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Katherine Soper: 'Winning the Bruntwood was beyond any of my hopes'

As her debut play opens at the Royal Court, the Wish List playwright talks about winning one of the most important writing prizes in the country, zero hours contracts and working as a perfume salesperson

Playwright Katherine Soper
© Joel Chester Fildes

Katherine Soper's debut play won one of Britain's most prestigious playwriting competitions in 2015. Wish List was hailed by Nicholas Hytner – who chaired the judging panel - as ‘magnificent', and the piece, about workers on zero hours contracts, was staged in 2016 by the Royal Exchange in Manchester. The production is now about to open for a short run at the Royal Court in London which means the 25 year-old Soper has had a pretty epic year. We caught up with her during rehearsals for the show to find out more.

There's been a slight break between the last run of Wish List and this one, have you changed the play much?
We actually cut what was the entire first scene on the first night of previews in Manchester and in order to make sense between that night and press night, I did a bit of a copy and paste job. So I have done a new version of the first scene. But it's not too different to anything that we had before. It's only been a few months and I feel like all the actors have let it percolate in their heads and everyone has still got it in their muscle memory.

The Royal Court is one of the most important new writing venues, how does it feel to have your play here?
It's the fact that I can say to my grandma – it's where Look Back in Anger premiered - and she knows what that means. Whenever anyone asked me where I would most love to have a play on, the two venues were always the Royal Court and the Royal Exchange. It sounds fixed, I know.

Were you from a theatrical family?
Nobody in my family has worked in theatre, but my dad always took me to see Shakespeare when I was younger. I didn't really know people wrote new plays until I got to university. It hit me then that I could actually write a play of my own.

What made you start writing plays?
When I was younger, I had tried writing millions of novels that I never finished. I would just get bored. But when I tried writing just dialogue, I found that much more interesting. I watched documentaries and fell in love with the way people speak naturally and what that reveals. I wrote two plays before Wish List at uni, but they were really really bad.

Shaquille Ali Yebuah as Luke Mburu in Wish List
©Jonathan Keenan

Wish List is about zero hours contracts, what drew you to the subject?
I had worked in a warehouse myself when I was on my gap year and summers inbetween university. It was actually a really nice warehouse. But then I saw reports about the treatment of workers in certain places and I could relate to it. I knew how terrible it would be to have your ability to communicate with other people shut down, to be given targets on work you can only do at a certain speed. I also wanted to write about mental health and a particular kind of brother sister relationship. Those were separate ideas that I eventually morphed together.

How did it feel when you won the Bruntwood?
I remember saying on the way to the ceremony: ‘I'm a bit sad because I won't have anything to look forward to after tomorrow'. I was so overwhelmed and happy to get on the shortlist, winning it was beyond any hope or dream that I'd had.

What's changed since you won?
I have an agent now, which is a huge blessing because it means there's someone whose job it is to be on my side. I'm most grateful to the Royal Exchange, who have given me so much pastoral support. There was so much care taken in talking to me and understanding where I was with my own writing.

Are you still working as a perfume salesperson?
I actually am. I pick up bits and pieces here and there when they need an extra pair of hands. Ironically, considering my play, I am on a zero hours contract, but that was at my request. I find it really helpful to have a community that isn't theatre-based. I feel it's important you don't become myopic in the theatre world. I did think it was odd how people picked up on the perfume job when I won, though. It's not exceptional for any person who is trying to write, direct or act to have a day job.

Is it always important for you as a writer to try to galvanise audiences, or to draw attention to something that is in society now?
When you are writing things you do have to ask yourself why this? Why now? Even if it is not about a huge political issue – why will it chime with people now? You need to hook an audience in and make them feel like what you are saying is relevant to them.

Wish List runs at the Royal Court until 11 Feburary.