Kathy Rucker’s play Darling has recently had its world premiere at Islington’s Hope Theatre, and I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to have a chat with her and the play’s director Scott Le Crass. I started by asking them to tell me a little about the play.
KR: Darling’s a play about a very charming con artist who has literary ambitions, and he meets a woman who becomes his accomplice and then we meet some of his victims who, in the end, surprise all of them.
TE: Where did the idea for Darling come from?
KR: I’ve always been interested in cons and con artists because it takes a certain kind of person who knows how to relate to people and how to read people, but they have a little twist that intrigues me. There’s so much work has to go into a perfect con. Normally, you can have a job and make money with that same amount of work but yet these people are interested in the dynamics of it. I just love the theatricality of a good con. There’s something really engaging about it, and I just started doing research on cons and I was more interested in things that were pre-internet. Things where they (the con artist) had to think about how they were really going to connect to their victims and the use of letters I just found so riveting and so tangible. I really love things like thank-you notes, writing letters and I’ve saved every letter I’ve ever gotten. I have literally all my letters. So, it intrigues me when I found a story about a conman who used letters in the 1980s to con people.
TE: So, the play is based on a real event then?
KR: Part of it is, yes. There was a man that used the letters and the lonely heart thing but, in the story, I found, he went in a whole other direction that I just wanted to avoid. The real man was much more evil than the Dave character presented to the public in the show. I just kind of wanted to centre on the con rather than the people.
TE: What’s the writing process like for you?
KR: Initially my process was that I would go to the library, I had to get out of the house, but during the pandemic that wasn’t allowed. I write after my daughter goes to school. I go to the dining room table, and have everything kind of spread out, and usually, I can’t write for more than three hours, that’s my limit. My first editor is my husband, he’s an incredibly impartial editor of my work. Then I like to get a reading (of the play) with actor friends, so I’ll hire actors to read the script in a theatre setting. I’ll take notes and make changes and then that’s the version I’ll submit to theatres. But then, when I’m working with a talented director, such as Scott, I’m definitely open to making changes, it always makes my plays better, all the time.
TE: How did you two get together on this production?
KR: Anna Jordan, who directed My Crystal Springs, is an old friend of Scott’s and she recommended Scott to direct this one. The Hope Theatre team read the script and wanted to do it, and I think it was just a little marriage made in heaven.
TE: The writer will have their idea on the characters and how the play should be staged, but what happens once the director comes in and brings their interpretation of it?
SLC: I think for me, it’s always about serving the play. Whenever I read a play for the first time, I will make notes as I’m reading it. Things that don’t feel clear, things that I think I know, things that I’m discovering. I end up with almost like a journal of those initial impressions. I think that in terms of serving a play, knowing what it is that each piece, if there is any kind of room for any amendments and something dramaturgically that needs looking at, then really identifying it in a very clear way and making the notes very specific. Reading this (Darling) it was one of the first plays that I’ve not really had to do that with because it felt so solid and so real. It’s about understanding how you see the play and find the play and finding out from the writer how they see it, because sometimes those two things can’t marry up. So, you need to sort of get inside the writer’s head as well. Then ask them if something is what they think it is, or if something isn’t clear then tell them you’re not sure it’s coming through.
TE: What happens if you get a conflict between the writer’s and director’s vision?
SLC: For me ultimately, it’s the writer’s work, because it all starts with them. Working with Kathy, I found that if I had an idea or something came up in rehearsals, she was very patient and went ‘OK, great’. At times I just needed to say my idea and get clarity on it then a couple of days later, I would go, no it’s not going to work.
KR: There was one day when we finally saw one of the last scenes and Scott and I were going to have dinner that night, and we wrapped up and were walking to the restaurant and we both knew we had to cut half of that monologue and we spent dinner working together on this one scene and it made it so much better. For me, the writing isn’t sacred, the script I bring into the room is not sacred. I just feel like everyone brings something to it, and I know as a team effort it can be better than just what I wrote in my little dining room. It actually changes when you hear the voices.
