Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Sadie Clark: Algorithms

By | Published on Friday 26 November 2021

Our edfringe-going readers may well remember ‘Algorithms’ from its appearance at the 2019 festival and, in fact, our London-based readers may remember a previous run at the Soho Theatre.

Those of you who haven’t yet seen it are in for a treat, because it’s a critically acclaimed piece full of humour and pathos, and its creator Sadie Clark is a very charismatic performer.

The play is about a young bisexual woman navigating the contemporary dating world, and deals with themes of love and loneliness and its impact on self esteem, a topic that most of us can surely relate to.

To find out more about the play and the theatre-maker behind it, I arranged a chat with Sadie, ahead of her upcoming run back at the Soho Theatre.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the story of ‘Algorithms’? Whose story is it, and where does the narrative take us?
SC: It’s a bisexual Bridget Jones for the online generation that’s ‘moving, profound and hilarious’ – according to reviews! The show follows Brooke, the algorithm writer for a start-up dating app, who, when she finds herself unexpectedly single just before her thirtieth birthday, decides to give the mathematics of love a chance…

It’s a tragi-comic solo show about trying to cope when it feels like your life’s gone a little bit tits up and isn’t panning out the way you’d always imagined… It’s a play for anyone who’s wondered why they feel so lonely in a world where connecting with others is meant to be easier than ever.

The play won the TV Foundation’s Netflix supported ‘Stage To Screen’ New Voice Award last year and sold out at Edinburgh Fringe as well as its run at Soho Theatre in 2020. It’s very silly with a tender heart and I can’t wait to get it back on Soho’s stage in a few weeks!

CM: What themes do you explore through the play?
SC: The play covers themes like love, loneliness, mental health, body image and self-acceptance. It explores the world of online dating, and how it impacts self-esteem, as well as the ‘compare and despair’ phenomenon – how social media affects how satisfied we feel with ourselves and our lives.

So often this can lead to feelings of not being ‘enough’ and that feeling is at the heart of the play. I worry that makes it all sound a bit… HEAVY. It’s really not! Despite those themes it’s definitely got a tongue in cheek rom-com feel to it, the protagonist is super goofy, there’s lots of laugh out loud moments and it ends on a very uplifting note.

CM: What was the inspiration for the play? What made you want to approach these themes?
SC: The driving force behind creating the show was being a mostly unemployed actor fed up with playing roles like ‘dead wife’ in no budget student films. I’d seen people like Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge shoot to success off the back of solo shows, plus seen many of my peers making their own work at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and I decided to have a crack at it myself.

I got on to the Soho Theatre Writer’s Lab in 2017 and wrote the play there. At that point in my life I was recently out as bisexual, back on the dating scene and simultaneously in a pretty low place mentally. I kept looking at social media and feeling that everyone else was so much more ‘sorted’ than me, and I kept wondering why I felt so desperately lonely when I had all these opportunities to connect with people via technology at my fingertips. So that was really my starting point. I wanted to find a way to articulate and process those feelings through a compelling story.

It also felt important to me that the show put a bi protagonist centre stage. I felt like I’d rarely seen bisexuality depicted on stage or in pop culture, and wondered if I’d seen it more readily growing up, whether I’d have realised I was bi earlier in life? Though I was adamant that my character’s sexuality wouldn’t be used to create the conflict that drives the narrative arc. So often we see a struggle with accepting someone in the LGBTQIA+ community as the way to create drama. I was interested in writing a character whose sexuality was a given, and it was fairly incidental to the story line.

CM: Is it autobiographical in any way?
SC: In some ways… like I said, the starting point for the play was certainly feelings I’d been experiencing, so yes, there are a lot of my thoughts woven into the play. The character and the world she works in is entirely fictitious, though again, there are elements of me that overlap with her. Likewise, there are things that happen to Brooke which have happened to me, that I’ve changed and dramatised for the story.

But there are also lots of parts of the story which haven’t happened to me and are purely invention for the sake of good drama or comedy… so it’s an amalgamation. I think all writing is, though. I’m of the opinion most writers usually seed bits of themselves within the stories they write – planting different parts of them into the different characters. There are certainly other characters in ‘Algorithms’ who were born from parts of me too, it’s not just the protagonist.

I do think it can feel exposing to write and perform solo work because, particularly for women or marginalised groups, this question is ever present. People wondering ‘how much of this is true?’. Someone asked me recently how I cope with that – worrying that audiences think it’s an entirely autobiographical piece and everything in the play is something I’ve felt and/or has happened to me. I think I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t worry about it… I can’t control how audiences consume my work. If they want to think it’s a total retelling of my own life because I don’t have the imagination to build a story, then they can think that… doesn’t mean it’s true!

