Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Olivia Poulet: How I Learned To Drive

By | Published on Thursday 19 February 2015

If you’re the kind of person who keeps ups with the latest reviews, you might already be aware that the new co production by DEM Productions and Fools and Kings Theatre of Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer winning play ‘How I Learned To Drive’ has already garnered rave notices since it opened at Southwark Playhouse earlier this month.

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In the lead role is actor Olivia Poulet – a TV face that you will no doubt recognise from shows like ‘The Thick Of It’ –  who has received high praise for her skilful performance in the show. Ahead of the run, I sent some questions over to Olivia to find out more about the play, and her role in it.

CM: Can you tell us what ‘How I Learned To Drive’ is about? What’s the premise of the show and what themes does it explore? Is it comic or tragic?
OP: The play is about a woman looking over her past, recalling her troubled adolescence in 1960s America. She recounts the love affair she had with her uncle that spanned almost two decades from when she was aged eleven. As with most great plays it doesn’t fall within the confines of ‘tragic’ or ‘comic’ – though it certainly has vivid moments of both.

CM: Can you tell us something about the role you play?
OP: I play the part of Li’l Bit and throughout the play she appears, from age eleven through to her mid-thirties – almost always out of sequence so you have to keep jumping back and forth in time. The play explores all aspects of a young girl’s experience growing up in a small town – burgeoning sexuality, school friendships, college, sex, and driving lessons – it’s a fantastic part for an actress!

CM: What attracted you to this play, and your part in it?
OP: The script, which blew me away when I first read it.
And also the chance to tackle such a fantastic leading role.

CM: It’s a Pulitzer winning piece of writing, but hasn’t been staged in the UK since the late nineties. Why has it been revived now?
OP: One of the main issues of the play – an older man abusing a position of power with a young girl – is incredibly timely, with so many stories of this in the news today. But what makes this play so interesting is that it gives us such an honest and complex portrait of these sorts of relationships – the older man is neither demonised, nor excused. It presents a truly morally ambiguous story that challenges the media’s portrait. Beyond this, the play has seen a resurgence in America in the last few years, with a major Off-Broadway revival in 2012 – so it’s not surprising this popularity has spread across the pond.

CM: You’ve done lots of TV and film work as well as theatre work. Do you prefer one to the other or do they both have their appeal?
OP: I find this a very tricky question to answer. The mediums are so unique and quintessentially different. Apart from the fact that they are both beautiful and colourful ways of telling stories, it is almost like saying ‘what’s better – a puppy or a cup of tea?’ Both are wonderful, both are fulfilling. Some days all I want is a puppy. And other days a cup of tea makes my morning complete.’

CM: In the past you’ve written plays to perform yourself. Did you always want to write as well as perform? Or did you feel moved to write good roles for yourself?
OP: I think I’ve always loved writing. I rewrote and directed (and, I’m ashamed to admit, cast myself as Dorothy in) The Wizard of Oz at school when I was about 8. Well, what can I say. Power corrupts. I began writing seriously about ten years ago and I find that working as an actress goes hand in hand with writing. I have read hundreds of scripts over the years and knowing what works and doesn’t helps me create my own stories and dialogue that (hopefully) rings true.

CM: Do you continue to write, or are you more focused on performance now?
OP: I still love doing both and am lucky enough to be working in both areas at the moment. Keeping my toes firmly crossed that this continues.

CM: What’s next for you? Do you have any new projects planned?
OP: I am doing re writes on a feature film called ‘Bride or Groom’ that I co-wrote with Lucy Brown, and am developing a feature film called ‘Rowgirls’ – about four girls that rowed the Atlantic. I am doing a comedy pilot with Tiger Aspect called ‘Dead Air’ and am reviving the Mark Ravenhill monologue I performed in Edinburgh last year, at the Arcola theatre this April.

‘How I Learned To Drive’ is on at Southwark Playhouse until 14 March. See the venue website here for more info and to book tickets,

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