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Brief Encounter With ... Playwright Chris Lee

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Chris Lee is the writer of Shallow Slumber, a new play partly inspired by the Baby P case, which is being presented by Supporting Wall at the Soho Theatre. He is a former Pearson playwright-in-residence at the Finborough Theatre, where several of his plays have been produced.

Lee was previously a writer-in-association with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which presented his play The Electrocution of Children, for which he won a Stewart Parker New Playwright Award. His plays have also been performed at the Old Red Lion, Salisbury Playhouse and Theatre 503. As well as playwriting, Lee works as a full time social worker.

Shallow Slumber, influenced by Lee’s own experience in the social work sector, depicts the challenging relationship between a social worker and a young mother. The play is directed by Mary Nighy and stars Alexandra Gilbreath and Amy Cudden. It opens tonight (24 January 2012) and continues until 18 February.

How did you first start writing plays?

I was at university in Dublin doing an English degree and I joined the drama society, it was as simple as that; the theatrical bug bit. I worked out fairly quickly that I was of too nervous a disposition to be an actor, so playwriting was really a vicarious mode of performance for me. I had a couple of plays put on by the drama society and I never looked back. My first love and perhaps my truest sense of vocation has always been to be a playwright.

How has your day job as a social worker influenced your writing?

I get a lot of inspiration from it. I don’t steal people’s lives and put them on stage, but what I’ve experienced has a huge impact on the kinds of characters I choose to write about. You meet some amazing people through being a social worker, people who have come through the most extraordinary traumas and challenges and abuses. Their strength, despite the fact that they may be vulnerable and they may need a lot of help, is inspirational.

One thing that strikes you as a social worker is how much work there is to be done out there in terms of achieving reasonable social justice and equality. So there’s a real political sense I have that writing, while not the same as a political manifesto, can have an overall political purpose in wanting to open up worlds that people sometimes don’t want to look into for dramatic examination.

What inspired you to write Shallow Slumber?

Shallow Slumber is certainly not a direct reflection of my experience. The play was written after I’d been thinking about the furore that surrounded the Baby P case a couple of years ago and I wanted to give an audience some insight into how complicated and difficult the relationship between a social worker and a young mother can be. It is not a simple thing and it is not open to simplistic judgements. I should stress that my play is not about that case, but it’s a sufficiently similar world for us to be able to recall everything that we have heard and read about social work with children over the last ten years.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?

What I’m very keen for an audience to be able to leave the theatre with is a sense that this world is interesting and difficult and that throwing blame about the place to make you feel good, to deal with your own sense of insecurity and guilt, really does nobody any good. It’s impossible to prevent everything bad from happening, yet that is an unspoken expectation that the public have about social workers. In a sense social workers can only ever fail, because you will never have a report hitting the headlines about an intervention that was very successful.

Based on your own experience, what qualities do you think are vital for a playwright to have?

You’ve got to have something to say or a very interesting way of saying it. You can’t just be a playwright because you like the idea of being a playwright. You have to be driven by a sense that what you want to say about the world can be said in a dramatic form. And be ready for the long haul. Not everyone is suited to being the next sexy young thing on the cover of a magazine in playwriting terms; some people plough a much longer furrow. Despite the fact that I’m hardly a household name, I am still going after all these years. There are some playwrights who have sparkled beautifully when they’re very young and then disappeared from the scene, so there’s nothing wrong with being a tortoise rather than a hare.

- Chris Lee was speaking to Catherine Love


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