> Interview: Hannah Lavery on 'Protest', her first play for children - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Hannah Lavery on ‘Protest’, her first play for children

Hannah Lavery’s work always seems to hit the zeitgeist, not because she’s a trend forecasting guru, but because the activism embedded in her writing speaks to the fights we continue to wage as we strive to make the world a more beautiful place for all. Protest, Hannah’s first play for children (aged 8–13, though there will be no doubt much to enjoy for an older crowd), is about hope and how to maintain it when the weight of the world feels so heavy, especially when resting on wee shoulders. SNACK chats with Hannah about intergenerational wisdom, what a little girl can do, and deciding to be hopeful.

What is your new play, Protest, about?

It’s a play about activism, finding your voice, community, and solidarity. It’s about three girls who live in a small Scottish town, though in some ways, it could be anywhere. Through different incidences that happen in their own lives and things they observe, they come together to create a moment within their community where people stand up for kindness, against the growing division within their community and the injustice that they see. 

It’s a really hopeful play about how we can make changes. When I was talking to young people in preparation, there seemed to be a real sense of hopelessness about the enormity of the weight of the world at the moment. So, I wanted to write a play that fused stories of activism. I spoke to a lot of people who’d been activists for a long time and asked them about how they sustain their activism. That kind of wisdom is embedded into Protest to inspire young people to make small changes and to celebrate the things they can do.

I really like that it explores protest through the lens of friendship and the power of platonic love. Do you think that friendship can be the thing that unites us in these very polarised times?

I definitely think that it’s a celebration of friendship within a small community. If you want to sustain your activism, or you want to find your voice, or you want to make a stand, you really need to be doing that with other people. I think that friendship is where real hope lies. Sometimes we feel very alone in our fight, so actually being able to find solidarity is what sustains you.

Photo credit: Christopher Owens

It’s interesting that you’re now writing for young people. I spoke with playwright Olly Emanuel about writing for children, and he said you need to dial up the bits you might think to be ‘too adult’ instead of taking them out. How did you approach writing for a young audience?

It’s funny because in a way it’s no different. I’ve done little things, but this is my first real piece of work for young people. It feels very similar, but obviously you have to take a bit more care in terms of supporting young people to find a way in. I’m a mum of three kids and when I was writing this play they were about the same age [as the audience], so I think it was a case of just reminding myself of how I talk to my children. To be honest, a lot of writing for children is having an understanding that that audience has a real, strong sense of right and wrong, so you know that they’re going to be on board with you. 

I had written this play particularly with those young transition years between primary and secondary [school] in mind. I was really going back to myself at age but also looking at my own children and thinking ‘What is it they need?’ It seemed that what they need is hope. It needed to be a play which talks about the things that they’re talking about, like the climate emergency, Black Lives Matter; my children’s experiences of racism and having to work out what that means for them. I felt from those conversations that what they needed was something hopeful, and honestly I think it’s what we all need at the moment. We need to know that there are things that we can do. 

With writing for young people, there are probably lots of differences, but for me it always felt like it was coming from the same place. It’s about storytelling and trying to tell something compelling. If anything, I suppose what you have to hold on to is that young people are also probably less indulgent of you [laughs]. You know, you have to be really on your toes. I hope I always am, but you have to be at your very best and it’s not easy. Sometimes people talk about children’s theatre as something lesser, but as a writer, it feels like as tough a gig as writing for adults.

I feel like some of the best plays I’ve seen have been written for kids, and children’s literature is great: it’s often so strange and experimental, which is a fun place to explore as a writer.

Yeah, and I suppose in a lot of ways as writers we’re always trying to get back to our childlike imagination. There’s something joyous in that children are so open imaginatively, they don’t need to know ‘What does this mean?’ They’re much more able to go with you. But yeah, I agree, I think that work for children is incredibly exciting. And I’m really excited that Protest is part of Imaginate Children’s Festival, because there are just some incredibly wonderful and wildly imaginative pieces, so it’s really nice to be part of that programme.

I’m excited to see it! Also speaking of experimentation, your previous plays The Drift and Lament for Sheku Bayoh experiment with form: the former combining poetry and the latter with keening, the Gaelic tradition of lament. Can we expect this from Protest too?

I think so. It is very lyrical. It’s being directed by the wonderful Natalie Ibu and she’s just got some incredible ideas that I’m really excited about. There are intertwining monologues and the language is kind of lyrical, though I wouldn’t call it poetry, but there are real moments of that. It’s funny, it’s like when you ask someone if they’re eccentric, I suppose? [Laughs] So maybe it’s for other people to say if it’s experimental. It felt very natural to me. The way I write is I hear what comes back to me, and these three girls just appeared to me so clearly and this is what they said. 

