I met Stephanie nearly a year ago at the audition for ‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’ (then called ‘Hunger’). I thought she was great, but the role she was right for (Sadie) was already cast. The first phase of work was development followed by a showing at CPT, after which it turned out our lead was unable to do the production and tour, so I called Stephanie. I knew she was very keen on the project, her training seemed right, and there was something about how she found her way around Sadie’s lines that told me she got my writing.
– The fact that she looked so perfect for the role wasn’t the deciding factor – it’s a bit disconcerting to meet someone who has existed in your imagination in real life. Thankfully the similarities are only external.
It was a great call. Stephanie is a fantastic actor – flexible, dedicated, open, emotionally connected, and after just a few days she has a great sense of the character and the play. I found it interesting to hear Stephanie talk about Sadie – she started with her back-story, and details that aren’t actually mentioned in the play. – perhaps reveals the actor’s approach to character.
[odd fact: Stephanie’s real surname is Jones]
Where did you train?
At Bretton Hall, in the middle of nowhere in Yorkshire. It had a reputation for being a bit cult-like, which is accurate in a way, it was very much a bubble, the emphasis was on creating new and exciting work, it wasn’t as traditional as some drama schools. So even though it was an acting course- Stanislavski training, animal studies, Shakespeare, Greek plays, you got the opportunity to choose your own path through the degree.
In my third year I was lucky, our large cast performance was directed by someone with a theatre company and links with the National Theatre in Cyprus, so that was how I got my first job. We took a version of the same piece to a festival of ancient Greek drama in Cyprus, the director produced it and we had a new director – Michael Fentiman who was at the RSC.
I was the last year to graduate from Bretton hall. We didn’t know it was going to close until half way through our first year. Once we’d come to terms with it, for us it meant we had a lot of outside directors who came in for modules, so we worked with some very interesting professional people. …and there was loads of space….
It sounds similar to my experience of Dartington – in the middle of nowhere in Devon. The move to Falmouth was announced in my final year there. It seems that these kind of small, experimental arts colleges aren’t sustainable anymore. We also described Dartington as a bubble….actually that’s a great thing when it comes to training and making your own work. I always feel like I’m in a bubble during a rehearsal process….. In what ways was your training at Bretton Hall useful for this project?
In a general sense, it’s the openness to something different and not having set ideas on what ‘theatre’ should be. I worked with a PhD student in my 3rd year and he was interested in treating text as music, not everything, but some of the things in this piece are reminiscent of that. I think I take for granted how physical our training was, and even if you didn’t decide to go down physical theatre route, if you’re devising theatre it’s different to being sat around a table writing. When I think of creating a piece it comes out of the body first…
Tell us about your character:
Sadie lives with her boyfriend Danny, her sister Kim lives nearby. Her and her sister were predominantly brought up by their mum, their dad left when they were young. Their mum wasn’t very stable, she had depression, I think that’s had a massive impact on Sadie, I think she blames herself for her mother’s unhappiness and I think her mother’s relationship to food and meals was perhaps not greatly helpful for Sadie.
However I don’t think you can blame everything on the mother, because Sadie has got an eating disorder, and self-harms as well as seeing things and hearing voices that aren’t there. Kim deals with the grief of the mum’s death in a very different way. When their mother died, Kim took on her role, Sadie was too vulnerable. What we see in the play is that Kim has smothered Sadie and not allowed her to become an adult, and her own person. Sadie is living with her boyfriend, but I think her sister is around a lot and involved in that relationship. I think Danny is a very patient person, to put up with that, and loves Sadie very much. And perhaps he didn’t quite know what he was letting himself in for.
Sadie wants to be tall and thin, and has no real sense of her actual body. This image, even though it’s something she aspires to, manifests itself in a nightmarish way….She sees tall, thin people around her, when she’s walking down a street or at home…but also I think her mind guards itself. If something painful happens in real life she switches, forgets about it and goes into her imagination. Her imagination frightens her a lot of the time but it also protects her, which is maybe why she believes it. I think when she’s in a really bad place she loses bits of time, she won’t remember something that’s happened, I think that’s really quite scary.
I think she finds things that are real and builds nice places and fantasies from that…if she felt safe in her childhood bedroom, or something she’s seen…it’ll appear in her fantasy….and then it might take over and the fantasy becomes a nightmare.
Do you identify with her in any way?
