#NWConnect: Interview with Monica Dolan

We are very proud of our North Wall Creative Associates: 10 individuals and companies with a special relationship to The North Wall, representing the best and brightest of UK Theatre.  

Our second associate in the spotlight, Monica Dolan, is a BAFTA and Oliver Award-winning actress whose work spans stage, television and film, including Appropriate Adult, All About Eve and W1A. As a writer her debut play The B*easts, in which she also starred, premiered at the Edinburgh Festival and Bush Theatre, and was nominated for an Olivier Award.

Monica will soon appear in Unprecedented – a series of plays produced by Headlong and Century Films for BBC4; Days of The Bagnold Summer – Simon Bird’s directorial debut feature film; and The Shrine by Alan Bennett, part of the Talking Heads series for BBC One.

Can you describe your relationship with The North Wall?

My relationship with The North Wall began very organically as I was looking for help with my solo play The B*easts. In its very early stages, my theatre designer friend James Button suggested I contact John Hoggarth and Ria Parry [Co-Directors of The North Wall] to see if they would be interested in directing or producing it – or both – for the Edinburgh Festival 2017. I had known John since I was Wendy and he was a Lost Boy in a production of Peter Pan at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1998!

Once he had heard me read the play, John agreed to direct me, but at that stage there was still a long way to go in terms of the shape of the piece, and 15 minutes needed to come off it for its intended slot in Edinburgh. At this point in April 2017 I was fortunate (and surprised) to be busy with a good bit of TV work, but I remember John insisting that it would be a useful part of the journey to do a first reading of The B*easts as part of the Alchymy Festival at the North Wall in the studio. I was busy and tired but agreed and he was just so right. It was extremely helpful – there were forty audience members and it was the perfect number of people to share it with at that stage. I could actually feel the response from where I was in the space telling them the story, but also I received very useful direct feedback from Ellie Keel, the festival’s producer, and from one of The North Wall volunteers. It was so fantastic that people were prepared to share their views so generously and incisively about my work, but also it was much clearer just from experiencing and sensing the audience’s reaction where some of the cuts and changes could be, and the following week John and I, newly informed, could get to work on the dramaturgy. Imagine how gratifying it was then to arrive full circle by returning to The North Wall to perform my fully produced show in the main house after showing it at the Edinburgh Festival and playing a sell-out run at the Bush Theatre!

Since then, my relationship with The North Wall as a Creative Associate has been very personal and really very intertwined with my friendship with John and Ria. They seem to have a sixth sense for when you are searching for something and need some help, and are always up for bouncing ideas off. It is so good to know that there is a safe and nurturing space at The North Wall to progress my work in its early stages and get feedback when I need it, to hopefully contribute to the journeys of other artists too, and to experience sharing with an audience there at different points in the process in a well-facilitated and welcoming theatre environment. To have gifted people like John and Ria believe in me as an artist and available to help and encourage the work can be the difference between an idea reaching fruition into a piece of drama or it withering away.

What are the differences in how you approach your work as an actor and as a writer?

They are completely different jobs. I have never written anything with anyone, so one is very solitary, contemplative and even peaceful, whereas the other is collaborative and extrovert and lively – often boisterous. One finds its own method, and the journey and tone of the other is dictated largely by the director and the play itself so the road-map is already there. At their best, both are playful.

I find that with the writing I have done so far, there might be a topic or an issue that I am concerned about, and I tend to get hooked on documentaries, articles and media views and information about it, then, if I’m lucky I get an idea for a story – usually either when I am not trying to think of one or am already on the page where the ideas can bump into each other.

I find parameters useful. With The B*easts I knew that it was a “What If?” scenario and had to be a solo show, and I wanted it to be a storytelling piece that could work at the Edinburgh Festival. With The Lily Parr Fan Club I knew it had to be to do with World War One because that was the Old Vic’s commission, so I went with women’s football which was huge at the time, and I knew it needed to be a 71-year-old female character speaking in the early 1970s because I wanted someone who would have been in the team, around for two waves of feminism and was unwittingly speaking to us in our third. Once I know what the rules are, then I can play, and I usually do that in the library or at my desk or kitchen table at home and I get very concentrated and absorbed and focused. I have to be honest though, and say that with both those pieces of writing they became most fun when other people got involved and they were taken a stage further and I was working on them as part of a team. I think it takes an iron will to write a play or screenplay for which there is no plan and you have no idea whether it will ultimately be performed or reach other humans.