With The Drift, again, it just came out that way. I’m actually just working on it again; it’s going to be adapted to a Radio 4 play and I think it comes out in summer. And I think with Lament, again, it was just the lament that drove it. So I think for me, it is always the story first, and then the form just comes in the way that the story is asking for, or the way the piece is wanting to be told. So I don’t purposely mean to [laughs]. This play wanted to be told in this way, which was very much in the voice of the three girls trying to make sense of their world. And that’s not only something that we do when we’re 11 [years old], but I think it’s something we do all our lives. We try and work out what it is that we’re seeing. 

All three characters are very close to me, but there’s a character called Jade who has her first experience of racism, and then has to almost recalibrate and understand what it is to be part of the community in which she felt that her family all really belonged, and what that means the first time that belonging is challenged: how you find your place again, and how you have to make sense of that. I wanted to write something from her voice, which is very much about that moment of being winded. I think all three of them go through those moments of being absolutely winded by the world because they realise that ‘this is not what I thought this world was’. 

In some ways, it feels like the real feminist play that I wanted when I was 11, about how do we work these things out? How do we work it out when we realise that Alice is the best runner in her class, yet the boys get chosen for the race? Her ‘winding’ is that ‘it doesn’t matter how good I am’. With Jade, it’s like ‘Oh, I don’t actually exist in the story of this time with us at school, and how do I cope with that? How do I find my voice and how do I find strength and power in that?’ And then with Chloe, who is trying to work out how she protects our environment and how to do something to fight the climate emergency when it feels so overwhelming and so huge. What can a little girl do? And we find out that a little girl can actually do quite a lot. 

Photo credit: Ali Wright

It’s amazing when that happens; when you’re writing and you can just hear the characters speak to you, and you’re like ‘Wait, hang on a minute! I’m trying to get this all down!’ [laughs].

That’s definitely the way I write. I throw myself into the research, try to absorb it like a sponge, and then I have a moment when it just comes out. And it’s usually exactly like that. Especially with this play – I could just hear their voices so clearly. I’m really, really pleased with how it’s turned out, and the team that are involved are just brilliant. And it’s an all-female team, which is quite powerful, too. 

I was working with the Lyceum Youth Theatre before this new residency, and I remember listening to them, along with my own kids, about the way that whole generation really suffered though COVID as well. Feeling very isolated, like all the problems in the world are just too much, and what do I do? I’m wanting to say that there are still things that we can do. These small little changes we can make in the ways we live our lives, by making a stand for kindness, can actually be quite powerful in the face of such division and overwhelming hopelessness. 

The way society is set up is to make us feel like we can’t make changes as individuals. I wanted to write a play where the whole town turn out, and maybe the reality is that the whole town wouldn’t. I think that what inspired me around lockdown is how quickly we came together from the beginning. How suddenly, people were volunteering to get people’s shopping. And it was quite amazing for me when we feel like we can’t do anything, because it actually proved that we can do things really quickly. I live in a little town called Dunbar and I’m always amazed at the local people who come together and create a warm bank, a food bank, or a shared community meal. And people just do things like this, they just have to take it on and do it themselves. And we can make a difference. And we really do. And we don’t focus on those people who really do the work of our communities.

One of the other important parts of this play is grandmothers. For me, I really wanted to write a play that was a real nod to that generation, or to those women who hold our communities together. We’re set up to think that there’s a massive gulf between generations and actually what I’ve noticed is when you go to pick up your kids, it’s all grannies at the gates. It’s those women who are doing the huge job of bringing up the next generation, and they’re actually incredibly inspiring women. They’re the generation that has made so many things possible for us now, and they are the ones who are running food banks. So I just wanted to have those grandmothers come to support their grandchildren as well and to show that really beautiful relationship between granddaughters and grandmothers. 

The intergenerational aspect of it is really important, especially because a lot of older people in power will have this ‘the kids are alright’ perspective, where they look at the next generation and how wonderful and open-minded they are, and use it as an excuse to be inactive on these issues. But you know, the kids aren’t alright, young people are scared and concerned about our future, and the mental health of young people is on the decline. It’s important for us to come together, instead of leaving it to the young people to take the lead on cleaning up the messes they’ve had no part in making.

Absolutely. That felt very important to me. One of the lines and play is ‘Grannies, it’s our job to change the world.’ And for me, the memory of my grandmother and the women I know of that generation is that they haven’t stopped trying to change the world, they haven’t stopped wanting to make the world better for their grandchildren. I also wanted to show young people that when they feel hopeless, there are people before them who have been doing this activism for years, and they can show them how to sustain it. One of the granddaughters calls her granny ‘Champion Radical’ because she’s lived through so much and knows that making a stand once is not enough, you’ve got to keep doing it. 

