“I was a heroin addict and a crack addict for a very long time. I did end up being homeless. My son went to live with his dad because I was too chaotic. I always wanted to do something creative, but obviously when you’re running round the streets trying to get drugs, you’re not really capable of pursuing that.”
Playwright Sonya Hale talks about her troubled past with a brisk candour. For her, putting pen to paper is as much a compulsion as a career. Writing, she says, helped her during some very dark days.
“I’ve always written,” she remembers. “When I was a teenager, I had a nervous breakdown. My hair fell out and I stopped talking. That was when I started writing as a form of therapy. That went with me through my using but when I was in recovery, it started becoming a way to express myself.”
Seven years ago, a few months after entering a treatment centre to help her rehabilitate, she was given a flyer advertising a show by Outside Edge, a theatre company working nationally with those affected by addiction and substance misuse.
“I went to this forum theatre show and at the end, they asked if anyone wanted to change the ending, to contribute,” Hale recalls. “And I put my hand up. I didn’t even know I was really doing it. I went up and performed this different ending, and I was just hooked. The whole buzz of live theatre really, really got me.”
With the help of three theatre companies – Outside Edge, Synergy, and Clean Break – Hale started to get involved in making theatre. She went on a playwriting course run by Synergy, and eventually received her first commission from Clean Break for a twenty-minute play.
“I was wracked with absolute self-hate when I was using,” she says. “I never dared show anyone my writing. I never thought anyone would want to see it, let alone read it or perform it. I remember the first time seeing actors perform my work. It was the most surreal thing. It was extraordinary. Such a gift.”
Initially, Hale worked collaboratively, contributing scraps of writing to bigger projects. In 2013, though, she had her play Shooting The Moon performed by Outside Edge for two nights at Tara Arts. That, Hale says, was her real solo debut.
“It was completely mad and muddled,” she remembers. “It was set in the future at the end of the world, and it was about a woman looking for her child in a drug gang. It was entirely mad. I don’t think people knew what was going on. But it was great. It was amazing.”
The play was partly rooted in Hale’s life, but partly a work of complete imagination. It’s a theme that runs through all her writing. “Everything that I’ve ever written has always had an element of personal experience, but also gone into complete nutter fiction,” she says.
Hale’s contribution to Alchymy 2018 is set in a world she’s familiar with. Like Butterflies…, is a short play, one of a triple-bill of monologues being performed every day of the festival, that focuses on a young woman and her struggles with homelessness, drug addiction, and sexual violence.
“Essentially, what I wanted to write was a homeless woman’s experience of being raped, because those experiences aren’t really talked about. On social media, with the whole MeToo campaign, it was quite white and middle-class. Other voices, working-class voices, aren’t given platforms in the same way.”
“For any woman, historically, it’s been a case of “oh well, that’s just what happens, get on with it”, but for the majority of less privileged people, when you are raped or harassed or whatever, it’s even more like that. When you’re homeless and that happens, you haven’t even got a place to go and have a shower. You try and tell yourself that you have to get on with stuff, but the emotional fallout is huge.”
British theatre, according to Hale, has a big problem in putting stories and voices like hers on stage. For her, it’s frustrating that those stories aren’t being told enough, and even more frustrating that when they are told, they aren’t told faithfully.
“I go to the theatre quite a lot, and a significant amount of theatre I see I find quite agonising,” she says. “I saw this one play at a very big theatre about homeless people, and it was totally unbelievable. It was written from such a middle-class perspective.”
“I feel that sometimes theatres just don’t get it, certain groups of society just aren’t truthfully written about and represented. I think that as a nation, culturally, we really suffer as a result. We just see one, plain, whitewashed, middle-class take on everything. I think it’s important that lots of different voices with lots of different experiences come through.”
Which is part of the reason Hale doesn’t mind being known as a writer with a difficult past. Her background and her route into playwriting are unusual, inspirational even, and that’s something to acknowledge: “I don’t really get fed up talking about it,” she says. “It’s still a part of me and my life, and I think we need to open up the discussion around these issues as much as possible.”
“I would, however, like to be considered a writer, and not a token “poor her, she’s had a tricky life, let’s give her a helping hand” case. But I also think that people aren’t really going to invest in my stuff unless it’s of some interest. I come from where I come from. It would be great to just be classed as a writer, but I also think it’s important we keep talking about the issues.”