Yes, it’s difficult because she’s really messed up, and I think I’ve been fortunate in my life in that I’ve nowhere near got the same issues that she’s got, but – some of her worries and fears and insecurities do ring true, I would imagine with a lot of people. Danny’s got his issues with tidying up, we see in the play that at one point this prevents him going to bed with Sadie, she takes that as a massive rejection. I think there’s something in me that if someone was to say ‘OK yeah but later’ I’d be like – do you not fancy me enough? I suppose I’ve learned about my own insecurity there…I think if all her issues were coming out of somewhere far from most people she’d be hard to identify with, but I think there is a point where you go ‘I do get that, I understand, I just don’t deal with it in that way’. The people around her aren’t helping. She’s coddled and protected, Danny puts up with her craziness and shouting and moods.
What are the challenges of the role?
Her journey is a rollercoaster. Where she goes emotionally is so extreme that it’s about finding the sense and meaning of it but then going further than that. Whatever I imagine I would do in that situation, if those things were happening to me – I then push that to the very extreme… I have to lose any barriers, any holding back. I think we do guard ourselves, we don’t cry in front of people we don’t know…in order for me to play Sadie in the most truthful way I need to let that go…
As an example – Sadie is in the market having an absurd conversation about buying apples and a disagreement on the price…she’s trying to explain her point of view but the market seller is having none of it and she completely breaks down. It reminded me of a time recently when I needed to be in London for a screening, and I had a ticket for a specific train but I’d forgotten it was Sunday and the buses were irregular, I was cutting it fine and I ran from the bus stop to Liverpool Lime Street, I got there just in time. I’m convinced the conductor saw me and he put up the signal for it to go just as I was getting there. I lost all sense of the people around…I was pleading with him, he was like stone, I completely burst into tears which is very unlike me. People were stood on the platform staring at the conductor like he was the worst person in the world.
He came to help me change my ticket, I couldn’t say thank you in a normal way, I was choking. So that’s what I channel for the breakdown…..you know it’s embarrassing and you want to control your speech but you can’t, you’re in such a state of distress.
What’s your favourite moment in the play?
I really like the naturalistic bits with Danny at the moment, you can ask me this again when we’re further on, I think it’s because the naturalistic bits are easy for me to find, I can relate to them – living with a boyfriend, having tense moments. It should remind the audience that actually she’s a person…not a fantastical character, and I think that’s important, and hopefully she’ll be likeable so they will care…that’s my job…
You came into the process later than Lizzie and Alan. What’s this like?
I’ve never done that before, I’ve always started with everyone else, so it’s a bit daunting despite everyone being really nice, it’s a bit scary because I don’t want people to get frustrated if we have to stop because I’m not up to speed on lines or don’t understand bits they’ve already worked on… plus there’s the fact someone else has already had a go at this role, so I’m trying not to think about that as it’s not helpful. I am really competitive and a perfectionist, I’m not used to being the person who’s behind, it’s a good learning curve for me.
At times though it’s been really useful. A scene has just been left to run and the other two are doing things in character and in the space, and I have no idea what’s going on, so I get to experience it for the first time, I’m in the same position that Sadie is in.
I’m really impressed by the other two, in awe at times actually. Which makes me go ‘come on’ – sometimes you might be in a cast where the others don’t have the same work ethic. But here everyone’s working extremely hard and are really talented…so I have to tell myself ‘OK don’t let the side down’.
What’s it like being based in Liverpool?
I’ve never lived in London, although I spend a lot of time here, there is that assumption that if you’re taking acting seriously you should live in London. I continuously pull against that and I wonder if I’m making a bad decision, putting myself out of opportunities – which is why I go to auditions, I get up at stupid 0’ Clock in the morning…but Liverpool is so much cheaper so you can get a better quality of life for less money. I remind myself of that when I’m on a coach at five in the morning…it allows me more time to be creative and not have to do menial jobs for rent and things. So I do think I made the right choice for me, also because I’m Northern…. I’m not about to be on Eastenders….but Liverpool and Manchester are in the middle of the country, and media city is now in Salford.
I’ve only lived in Liverpool for two years….moving out of Manchester didn’t affect my work there, but I’d never worked in Liverpool until I lived there. I’ve had a lot of work there since…I have had to perfect my scouse accent….
What are your ambitions for the future?
I’d like to be able to live off just performing. At the moment I do lots of workshop leading and teaching. Having said that, I’m sure I would miss working with children and young people, they always surprise you and that can inform your work, but I suppose if it was a choice rather than a necessity that would be nice. I’ve done a lot of film recently and I’m liking that as it’s very different, I’d like to do more, and there are so many theatres and theatre companies I think are brilliant….I want to work with them all.
This job is closer to my training than anything I’ve done before. When we go to Leeds in the autumn I’ll get some of my tutors to come, it’s funny because even though I’ve had good jobs I’m proud of, this will be what they are most proud of me for. Because it’s new and exciting and daring.
Thanks! – Great place to end the interview and start the rehearsal!