CM: The play was performed at EdFringe in 2019. Have you made any changes to it since then, or since its previous run at Soho?
SC: To be honest all the major changes came ahead of performing it at Edinburgh Fringe. God the first few drafts of the show were so bleak… Ha! I think with that show, it being the first I’d written, and the emotional headspace I was in, all of my ‘dark truths’ came out at the start. Then, as I developed it, I began layering in some of the hilarious and ridiculous stories from my – many – years of online dating and started to find a lot more of the ‘funny’.

Performing it in front of new audiences each day at the Fringe helped me really fine tune what worked, and I made a few tweaks to the script between Edinburgh and my run at Soho in 2020. Then I’ve made a few more tweaks to the script since, but nothing major.

What I am interested in, is how the show is going to go down this time round, given how much the world around us has changed. I think lots of us are looking for entertainment to escape from the pandemic right now, even if it’s fleeting, so it didn’t feel right to bring the script up to date with the ‘new normal’. This is exactly the sort of feel-good night at the theatre me and my friends have been craving so I wanted to retain that. But of course the context I’m performing in is different now and I’m curious about how it’s going to go down.

CM: I actually feel as though the play might have even more resonance, given the lockdown. Although you haven’t changed the script, do you think the events of the past year or two will have an effect on the way you play the role this time?
SC: Yeah I mean, I can’t see how they wouldn’t! I’m a different person now than I was performing it in 2020 because of all we’ve been through – but, as you say, lockdown, and the way it affected our ability to date and connect with people, feels intrinsically linked to the themes of the show.

Certainly everything Brooke goes through – feeling like her life isn’t panning out the way she expected, feeling lonely and craving intimacy – will be as relevant now if not more so, and I imagine will resonate in slightly different ways with both me and my audiences. I don’t go into rehearsals until the start of December, so I guess I’ll have an even better idea of how it’s affecting my take on the role then!

CM: Can we talk about you now? How did you come to be working in the arts? How did your career begin?
SC: I studied Natural Science at the University Of East Anglia and, when I graduated, I did what any normal girl would do and moved to London to re-train as an actor…

I’d been pretty involved with the drama society at uni and realised being on stage felt like my thing – the thing that brought me joy, so I decided to go for it! I trained in rep with Fourth Monkey Theatre Company over two years and there was a strong focus on devising our own work. When I graduated I was part of two theatre companies I founded with my peers. We devised and wrote a lot of our own stuff, and I was also applying for fringe theatre jobs and student films.

But I reached a point in 2016 where I was feeling pretty fed up with the industry, and was thinking of packing it all in. Then I read Amy Poehler’s autobiography ‘Yes Please’ and decided to start improv classes – reading her book I remembered the main reason I loved performing was making people laugh and playing big characters, so it felt like the right thing to try.

I trained with Monkey Toast and then the Free Association and loved both, it’s where I felt I really found my community. Doing improv also made me a better actor and gave me the confidence to try my hand at writing, which led to doing Soho Theatre Writer’s Lab, writing ‘Algorithms’, and where I am now! I owe a lot to Soho and the support they’ve given me too – particularly Jules Haworth who was my dramaturg on the piece and programmed the very first show there.

CM: So you’re an actor, writer and comedy improviser – are all three things as important as each other? Did you always want to do all of it?
SC: I also do stand-up comedy! I think many hats is a good thing – keeps me on my toes! I started them all at different times, but I love them all for different reasons and they all feel as important as each other. Even if I’m having to focus more on one than the others at times, they all feed into each other so I like to see them as part of one big machine.

My writing is made better by my experience as an actor, improv has made me a more spontaneous actor and I wouldn’t have had the confidence to start writing if it weren’t for trying it. Once you’ve stood on a stage and made up forty minutes worth of scenes for a live audience, sitting in front of a laptop and writing scenes feels way less daunting!

I started out wanting to be an actor, then in that period of my life where I was fed up with the acting industry I found improv, and writing as a result. Stand-up is the newest addition to the list and came about because of lockdown – it felt like an easy way to test new writing material and ideas, though I’ve always wanted to and enjoyed making people laugh!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
SC: Career-wise I want to create, write, and star in my own TV series and win a BAFTA please thank you Universe. There was a time I’d hate to admit that last part, but it feels like the world is burning so I might as well dream big! On a personal level I’d kind of like to help stop the world from burning… and keep trying to make it one that’s kinder and more accepting of people. One without transphobia and homophobia and biphobia and racism and ableism and… the list goes on. Dream big babes, dream big!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SC: I’m writing my first two-hander at the moment on the Mercury Theatre Playwrights scheme. It’s a play about queer identity in rural farming communities and climate anxiety. Next year I’ll be going into research and development on my second solo show ‘GREEDY’ which, you guessed it, also features a bi protagonist and explores that particular stereotype which gets thrown at us. I’m also working on an audio adaptation of ‘Algorithms’ that was recently commissioned and a new pilot script for TV. If you want to keep up to date with what I’m up to follow me on Twitter.

‘Algorithms’ is on at Soho Theatre from 6-11 Dec. For more information and to book your tickets, see the venue website here.

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