I have been acting for years and feel more secure doing that, partly possibly because of it being led. You are not self-generating in the same way so it does not feel so existential somehow, as if you are in free-fall falling down a well and bumping against footholds and grabbing at hand-holds. You are working with something that is already there and needs you to make it complete. I find it important to let myself be led in this situation. Somehow taking on a role feels more practical. Knowing my lines very thoroughly is highly important because then I can play with accuracy, I have my nuts and bolts; though there have been plays which are more devised and the lines arrive late, so I have concentrated more on creating a character as a starting point – and sometimes that gives the writer something to bounce off and work from too. I remember watching many DVDs of the Two Fat Ladies, studying Tim Curry’s performance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and also one of those brilliant BBC4 Music documentaries about Freddie Mercury to soak into my role as Mrs Twit. I always discover the facts and questions in a script and study the situation very closely so I can play it. I suppose that again is to do with parameters – getting it straight what the writer is telling you so that when you let rip and play, your instincts do not lead you to a place which veers from communicating the story. The writing is about creating a map in unknown territory and the acting is about making it all 3D.

What was it like to film The Shrine, as part of Alan Bennett’s forthcoming Taking Heads series?

It was an extremely interesting experience, unlike any other. I met with Nicholas Hytner to rehearse on Zoom in the run up to it – the first rehearsal was for two-and-a half hours and then we took it from there. I had a brilliant time working with Nick, he has such clarity about which part of the story needs to ping out when, and, of course he has been working for years with Alan Bennett. No contact was allowed with any makeup artist, so Naomi Donne the makeup and hair designer and I had a Makeup Test on Zoom where Naomi had to instruct me very clearly about each look. We tried out a few different products of my own and she sent off for some items which were delivered to my house so I could then take them to the shoot myself. After a chat, the costume designer Jacqueline Durran (who won the Oscar for Little Women!) sent clothes round to my house, I tried them on and we had an online costume fitting, and, on ‘the day’, I drove to Elstree to film in a socially distanced way in the deep-cleaned kitchen and hallway of one of the EastEnders characters. Everyone had to stay a minimum of two metres away from one another and Tamsin Greig and I had stations set up at opposite ends of the huge makeup room – though with our calls it had been arranged so that we never actually crossed paths in there. The corridors backstage at EastEnders are so winding that you can easily happen upon someone by accident, so I went around singing to forewarn people I was coming! Everything I needed I took to set myself, which I could see was very counterintuitive for the 3rd AD who wanted to help me carry things. Equally excruciating for Naomi and the makeup assistant throughout the shoot, who had to stand at least two metres behind me and resist pointing too closely at whatever bit of my hair needed to be tweaked or flattened down, explaining exactly which part of my head needed to be patted smooth on what side. During the filming itself, it being a solo piece, there would be a rehearsal of the scene with Nicholas Hytner only, and then he would leave the set and just myself, the camera operator and the boom operator were present to film the scene – they, gloved and masked.

Can you tell us about your character Sue in Days of The Bagnold Summer?

Sue Bagnold is an unlikely leading character in a movie, but she has come to us not a minute too soon! She is a real celebration of the epic in the ordinary and a lesson in how seemingly small gestures and patience can be meaningful, important and fundamental. The most common and likely viewer of the small screen in this country is a 52-year-old woman from the north of England. And yet the same 52-year-old woman is also the least represented on screen. Sue Bagnold is 52, a librarian, and she may not actually be from the north of England, but she is a firm and beautifully grounded single mum of the suburbs – and Days Of The Bagnold Summer, above all else, is a hymn to the suburbs and those unsung relationships that are taken for granted but form the bedrock of our lives. The film is based on the beautiful graphic novel of the same name by Joff Winterhart which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award in 2012. I suppose it will seem most topical because, for reasons other than those as extreme as we are currently experiencing, Sue and her son Daniel are unexpectedly forced to spend the whole summer together with no plans and little money. Sue struggles with Daniel’s inevitable transition from her cherished little boy to angry teenager, and the depth of the piece is that through all that is ordinary we see the value of her summer with Daniel for the progression of her inner life and her own growth, as there is damage to her teenage self that could perhaps only have surfaced in these circumstances. Their summer together changes them both through ‘the wonderful everyday’ and it is a coming of age story for both the mother and the son. The film also stars Earl Cave as Daniel, and Tamsin Greig, Rob Brydon and Alice Lowe. It is Simon Bird’s directorial debut and is as funny as it is touching – out on Video On Demand on 8th June! A call to notice and mark well all of the invisible Sues!

