One of the truest things I’ve ever heard about playwriting was attributed to the director Max Stafford-Clark: “Every play is part journalism, part autobiography.”
When I set out to write my latest play We Wait in Joyful Hope, on commission for Theatre503, I thought it would be more on the journalism side of the equation. I’d written a few plays about contemporary, urban young men (who were often just versions of myself), and this time I wanted to stretch myself.
In particular, I wanted to write roles for women. Big roles. Complicated roles. Roles where they were not just there to be somebody’s wife or grandmother.
Naturally, I decided to write about nuns.
Not everyone thinks of nuns and feminism in the same breath, but I do. I grew up in a Catholic family, which includes a number of nuns and priests. But I am closest to my aunt Gerry, who had been a Franciscan sister in the 1960s and 70s.
As any Catholic can tell you, that was a special – you might even say revolutionary – time in the life of the Church. When Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the stated aim was to “throw open the windows of the Church” and bring it more in touch with the modern world.
In many ways, no group took this message to heart more than nuns. Across the globe, but especially in the United States, sisters often stopped wearing habits. They started using their own names. They often left the cloistered life of large convents and moved into smaller, simpler quarters. Many went to work and live directly with the poor and the marginalised.
One of those women was my aunt who, along with other young sisters, took over a tenement building in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, and founded the city’s first shelter for homeless women, which still survives to this day. Growing up, I was always inspired by her commitment and that of the other sisters in her generation. They gave up belongings, pensions and families to pursue work that reached beyond themselves. Unsung, they created female-centered spaces that went against the grain of our capitalist society and, often, against the hierarchical nature of the male-dominated Church.
Nuns were part of the counterculture, too. And they kept on doing it, even after most hippies had grown up and moved to the suburbs.
The more research I did, the more books I read, and the more nuns I interviewed, the more personal the play became. I began to consider the emotional questions. How did these women sustain that kind of commitment over decades, a lifetime? How does it feel to soldier on trying to change the world when the world around you keeps changing? I didn’t think you needed to know a radical nun in order to relate to that story.
And, just as Max Stafford-Clark predicted, the research and the family connection blended together in my imagination. The play became personal.
Sister Bernie, the fictional nun at the heart of my play, is complicated, difficult, a force to be reckoned with. She smokes pot, uses salty language, and stands up to priests and police chiefs when she feels they are threatening the women in her inner-city community. She’s been doing what she does for over forty years, and through all her fights and frustrations, she still lives in hope for a better world.
She’s an amalgam of so many of the extraordinary women I’ve met and read about – and I hope she’s a great part for a seventy-year old actress to play.
I set out to write something far beyond myself and wound up circling back to things that are very close to my heart. I hope that’s what makes it a story worth telling.
We Wait in Hopeful Joy runs at London’s Theatre 503 from 17 May to 11 June 2016. Follow @MyTheatreMates on Twitter for details on our competition to win a pair of tickets to the show.