Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Molly Naylor: Lights! Planets! People!

By | Published on Friday 8 March 2019

As you might be aware, the Vault Festival is winding down now, and so it seemed like a great idea to mark it by interviewing one of our favourite creative people, the talented Molly Naylor, about her play, ‘Lights! Planets! People!’, on as part of the festival this week.

Naylor has been wowing us with her writing and her performing for quite a while now, and we’ve always loved everything she does. I arranged a quick chat, to find out more about the play, and her decision to direct it herself.

CM: Can you start by telling us about the narrative of ‘Lights! Planets! People!’? What story does it tell?
MN: It’s the story of Maggie Hill, a renowned astronomer who is giving a lecture about her work and achievements to young women (attempting to inspire them to get into science). Maggie doesn’t know if she can get through this lecture. She’s struggling, dealing with some personal issues we learn about through flashbacks to a recent therapy session which interrupt the lecture. She’s in the aftermath of a break-up, as well as a career disaster which has her questioning the value and purpose of her life’s work. Her therapist’s questions are probing but ultimately fail to convince Maggie to open up. It’s the precocious young women in the lecture who finally break her – forcing her to face her recent career catastrophes, mental health struggles and position in her field.

CM: Can you tell us more about the central character?
MN: Maggie Hill is an older, queer woman who happens to have bipolar disorder. She is a physicist who is searching for habitable planets outside of our solar system. She has faced numerous struggles over her life and career but managed to overcome them and become an expert in her field. She is defensive, fiercely independent and terrible at showing any trace of vulnerability. She has to learn how to communicate with people she cares about, rather than remaining distracted by the promise of distant galaxies.

CM: What themes does the show explore?
MN: It’s about legacy, loss, grief and hope. It’s about the importance of communication and the pitfalls of commitment. It’s about mental health, ambition and ego. It also explores humanity’s obsession with technology and progression, and the ethical responsibility we have around these things.

CM: Where did this character and story come from? What inspired you to create her?
MN: I came up with the idea after meeting some academics and scientists at Warwick University, some of whom are working on missions similar to Maggie’s. I wanted to give this character a voice and a platform – she’s a character we don’t see much on stage: an older, queer woman who’s also a brilliant scientist and who’s also from a working class background.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about Karen Hill, who performs the play, and how she came to be involved?
MN: I wanted to work with Karen after being aware of her work for some time. She’s from the Black Country and so her voice was perfect. It’s a grossly under-represented accent. Aside from that, I knew that she was a wonderful performer but I also knew she’d be a great collaborator. I didn’t want to just direct someone, I wanted to work alongside them. I often re-wrote the script in the room because Karen was able, through reflection and character work, to help me discover who this character was on an even deeper level and therefore how to tell the story in the best way possible. Karen has an astute eye and a good ear for insincerity. She’s often tell me (sometimes just via a look) when a line was too florid or congratulatory. This was quite challenging at times – we writers often fall quickly in love with our own words! – but it made the script so much better.

CM: Why direct it yourself?
MN: I love the process of making work, of taking it from conception to performance. I also had an incredibly clear vision for this show and so felt compelled to follow that vision through. Usually I’m happy to hand my work over to more experienced directors and see what they do… this time I wanted to keep Maggie close. I don’t know if this was the right decision but I’ve learned so much from the process and therefore will never regret making that choice.

CM: We’ve spoken to you before about previous projects but I’m not sure we’ve ever asked you how it all began – how did you end up in this career, was it what you always wanted to do?
MN: I’d always wanted to be around stories. Stories – in all forms – made me feel better. I originally wanted to be an actor because I thought they were the ones telling the stories, so I did drama at university. I learned there that I wanted to be the one actually making the stories. From that point on I started writing scripts. I wasn’t very good for ages – scriptwriting is hard in ways that you don’t imagine before you try it. It looks like it’s just people talking but there’s so much more to it than that. And the industry is horribly competitive. I realised it was going to be a long old slog before I got anything produced… but I kept working and learning. While doing this I started performing my poetry and eventually wrote a solo show which I took to the Edinburgh Fringe. Through this I got an agent, who helped me get some scriptwriting work… so I eventually got to do the thing I’d been aiming for but not via a conventional route. I’m glad about this – poetry and performance is still a really big part of my practice and I love the creative freedom it gives me.

CM: What have been your best moments so far?
MN: I loved being on set for the filming of my sitcom – that was thrilling. But I also loved making a short film with no budget (and very few actual skills!) and a great team of willing volunteers. The moments where you make something yourself and take a risk can be just as fulfilling as obtaining a commission from a respected organisation. It’s important to remember that we don’t always have to wait until someone in power gives us permission to create – we can also give ourselves permission and make things anyway.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
MN: I want to carry on working in the only way that I know how – having an idea for a thing, then trying to find a way to make that thing. I might do some more directing. I’ll definitely keep writing poems and scripts.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, in the immediate future?
MN: I’m currently working on a new poetry collection and a graphic novel. I’m also thinking about making a new solo show – my first in ten years… let’s see what happens!

‘Lights! Planets! People!’, written by Molly Naylor and performed by Karen Hill (pictured above) is on at Vault Festival from 13-17 Mar. See this page here for more.

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Photo: Dave Guttridge