In Conversation with Emily Sheehan – Hell’s Canyon

Emily Sheehan’s first play Hell’s Canyon won the 2015 Rodney Seaborn Award, was shortlisted for the 2016 Patrick White Award and is soon to be published by Currency Press. Hell’s Canyon was developed as part of Playwriting Australia’s National Script Workshop and later showcased at the 2016 National Play Festival in Melbourne. Whilst in the midst of rehearsals we asked Emily six questions about her play and the development process. Next month Hell’s Canyon will be making its premiere in Sydney and in Melbourne this September.

How would you describe Hell’s Canyon in five words?

Friendship, grief and magical rebellion.

What inspired you to write Hell’s Canyon?

I wrote Hell’s Canyon to try make sense of the grief and rage and pain I felt as a young person. When your world is falling apart it can feel impossible to hold onto any sense of optimism. It’s only in the moments you realise who and what makes it all worth it, can you find the will to swim to the surface, even if all you want to do is sink.

What I like about my play is…

It feels like a genuine expression of my voice as a playwright, and I think audiences will get a real sense of my sensibilities as a writer from the work. There aren’t any elements of the text that I wish I could change or re-explore. It feels complete and that’s a very satisfying feeling.

In terms of this specific production (at Old 505 Theatre and then La Mama), the artistic team are blowing me away with their execution of the work. Katie, our director, has been directing the actors with a real intimacy and precision to keep the work extremely clean and refined. As well as constantly working with the sound and visual design elements in mind to draw out the world of the play. And Tyler Ray Hawkin’s vision for the design is beautiful. Tyler’s work is extremely polished and stylised, which is one of the things I love about theatre that it’s theatrical and feels other worldly. I’ve been admiring his work from afar so I was thrilled when he said he’s design Hell’s Canyon. Seeing all the elements come together on the floor over the rehearsal process has been a dream.

How has Hell’s Canyon changed from when you first brought the project to National Script Workshop and then at the National Play Festival in 2016?

I suppose the elements of the play which have had the most focus in terms of development and dramaturgical intervention have been the moments of magic realism where the form begins to rupture. Through the development process I was definitely challenged to understand exactly why I was using this device, what the internal logic of the worlds were, and how they ultimately affected the audiences’ understanding of the work. This did take the most work to get the script to a place where I felt like it expressed exactly what I wanted to say with these moments.

This has held true in the rehearsal process as well. Our director Katie Cawthorne and designer Tyler Ray Hawkins have been collaborating on a number of ways really lift and elevate these moments. They’re both so visually specific as artists, so I know the execution is going to be truly beautiful. As well as our beautiful actors, Conor Leach and Isabelle Ford, discovering their characters’ entry point and logical through-lines within these moments. As the play lifts out of realism, everyone’s been playing on the floor with how to achieve this. So I suppose the shift between forms has been consistently the most malleable element of the play that has needed to be constantly tested and refined.

What is the difference in process between the development room and the rehearsal room for you as a playwright?

From a process perspective, the development phase is a chance to be pushed intellectually and creatively to really shape and refine the text. Hopefully this begins with knowing exactly why theatre needs to be the medium to express these particular ideas and stories. And so from there it’s about a constant process of uncovering and clarifying how every single choice made in the script is ultimately affecting an audience’s experience of the work. And I guess adjusting these or making new choices if they aren’t having the intended effect.

Whereas in rehearsals I suppose the focus is more on an outward expression of those ideas, and discovering how to lift the world of the play off the page. Everyone in the creative team is working within their own craft to do that. I’ve been lucky that our director Katie Cawthorne has created a rehearsal room that is extremely collaborative. Everyone’s in the room together and everyone has a voice.

Who are your playwriting heroes?

Wow, that’s such a big word. I feel so much resistance to answering this question! There are so many playwrights whose work moves, delights, inspires, shakes me. Okay to lean into the idea of heroic, let’s go with the women in The Kilroys. They’re a group of playwrights and producers in The States who every year develop a list of the most highly recommended and under-produced plays by female and trans playwrights, for the industry to use as a tool for gender parity in programming. Theatre has a huge problem with gender parity across all roles, so writers that are produced and programmed is no exception in this discrepancy. The Kilroys’ work is an example of positive action with massive impact, so that to me is heroic. And in the same vein, I’d also say Simon Stephens. Not for his beautiful plays which I return to again and again, but because of the Royal Court Playwrights Podcast, and what that as a cultural product means to so many playwrights and theatre makers.

Don’t miss the chance to see Hell’s Canyon, performance details below.

OLD 505 THEATRE (Sydney)
Season 1-11 August
Times Tue-Sat 8pm

Season 12-23 September
Times Wed-Sat 7pm & Sun 4pm

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