Spinoff parents editor Emily Writes’ bestseller Rants in the Dark is coming to Auckland – as a play. Her Spinoff colleague Sam Brooks, a playwright himself, spoke to her about the process of seeing her book adapted for the stage.
I’ve been writing plays for nearly a decade now. I’ve written stuff that could not be further away from me if I tried – like, say, a political drama – and I’ve written stuff that is so personal and intimate that I wish I could cross my name out on every bit of marketing – like, say, everything else I’ve written.
There’s something galling about seeing yourself portrayed onstage; it’s like looking at yourself in a hall of mirrors. You’re not just seeing yourself through your own eyes, but through the eyes of every other person in that audience, and you never look exactly like you think you do.
I wanted to talk to Emily Writes about what it was like for her to go through that process, after her book Rants in The Dark had a successful, sell-out season at Wellington’s Circa Theatre earlier this year.
Even as someone who is so unashamedly personal and vulnerable in her writing, there’s a whole other process that a writer goes through when they see someone else acting their actions and speaking their words. And, in my own selfish way, I wanted to know how she deals with reviews, feedback and the immediate criticism of sitting in a live audience.
Hi! Your play Rants in the Dark is coming to Auckland. That’s bloody exciting. How did the process start of turning it from a book into a play?
I’d had a few people approach me about turning the book into something – like a play or TV show or movie or whatever. And it never felt right. I always met with people who wanted to do it but it wasn’t until I met Lyndee-Jane (Rutherford) and Bevin (Linkhorn) that it felt like the book was in safe hands. I knew they “got” what the book was about, if that makes sense. I knew they’d read it, which is like obviously a good start, and that they had the same aims I did with the book.
I felt like I could trust them, and I really needed to be able to trust them because they were taking what is essentially the story of my family and putting it on the stage. I also didn’t want to have much to do with it after handing it over because I know nothing about the theatre or plays – I asked a few people about LJ and Bevin and everyone just heaped praise on them. So I just said yes after talking to my husband. And it went from there.
How much discussion was there with Lyndee and Bevin after handing it over? Was it mostly around craft and style, or about things like your family and the actual content of the book-slash-play?
Not much. The book is mostly in my voice so the dialogue in the play is my voice from my words. They did a really great job of pulling the various parts of the book into a narrative – because the book is a series of essays or posts or whatever that are basically standalone. I loved how they did it and I wish I could take credit for it.
We had one meeting where I talked for a few hours about what the reaction to the first post was like, and then I kind of had a nervous breakdown and in real time we talked about that. That kind of formed part of the play. So as much as I loathe to say anything was organic, it was pretty organic. I was involved but not like ‘run lines past me’ involved.
God, that’s so impressive. It’s taken me a long time to learn how to let go of stuff like that. Whenever other people have done my work, I like to be involved, just because I’m constantly wanting to fix stuff or improve stuff.
When we did Burn Her the first time, I would have weekly meetings with the director about fixing a line, a word, an exchange here and there, right up until opening night. It’s been a concerted effort to learn how to let go of stuff like that, and I’ve never been awful about it (or so I hope) but it’s so much energy.
You’re someone who is so personal in your writing online, and you’ve obviously learned how to build up some kind of distance and protection for that. Did any of that help when it came to seeing someone play you onstage?
I think I’m only now learning to do that. And I’m still not very good at it. I suppose it didn’t feel like Renee Lyons was playing me until she was in a scene with [the actor playing] my son. The hospital scene just took me straight back and I really struggled with all of those feelings. They portrayed it so well that I felt like I was there and it made me realise I haven’t really dealt with the trauma of my son’s illness. But seeing her on stage during the sort of funny and fun bits? She just seemed like a mum who could be any mum. Emily Writes is me but she’s also just like a stand-in for any mum who is sick of waking up a thousand times at night, you know?
I hadn’t met Renee prior to the rehearsal so while she’s playing “me” it’s kind of not me if that makes sense? She’s a mum too and I feel like she brought that to the role too – and all the other mums who influenced the stories in Rants so she’s kind of Every Mum.
It’s only when it’s me at a specific moment in time, like after one of [Emily’s son] Eddie’s surgeries that it feels like ‘oh this is us’. [Actor] Bronwyn Turei is my husband though and I pissed myself laughing that she got that portrayal so freakin’ right despite not having met him. I took my husband’s mum and aunties and they were just like: How is she actually him! It was pretty great.
On Renee, she’s bloody amazing. She was in one of the first plays I ever saw, which I think was her graduate production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She played Titania, which is kind of a nothing role in that play, but she absolutely owned it. And she’s been so goddamned great in so many other things since, as well.
That’s really interesting about how it only clicked for you when you saw her in the hospital scene. I’ve done stuff where I’ve put myself onto the stage implicitly, but not so explicitly, and it gets incredibly weird when you’re mentally jumping through hoops and realising that not only are you watching someone playing you, but seeing a whole bunch of strangers seeing someone playing you. Did that ever come up for you?
