Interview: Laura Waldren, ‘It felt incredibly legitimising’

Pentabus recently announced two new writers in residence, Henry Maddicott and Lauren Waldren. In a two-part feature we hear from both writers on what it’s like to join Pentabus, the nation’s rural theatre company.

In part two we speak with Waldren about what it was like to win the Clive Richards Foundation Writer in Residence bursary. Waldren won the bursary with her first full-length play ‘Some Demon’ about cycles of institutionalisation in adult eating disorder units. The play was developed by 45North and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Playwriting in 2021.

Last year Waldren also released her first screen work, ’This Is Hell’, which won Best British Series at the Pilot Light TV Awards, Best Web Series at Changing Face Festival Sydney and London Web & Short Film Fest, and was officially selected for the BAFTA and BIFA-qualifying Bolton International Film Festival, among many others.

During the year-long residency Waldren will write at least one new play.

Photo: Henry Livingstone

Q&A with Laura Waldren

Hi Laura, thanks for chatting with us. Tell us a little bit about your background – how did you get into writing? 

It was a roundabout journey in a way. I grew up in Hull and as a young kid I always loved writing stories and drawing, so my first proper ambition was to write novels and illustrate them. Then as a teenager I got really into film and decided I wanted to be a screenwriter (although I never read or made any attempt to write a screenplay). Theatre wasn’t a big part of cultural life in Hull at the time, so I didn’t really know anything about it until I went to university and started acting in student drama — and by the time I graduated I’d really fallen in love with acting, so I went on to train at Bristol Old Vic. I’d had a vague sense at drama school that I wanted to try writing again, but it wasn’t until I left that I started doing it as a way to generate acting work for myself. The first thing I produced was a web series called This Is Hell, which I co-wrote with my best mate from Bristol. We played the leads in it and got it made on a shoestring crowd-funded budget, and we ended up doing well on the festival circuit, winning Best British Web Series at the Pilot Light TV Awards. I was quite heavily involved in post-production and edited two of the episodes, and I just realised how much I loved the whole process of creating something from scratch and bringing it to life.

How did it feel to win the Clive Richards Foundation Writer in Residence bursary? 

It felt incredibly legitimising. Theatre-wise I’d only written one play and hadn’t been produced, so I still mostly thought of myself as an actor who wrote on the side. I applied for the residency after a friend sent me the application form and suggested I go for it — I knew the team at Pentabus would read my play as part of the selection process, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get my work read by a fantastic company, maybe get some feedback and make a connection, and hopefully get shortlisted. Even as I got through the various rounds down to the final one, I never in a million years thought I’d be offered it, so I was very surprised and delighted when the call came through. It’s given me a lot of confidence that the pursuit is worthwhile! It’s also so hard to come by paid opportunities as an early career writer, so it’s an absolute godsend to receive the bursary and be able to give myself a bit more time off ‘money jobs’ in order to have the time and space to write.

You won the bursary for your play Some Demon, what can you tell us about the play?

As a teenager I struggled for many years with anorexia nervosa and spent a lot of time in and out of hospitals and in-patient clinics, so Some Demon is a response to those experiences. It’s set in an adult eating disorder unit and it’s largely about institutionalisation, and how difficult it is to break out of the cycle of an eating disorder once the illness has become ‘chronic’. The subject matter is bleak, but it’s actually surprisingly funny at points. I knew how important it was to try and find humour in the absurdity of those environments, and moments of warmth and levity in amongst all the horror. Eating disorders are also really specific and misunderstood illnesses that can be difficult to wrap your head round if you’ve not been through one, but I’m hoping that if and when the play gets put on, people with no experience will still be able to identify with the story. Underneath it all it’s really a play about loneliness, and the isolating effect of being stuck in a pattern you can’t break out of. That wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I started writing it, but I finished the first draft in 2020 during the second COVID lockdown, and it wasn’t until afterwards I realised how much that wider context fed into the story.

As well as plays, you’ve also written for screen – do you approach those mediums differently?

The core of telling an engaging story is the same, but there are definitely big differences. I’d say the main one for me is that dialogue is more essential to the story-telling in theatre — you can’t cut to a close-up of the actor’s face to show how they’re feeling, or cut to an insert to reveal some key piece of information to the audience. That’s not to say dialogue isn’t important in film, but in theatre you can’t direct the audience’s eyes in the same way, so you have to work in a lot of the emotion and exposition through what the characters say and how they move. Having said that, in some ways theatre can be more freeing. There’s a greater suspension of disbelief, and therefore a different kind of contract with the audience. It’s generally a bit more metaphorical, so you can get away with bends in realism that wouldn’t usually work as well on screen. Overall, I definitely find writing for stage more intimidating — I think it’s harder to grab an audience’s attention and hold onto it in theatre, so that’s something I’m constantly aware of when writing a play. I have a real terror of it being boring!

What are you hoping to achieve over the next year with Pentabus as a writer in residence? 

One of the things that most excited me about the residency was the opportunity to become part of the company for the year. Pentabus are such a fantastic and welcoming team, and the work they do in bringing theatre to isolated communities is so important. I’m already learning a lot about the creative and logistical reality of how the company is run, so I’m hoping to really build on that knowledge and just soak it all up. The production side of things can often feel a bit nebulous and mysterious as a writer, so to see it from the other side is really valuable. I also want to write a play that’s better than the last one I wrote — you always want to feel like you’re growing and improving with each new project.