Wednesday 21 August 2019

'I can't stop. It's not in me' - playwright Abbie Spallen

It has been a tumultuous few years for playwright Abbie Spallen, with career highs and personal lows, writes Emily Hourican

Prize-winner: Abbie Spallen won one of the richest - and surprisingly little-known - of literary prizes, the Windham-Campbell prize, and pocketed €134,000. Photo: Frank McGrath
Prize-winner: Abbie Spallen won one of the richest - and surprisingly little-known - of literary prizes, the Windham-Campbell prize, and pocketed €134,000. Photo: Frank McGrath

Emily Hourican

Theatre, says playwright Abbie Spallen, is a collaborative medium. Of course it is. Before her words can reach the stage, they have to be subject to the creative vision of many others - directors, actors, even set designers. "It is inherently collaborative, but nobody collaborates over bad reviews!" she points out with a laugh. "If a play does badly, it's the playwright's fault."

Not that she is expecting anything of the sort with the latest outing of her 2006 play, Pumpgirl. "Andrew Flynn did the original Irish premiere of it, and I know that it's in amazing hands."

Pumpgirl is a three-hander, two women and the man who links them. It is arresting, funny, moving, a truthful representation of a particular kind of tragedy. It is also a brilliant portrait of a certain kind of man and attitude. "The phrase 'toxic masculinity', that phrase is over-used," Abbie says, "but I've seen it in so many men. The damage that's done by this idea. The play is 12 years old, it was written way before #MeToo. I looked at it and worryingly, I didn't have to update it. That's scary."

Much of the location - a working-class estate in Newry - is one Abbie knows well. "My father was a teacher, my mother a nurse, but we lived on a council estate. Would we have been more working class, or lower middle," she muses, "Or maybe it was a socialist experiment? Or it could have been a Catholic thing? Anyway, the first 15 years of my life were spent on a council estate. It's where I feel at home really." And, she is quick to point out, "You get all sorts on council estates. People who are into opera, everyone. Some of the smartest people in my school were from the same estate as me."

As a child, she wanted to act. "I was that child - all-singing, all-dancing. I said 'I want an agent'. My parents went, 'you're not going on stage, ever'. My mum had been an actor before she was a nurse, so she was protecting me, big-time." That said, "being a playwright is even tougher, it really is", Abbie insists.

After doing her A-Levels, Abbie went to art college, "mainly because I wanted to be in a band", and then "I went off and travelled. I joined a convoy and became a hippy. I broke my parents' hearts, although they were cool about it later. We went round England - Stonehenge and stuff". This was the era of the New Age Travellers. "There were six or seven of us, Protestant and Catholic. We wanted to get away from Northern Ireland because it was so rubbish. We went from Belfast into this environment that we felt was going to be just bliss. But of course, it's just people. I think I became gradually disillusioned with it, and that affected me and my mood. It wasn't the utopia I thought it was going to be. Hard drugs began to come in." Not for her - "I've always had this thing that goes 'no', but I was really lucky. Most of the people I know from then are dead. Heroin."

Abbie left the convoy, "but I still consider myself to be doing it inside. I would still have, hopefully, the integrity, and the will to change the world" - and moved to London briefly, then back to Belfast, where she began acting, and then to Dublin. "I did a lot of voice-overs so I was financially solvent. But I had a lot of free time. There's only so many cups of coffee and chats you can have during the day." And so, she began writing. "I did a performance art workshop and that started me. Suddenly people were laughing and I thought, 'I like this'. I took to writing full plays but I never thought for a second that it would be a living, or anything more than a bit of craic."

Pumpgirl was the first of her plays to really take off - since then she has had considerable success, including with Strandline and Lally The Scut, and winning the Windham-Campbell Prize in 2016, of which more later. "I have yeah," she agrees, "but hopefully I've stuck to what I've wanted to do. I've turned down an awful lot of things. The only thing that's ever kept me going is trying to be a better writer today than I was yesterday."

She moved back to London for a while, then came home to Newry again after her father died, of cancer, to live with her mother. "She didn't know how to do a direct debit. It was one of those marriages… I distinctly remember sitting in the kitchen with her, with all this bank stuff, and thinking, 'you're not going to be able to do this…'"

Abbie's mother, Thelma, was, she says, "just amazing. She was the funniest person I've ever met in my life. One of the sharpest wits. We were identical, we admired each other. We were always that unit, to the point sometimes where my father got a bit jealous." For a time, Abbie moved between London and Newry. "I lived with her for five years, then I had to go back to London. I was being slightly pressured to be there. So I went, but I was doing a residency at the Lyric in Belfast so I was back and forth, two, three, four times a month. I was wrecked, but I was keeping an eye on her. About five years ago, I could see she was getting smaller, and I had thought, 'right, I'll move back to Newry after Christmas'. But then we were on the phone and she said 'I've got a bit of a chest infection', and I said 'do you need me home?' I would always have said do you need me home and she'd say 'no, no, no, I'm fine'. But that day she said, 'I think I need you home'."

What happened next was, Abbie says, "the most horrific thing I've ever been through. I'm only now ready to talk about it. I got on a plane and was there at eight o'clock that night. I took her into hospital, and she was totally lucid. They did an x-ray, and we were sitting, laughing and chatting. The next minute the doctor came and pulled me into another room and said 'it's very bad'. I'd been through this with my father, so I said 'how many years?' and the doctor shook her head. I said 'how many months?' and she shook her head… We got down to days and she said three days… It was cancer. It was everywhere."

Abbie was asked whether she wanted to tell her mother, or keep the truth from her. "I said 'my mum's a nurse, if you come at her with morphine, she's going to know! If you start being nice to her, she's going to know!' I thought, 'should I ring my brother, he's in Liverpool?' Then I thought, 'if he turns up, she's going to know'. She's not stupid, my mother. Anyway, I could never lie in front of her." In fact, by agreeing to an operation to have stents put in, Thelma got two weeks rather than the three days. "It is a privilege to spend those last moments," Abbie says. "It's horrible, but it's a privilege. You do what you can for them, and you have no guilt. Grief is one thing, guilt is completely different. Grief moves on, I don't think guilt does. Grief is a normal part of life, it won't end, but it will ease."

Talking about this is manifestly hard for her. "It's raw," she says. "I feel quite raw, like somebody grated me. But that's OK. I'm in that space of going 'what is this life about?' 'Is writing enough? I don't know. Am I brave enough? As a writer, I consider myself to be very open and honest. But I never really was when it came to me. I was always off-limits. Which is kind of very hypocritical, so that's why I'm OK talking about this, even though my heart's going like a hand-bell. It kind of needs to be done; you're trying to connect with people, they need to know who you are."

In 2016, Abbie won one of the richest - and surprisingly little-known - of literary prizes, the Windham-Campbell Prize, which brings $150,000 (€134,000) with it. It couldn't have come at a better time. "I was so skint," she laughs. My auntie gave me a hundred quid [for the trip over to Yale, to collect the prize], and that was my money for the whole trip."

Abbie invested the money in a jewellery-making business - she sells through Etsy, delicate, quirky pieces, and is in the "top 9pc of sellers in the world". That sideline, "takes away the terror of no money. It's low stress, therapeutic, the total opposite from writing. My beads don't judge me!"

But clearly neither do they replace the writing. At the moment, Abbie has "just finished a play for the Traverse, I'm working on plays for the Abbey and the Lyric. I'm working on a TV series for Working Title [the production company behind Love Actually and Mary Queen of Scots]. I love variety. I thrive on variety. And then burnout. That happens, because I can't stop. It's not in me."

Pumpgirl is going to 11 venues around Ireland from May 9-30, starting at glor, Ennis. www.decadenttheatrecompany.ie

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