Lisa Carroll's play Cuckoo opens at the Soho Theatre next week and follows two teenagers escaping bullies and seeking a new identity in another country. Here she talks about the inspiration behind the play, determining what is funny and how she got started as a playwright.
Cuckoo’s two central characters want to leave Dublin for London and you are an Irish playwright living in London - how much is the play based on your own experiences?
I came up with the idea for Cuckoo shortly after I made the decision to move from Dublin to London. Emigration has always been a pertinent part of the Irish experience and I wanted to explore ideas of home and what it means to leave.
Particularly after the financial crash, there was an exodus of young people from Ireland, and I knew the play could speak to that.
I used to live near Crumlin, where the play is set, and had close friends from the area.
Crumlin sits outside Dublin city centre and is full of vibrant, sparky, fascinating people, and I wanted to try and capture that unique energy on the page.
The Crumlin dialect is fast, ferocious and nuanced. I feel strongly about writing Ireland as I see it, today, rather than the wistful, nostalgic and often fetishised version Ireland we often see represented on stage.
While the idea of what it means to leave Ireland is inspired by my own experience of doing so, beyond that the play is entirely fictional, from the heightened world to the characters and events.
All I knew when I started writing Cuckoo was that I wanted to create two compelling central characters: Iona, a boisterous, larger-than-life young woman, full of spark and potential, but who was seen as simply ‘too much’ by the people around her.
And Pingu, who steadfastly identifies as non-binary in a highly gendered world. Pingu has made the decision not to speak, in order not to have to constantly advocate for their right just to be themselves.
It was around these two characters and their desire to find their tribe in London that I built the play.
The play explores themes of gender identity and a sense of belonging, do you think social media makes it harder for teenagers growing up?
Being a teenager has always been a trying time and I think it always will be.
I think in general social media hasn’t changed us as a species, so much as drawn out and exacerbated our already deeply flawed nature, only in new ways.
Being a teenager has always been a phase of uncertainty trying to carve out your identity.
With social media, that idea of personal branding is still there, but in a new and exaggerated way.
Bullying has definitely reached a new level. Constant access to phones, the internet and social media means young people never get a break.
I imagine it’s hard to be resilient in the face of such constant onslaught.
We should not forget, however, that social media has also given young people vital support networks they never would have had access to previously.
Now, if you have questions or worries, you can turn to social media trailblazers, many of whom are activists.
Cuckoo is described as a black comedy, what is the writing process like - do you instinctively know what is funny or do you have (human) guinea pigs?
It’s incredibly sad how much I laugh at my own jokes. I will genuinely snort with laughter when I’m writing certain lines at the laptop.
That tends to be how the humour comes about in the first instance, then its a case of running it by trusted friends.
I’d love to pretend I have a perfect joke barometer and know exactly what’s funny, but in truth, the first question I ask people when they read the script is “DID YOU LAUGH AT MY JOKES?” and we go from there, weeding out what works and what doesn’t.
On a more sensible note, comedy is also an incredibly useful tool when you want to explore darker themes.
It can act as a great pressure-release valve so that audiences don’t come out of a production completely shell-shocked.
Have you always wanted to be a writer and what advice would you give?
I always knew I wanted to be involved in theatre, but not necessarily as a writer. It was only when I was in my third year of university that I took a playwriting course by chance, where the professor (Erin Cressida Wilson) encouraged me to take myself seriously.
I’d wanted to write for a few years before that but been too scared to put pen to paper. Erin gave me the push I needed to try it.
My best advice is this: if you want to be a writer, you actually need to sit down and write. And keep doing that, over and over and over.
You’d be shocked at how many people call themselves writers but baulk at doing the actual writing bit.
You can’t do anything with a blank page.
What are you working on next?
Earlier this year I was selected for Fishamble’s A Play for Ireland scheme, so I’m spending the rest of the year polishing up my play for that.
Fishamble is Ireland’s leading new writing company and leading the way in terms of engaging emerging playwrights and gaging the mood of the country.
I’m writing a play with them for a cast of six women of different generations, telling the story of a man who owns a donut empire.
After that, I’m interested in developing my screenwriting as well as writing larger scale plays.
Cuckoo is at the Soho Theatre from 13 November to 8 December.
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