Sam Brooks is one of New Zealand’s most exciting young contemporary playwrights. Known for his searing wit, snappy dialogue, and incisive commentary, the prolific playwright Brooks has won the Bruce Mason Award (New Zealand’s most prestigious award for playwrighting), been highly commended twice in the prestigious Adam NZ Play Awards, and won Playmarket’s b425 competition. His canon of work includes the plays Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys, Wine Lips, Stutterpop, and Queen.
His latest play, Burn Her, which is directed by Sam Snedden and will be performed as part of Q Theatres’s Matchbox Season in August, is a political drama that charts the fortunes of a fledgling political party that has captured an unlikely seat in parliament. In a wide-ranging interview Shawn Moodie talked to Sam about his new play which opens August 2.
Burn Her appears to be very timely, both in terms of its characters, their dilemmas, and the themes that you explore. What kind of research did you do beforehand and are there any real people upon whom you’ve based your characters?
I did a little bit of research beforehand – largely about the political logistics, and I asked a few people about if certain things that I thought would make for a good play would be likely. Their answers were that they’d be ‘plausible’ so I took it and ran with it.
I’ve joked that all the characters are either me or my mother, which holds a little bit of truth in it. Women who are very aware of the place they hold in the world, but also aware of their own competency and the tools they need to use to navigate that world, which sums up a lot of how I viewed my mother and how she viewed herself. There’s also more than a little bit of the DNA of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It (TV show) in George, the lead character, and I’ve sunk more than a few hours into that world. Which I think is both the smartest political comedy of our age, and the most prescient and honest political drama. Often at the same time.
And why this story in particular? What made you want to tell it?
I’ve always wanted to write something about my mother – which is the most cliché and basic thing that any gay playwright could possibly say to you – and I’ve always wanted to write a play that she could see (she passed away in 2014) and feel like I’d truly understood her and how she lived in the world.
Which is not in itself an inherently engaging hook for a play or a story, so I’ve covered it up with high-stake situations – politics, election night, sexual abuse scandal – and put it onstage.
At the time I was writing this, I was also very fascinated with how we compromise our morals for our work – and how we react when we’re faced with difficult and thorny moral quandaries – and so I used all these high stakes situations to explore that. It’s not a play about when you find out a friend has said something shitty behind your back and you have to figure out how to confront it. It’s a play about when your friend doing is something objectively awful to another human being, and your response to that something awful has a huge impact on the lives of those around you.
You’re known for being able to deliver quite sharp social commentary, but how do you balance making demands of the audience and taking care of them?
A spoonful of good, witty dialogue makes the medicine go down.
There’s a line in Nanette, which everybody on your social media feed is rightfully talking about, where Hannah Gadsby says, “Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure; laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.” I feel the same way about dialogue, at least in a naturalistic play like Burn Her.
When it comes to taking care of the audience and making demands of them, it’s about making sure the rules of the world and the rules of the play are set up. The rules of a play like Burn Her are very clear – nobody’s going to come grab you out of the audience to do a political speech, and similarly the roles of a very different play like Stutterpop are still clear – I’m going to perform with a guest actor, and everybody is clear on what’s going on.
Make sure everybody knows what ride they’re on, but don’t be afraid to go upside down every now and then.
What do you want audiences to be thinking or talking about on the ride home after watching Burn Her?
If they’re a woman, I want them to feel empowered, like they’ve seen themselves onstage reflected authentically, and seen that experience reflected authentically. If they’re a dude, I want them to think about the way they think about and treat women.
But regardless of gender, I want them to do what I do when I see something I need to talk about it, I want them to message their friends and co-workers and be like, “I want you to see this so I can talk about it with you!”
Without giving away anything, what was the hardest scene in Burn Her to write?
I think that’d have to be the first scene – the set-up for everything. It’s packing the bags, making sure you’ve got tickets, money and passport, whereas the rest of the play is a full-on, full-speed train to the end of the line. I’ve managed to make it entertaining and fun for an audience, but it’s the kind of block-building that doesn’t interest me hugely as a playwright, which is probably why I don’t write lots of plays like this! It’s a good skill to learn, and a better wall to break through.
