Siân Owen is an award-winning playwright whose new one-woman play, How To Be Brave, draws on her experiences growing up in Newport in the 1990s, and is a rollercoaster ride through tears and laughter. It is also Owen’s first full-length work for Dirty Protest, and marks a continued body of work for that company that focuses on real working class voices in Welsh writing. Gary Raymond caught up with Siân for a quick chat the morning after opening night.
GR: Let’s start with the obvious – tell us about How to Be Brave… what is it about?
Siân Owen: I can’t tell you the plot as that would give too much away! What I can tell you is it is about a Mum called Katie, from Newport and she is trying to work out how to teach her little girl how to be brave when she doesn’t feel brave at all.
How did your relationship with Dirty Protest come about?
I have worked with them for many years. I’ve been lucky enough to write for their short nights and they have been a massive support to me. We started talking about a full length piece. I wanted to write about Newport and women and bravery and all those things were things they wanted to explore too. They are a company who are so supportive and who nurture and advise and really stand in your corner. So it has been a joy.
How important was it for you to come back to the subject of Newport, where you grew up, for this story?
It was so important. It is such a maligned place and I hate that. It has a spirit like no other city. It has such a rich history and there are so many untold stories. I wanted to explode all of that. Really get to the heart of the place. This is a really personal piece too so it felt the right thing to do-to go home to tell my truth.
Has the development of How To Be Brave altered your relationship with your home town at all, or your perception of it?
I love it more than ever. There are so many problems, of course, but there is also so much good. We met people in our research and development week at Newport Library who are doing amazing things for the community. Proper angels I would say. And people who are trying to uncover our history and celebrate it. It is such a tenacious, loyal city. I was blown away by the projects I heard about.
It’s probably worth noting that you and I grew up together, and I’d suggest our work is indelibly linked to what Newport gave to us as teenagers. Do you feel any sense of personal inevitability about How To Be Brave?
Yes we did! We had some adventures, didn’t we!? And yes – I think this is a thank you to the city that gave me so much.
Do you think it’s easier to write about Newport now that you’ve been away from it for longer now than you actually lived in it?
I’m not sure. I felt a huge sense of pressure not to let Newport and the people in it down. I think what it allowed me to do was really explore what it is that growing up in Newport has given me. We are a place like no others, for better and worse. And I really dug deep into what effect growing up in Newport has had on me. What is it that makes us who we are? What are we made of? What am I made of? It was such an interesting process and thing to explore.
Your work always has one foot very much in the past – your own as well as historical moments – how easy is it for you to draw upon things from the past to create your stories?
I am fascinated by what people leave behind and what stays after we have gone. I also needed to find some courage of my own, for some big life stuff, and I found myself looking for answers from my parents and Grandparents. And then all that came before. We aren’t the first to have dealt with bad. And I was drawn to see how the people that came before me dealt with it all. Being a mum, living in a crumbling world, navigating all the stuff that live throws at me. I love looking backwards to find ways to move forwards.
Your recent play for Radio 4 also has a real sense of 80s nostalgia to it – is sitting in your workspace a transportation, in a way?
Yes! It is like time travel. I love jumping through time. I love researching all the details about that time. That is such an enjoyable part of the process for me – going back in time through music and film and books and pictures and finding out all the bits you need to tell a new story. I am like a time detective.
Music is important to you, and very important to your work – could you tell us a little about the influence music has on you?
It feels like it is in my bones and my blood. Every play has a playlist and often a stand out track that I listen to over and over again while writing it. That is something else that Newport gave me – music. I was a proper Indie Kid – I still am! And in the 1990s there was such a scene – TJs, Le Pub – it was like I had found my tribe – my places, my people. I think you must feel that too? I was a geeky, awkward kid and then suddenly I had somewhere where I didn’t stand out so much.
My Dad is also made of music. He plays loads of instruments and is a conductor. This working class boy from the Valleys had transported himself through music and I loved that. When I was a kid I used to be in rehearsal rooms with him all the time. I love the mirroring of how I now sit in rehearsal rooms – watching it all come together. Watching all the bits start to sing. Music and writing are not separate things for me. I can’t do one without the other. I am writing an Indie Musical at the moment and that has been heaven.
How different was it working on a radio play to working on a stage play like How To Be Brave?
So different. You can go anywhere with radio. With theatre it’s more like a puzzle you have to work out. In this space, with one actor, how do you tell this story? I love both kinds of writing though and they allow me to flex different writing muscles.
You won the Oxford Playhouse award, did an award like that spur you on? How hard is it to make headway in the industry off the back of something like that?
It did spur me on. I had almost given up and that was my last attempt of the whole writing thing. So that validation, at that time, was so important. I think it helped give me confidence and a bit more courage. I had some cool meetings and met some awesome people because of it. But I think you have to continue to work hard regardless. I carried on grafting and writing. If I have learnt anything it is just to try and keep my head down and keep writing. That’s the only way!
How To Be Brave by Siân Owen (Dirty Protest) is on tour now – details of where you can see it are here.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.