SLC: There’s a lot to be said about a preview period and how it’s heard. There are things (with Darling) that have changed from the first preview to the press performance. Like the moment, at the beginning, making it more specific about that first moment with the cello. And also, one of the final moments, it felt like they were too separate, and I said to Kathy ‘I’ve got this idea, and you didn’t even ask to see it‘, and she just said ‘OK, try it‘. We tried it, saw it, and went ‘yes, that’s right’. I think it’s about being flexible, and it’s about how you open up that conversation. If you go in like a bull in a china shop, it’s not going to work. Whereas if you have a logic and openness to it, and a kindness to it, then I think that’s when the conversation becomes fluid.
TE: Again, given that you both have a vision of the characters, how did the casting process work for you?
SLC: Our initial casting sessions were online because of the world we’re living in at the moment where that becomes easier. And it allowed us to see more people for each role. After that, for two sets of characters, the chemistry is really important, and we just tried lots of different combinations. We recorded the recalls and sent them through to Kathy and then Sarah (Berger, the producer) – who has been amazing every step of the way in terms of her support and guidance – and I shared our thoughts on the casting work with Kathy, and she seemed happy with them. The chemistry between the performers, you can just feel it. And that’s one of the biggest things when working on a production is making sure the casting is right. Because if you get that right then in theory it becomes a lot easier.
KR: And then we had a Zoom reading of the play. It was around 8.00am my time (in California). My husband and I were sitting on the couch and it was the most amazing thing. I had goosebumps. It was better than I had imagined, and this was on a cold reading. It was just phenomenal, so I had no qualms, and when I got to the UK it was even better than on the Zoom. I had a little hesitation about Dave, a little bit because in my head I had a kind of ‘other version’ of him, and then when he (Heider Ali) read, it was like OMG, it was the most perfect casting I’ve ever met. Every review and everyone has remarked how remarkable the cast are. We were so lucky, and Sarah and Scott just chose the most amazing cast, I’m forever grateful.
TE: How is the audition process different when doing it by Zoom, where you can only really see the top half of the actor’s body, so don’t necessarily get their full movement etc?
SLC: That’s a very good question. I think there’s a couple of things in that. First of all, a lot of the things I’ve done castings for over Zoom in the last year have been either for online stuff or stuff that despite being inherently theatre is very filmic and I think this play has that filmic quality to it. So, what naturally happens in those situations is that you will get a kind of ‘TV’ audition but when you redirect it you can encourage then to think of it more in terms of a theatre. Also, what I found was that a lot of people looked more relaxed, because they were in their own space, and there’s a real plus that comes from that. Additionally, you’re not having the negative side of auditions – missing a day off work, traveling, having to buy coffee or lunch – all of those things I think have been very, very useful. I’ve rehearsed on Zoom for some things and found it really focuses the work because you don’t have any distractions. You log on at the allotted time, do your bits and then go. There’s no excess time.
KR: It also heled me, being based in America. Also, it helped that I could go onto to Spotlight and see their video clips.
TE: How far along were you in the preparation/rehearsal process when Kathy arrived in London?
KR: We had a cast and that was fine for me. I love being there but for me it’s at the discretion of the director because I don’t want to impose my presence into the rehearsal room. I think it might be fortunate I came in at the end, by then Scott had his relationship with the actors. It’s more for me to observe and learn from it. And then we went into Tech which was so much ‘fun’. I think it was good for me to come in at the end, I was lucky to be able to do that. See the process and at that point, the set design and wardrobe were at a good level for me to look at. I felt like I didn’t impose any sort of judgement on the process.
SLC: Having Kathy’s presence in the room was so lovely. You pitched it in a low key way that was full of warmth and support. But there’s also that moment of ‘Whoa, the writer is in the room’, so it naturally makes you want to be better. There’s also, and this one of the first times I’ve done this working on a play, is having a writer in the room when I’ve bene trying out loads of rehearsal exercise. That’s the first time I’ve done that with the writer in the room because sometimes something about what I’m doing might get lost in translation, sort of ‘why are you doing this?’ but Kathy seemed to find things in just watching these exercises.
