Interview: Stef Smith – Swallow
'I wanted to write characters who feel furious at the modern world'
This article is from 2015.
From her 2012 Olivier Award-winning script for Cora Bissett's Roadkill, through the challenging and passionate meditation on teenage confusion Grey Matter, to her latest work for the Traverse's Fringe programme, Swallow, Stef Smith has established a reputation as a ferocious and poetic playwright. Constantly pushing at the form of theatre – her scripts have been directed into site-specific immersive performances, or allusive solo shows that call on physical theatre's dynamism – her writing allows directors space to interpret and explore the worlds she evokes and the issues she addresses.
For Swallow, Smith says: 'I wanted to write characters who feel furious at the modern world, because it's a sensation I often feel myself – for all sorts of diverse and complex reasons.' With a cast of three women, playing strangers who are forced to come to terms with personal demons, Smith has set up a confrontational drama that is played out with musical accompaniment from hip hop artist LAWholt.
'I listened to LAW’s work a lot while redrafting the play,' says Smith. 'There is something about the texture of her work that felt like it fitted the play.' Her music, which has been made in collaboration with the Mercury Prize-winning Young Fathers, does contain a rough, almost punk, attack, revelling in the harsh metallic sounds of electronica and reclaiming hip hop from the dominance of its smoother R&B fashion.
For all of the intensity, both in the characters' lives and the soundtrack, Smith is not aiming for a simple brutality. She continues: 'I wanted to write characters who despite their fury (or maybe because of it) also dance, laugh, have sex and are entirely present.'
Acknowledging the influence of Sarah Kane, who became notorious for the violence of her scripts, and Caryl Churchill, who can twist expected theatre tropes to shocking ends, Smith's vibrancy as a writer comes as much from her experiences as these playwrights. Perhaps due to her close collaboration with previous directors – she observes that the process of staging Swallow with Orla O'Loughlin has been exciting and very collaborative – Smith's scripts escape the trap of much scripted theatre: full of good intentions but lacking the energetic spark that lifts it above a mere discussion of 'the big issue'. Instead, as in the case of Roadkill or her recent entry in Glasgay!, Cured, they shift between multiple perspectives and reveal unexpected conclusions.
However, her love for theatre is evident, and she recognises it as a forum for reflection and engagement with these big issues. 'There is a raw quality to Swallow which I think lends itself to the “liveness” of theatre. When you get to watch characters change, evolve and struggle right in front of your eyes: there is something as an audience member about experiencing and reading a body and voice in the same space that feels so entirely exciting and authentic.'
Her director, Orla O'Loughlin, is currently the artistic director of the Traverse Theatre, and has shown her skill at conjuring theatrical spectacle from solo shows, such as David Harrower's Ciara (a previous Fringe hit) and Spoiling. The Traverse has also demonstrated a rare support for female artists in the past few years, making this production fit in well with O'Loughlin's apparent vision of passionate theatre and creating opportunities for women who are often excluded elsewhere.
But Smith's work is bracingly modern and is no example of any particular trend: Swallow promises to be another movement in her evolution as one of Scotland's most consistent playwrights. Suitably, she sees theatre as not just about the stage.
'The audience is utterly vital to my work, but I should say I'm not particularly interested in giving them an easy time. I like audiences to work a little, to be active in my plays – not just spectate and let it wash over them. I would hope that they feel challenged – in an exciting way.’
Swallow, Traverse, 228 1404, 9–30 Aug (not 10, 17, 24), times vary, £20 (£8–£15). Previews 7 & 8 Aug, £14 (£8).