what makes Stenham so appealing to theatres and young writers. I get the sense that beneath her confidence and strong voice, there is a depth and wealth of resilience, perseverance and personal demons that she, like so many creatives, must face. Having dealt with immense loss and grief in her life – Stenham’s father passed away just before her debut success, and her mother in more recent years - it’s no wonder that she is in demand, a writer whose works tackle such complicated “human condition shit” with such force, maturity, veracious language and a dark humour typically associated with older writers. Notably, Stenham tends to focus on dysfunctional, middle-class families, which has been criticised by some for being too same-territory. But why not? “If you need to investigate it, just investigate it, everyone’s got their myth,” she proclaims.
Photo by Laura Pannack
I want to know how she tackles her own “human condition shit,” the inner critic and that ubiquitous voice heard by us all at some point: the voice of self-doubt. “Worrying is so pointless,” it’s about “turning that sort of like [she makes a worried noise and gesture] into something quite active.” But what about that middle point, you know, when you’re writing something, or painting something or you just have a great idea and then you suddenly think, oh dear, this is shit. Where do you go from there? To me, Stenham is the exemplary person to be asking this question with over a decade of professional experience and being a member of our anxiety-ridden generation. “You’ve just got to keep going. You’ve got to” she stresses, “If you don’t get to at least something like the end you’ve got nothing to work with.”
One of “the worst bits about writing…[are those] weird, dread-y sick feelings when you’re not doing what you know you should be doing, and you’re worrying about what you have done,” she exclaims, “if you’re thinking about it, just be doing it. Why not just do it and then you’ve done something, and you can think about something else.” When she says this, a sigh of relief skims over my body; this idea that the doing it, and the finishing it, regardless of its perfection or lack of, is the success. “You’ve just got to keep bloody going. You don’t actually have much time to freak out. It’s freaking out that’s the enemy of it all.”
Maintaining this discipline can be easier said than done. As an esteemed writer, it seems only natural that a degree of self-consciousness can come into play; the writing has “got to be in that space that’s really truthful.” She reveals that a “lot of energy” goes into “trying to protect that space internally for the imagination.” Stenham expresses that “as soon as you start being self-conscious and self-aware, it feels all tight and horrible, like a feeling… it just feels like I’m all tangled up in something… it’s really un-creative… it’s really hard to discipline, to not care [she laughs] because there’s a discipline to being relaxed.” I ask her how you’d detect whether your work is coming from an inauthentic place or not. She says, “you can smell it when you’re showboating a bit. And sometimes you’re so subconsciously showboating it takes a while to realise actually, you are showing off…. you can see vanity, you can see showboating, because it’s inauthentic. You can hear the writing I suppose.” She then adds, “maybe sometimes vanity is good because maybe it pushes you… I just think you sort of know when you’re not doing it for the right motive, on some level.”
One thing that expressly excited Stenham is the talk of her upcoming production Julie for the National Theatre, which has also brought with it new challenges as a writer. “I’m completely re-imagining someone else’s play in the modern day,” she tells me, “the structure’s there, so it’s not that whole bag of hell to deal with. But then that’s also presented quite interesting… academic challenges,” raising questions of what “modern shame” is and how it translates, as well as how to handle themes that you haven’t chosen yourself: “it’s a structured way of thinking.” This is as much about the play as it is about who she is working with. She cannot praise the National Theatre enough; “the team at the National are really, really good, and nurturing and supportive and challenging.”
We end on this note of excitement for this summer production, of which she will become a “part of the gang” – a nice break from the solitary nature of writing. “Get me to the National,” she beams. If there’s one thing I took from my meeting with Polly Stenham, it’s that there really is more than meets the eye. She may be small in stature and undeniably ‘young’, but she is a force to be reckoned with; an inspirational professional to keep your eye on. I tell her she seems to have it sussed, to which her humble response speaks to the self-doubt in all of us and the danger of complacency. “Don’t get me wrong, I fucking hate it some days. I have by no means got it sussed. But I don’t think anyone does, I think that’s part of it. You’ve got to be able to take the rough with the smooth a bit.”
“I think moving is really a good vibe, just keep hustling about. It keeps it exciting, otherwise it's really monkey-like. It’s like the same action.” Keep it moving, keep it fresh.
Julie opens at the National Theatre on 31st May, tickets are available here.
Ruth Crackett is a Bristol based artist working mainly with oils and watercolours. She is available for commissions.
Sign up to our monthly newsletter for information about upcoming events, exclusive interviews with industry artists, directors, writers, creatives and a run down of our latest reviews.