Monica Dolan in The B*easts

What inspired you to write your Oliver nominated play The B*easts?

 The B*easts is a “What If?” scenario, and the actual idea for it came when I was on a spa day with my friend. (This is what I mean about ideas coming to me when I am not planning or trying to think of one!) There was a small pseudo-Roman statue there by the indoor pool – you know how you get Roman- and Greek-style statues and busts in spas – and my friend and I started a conversation about it because it was most odd: it was small like a girl but the body had features of a woman’s. I think I later wrote a paragraph and had a dilemma and a think about whether and how to develop the idea from the point of view of the mum of a girl or a third interested party (possibly a psychotherapist, and ‘interested’ how?) and then I left it for two years before I took it up again. And that first paragraph never did actually make it into the Edinburgh show.

I remember I picked it up again and began to write it when I was at my mum’s for a few days in April 2016 with nothing to do, and, tired of the voice in my head always saying I wanted to write something, I went to the library in Woking and got going with writing it. The piece started off as a short story and then as I was writing there in the library I thought: “This could be an Edinburgh show”, and my background in theatre meant that I was soon thinking of the character who was speaking it and how it could be presented and in what style. That gave me some momentum. I had already written another play – which has never seen the light of day – where there was a scene where a boy’s parents are called into his school  because he has received an indecent picture of a classmate to his phone. I had talked to some PSHE teachers as research for that scene, and I found those conversations inspiring and intrinsic to The B*easts as I continued with it. I remember seeing an excellent and very thought-provoking Dispatches documentary about children’s experience on the internet and how their greatest tool for learning, play, had become the subject of manipulation by advertising companies through ‘advergames’ – online games for children where they are being advertised to without their knowledge or any consent – and that documentary and other factual real-world collisions with my “What If?” scenario were a great motivator. I didn’t finish it and then one day I had the worst audition experience I have ever had where I was invited to lunch with a director whom I believed was offering me a role in his film, but it turned out not to be an offer at all. The only thing that got me out of bed the next day was making a decision to read out and time that “What If?” play of mine which had been lurking in my bottom drawer. So at that moment I think it is fair to say that I wasn’t feeling inspired so much as desperate. I also felt really foolish sitting there in a room on my own reading my ‘sort-of’ play out loud to myself. But when I had finished reading I saw that 45 minutes had gone by and I only needed another 15 minutes for it to be an Edinburgh show, so I gave it a really awful ending that I modified and modified, I talked to lots of people and took lots of advice – agent, friends, wonderful literary people like Deirdre O’Halloran who I was lucky enough to meet – until I finally came up with an ending that didn’t make me want to run out of the room and throw up when I showed it to people.

What show or project has brought you joy over the last few years?

Last year was a joyous year for me. I started off in January doing All About Eve with Gillian Anderson in Sonia Friedman and Ivo Van Hove’s production at the Nöel Coward Theatre. It was a terrific cast of great people and I made lots of friends. I was playing Karen Richards and, in that role I had the opportunity to directly address the audience – which I love, as well as playing in the scenes on stage and on camera too. It was great fun jumping from one medium and convention to another. I came to All About Eve with a new-found respect for myself and other actors for the layer of invention that we can bring to projects, and also, having performed my show The B*easts at the Bush theatre the year before I was feeling brave about taking risks, and taking risks is what working with Ivo Van Hove is all about – so it was just what I needed! I am convinced that it was my learning curve in storytelling in The B*easts and my new-found comfort with that that got me through the audition for narrator Karen in All About Eve. It was wonderful working in the West End every night.