For a young playwright, you’ve had a massive amount of praise for your earlier work, but do you read the reviews? And how do you deal with the odd bad one?
I’ve been fortunate, and I truly mean fortunate, enough to be on both sides of things. I’ve written reviews myself, I’ve been reviewed, and I’ve written highly critical reviews myself and received those reviews. I’m not a hugely sensitive person when it comes to my own work, and I’m very much able to separate my own feelings about a show from a reviewers – there is no objective right or wrong or bad or good, everything comes from a certain frame of reference, and that is especially true of criticism.
When I get the odd bad one, I usually link it to one of my close friends – the necessaries – and have a brief moan, and then I get back to whatever I’m doing that day. At the end of the day, a lot of criticism is not intended for the maker – although some of it is, and I appreciate that – it’s intended for an audience. I like the work I make and that’s what matters to me.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
When I was about eight, I dropped the c-word without knowing what it really meant. I was staying with family friends at the time and the entire mood of the room shifted. One, that taught me not to say that word in mixed company, and two, it showed me how you could ruin an entire conversation with just one word.
What is the first play that you remember watching?
I know this can’t be the first one I ever saw, but the play that made me want to do theatre was the Unitec 2008 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by John Callen. It had some bomb-ass actors in it, Fern Sutherland, Renee Lyons and Josephine Stewart-Tewhiu, it was set in a mental hospital and it was just a lot of fun. It’s strange that this is the show that made me want to make theatre, because now I have very little time or energy for Shakespeare, and even less for wacky adaptations of it.
What is the first one that made you cry?
The Auckland Theatre Company’s production of August: Osage County, which is best described as a family drama played at full volume on a stereo that you’ve thrown down the stairs – it’s horrible, beautiful and epic. The entire last third of that show had me in a paralysed state of water falling down my gross face, especially the scene where Barbara (played brilliantly by Jennifer Ward-Lealand) slowly but surely turns into her mother during one painful scene with a high school beau.
How does writing change the writer?
I think there’s something that comes out of putting thoughts down into words that makes them concrete to me, and articulates exactly what I think about something. I learned about myself writing Burn Her which is maybe a little bit cheesy, but I definitely learned on what side of the ‘ends justify the means’ argument I stand on, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had a concrete position on that before. So it’s less that it changes me and more that it solidifies where I stand.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It really depends on what it is. When I’m fighting block and working through a wall, it exhausts me. It becomes work. But when it’s free-flowing and when it’s coming out of me like Cyclops shooting concussive beams from his eyes, it’s absolutely energizing. I wrote the second act of Burn Her in a night because everything was firing on all cylinders. To contrast, I took me about three days of procrastinating to even write the synopsis for the play.
How did publishing your first play change your writing process?
It made me want to write more, honestly! It’s something you tick off, that you got your name in a book, and you can give a few copies of that book to loved ones, but then you move on and just want to do more. The work never stops.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
Honestly, nothing. I think I’m pretty great at it as is, and I’ll get better with age and practice – or maybe I’ll get bored and bitter and go into floristry like I’ve always dreamed.
But also, If I’ve learned anything about writing, it’s that it’s just writing. It’s good, but you can’t let it take over your life. You still have to wake up, face the day, and be an active and congenial participant in the world. Nobody cares if you can spin a line like a ballerina on crack if you’re not a nice person.
What does theatre offer as a medium that film or television doesn’t?
It’s the communal factor. It’s the sense of being in a room with other people who are experiencing the exact same thing as you, and the fact that it will never be replicated exactly like that. These people will never be in that room again, watching that thing, and thinking about that piece of art at the same time. There’s an electricity about it that I haven’t found in any other artform, and while I appreciate other artforms for other reasons – I wish I could watch a piece of theatre as great as Sharp Objects from my couch – it’s that electricity that keeps me coming back.