Interview with Susan Gray

Susan Gray is a PhD student in creative writing. Her full length play 'Terra Firma' was staged at this year's Camden Fringe. Her one act Sci-Fi play, A Christmas Gift, was produced and performed at the Old Red Lion Theatre in December 2012. Her one act plays En Passant and Narcissus and Echo: A Bathroom Myth were performed respectively in November and December, 2012. Susan wrote and directed a short SF play, The Reality Test, in April 2014.

Susan has also performed Spoken Word at venues such as the Free Word Centre, the Poetry Cafe, the Good Ship and at the Edinburgh Free Fringe Festival (the latter of which was performed as part of the Roundhouse Poetry Collective). She has edited the creative writing magazine Enigma Creative Writing, in which she has had a short story and poem published.

Susan co-organised Stage the Future - the first convention on Science Fiction and Theatre - with Christos Callow Jr.

She has taught Science Fiction creative writing workshops in schools and has given talks on the Scientific Romance, Science and Science Fiction Theatre, the works of Adam Roberts and Worldbuilding. Susan started the new theatre company Stars or Mars and is publishing a series of SF monologues.

Q What was your motivation to start ‘Stars or Mars’ theatre company?

My motivation was the lack of (or lack of marketing of) new science fiction writing for the stage, especially in London, which has occupied my headspace for quite a while now. I wrote SF and Fantasy as a kid and that love never faded. However, it was only until my MA that I wanted to combine SF and Theatre, and my research in the field led to something far greater than I had expected.

The name Stars or Mars came about from discussions of the far and near future - which ones are we aiming for? The default future is scary enough to unsettle the steeliest of hides.

Q Do you think it’s more difficult to stage science fiction than contemporary or historical drama? Do you think special effects need to be seen on stage?

This is a great question! In some ways, I think it’s even easier to stage SF than contemporary or historical drama as you’re not bogged down in research and misrepresentation. I think it depends on the way you write. I’ve always been grounded in ideas rather than detail, which may detain people from my style, but that’s just me. SF gives me the freedom to give the ideas the spotlight, rather than focus specifically on dates and events that have happened.

Special effects don’t need to be seen on stage in my opinion, from the dagger that Macbeth sees before him to the herd of pachyderms outside in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. Theatre is great for dealing with what’s referred to as “deixis ad phantasma”, where spoken words refer to things that are offstage but are seen by the character. I don’t think there needs to be a total cull of special effects, but there has to be a balance. In my opinion, the effects should never outdo the plot or concept.

Q Do you think women are underrepresented in writing science fiction?

I think it’s getting better now, but there is still a way to go. Science Fiction has long been considered an old white man’s club, writing fiction for male teenagers (I think there was a saying that the golden age for Science Fiction is 14), but all of these assumptions have since been challenged, and rightly so. I think awards (which, in my opinion, are a lot to do with representation amongst the sea of genre fiction out there) are making great steps in this regard. There is also a great site for representing female writers, called SF Mistressworks, that reviews and pays homage to great female SF writers. What I’d like to see, personally, would be more SF books written by women reviewed online.

Q Who are your favourite sci-fi writers (male or female) and why? (Film, TV, prose, stage, radio)

My favourite writers would include Margaret Atwood -her sense of storytelling and concept is incredible, Stanislaw Lem for his sheer versatility and playfulness, as well as being poignant and poetic, Greg Egan for his scope of imagination and for introducing me to the world of the posthuman, and Adam Roberts for playfulness and satire which doesn’t hold any punches. He’s fearless and ruthless, and that’s what we need for Science Fiction to stay fresh. I can’t possibly have this list without Ursula Le Guin for her tremendous mastery of the story and her wonderful depiction of the fluidity of gender - I remember being caught up in The Dispossessed and the Left Hand of Darkness and being unable to put them down. Her writing is a big influence to me. Angela Carter also has to be mentioned, with that startlingly powerful language and ideas. The Passion of New Eve and Heroes and Villains for huge eye-openers for me.

Q What made you choose the Camden Fringe for your show ‘Terra Firma’ this summer?

There are quite a few reasons for this. The Camden Fringe crew are a very accommodating and friendly bunch of people - asides from that, the programme is great for involving so many different sorts of plays by companies of so many outlooks and perspectives - and I wanted to add some new SF writing to the mix. We also had our rehearsed reading of Terra Firma put on at the Etcetera in February, where we received some good feedback and criticisms that we took into account for the next go!

Q You’ve written a book of monologues for actors ‘Notes from Other Worlds’ which can be performed by any gender and any age. How will this help actors? Do you think every play should be written like this?

When I was tinkering around with this idea, I remember asking actors what they thought of the idea of ageless and genderless monologues. Whenever I think of the word, I think to all of the anthologies of the playwright greats - Shakespeare, Pinter, Churchill et al, with characters that are so grounded in the masterpieces that spawned them that it’s very hard to break free from those restraints.

What some of them said about this struck me with quite some force - that this concept could give actors agency so not only could they interpret the writing in their own voice, but they could have the scope to really play with these stand-alone pieces. What made me want to use this form in the SF genre was that you don’t need specific genders or age to make these work. In an ideal world, plays should be written like this. I’d certainly like it to be - as I write a lot of such roles in my own work.

Q What does the London theatre scene mean to you?

The London Theatre scene is a bustling metropolis to me, with West End and Fringe venues around every corner. It can be an intimidating citadel or it can be the most peaceful crowd of crackling, creative energy. You have to let it not overwhelm you. Make your own venue if you can’t find one. Form your own company if you can’t see one compatible with your view. Write a play that you want to see and put it on. You have to trust yourself and the party that comes along with you. Cheesy but true.

Q Can you tell me more about your new play Sum?

Sum delves into the stories of three women, each involved with a new hivemind technology that creates neural networks with each other. Each have their own reasons for joining - whether it’s to understand the human psyche, to belonging, to create a renewed sense of empathy throughout the world, even to police thoughts. However, what they find out is that life is no longer the same. As groups grow larger, the concepts of war, birth, death and love have been transformed almost beyond recognition.

What I really wanted to accomplish was the meshing together of the theatrical chorus with the concept of the hivemind - I hope I’ve pulled it off!

Q Who do you find inspirational?

For starters, my family in general, especially my parents, are inspirational to me - very much so. They instilled in me a passion for learning (even though they went down the finance and sciences route!) and have always been there for me during ups and downs. In fact, quite a lot of my plays and monologues have featured on family so that makes sense, I guess. Writing wise, I keep going back to Jeanette Winterson - she weaves such great images with her words that look simple on the page, but say so so much. It’s hard of me to think of people now (and I know this will bug me afterwards as I’ll remember so many more) but Joan Littlewood, and how she fought old fashioned values for a true theatre of the people, is another such inspiration for me.

Twitter: @Suzie_Gee

Female Arts review of 'Terra Firma'
Sum the play 27th Nov - 6th Dec Bread and Roses theatre

Author's review: