Brian Mullin’s new play We Wait In Joyful Hope runs at London’s Theatre 503 from 17 May to 11 June 2016.
Hi Brian, thank you for talking to Break A Leg Review. Tell me about your latest piece and where the inspiration originated from?
We Wait in Joyful Hope is the story of Sister Bernie, a maverick nun who’s been working for forty years in an inner-city community. Bernie doesn’t fit your image of a typical nun – she smokes pot, knocks heads with police and gang leaders, and she’ll go to any length to protect the women’s center she runs from the encroaching forces of gentrification. The play is fiction, but I was inspired by the story of my own aunt, who was a Franciscan nun in the 1960s and 70s. Together with other young sisters, she took over a tenement building and created New York City’s first shelter for homeless women, which still exists today. Ultimately, it’s a story about feminism, friendship and one extraordinary women determined to take on the world.
Can you describe the writing process for me? Did you start with character, plot or a mixture of both?
I was extremely lucky to be selected by Theatre 503 from over 800 applicants for the 503Five, an eighteen-month residency. We received mentorship and dramaturgical guidance in the commissioning of a new play, which turned out to be this one. I knew I wanted to stretch myself and tell a story I had never seen onstage before. In particular, I wanted to write big, complicated roles for older actresses. Sister Bernie was an amalgamation of many amazing sisters from my aunt’s generation whom I’d met or read about during my research. Once I had such a colourful and committed character I just put her into a crisis situation, where everything she’s built is coming under threat, and the story came from there.
Did the completed piece resemble what you had in mind when you started the journey?
It’s turning out remarkably like I envisioned. The building that Bernie built, Elizabeth House, is just as much a character in the play as she is. It’s been amazing working with our designer Kat Heath to create this space, thinking about all the layers of history that it would have. She’s done a brilliant job of transforming Theatre 503’s small stage so that it gives you a sense of a whole community going on outside of Bernie’s doors. And director Lisa Cagnacci has assembled the most wonderful cast. I couldn’t believe it, but they do look exactly like the characters I pictured in my head. It’s been a joy watching them bring this to life.
What can the audience expect from the piece? And what would you say to encourage potential audience members to come along?
As the title indicates, the play is hopeful and optimistic. Even though the main character is a Catholic nun, I think the themes are universal. Bernie is someone who’s dedicated her life to making the world a better place and as she gets older she’s asking herself exactly what she’s accomplished. There’s a lot of humour and emotion in the play and I really hope that it makes audience members think about their own communities. The forces of gentrification are changing cities around the world, especially London, and the play tackles those issues head on. I want it to be inspiring and thought-provoking.
What inspired you to become a playwright?
I’ve loved putting on shows since I was young, directing the other kids in my neighbourhood growing up. When I was a student I loved Shakespeare and Chekhov and Tennessee Williams and all the rest, but I realized that if I wanted to create live performance that would be more relevant to the way the world is lived today, then writing something new was the only way to do it. I worked for a number of years running a politically-engaged young people’s theatre in New York City, where we created original, socially-relevant plays and then I came to London where I did my MA in playwriting at Goldsmiths.
What would you say to aspiring writers? Any advice?
Any story of overnight success is likely to be untrue! You’ve got to write a lot, keep challenging yourself and seek out trusted voices to give you honest, supportive feedback. Don’t expect one play to be the thing that’ll give you your “big break.” If you’ve got a piece you’re passionate about, find the people who get what you’re trying to do and find a space and put it on yourselves. Open yourself to the world around you, keep track of all your ideas, see lots of theatre and try to meet and connect with the people who are creating it. Through a combination of persistence, commitment, curiosity, hard work and being in the right place at the right time with the right collaborators, hopefully you can get your stuff made and shown to audiences.
Thanks to Brian for a really interesting interview, wishing you all the best with your play.