TE: For people like me who aren’t directly involved in these things, what is a rehearsal exercise?
SLC: There’s a mixture of things I’ll do to get the actors to think more about what they are saying or how they are connecting to other people, or about what they aren’t saying. So, for example, we’ll run a scene, but the actors will be blindfolded, and it forces them to listen.
KR: What about the thing pre-press night?
SLC: Oh yes. There’s a character who isn’t seen in the play – she’s died two years before the play starts – but she’s spoken about a lot. We’d worked on the scene and spoken about this character’s presence and there are moments in the play that feels like, for me, when he’s having a conversation with another woman, it’s almost like a version of his dead mother. And it’s something characters don’t talk about too much but it’s very there. The dead mum’s clothes are seen in the play and, as I say, she’s spoken about, so on the day of the press night, I got an older actress in to simply come in the room and be present in the room as the mother. I didn’t tell the actors what was going to happen just that something was going to be different, and they should go with it. Then I get this actress to read the scene the other character normally reads but as the mum. And it really brought so much to the surface, and it was so exciting to watch as it completely reinvigorated the scene. I’m a big fan of rehearsal exercises because I think they give actors the freedom to play without getting it right or wrong, and there’s always little things they can pull from it that enhance the performance.
KR: And it was really fun for me to see that because I normally wouldn’t.
SLC: The day you arrived, we’d blocked and shaped the piece physically, and the first day you were in rehearsals was the day I did all the scene changes, so initially you were seeing all the things that were in the text. I’m a big fan of creating all the scene changes and we gave to putting them together because it felt really important.
TE: Kathy, tell me how you got into writing.
KR: Initially I was a producer of TV commercials and then I started my second career. I always loved theatre and always wanted to write but was too nervous to do anything about it, then the film company I was working for went under, so I was not working and had some free time. So, I wrote a short play and sent it out to a couple of festivals, and I got a nice response to that, and it just started from there. And I kept pursuing it. I’d send my writing to theatre companies and attend theatre conferences and get feedback. It’s more about the experience of doing it, and at times I would do little self-production things just to have the experience of working with the actors. I don’t think you need to have a master’s degree or a college experience with creative writing. I felt that I had more to give when I started this in my late 30s, early 40s just because of the experiences I’d had.
TE: Are there differences between putting a show on in the USA and England?
KR: London feels much more accessible. I love the audiences. I love the fact that everyone comes to the theatre in London – poor/rich, young/old – In the US it’s very restrictive because of the prices of theatre tickets. I find there’s more theatrical freedom here than in America.
SLC: I would love to put something on in America. I want to kind of drink in the American theatre experience and have an understanding of that. I’ve worked with American creatives before, but I’ve never had anything on over there. I’m really curious about what the differences are and about how it might work. I’d love to experience it first-hand.
TE: if you were to give me an elevator pitch for Darling what would you say?
KR: Heart-breaking, hopeful, mercy, humanity.
SLC: I was going to say humanity.
SLC: People in crises. I know that doesn’t sound like the best-selling thing but when you see other people going through things that are tough and you see it represented on stage, it makes you feel not alone in that experience, and I’m fascinated by seeing and directing that on stage.
TE: That’s interesting because the last play I saw of yours If You Love Me This Might Hurt at Camden People’s Theatre had a similar feel. Was that deliberate?
SLC: It hasn’t been deliberate, but I figured out that show, another I had done, Darling and one I’m about to do, there all based on truth. I think something has happened and the stars are aligning suddenly, and I’m gravitating to things that are real, that have happened, and that people have gone through.
TE: Without going too deep into dome form of pseudo-physch type things, do you think this could be related to the past year where life hasn’t been that real?
