Nancy Harris Interview

March 12, 2011

Nancy Harris has just had her first full length play staged. And at the National Theatre no less. Three interlinked segments that look at human relationships in modern Ireland it explores the many ways we use the newer modes of communication to invade and evade one another. She talks here to Caomhan Keane about her work ethic, her influences and the importance of the rewrite.

What, for Nancy Harris, is No Romance about?

It’s about lots of things. Loneliness, death and our inability to communicate with one another at a really authentic level. That’s as simply as I can put it.

Do you think this inability to communicate is a defining feature of the Irish? It’s been the central theme to two or three plays that have been staged by emerging Irish companies since January alone, as well as the bigger stages like the Gate’s God of Carnage?

That’s really true. Part of it is that we live in a society where communication has become so much easier yet at another level so much more complicated because we can create mythologies about ourselves on line. We can be invisible and hide behind things a lot more. That adds to the complexity of our one on one communication.

Was there any ‘real life’ inspiration. Did you read a story in the papers or did a friend have a similar thing happen to them? There was a great sense of familiarity to all three segments.

They weren’t based on any particular event. I was interested in the idea of erotic blogging which has exploded with things like Belle De Jour. And there is another couple of blogs with this culture of women going online and writing about their lives erotically online. Anonymously. It was considered a post feminist freedom to do this. To not have any inhibitions or disapproval from society. Because the blogging culture allowed them to be anonymous and allowed them to express themselves. So I was sort of interested in, very obliquely, looking at that idea. But also looking at Ireland and looking at our relationship to sex and sexuality too.

What’s your working process? Are you an ‘up every morning at eight’ kind of girl or are you a “grab your pen when your inspired” writer?

I think and I think and I think. Then I work quite intensely. I am quite disciplined about it. I will get up in the morning and work until the evening. The hard part is the rewriting process. Where you do all the graft. Writing a first draft can come quite quickly but then you have to look back and see what makes sense. What’s really interesting here? How do I join the dots? What’s just self indulgence? It’s putting these things together so that’s why rewriting is a big part of the writing process.

What’s the difficulty for you in rewriting? Is it killing the things you love or spotting what does or doesn’t work?

It’s the sheer boredom that can set in with yourself. You have to push past that. I don’t mind cutting out things I love. You have to be quite ruthless. It’s really hard to say what the play has been about when you are in the middle of it. So taking a step back and seeing the piece with objectivity is the hardest because you really have to force yourself to do it.

Would you consult other writers during this process or are you very insular about your work in that regard?

I do consult other writers about my work. AND directors. I think it’s a really good idea to get…not too many as you can get to many voices in your head and you need to be true to your own-but to have two completely different sets of eyes looking over your work. Maybe somebody who hates the type of theatre you like and somebody who loves the type of theatre you like so you can get a really good sense of how your work is going to be perceived. It’s important to have that critical dialogue for a rewrite because it makes you strong about what you want to cut out, what you want to keep in and what you want to get out of it.

How did you conceive it? Did you have a finite sense of what you wanted the play to be or did it emerge by itself?

Both. I had the ending in mind because I started with the ending. So that was slightly different. But I didn’t have any idea about the rest of it. Most of the time it’s the other way around. Where you have a start point and no idea where it is going. So I think it’s a process of discovering. Which is why rewriting is really important. You need to see if it is all making sense for the ending you have planned. Because you might not have known where you were going a rewrite will highlight where you may have lost sight of what you were trying to achieve.

Who influenced your work, as a writer in general and on No Romance in particular?

Well I am a lover of theatre so I love all sorts of playwrights. Whether it’s linear narrative or something that is just completely fragmented and experiential I am really into it. So I love it all. I think it is an amazing medium. The obvious Irish people influenced me. Marina Carr, Enda Walsh, Mark O Rowe and on an international level Sarah Reuhl, Mamet and Sara Kane. I have a very eclectic taste.

With No Romance there was no particular writer who influenced it but all of the people I have just mentioned…you owe something to all writers who come before you, because whether your trying to do something different or emulate them, all writing becomes influential. But I don’t think I had that experience where when I saw it on stage and the influence of another become apparent.

What has working on No Romance taught you? Where has it taken you as a writer?

I have learned about the relationship between actors an audience. What needs to be there and what doesn’t need to be there. Under writing and over writing. It’s a tricky balance. Because as a writer, when you are submitting plays to theatres, you have to be really careful to stay true to your own voice. There is a real danger that people will treat your play like it is a literary doccument. And they are not novels. The whole thing comes about from the relationship between the actor, the audience and us all being there together. Over writing can kill it and it is a real danger with people reading your work when they say “make that a bit clearer” when you don’t need to make it clearer. It’s ok not to make someone’s motives clear. And I think writers need to be firm about that and not overwrite their plays.


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