Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Maev Mac Coille + Erica Miller: Tell It Slant

By | Published on Friday 21 February 2020

Opening at The Hope Theatre this week is ‘Tell It Slant’, a “gender-switching, romantic black-comedy about fake news in a crisis”. Written by Maev Mac Coille and directed by Erica Miller, it’s produced through their own theatre company The Merry Spinsters.

The play is set in a press office on the day a crisis hits, and follows two staff members who are thrown together to deal with an onslaught of eager journalists. I spoke to Maev and Erica to find out more about the show and their company.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the play is about – what’s the story and where does the narrative take us?
MMC+EM: ‘Tell It Slant’ begins in a press office struggling through the traditional August season and one particularly awkward news story about cats – the perfect environment for Vick’s very first day in the office, where it turns out there’s a little bit of an awkward history with Dara, the long established press-officer. All of this is thrown sideways when a crisis strikes and they have to work together to handle the fallout, while navigating their personal relationship.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
MMC+EM: The central theme of the play is the way in which the news media, and beyond that the human need for recognisable stories, distorts our view of the world. This means we explore both the impact of social media on the news cycle, and the ways in which there is a natural human need to shape intense experiences into simple narratives.

CM: Can you explain why the lead actors in the show will be alternately playing the primary roles?
MMC+EM: This was an idea that came to Maev very early on in writing the play almost as a way of solving a problem. She’d always wanted to write a kind of romantic-comedy – which ‘Tell It Slant’ is in terms of genre, even if it is rather dark – but wanted to avoid falling into all the sexist clichés that so often show up in that kind of story. So, she wrote the play without saying whether any character is male or female, but specifying that the central pair will switch back and forth, to see if and how the story changes when we flip the roles.

CM: Would you say there’s a political element to the piece?
MMC+EM: With people addicted to their smartphones and endlessly updating newsfeeds, we are all being exposed to more stories all the time, and the speculation that circulates on social media winds up influencing what we are told by professional journalists. Understanding how those stories are bent and shaped to fit particular narratives is crucial to grasping the challenges we face – so while the story is not about a political scandal, there are definitely threads within it that apply to political questions today.

CM: What inspired it? What made you want to create a show about this topic?
MMC+EM: The play draws on Maev’s time working as a press officer, particularly her experiences of managing the aftermath of the March 22 terrorist attack. But what really inspired her to write was hearing about the Grenfell Tower disaster, and the fake stories that circulated on social media following, stories about the true death toll being concealed or there being miraculous survivors still in the tower.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about your cast?
MMC+EM: Our cast – Clíodhna McCorley, Joshua Jewkes, Alia Sohail and Vincent Shiels – have all done incredible work – especially given the gender switch which means we are effectively producing two versions of the same play. The switch doesn’t just have an impact on the relationship between Dara and Vick, it also alters the way we play scenes and moments throughout the entire play.
The entire cast has really embraced what that demands of them, finding the opportunities to be playful and creative, even though with the play including a very accurate depiction of true chaos, it isn’t always the easiest environment to work in.

CM: Can you tell us about The Merry Spinsters? When did you set it up and what inspired you to do so?
MMC+EM: Officially we founded the theatre company in 2019, but we have worked together off and on for more than five years. Creating a theatre company felt like the natural next step – it helps that in addition to always working together well, we have the same black sense of humour.

Having our own theatre company means we don’t have to wait to be given opportunities, but can make them ourselves. That’s where the name comes from – theatre already has the Merry Wives and the Merry Widow, so it felt like time for a pair of Merry Spinsters – both of us dedicated to celebrating women going their own way.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the company in the future?
MMC+EM: We founded Merry Spinsters with the aim of fostering women’s voices, which are still not heard anywhere near enough in the industry, and presenting them in a way that is truly representative. It’s 2020 – fifty:fifty representation shouldn’t be a goal, it should already be happening. To start with we’ve been putting on our own work, but we want to get to the point where we can offer opportunities for other female creatives as well.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about how you came to be working in the arts? Was it a long term ambition? How did you begin to build your careers?
MMC+EM: We’ve both wanted to work in theatre at least since we were teenagers.

Maev did acting classes from the age of eight, and it was through that she wrote her first play when she was sixteen. Ever since, she’s been writing and working to get her work on. Part of that was getting short pieces on at the fringe – for the Miniaturists or Theatre 503’s Rapid Write Response – as well as submitting to new writing theatres and playwriting competitions.

Erica always loved the arts, but was never able to make them anything more than a hobby as a child. After five years working in TFL, she decided to pursue directing seriously. She trained at StoneCrabs Theatre and the Young Vic.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
MMC+EM: We would love to take ‘Tell It Slant’ onward, perhaps to Maev’s hometown in Dublin, perhaps somewhere else. We’re going to be exploring what options there are for that. We have also started to talk about what our next full-length piece will look like. There’s a short play we put on in November 2019 about loneliness and social isolation that we want to develop into something longer and more meaningful.

‘Tell It Slant’ is on at The Hope Theatre from 25 Feb-14 March. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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