Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Sarah Richardson: Sun Bear

By | Published on Friday 29 March 2024

Coming up soon at the Park Theatre is a run of ‘Sun Bear’, an award winning one-woman dark comedy created and performed by Sarah Richardson.

It’s about a woman who works in a perfect office filled with a happy team who are very much in sync with each other. She, however, is struggling, and her behaviour threatens to tear everything apart. 

I was really interested when I heard what it was all about, so I spoke to Sarah ahead of the upcoming shows, to find out more about her and what to expect from the play. 

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the narrative of ‘Sun Bear’? Who is it about and what story does it tell?
SR: ‘Sun Bear’ is a dark comedy that follows Katy, a late twenties office worker, finally hitting the peak of the internal breakdown that has been brewing for months.

Katy is sinking after a break up that no one dares ask about. Switching between the present day and flashbacks, more and more is revealed about the truth of Katy and her ex’s relationship.

The truth of the torment and emotional torture she endured. The truth of who really knew what was going on and who turned a blind eye.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
SR: One of the biggest themes of the piece is survival and the lasting effects of abuse. Often we think about surviving an abusive relationship and getting out, but not always about what happens next.

This piece really looks at the themes of moving on and moving forward when your mind and body are still stuck in the past. Survival is messy. It’s not always linear or as clear cut as it might seem and, often, it doesn’t stop once you are out of a toxic situation.

The other overarching theme of the piece is office culture and our obligations, or lack of obligations, to reaching out to our co-workers who are struggling.

I think over the last few years there has been a real rise in being more open about mental health in the workplace, but there can be a limit to what a workplace can do, and so I really wanted to explore that struggle.

CM: What made you want to create a show about this topic and these themes?
SR: As a society, we are still only really starting to talk about abusive relationships, especially around emotional abuse, coercive control and gaslighting, but unfortunately it is something that affects a lot of people.

More so, there is a real feeling of being lost once you have got out of these relationships. Often you have been isolated from friends and family, there are feelings of anger, panic and shame, and it can be incredibly hard to continue with your everyday life whilst processing all of that.

So, for me, I really wanted to create a piece that spoke to those issues, that showed, honestly, the ups and downs, the rights and wrongs, the hope and the pain.

Also, as women, we are often taught to be more placid and contained, and so I really wanted to use comedy to create a character who was the opposite of this, a woman who was loud and angry, and said aloud all the things we wish we could say at work as a mask to cover up the turmoil inside.

CM: Are there any autobiographical elements? 
SR: Office life and the corporate world was never a calling for me and I am very much not Katy, I could never say the things she says at work, I would have nightmares about it.

So the setting of this piece and the character are not autobiographical, but creating Katy and telling this story was a very personal experience.

Playing a character that is so unfiltered and honest in her pain was a real harbour for me, and there are moments in the piece that touch very close to home.

CM: What made you decide to make this a one-person thing? Did you always plan to perform it yourself?
SR: I think the whole experience for the audience is that you are inside Katy’s world, you are getting unfiltered access to her thoughts and her observations, and so making it a one-person show really allows the audience to get up close and personal with the most outrageous and most painful parts of her mind.

It’s also really exciting, because you get to play with the audience’s perspective, they meet the other characters and the circumstances all through Katy’s eyes, and so they are all inevitably tinged with Katy’s own opinions and projections that may or may not be a correct analysis of the other characters in the play.

Also, within this world and her own mind, Katy is incredibly isolated because of her past relationship and it’s clear that she is struggling to break out of that isolation, and so having it just be her on the stage I think is a really good representation of that.

Writing and performing this piece has always been an intertwined experience, and so from the start I always felt Katy very close to my heart as an expression of all the things I wished I could say out loud, so I always planned to perform the piece.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the creative process involved in creating something like this? Did you just sit down and write it, or is there a more devisy element to it?
SR: There have been a couple of stages in the creative process for ‘Sun Bear’.

I started writing the piece in 2020, when I was living in Ireland, and got the opportunity to develop it with an amazing theatre called Axis:Ballymun.

So that was a process of me writing drafts and then going through them with the incredible dramaturg and director, Aoife Spillane-Hinks, to bring it to a place where we could film an online work-in-progress showing of the piece.

The piece then got left for a couple of years, and then I got the opportunity last year to do a residency in Gothenburg, with Gothenburg Fringe, to develop the script for production.

This was an unbelievable experience that gave me the space and time to work with various artists, and see a huge range of art that really influenced this version of ‘Sun Bear’.

So overall, the experience has been a really enriching one of writing and sharing drafts with a number of different artists and organisations who have all helped to shape it into the show it is now.

CM: Tell us about the past now: did you always want to work in the arts? What led you to this kind of career and how did it begin?
SR: Ever since I could talk I have always wanted to be an actor and for a very long time that was the sole focus. I did various drama clubs and amateur productions as a child and all the way through my teens before going to drama school.

While at drama school, we had a course that focused on creating your own work and that was the first time that I really considered writing.

Again, acting and performing were still taking the lead but I started exploring poetry and spoken word and, as I did more slams and events, I really started to fall in love with the potential of also being a writer. And so, as I finished drama school, I wrote my first play and it’s never really stopped.

CM: Are the writing and performing elements enmeshed, or do you enjoy one process more than the other?
SR: I think both processes fulfil me in different ways, and there is always such an addictive rush of going on stage and performing to a live audience that is hard to find anywhere else.

For ‘Sun Bear’ and my debut play, ‘GirlPlay’, the writing and performing definitely went hand in hand. I was very aware when writing them that I would be performing in those pieces and so the writing was connected to my voice and how I like to perform.

However, in the last year I have started exploring what writing something that I am not in could look like, and that has opened up a world of excitement and possibilities that I hadn’t considered before. And so I am definitely starting to lean more firmly towards the writing for the next while.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
SR: I definitely think being able to go and spend a month working in Sweden on ‘Sun Bear’ was one of the highlights of my career thus far. As part of that residency I got to visit two other festivals, FinFringe and Zagare Fringe, as well as hosting writing workshops, seeing shows, writing and creating everyday, and expanding my own practice.

It was unlike any other experience I have had, and one of the most valuable in giving me time and space to create but also to experience art in a number of different countries. I am very aware of how lucky I was to be able to take part in a residency that really was the dream for most creatives.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
SR: Up next, I am continuing work on my new play, ‘Daisy Chains’. This is the first piece where I am stepping fully into the role of the writer and so far I have loved the experience of hearing other people bring my work to life.

Last year it won the runner up prize in the Platform Presents Playwrights Prize and I just finished an R+D on it in January supported by the DYCP grant, so I am looking at taking it into production hopefully sometime soon.

‘Sun Bear’ is on at the Park Theatre from 2-13 Apr, see the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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