By BRUCE DENNILL
Ashleigh Harvey is the writer behind new stage comedy The Dead Tinder Society (Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, 25 July to 25 August) which explores the “funny, scary, vulnerable world of dating.”
You’ve made a name for yourself as a writer (in addition to your many other skills – acting and singing among them) with a great number of excellent scripts for radio dramas, but you have not written a stage play until now. Is that true, or is this the first script for the stage that you’ve been willing to share?
It is not true. I wrote a stage play years ago when I was in university. It was very dark and sad and full of 20-year-old angst, and I never really felt like it was ready to be staged. I should go back to it and see if there’s any mileage I can get out of it now. It was also about love and relationships, funnily enough. I guess the human condition is such that we are just perpetually stumped by those two things – love and relationships. Then I wrote another stage play three years ago, after I’d performed in Neil LaBute’s Bash. It was darker than dark (also about relationships – but this time within nuclear families), and I knew no one would stage it. So I turned it into a radio play and it was aired on SAfm – very late on a Saturday night.
How does your acting experience affect what or how you write? Do you write what you’d like to have in a script you received as an actor?
Yes! I definitely love writing dialogue. Dialogue is everything. If the dialogue is good, then that’s half the battle won, I think. I’m still obviously very new to writing for stage, so I don’t pretend to be an expert at all. But I wrote this play as an actor writing for other actors. I really want the language to feel easy and roll-off-the-tongue-y for an actor. It’s one of acting’s greatest joys – when a script does the work for you.
What are your personal feelings about Tinder?
I actually joined Tinder to do research for this project. I wanted to see what the profiles were like and how it all worked. I’ve never been an active app-dater, so I needed the experience. It was really interesting. I saw a lot of really funny stuff. I saw some very boundary-breaking stuff. There are a lot of married people out there looking for affairs. There were some lovely, quirky, fun profiles. Some profiles were touchingly authentic. I think Tinder is a complicated space. I think we don’t connect all that well, us humans. We struggle to connect. I don’t know why that is – maybe we’re paralysed by our own stuff; our own fear and insecurities. And I think Tinder makes that connection feel easier, but there’s also a layer between you and the person you’re trying to connect with. So, it doesn’t feel truthful, or honest. It didn’t feel that way to me, anyway. But social media, generally, is a space that I struggle with. I want real, human-to-human connection. I want to feel the insides of a person’s brain – in a fundamental way, you know? Like in a way that’s probably not realistic or possible. But I’m also choosy about who I let into my space. And I believe people are fundamentally not to be trusted. So…maybe I’m the wrong person to ask?
The site (and phenomenon) is an excellent mechanism to explore tough themes like superficiality, divorce, lust and loneliness. How did that help you tell the story you wanted to tell?
I actually based this play on a true story. I met a fascinating woman through a friend, who went through almost exactly this experience. I think tons of people are going through this, actually. So, all the Tinder/dating stories in the play are entirely true. Obviously I made them Jody’s story and I wrote the dialogue in a way that made sense to me, and for her. But, these themes of superficiality, divorce, lust and loneliness – and infidelity and pain and heartbreak – are playing out on Tinder all the time, every day. So, if you know what you’re looking for, there’s so much material out there. I also wanted to make sure that the play held Jody in a very empathetic way. Women in their thirties who are dating – my friends, and yours – commit a huge act of vulnerability when they put themselves out there. So, it was important to me that we laugh with them, and not at them.
Is there a deeper meaning to the Dead Poet’s Society reference?
Loosely, I guess. The movie is about living life on your own terms and being true to yourself and resisting fitting into a particular mould. And I think the play looks at that too, to a lesser extent. Jody is a woman who is expected to be a certain way – she’s a divorcee and a mom, and she finds herself in a really messed-up place in her life. A place that she didn’t ever expect to be. And that can make a person go a bit crazy – especially when society demands you be beautiful, a perfect parent, successful, great in bed, at the top of the social ladder, in a relationship or married. So, yes: Jody also needs to be true to herself and resist the mould. Dead Poet’s Society is obviously much more poetic.
Moving into new stages of life: you’ve just moved to the UK, with a fresh set of challenges, and Jody, newly divorced, is looking for a way forward, and also having to face new challenges. Did you draw on any personal experiences or emotions?
Oh, totally. I don’t believe I can write or act or sing or do anything creative without drawing on my own experiences and emotions. Of course, you should always be serving the work, but I can only make authentic choices if they’re based in some semblance of my own reality. So, yes, definitely.
It’s a compact (small cast and set-up) play with an excellent originating director and cast. As the writer, how would you like to see the piece grow and move – that low maintenance aspect allows for festival stagings and so on?
I want to see how this first run plays out. I want to watch it and get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. I would love feedback from trusted colleagues. And then I will go into another writing phase to rework and re-shape. I would love for it to play festivals. And, of course, I’d love to play Jody at some point.
How was it seeing this piece go from an idea, via the hard work of the script development to the stage? What were the highs and lows?
I think, like a lot of creatives I know, I have crippling self-doubt around my ability. So, I’m always terrified that whatever I do is going to fail, or be received badly. That feeling will continue through the run of the play. It was hard to actually sit down and start writing. I am a first-class procrastinator. I believe that if I leave something alone, it’ll just happen by itself. But once I started writing, I so enjoyed finding the characters and discovering who they are. Giving the work to the producers and director to read was scary as hell – but they have been absolutely incredible in their support. It’s an unbelievable, surreal experience to have actors tell me that they auditioned for my play and they loved the material. That’s great. And then, handing it over to someone to take over is pleasurable, too. I liked handing over the responsibility of it – but I also think that’s because Lesedi had been so generous and respectful in our initial conversations. And this week, I received the opening night invitation to the play – that was magical.