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Features Published 12 January 2017

Katherine Soper: “If people don’t know you can’t make a living, it goes unnoticed and untalked about.”

Gillian Greer interviews the Bruntwood Prize-winning playwright Katherine Soper about the difficulties of surviving as a young writer, zero hours contracts, and the media response that characterised her as a 'perfume seller'.
Gillian Greer
Katherine Soper at the time of her 2015 Bruntwood Prize win

Katherine Soper at the time of her 2015 Bruntwood Prize win

“It’s so pathetic that I have to say ‘It’s good to be treated like a human’”. Katherine Soper laughs a little nervously at her assertion. But sometimes, the simplest ideas are the most powerful. Her debut play, Wish List, puts this most basic assertion into practice. It’s a play whose characters feel both quiet and deafening in their demand to be seen as human.

Siblings Tamsin and Dean are faced with losing their benefits after Dean is declared ‘fit for work’, despite being so paralysed by obsessive compulsion disorder that he’s incapable of leaving the house. Meanwhile, Tasmin struggles through a demeaning zero-hours contract job at a local ‘fulfillment centre’ (today’s Orwellian term for ‘soulless warehouse’) where productivity is tracked by the minute, in the hopes of keeping their heads above water.

The play won the prestigious Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2015, and Soper’s victory provoked a frustrating media response. Newspaper articles referred to her not as a trained playwright, but as a ‘shop assistant’, ‘perfume seller’ or some variation thereof – ironically, given that she’d written a play that attempts to humanise people in low-waged work and exploitative employment contracts. Rebecca Atkinson-Lord wrote an Exeunt piece at the time, exploding the myth of her ‘big break’. But I was itching to hear the writer’s reaction to the reaction.

“I hadn’t even thought that it could be spun in that way “, Katherine tells me, “but what it did make me think is how little people understand the kinds of lives that people in the arts, particularly earlier in their careers, actually lead.” Both of us are writers balancing real life money-jobs with sporadic arts opportunities, so it’s easy to commiserate. “Pretty much everyone I know at this stage in their career is working, either as ushers or waiters or doing reception or temp work between creative things. It’s not unusual. It struck me how people don’t necessarily realise that it’s not unusual.”

“In the days after the Bruntwood win, it was this strange thing. For some people, it was ‘Perfume Seller wins Playwriting prize’, then there were other people saying ‘hang on, she went to Cambridge and did an MA in Playwriting, why are we talking about that?” and then more people saying: ‘yeah, she went to Cambridge and did an MA in Playwriting – why is she writing a play about this?’ It was this odd circle.” It’s an interesting cycle to find yourself in, having people scramble to define you in the simplest terms and using those terms to dictate the kinds of work you should be making, all before that work has even been staged. “People are quick to say ‘I can surmise this person’s experience based on one aspect of their lives’, and even though there are elements of this [play] that I haven’t experienced, so much of it is close to home too, so I feel justified in using the elements I know and going somewhere different with it.”

I want to ask Katherine if she’s proud of being a ‘perfume seller’. I will admit that every morning I sweep through the doors of Canary Wharf station to my day job, my artist soul dies a little inside. Her Twitter bio certainly seems to suggest she is – ‘Writer of Plays, Merchant of Fragrance’ has a decent ring to it. In a world where ‘art’ and ‘financial security’ are not words that go hand in hand, positions in retail, customer service and administration are an unglamorous necessity. “At the start of your career, it can be hard to say ‘I am a writer’ or ‘I am an actor’ rather than ‘I am somebody who works in a shop’, when that’s the way that you want to present yourself. But I think, in a wider sense, it’s important to talk about the reality – if people don’t know you can’t make a living off it, it goes unnoticed and untalked about.”

This idea applies to the world of Wish List too – the play casts an unblinking eye on the harsh realities of benefit cuts and the drudgery of ‘fulfilment centres’, the looming warehouses where online purchases for companies like Amazon are packed with intimidating speed in order to meet our ‘next day delivery’ expectations. The play’s title is inspired by the inventories of dream purchases these websites often entice us to keep. In the post-Christmas fog of Amazon Alexas, tiny model drones and coffee table books, this reality feels particularly potent. Having written the play, does Katherine feel more attuned to the human cost of the things we use every day? “I feel like it’s impossible to live as a person in the Western World and not be harming somebody. And to live ethically is incredibly expensive. I try to do what I can – I don’t shop at Amazon anymore – but it’s hard to know what effect that has. I have my consumer power, but ultimately, Amazon are not suffering for me not purchasing something. And if they folded tomorrow, another company resorting to the same practises would rise. It needs to be a bigger change.”

Wish List is a play weighed down with big issues. From the labyrinthine demands of the benefit system, to the suffocating productivity expected from zero hour contract positions and the emotional struggles of living with OCD, it’s easy for a story to buckle under the weight of its concerns. “You always hear people say ‘I don’t want to watch a play that could have been an article in The Guardian’”, Katherine observes, “so I kept going back to the characters, working out what was truthful for them, crossing my fingers and hoping I wasn’t bashing you over the head with it.”

At the opening of the text, Soper quotes Aeschylus: ‘from the Gods who sit in grandeur/ grace comes sometimes violent.’ The invocation of the gods feels relevant. In Wish List, there is no human villain, no maniacal boss or heartless case worker for us to pin our anger on. The decrees handed down from on high feel fickle and pre-destined. “It [the quote] is about the way that the logic of the gods is different to human logic. They’ve got their own plan, and we can’t work out what that is. That came back into my head when thinking about this play. The feelings you have and the choices you make when you’re talking about abstract ideas without faces or names are different to the choices you make when someone is humanised to you. It sounds like a cliché – but I wanted to explore that.”

The gods feel so far away that their decisions are beyond human comprehension or control. The wrong letter posted through Dean and Tamsin’s door carries a similar weight. Their enemy is not one of flesh and blood, but one of backlogs, distance and incomprehensible legislation. The saddest thing I take from my interview is Katherine’s remark that the one glimmer of light in the play, Tamsin’s hopeful relationship with her fellow warehouse worker Luke, would never be allowed to exist in a real-world fulfilment centre. Basic dignities like talking to your workmate are denied. “Talking should be allowed – it allows you to feel like a person. You’re happier getting up in the morning when you’re being treated like a person. The lack of trust is corrosive. It’s upsetting the the higher-ups in these situations can’t see the value of giving people dignity and humanity.” In short, It’s good to be treated like a human.

Wish List is on at the Royal Court from 12 Jan – 11 Feb, 2016.

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Gillian Greer is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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