Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Jane Upton: All The Little Lights

By | Published on Wednesday 4 October 2017

We first became aware of playwright Jane Upton when we sent a reviewer to see her play ‘Bones’, at the 2011 Edinburgh Festival, who promptly gave it a glowing five star review. A few years later, this summer just gone, in fact, another member of our team handed a resounding 5/5 score to a more recent work, ‘Finding Nana’.

It’s probably no surprise, then, that I pricked up my ears when I heard that another of her plays – ‘All The Little Lights’ – was headed Arcola-wards this month. I spoke to Jane, to find out more about this particular piece, and her career thus far.

CM: Let’s start at the start – who and what is ‘All The Little Lights’ about? What story does it tell?
JU: Two teenage girls, once best friends, meet for the first time in months after a horrific event tore them apart. One is intent on throwing the other a surprise birthday party and her new younger friend is in on the secret. The play focuses on these three girls struggling to enjoy this dysfunctional party. But the past is never far behind them and dark truths start to emerge as the night creeps in.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
JU: The play was inspired by true stories of child sexual exploitation (CSE), so of course it explores the theme of abuse and its effect on survivors. But I think the main theme of the play is society; how the structures in place, and we as individuals, are all complicit in allowing vulnerable people to slip through the cracks and be lost. Friendship and family are also big themes in the play – where do we find family when we don’t have any? And love, I think. What love means. What it looks like to different people and how much we need it to survive.

CM: With those themes, it must focus on some really painful subject matter. What made you want to broach them?
JU: I read a story about a girl who was groomed by a sex ring from a young age and later went on to groom other girls for the same ring. I couldn’t get her out of my mind. The media dealt with her really harshly, despite the fact she’d been brainwashed and abused from childhood. I knew I wanted to write a play about a girl in that situation – horrifically treated over many years and trapped, not only by the men who used her for sex but also by society because she’s not deemed “innocent” enough for us to care.

CM: How easy was it to inject any levity or humour into something so dark?
JU: The humour definitely developed over drafts. But teenagers are funny. Once the characters were formed and I started to hear their voices, I felt more freedom to explore their conversations outside the events at the heart of the play. I remember school days really clearly – we were all blunt, brutal and relentless piss-takers. So lots of elements of my teenage self and people I knew went into the characters as they grew.

CM: What benefit do you think there is to creating art about a subject like this?
JU: I asked this question many, many times during the writing process. But as I researched the story, I realised we still have so far to go in raising awareness of child sexual exploitation. Not just the horror that so many young people are living, but the way we as society talk about and treat victims of these crimes. Of course, awareness is much greater than it was when I started writing this in 2014 and things are changing. But we need to keep talking about it. I think making a (hopefully) compelling play about really intriguing characters that people will care about is one way of doing this.

CM: What kind of research did you do to inform the piece?
JU: After reading around the subject, I met with Derby-based charity Safe and Sound who work with victims and survivors of CSE. They told me a girl like the one in the story would struggle to access help as the lines are blurred between victim and perpetrator, but also because she is now over 18 and considered an adult. We also talked about the fact that victims come from a range of backgrounds, including stable families. They provided me with case studies and reports and were on the end of the phone when I had specific questions about my characters. They also came to readings of our work at every stage and were hugely supportive and encouraging. This was crucial to my confidence.

CM: It’s been touring the UK, hasn’t it? How have audiences responded to it?
JU: Really strongly. We’ve had so many emotional responses in the theatre and after via email and social media. We even received a letter from an audience member in Doncaster who said she wanted to run on stage and take the characters home with her to keep them safe. That made me cry.

CM: How did you come to be writing plays? Did you always want to be a writer?
JU: I suppose I did, in some form. I trained as a journalist but then worked in marketing for eight years. I started acting on the side with 1623 Theatre and they encouraged me to do a two-day playwriting course with director Esther Richardson and playwright Amanda Whittington. We all shared some free writing at the end and Esther liked what I wrote and helped me develop it. Fifth Word produced that play – ‘Bones’ – and then went on to commission ‘All The Little Lights’. I’ve worked with lots of other people in between, and in 2014 I did Stephen Jeffreys’ Advances In Scriptwriting course at RADA which was brilliant and inspired a huge rewrite on ‘All The Little Lights’. Then in 2016 I was joint winner of the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright.

CM: What plans do you have for the future?
JU: The future is a bit of a mystery to me and thinking about it too much sort of gives me stomach ache. I’m trying to live in the moment more. I’m not that good at it but I’m getting better!

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
JU: I had a play at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, ‘Finding Nana’, which is set to tour with New Perspectives in 2018. I’m also at the very early stages of a new project with a theatre director and band. It’s a bit of a curve ball but I’m excited about it. In all honesty, I want to write and develop as a writer while spending as much time with my two-year-old daughter as I can, so it’s a bit of a balancing act. But I’m truly lucky to do both.

‘All The Little Lights’ is on at Arcola Theatre from 10 Oct-4 Nov. See this page here for more information and to book.

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Photo: Robert Day