Renee is simply incredible. It shows how good she is that I was completely transported watching her. I forgot everything – she’s mesmerizing.
It was utterly the most awkward and horrible thing watching it with an audience. I feel like such a prick saying that, but it really is kind of brutal. I’ve seen it a handful of times and it’s like being naked in front of people. The play covers some of the worst moments in my entire life and some of the best moments. So while there were bits I laughed with everyone else at, there were parts where I just felt so emotional and you’re kind of in front of everyone. I hid in the crowd to watch it with my mother-in-law, my first time seeing it with an audience, and I started to just really sob. Like embarrassingly loud.
And this woman in front turned around to hand me a tissue but was also like “OMG IT’S YOU”. Bless her, it was totally lovely but also like fucking embarrassing. Then I got drunk. And I had to do a Q&A and ended up doing it pissed and talking about dildos. So now I know better and I just hide in the wings to make sure everyone is laughing – and I don’t watch the bits I don’t want to relive anymore. I feel like such an insufferable asshole saying this because I’m incredible grateful for the play and everyone is lovely and the audience is always super lovely. It’s just, you know, it’s a vulnerable thing.
That is honestly so relatable. There’s a scene in Riding in Cars with (Mostly Straight) Boys which is fairly tightly autobiographical, so much so that one scene is almost a line-for-line recreation of something that happened in my life, and whenever that scene would play out in front of an audience, I would just duck away because I know that the character who is not-so-loosely me does not come off well there.
You’re right though, it’s such a vulnerable thing. But for me, the trade-off is that if at least one person in that audience feels heard or feels seen because I’ve owned – in a very roundabout way – something that I’ve been through, then it’s worth it. Doesn’t make it nice though!
Oh absolutely. And I’ve been inundated with messages about the play – more so than even the book. It seems to have really struck a chord and that makes it all worthwhile. I feel extremely like legitimately hashtag blessed about it all
Do you have a way that you deal with feedback? Mine has changed over the years – I used to read everything, but now I’ve really been more selective. There are voices I trust, and voices I don’t trust-slash-don’t-care-about, and also I think working for The Spinoff, and you’d know this better than I would, has really changed the way that I emotionally process the opinions of strangers.
I was terrified of reviews about the play. I mean day-in-and-day-out I can put up with people calling me a Satanic Lesbian Hate Monger online but there’s something about a formal review that just chills me. It’s just so….formal. Like it’s inherently easier to take criticism that’s like ‘have you ever thought of not being a man-hating feminazi you Jacinda loving socialist pinko scumbag’ than like something actually considered. Also, the review would be of the whole cast and crew and all of these people I’ve come to consider my whānau so I felt extremely protective of them. I was lucky that the reviews were all really good, bar one sort of strange one. And the strange one made more sense after I found out a bit more about the wild world of reviews.
If Rants the play had a bad review I think I’d bury myself in a hole for a week. I don’t know how anyone deals with bad play reviews because it’s so much more work than a book or like anything else. There’s so much put into it. If I write something on The Spinoff and someone sends me like 8000 words on how much they hate me based on something I wrote – chances are I spent eight minutes writing it while a baby crawls all over me, so I couldn’t care less. Not all criticism is created equal I suppose – and you don’t always care about what they’re criticising.
Rants the play is like my baby and I love the cast and crew so it’s a lot harder for me when it comes to reviews. It’s also your life so you feel weirdly like they’re judging you as a person. Like with the book, one of the reviews was like ‘she can write but she’s not a good parent’. And I was like, well that’s fairly brutal. That one review took me a lot of time to get over. I am not good at emotionally processing anything, let alone someone calling me a bad parent. Even if they’re a stranger. And a dickhead.
You’re probably better at it than you think you are! It takes a lot of stability to put anything onstage, let alone something that is based on your own life. I totally get you when it comes to reviews being about the family on it.
For the student play I did last year I did a big ramble to the kids about if you’re not one hundred percent sure that you can handle what a reviewer says then you shouldn’t read it, but that’s easier said than done.
I definitely don’t think I should read reviews. But then I also think – what if they say something that is a legitimate criticism that I can work on? It’s a hard balance.
political & climate reportersFind Out More
Last thing: Your show is touring to Auckland – do you think that Auckland will react or respond differently than Wellington?
I am very excited about Auckland. I promised readers it would come to Auckland and then I was like oh shit what if it doesn’t come to Auckland! I kind of felt like, if we don’t get it to Auckland will it tour? So I am just beyond excited. I don’t think mums in Auckland are that different to mums in Wellington – none of us are getting any sleep and we all want a night away from our kids. So I think, hopefully, they will like it as much as Wellington audiences liked it! It’s very exciting that it’s at such a huge venue – it feels really cool to have a show like this so supported.
And we have a mums and bubs session which pleases me no end because it’s really hard to see theatre when you have kids! So I’m chuffed really. Super chuffed.
Rants in the Dark plays at the Bruce Mason Centre in Auckland from May 16 – 18.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.