SLC: I think it could be, absolutely. I think it could totally be that actually. I think also that sort of work has always appealed to me but also a lot of these are about the human spirit and human spirit appeals to me across everything and I think it always has.
KR: For me, a little bit is the power of love, even if it’s real or imagined and what that can do to a person. I think that, in his head the character of Pete, knows that it wasn’t real but he’s holding on to the feeling he got from the letters. It propels him to learn the concerto better and go on after the death of his family because he felt loved.
TE: Looking back over the past year, and without meaning to sound trite, how was the pandemic for you?
KR: For me, it was a difficult time because as the pandemic started my mother who was ill came to live with us. In 2019 I was here with a reading of the play at the Tristan Bates Theatre, and it was supposed to be put on in 2020 but with the pandemic and taking care of my mum, everything else was thrown out of the window. My mum passed and at that point, I turned the play into a screenplay – adding more actions and visual moments to the original words and dialogue. People were saying it was very filmic and as I had no other creative ideas in my head at the time, I decided to concentrate on making Darling into a screenplay.
SLC: The pandemic for me was very mixed. I started to explore more digital stuff which was interesting. I did Rose which was a wonderful experience in so many ways. So that was a really positive thing. The challenging thing for me was the restrictions in making things and that was really, really hard. But I was finding little kind of passion projects to work on. As well as Rose I was directing some audio things that came out in a podcast form. Or directing kind of truncated versions of Shakespeare’s with iPhones. I really enjoyed it and it taught me a lot. So yes, it’s been mixed but there were some brilliant moments.
TE: I ask everyone this. Has theatre changed forever? Are hybrid live and online productions the way forward?
SLC: It’s an interesting idea but however, and I’m quite firm in this. I think it’s wonderful that in a way having streamed performances increases accessibility in terms of audience location and cost, but I don’t want to get to a situation where people that can afford it see a show live, and those that can’t have to see it at home. I think that’s a very classist thing and I would be really keen to steer away from and I hope it doesn’t happen.
TE: Kathy if I was to come to you as a mid to late 50-year-old bloke asking for advice on how to get into paid writing, what would you say?
KR: Do it and let me read it. I didn’t have any training in writing, I wrote and gave it to people who’ve read plays and done plays and got feedback. The hardest part is sitting your butt down and starting writing, and then you take it from there. You’re going to learn from the actors, director, audience, critics, and reviewers. You can’t think about it too much, you just have to do it.
TE: I may just have to give it a try. Speaking of the critics and reviewers. In the age of social media where everyone expresses their opinion straight away, do the professional critics and reviewers still have a place?
KR: I think so. They can influence things. But I’m not sure if it’s more important that your friends tell you go and see something or you read a review. It depends on the relationship you have with the newspaper or the website to trust that person. For me, it’s always word of mouth that brings me to a show. But I learn from critics too and I like having them come and leave me feedback. I read the reviews and have learned not to take things personally. Everyone has their own view and it’s very subjective and I know that. I know to look at the review as a response to my work. If there’s something that might make it better, if there’s something that relates to clarity or purpose, I might address that in the next revision. Plays evolve. Darling is on its 22nd version, and if I put it on somewhere else, I might make small changes to tweak it a little.
TE: What’s next for you?
KR: I’m researching a play. I want to do a play about the homeless and I want it to be a love story. In California, it’s so prevalent and there are so many tent cities in the county where I live. Every time I go by, I’m intrigued by the stories of the people who live there. It’s not just drug addicts and people with mental health issues. There are military veterans, and people who have lost their jobs and then their homes and there are lots of stories there, so I’d like to set a play in this environment. I was very intrigued by a movie from the 30s called My Man Godfrey. It’s a beautiful film about men from the depression living in camps and their stories and that’s made me want to find the humanity in the camps.
TE: Well, thanks for meeting with me, and good luck with the run of Darling – which has just been nominated for the London Pub Theatres Standing Ovation Award and is on at the Hope Theatre until the 27th of November.