Then, come July I performed in a magnificent play called Appropriate at the Donmar and played Toni Lafayette which is an absolutely cracking part. I was lucky enough to work with Steven Mackintosh again who I’d worked with in 2011, also Ed Hogg and Jaimi Barbakoff and a terrific young cast. The play is written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins who also wrote An Octoroon which is one of the most tremendous pieces I have seen in the theatre ever, and the production was directed by new directing talent Ola Ince. Happy times.

Which artists or pieces of work (any medium) are helping you through lockdown?

I reached a point where for several weeks I avoided the news entirely. I just could not face it. I have found myself watching loads of reruns of Miranda, Absolutely Fabulous (which I had never properly seen the first time round) – basically anything where there are incredibly silly, extreme, funny lines, slap-stick, and people falling over and ending up with their pants on display. On the flip side, I have been tuning into the NT Lives which are coming out on Thursdays – I think as much to retain a sense of my community as anything else. I have also enjoyed Diane Chorley’s digital snippets on Twitter of how she’s getting on in the lockdown – some of them are surprisingly political! – and it has been an enormous comfort to receive a daily email from the ICA: each day they provide links to something to watch, art to view, something to do, and round off with a daily track to listen to. It is a great idea and allows you the opportunity to feed every day differently which is undoubtedly what we all need. Normal People, I think everyone has watched that. It is good to know you are experiencing something as part of a collective. Though I’m afraid that goes for Love Is Blind too… Masterchef? Is that an artist? I have just joined the BFI for my free two week trial period and downloaded the app on my TV, we’ll see how that goes…Luckily too, near the beginning of the lockdown I was asked to perform in Unprecedented, a set of digital plays which Headlong put into action with Century Films – commissioning 18 writers to respond with isolation stories. Mine is called Kat and Zaccy by Deborah Bruce, and it will be on BBC4 at 10.30pm on 28th May. You can catch the whole Unprecedented series on BBC4 from 10pm on 26th, 27th and 28th May and also on iPlayer!

What advice would you give to early-career artists?

It is not easy to say because, quite apart from the situation we are in at the moment, I think there is a great deal more emphasis now on publicity, and opportunity for it, than there ever was when I was starting off. Certainly when I was preparing to go to the Edinburgh Festival in 2017 with The B*easts there was a very definite moment I noticed when I had a couple of publicity opportunities which would have been time-consuming and potentially too exposing, and I felt would have taken up very valuable head and body space which I was in need of to work on and rehearse my piece, so I said ‘no’ despite pressure from those pushing for an audience for the play. I just wanted to concentrate on developing the work, whilst doing what I could to get an audience in. I would say that if your focus is on developing your art then that is something you can be more in control of and you won’t suffer from “How am I doing? syndrome” or comparing yourself to others. I think in that way there is probably more to contend with for early-career artists now, as obviously you do have to get your name out there, and “out there” has become such an infinite space that it could take all your time up.

Work hard, be there in the room whenever possible with whatever you are working on, and remember that you are there to contribute, not to please whatever powers that be. Go to art galleries and see art. For some reason we absorb what’s out there visually and it can really feed whatever our own area of creativity. It is always challenging for an actor because you are trying to be an Artist in an Industry. Do something to do with your art every day. Job-wise, I have always looked at what’s on offer in front of me and thought : “Do I want to do this?” rather than thinking vaguely into the future that I want to do TV for example, or second-guessing where what is in front of me might lead. If there is nothing on offer in front of you ask yourself what you would like to see out in the world and make it. Nothing goes unnoticed.

What are your hopes for the future of the theatre industry?

The thing that makes theatre different – and theatre – is that we are all there breathing in the same moment in the same room, so my dearest hope is that we can do that again safely. In order for it to survive until then and to flourish as our pride and serve our culture and economy in the way it always has, it will require appropriate investment from our government.

What makes you happy?

Showing off, talking and laughing with pals, shared hopes, drinking, questioning and exploring ideas and human behaviour, singing – including karaoke, mischief,

being cuddled, unexpected jokes, speculating, camaraderie, dancing, barbecues, ice creams, falling in love, canapés, being on holiday and gardening.

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