When I did the first iteration of this play, I did lots of interviews and was going to embed the interviews in the play, but then decided that the story spoke for itself. But one of the things that was really powerful for me when I was interviewing older activists who have been doing this for 30-odd years, was when I asked, ‘How do you sustain it when things don’t change or things don’t go your way?’ And they said that you just have to celebrate every single win, even if it’s a tiny step. You celebrate it because that’s the thing that keeps you going. And then I thought actually, that’s the key. It’s the small changes, it’s those little moments that keep you going when things don’t look good. It felt really important to nod to that in the play.

It’s an important message, letting children know that this fight has been fought and will continue to be fought until it is won. Just because it’s taking a long time, or that change isn’t happening as quickly as most people would like, doesn’t mean that it’s a losing battle.

Yeah, and you have to just keep going. It was also important that the protest that happens in the play is very much in real life. It’s not like online or anything, it’s real in the sense that it’s actually physically people coming together to do something rather than a mass retweet [laughs].

Or signing a petition. 

Yeah, that sort of activism. You just retweet to people that already agree with you, so I’m not sure how much you change really [laughs]. But also, what’s interesting about that age is that you haven’t been sucked into social media quite as much. So there was some point of catching them in that moment which felt very important to me as well. There are bigots, young and old, but there are also people who are really passionate about social justice across the generations and we can find our solidarity and our allyship anywhere, it’s not an age thing.

Yeah, definitely. And it’s pushing this idea that we’re all so different that’s a weapon used to stop us from uniting together with where we’re so much more powerful. Part of that is actually the new restrictions on our right to protest in the UK. What do you think of the new policing act? Does art have a vital role to play when finding new ways to protest? 

I think the right to protest is fundamental to a healthy society so it’s absolutely terrifying that there have been restrictions put on it. It’s not an explicit message in his play, but it felt important to me, because actually the way the community comes together is challenged in the end. I don’t want to give the play away, but there is definitely a moment of that being challenged, where there’s a sense that they need permission, that they shouldn’t be there. It’s subtly there in the play. It’s 8+ so it’s the kind of play that you could bring your children to, but it’s for everybody. One of the messages in there is that provocation of what happens when you take away the right for a people to come together and stand up or to make a statement.

But in some ways, I think we should also be really concerned that we don’t protest enough. There’s been a lot of comments and funny comparisons between us and the French about how much we sort of just accept things, don’t we? I’m interested in what that’s about, really. It seems that we work so hard to keep heads above water that we don’t have the energy to protest. I think there are a lot of ways that we are restricted in our ability to come together and to show solidarity, to stand up, to protest. I’m concerned about that, and the way we look at people who are protesting and don’t realise they’re doing it for us all. I worry about how we make change and how we challenge power if that is restricted.

Photo credit: Christopher Owens

It’s very concerning, but I think that people are crafty and creative. There will be ways around it. What will happen is that the people who feel like they can have a criminal record will be getting arrested for protesting, which has been happening already. But, you know, it does stop certain people from being able to protest in the ways we’re accustomed because obviously, it’s only really white middle-class people who can put themselves out there without fear.

Yeah, and then it’s a luxury to be able to. I totally agree with that idea. We can go into a long conversation about this [laughs].

We’ll be here all day! [laughs].

I do think it’s a right and a privilege to be able to protest. One of the things I wanted to work into this play was that it wasn’t a single issue, that the things we feel like we’re fighting for individually are the same fight. We can see that climate, emergency, social justice, racial justice, all of that is connected. There’s a trick where we all think that these are separate things, but actually there’s a really powerful solidarity. I wanted to show how all those issues connect and that actually you can’t just stand up for yourself. It’s a powerful statement, to say that I’m going to put kindness first and put that at the heart of what I do. I always feel like that. If your first reaction is empathy, obviously there’s more work beyond that,  and I wouldn’t say that’s everything you have to do, but that’s a really good start.

Are you hopeful for the future?

It depends when you catch me [laughs]. Do you know what, I think I have to be. I think that it would be almost too easy not to. I think you have to find a way, to find hope. I strive to be hopeful. I’m not sure if I’m always there, but I do strive for it. As a mum, I’ve got no choice! I have to find hope for the people I love, as well as for myself. I am hopeful, let’s say that [laughs]. It’s tricky though, isn’t it? Because there’s something that feels deeply naive about it, but also how else do we keep going? If we don’t have it, what does that mean for us all?

Yeah, what’s the point in trying to make things better if you don’t expect it to?

Yeah. You have to be hopeful in your neighbour, that people will make the right decision. It’s what sustains us. I am hopeful. 

To pursue a career as a writer and a full-time creative you have to be quite a hopeful person!

Yeah that’s one way of looking at it! [laughs]. I suppose you do. Let’s decide to be hopeful.

National Theatre of Scotland’s Protest will be performed as part of the Edinburgh International Children’s Festival and will tour throughout Scotland from May 29th till June 2nd

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