Soul Searching: Katie Hims.
We ask five of the playwrights undertaking a feminine Faustian interpretation for the Globe’s Dark Night of the Soul, a series of questions about the project and their approaches.
Katie Hims is a writer and has written for both theatre and radio. She has spent time on attachment to the National Theatre Studio and has recently written Variations for National Theatre Connections 2019. She is currently working on The Stranger on the Bridge for Postcard Productions at The Tobacco Factory, Bristol. Her previous stage work includes Billy the Girl for Clean Break at Soho Theatre. Her radio work has won several awards.
Seventeen Minutes to Midnight
by Katie Hims
Just before midnight. A writer and her niece are waiting. While in the room next door a nurse attends to the writer’s sister. The sister is dying and the writer finds she cannot resist scribbling down a scene about her sister’s death. A scene which reveals the secret of her sister’s life. The writer’s niece finds the scene in a notebook and accuses the writer of selling her soul.
What made you say yes to Dark Night of the Soul?
I was completely delighted to be asked to write for Shakespeare’s Globe. I’m afraid I would have said yes to anything that Michelle Terry asked me to write! But the fact that there’s a gang of us and that to a certain degree we’re developing the material together made it very appealing. Also, I think the brief is actually very open, so we should all be able to find our own quite different stories that we’re keen to tell.
What interests you about the Faustus myth or Marlowe’s Faustus? And what are you hoping to explore with your piece?
I’m still getting my head around what the Faustian bargain might mean for a female character. Faustus is about ambition and what he will sacrifice to achieve. Traditionally men have been expected and encouraged to be ambitious and women haven’t. I’ve always felt embarrassed by the idea of my own ambition like I want to disown it. I’ve often felt like I should be pursuing something more worthwhile and less selfish. I don’t know how many male writers are plagued by this feeling. I’m sure they are out there – and of course, I might be entirely wrong – but I imagine they are greatly outnumbered by women.
And yet I really do want to write. It’s the only ambition I have. So where does that leave me when it comes to writing about the Faustian bargain? I don’t know yet… Voltaire said: “One must be possessed of the Devil to succeed in any of the arts.” There are plenty of clichés around success coming only with sacrifice and what could be a greater sacrifice than your soul?
But what is a soul anyway? It means different things to different people. We talk of writers selling their souls and it usually means writing something terrible for a lot of money. But what’s so wrong with that? Maybe nothing. Maybe it depends on the nature of what was written. But I can imagine a story in which a woman sacrifices her soul for a lot less than absolute power and all the world’s riches. Which is potentially a story about equal pay…
How do you start to write something?
It depends what I’m writing and who I’m writing for. I’m happiest when starting with a character or an incident or some other small detail, and then following the trail of where that detail leads. One of my favourite ways to begin is to overhear something someone says in the street or on the bus. When starting with a broad theme I struggle more to find my story. The canvas is so big and you don’t want the theme to be writ large across the work. Whereas if you begin small you discover your theme and you don’t need to go hunting for a story to fit.
What made you want to be a writer?
I loved writing stories as a child but it never occurred to me that a writer was something I could actually be. Then in the final year of my drama degree, we did a playwriting course and I immediately lost interest in every other element of degree because I just wanted to be writing plays all day.
How important is storytelling?
I think it’s incredibly important. I think we’re telling each other stories all the time. They’re part of our everyday lives. There is a need to tell them and a need to hear them. I’ve got the writer’s guilt about not doing something more useful with my life, but my husband says to me imagine the world without any books and plays would you want to live in that world? And of course, I wouldn’t.
Would you say that there are any themes you are particularly interested in across your work?
Lost children who somehow make it home again seem to recur again and again even when I’m actively trying not to repeat myself. I’m a fan of a happy ending if I can get away with it.
Do you like to be involved in the rehearsal process?
My absolute favourite rewrites are the ones that get done in the rehearsal room. Hearing the actors say the lines tells you everything about what’s wrong and what needs to change and what ought to be said instead. It’s urgent work and removes all the doubt and umming and aahing. But I think you can drive the actors mad if you keep changing material too far into the rehearsal process. I think I need to stay away after a certain point because I would just keep rewriting.
What’s it like seeing your work being performed?
That depends! There’s something very nerve-wracking about it. At its worst, it can be cringe-worthy; like listening to your own voice on tape. But when you are sitting among an audience who are watching a play you’ve written and they are really really laughing or crying – that’s pretty amazing, it’s probably the best bit of the whole strange business.
What’s it like to be working on a production in chorus with other writers?
We’ve spent one workshop day together and I absolutely loved it. There’s a contradiction that writing is very often an isolated process and yet storytelling demands an audience. Stories grow and get better in the telling. So during the workshop we kind of functioned as an audience for one another.
On four evenings we will perform a selection of the pieces together as ‘Anthology Performances. Check the website to see when Katie’s response, Seventeen Minutes to Midnight will be performed.
This interview first appeared in Globe Magazine, available to buy in the Globe Shop. Become a Member of Shakespeare’s Globe to receive the magazine three times a year.