TBB TALKS TO…SIAN CARTER WRITER OF RUNNING WITH LIONS @LYRIC HAMMERSMITH

Running With Lions follows the struggle of a British-Caribbean family to grieve the death of a loved one, and how this challenges their faith and mental health. It follows their journey as they rediscover the importance of love, joy and connections.

Carter trained as a playwright with Soho Theatre Writers’ Lab and the Royal Court Playwriting Group and is an Alumna of the Almasi League of Writers. Her work was shortlisted for the 2020 BBC Studios Writers‘ Academy. She has Assistant Director credits for Human Animals (Royal Court), Fiddler on the Roof (Chichester Festival Theatre), King Lear (Chichester Festival Theatre), Quiz (Noel Coward Theatre, West End). In 2021 her audio drama Running with Lions, co-produced by Talawa Theatre Company and Feral Inc. aired on BBC Radio 4.

Running With Lions is Sian Carter’s is the first play she has written. We spoke to Sian about what she enjoyed about the process and the difference between writing for stage and audio productions…

Please introduce yourself…

Hello, I’m Sian. I work in Marketing and I’m a writer from London.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now…

Exploring exciting new experiences.

What can you tell us about Running With Lions?

Running With Lions is a co-production from Lyric Hammersmith and Talawa Theatre Company. The play follows a British-Caribbean family navigating loss and finding hope. Central to the story are three generations of women exploring their relationships with each other as mothers and daughters. This production is a journey of emotions. Audiences may find comfort, joy, and reflection within the play.

The team bringing the play to life is incredible. Joining our Director Michael Buffong (A Place For We, King Lear) and Assistant Director Kwame Owusu, our cast includes Ruby Barker (Bridgerton), Wil Johnson (Waking The Dead), Suzette Llewellyn (EastEnders), Nickcolia King-N’da (The Death Of A Black Man) and Velile Tshabalala (Call The Midwife). There’s a wonderful set with a dream-like quality, elevating the naturalism of the text, designed by Set and Costume Designer, Soutra Gilmour, Lighting Design by Aideen Malone, Sound Design by Tony Gayle.

l-r Suzette Llewellyn, Ruby Barker, Nickcolia King-N’da & Velile Tshabalala

Where were you in your career when you had the idea for Running With Lions? What was going on in your world? Were you a struggling creative or were you confident in where your career was heading?

I had been furloughed from my full-time job at the time. Missing my loved ones, as many of us were in the midst of lockdowns, the theme of family was very much on my mind. I came across Talawa Theatre Company’s Writers’ Cafe and signed up. After a brilliant zoom chat with Ifrah Ismail (New Work Producer in 2020), I went away, put together a first draft and submitted it through the online script reading service and that began the re-drafting journey and development of the script. I’m looking forward to seeing where the next stage of my writing career will take me.

Over the years we have had an ongoing conversation regarding mental health in the Black community and seeing it as almost a taboo subject, adding one’s faith into the mix and the conversation can almost be off-limits. What made you want to delve into these subject matters and in doing so what have you yourself gotten out of it?

I think the more we talk about mental health, the more we help to reduce the stigma attached to doing so. We can better support people with lived experiences of mental health illnesses. For the characters in the play, grief has affected their relationships with each other, their faith and mental health. We see a family living between the things they do and do not say until the conversations, albeit difficult, have to happen.

It is based on the radio play Running With Lions, originally commissioned by BBC Radio 4. How different was it writing for the stage as opposed to writing for radio? What changes were made to accommodate the stage and what was the experience for you converting it?

Writing the script for the twenty-eight-minute BBC Radio 4 audio drama was my first time writing for radio. My mentor and Executive Producer on the piece, Polly Thomas, was really supportive of my learning.

Telling a story purely through the medium of sound was a new challenge and I really enjoyed the chance to focus on the efficiency of dialogue and the world-building that soundscapes can create. The language and form used are also taken into consideration, as you think about how best to tell the story for a listener. I’d love the chance to write for radio again in the future.

Running With Lions stands alongside two fantastic radio plays as a trio for Talawa Stories – Precious Little Thing by Roberta Livingston and NSA by Charles Entsie, commissioned by BBC Radio 4 in partnership Feral Inc. You can still listen in now on BBC Sounds!

Ruby Barker, Suzette Llewellyn. Running with Lion’s rehearsals. Credit Zeinab Batchelor.

For Running With Lions, what works dramatically in the text for radio may not work dramatically for stage and vice versa. With the stage version, there’s another kind of magic we’re getting to explore here as we also add the visual element and the liveness of the experience for audiences. The length of the piece has changed too, with new scenes included to tell the story and go into the themes in more depth.

I really enjoyed the redrafting process of the stage script. I worked with Nicholai La Barrie (Associate Director) and Liz Daramola (Literary Associate) at the Lyric Hammersmith to reach this new version of the play over several drafts. Because of their time and support I’ve been able to learn a lot about my writing style and developed my process.

You worked with actors for both the stage and radio versions of the play, were there differences in ability considered when the actors were cast for either platform? And in what capacity were you involved with choosing?

Both casts, for the radio and stage version, are phenomenal. For the radio version, we worked with Sharon D Clarke, Don Warrington, Lydia West, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Alfred Enoch. The radio play cast members brought the script to life for the first time and was a really great way to bring Running With Lions to audiences over lockdown.

And now with the stage version, we have another amazing cast, with casting by Chandra Ruegg. I really do appreciate how exciting it is to have had the opportunity to work with so many brilliant actors in sharing this story. Our stage cast: Ruby Barker, Wil Johnson, Suzette Llewellyn, Nickcolia King-N’da and Velile Tshabalala are incredible and their chemistry as a family on stage is so wonderful to watch.

What’s the biggest satisfaction for you as a writer when you release your work to the world?

As I write this now, it’s exactly one week before the first preview on the 10 th on February, so I’ve yet to experience that first time we share the stage production with a live audience. In the rehearsal room I’ve loved seeing the cast really take on the characters as their own, discovering new moments and narrative details. The audience is always the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to live theatre. I can’t wait to see how the play is received.

Ruby Barker, Director Michael Buffong. Running with Lion’s rehearsals. Credit Zeinab Batchelor

The play was chosen as part of Talawa’s 35th anniversary. How has the experience of working with Talawa and Michael Buffong been for you? What did the experience teach you going forward?

It’s been an incredible experience to work with Talawa Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Michael Buffong. I’ve admired Talawa Theatre Company’s work for many years, so the chance to work with Michael on both the radio version and now the stage production has been a wonderful collaboration.

As I’ve also worked as an Assistant Director in the past, it’s exciting for me to learn from Michael’s process as a director. Michael has such a wonderful way of setting up a rehearsal space where ideas are welcomed and the attention to detail is admirable. Any day I’ve been in rehearsals, the joy from the Running With Lions team working together is so clear.

Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?

In terms of what’s next for me as a writer, I’m currently looking for agent representation. Writing for theatre or radio again would be brilliant. I’m working on my first draft of a television pilot script as I’d love to learn more about writing for screen.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU…

  • A book you have to have in your collection? Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo – love this book.
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Colours by Black Pumas, I’ve had it on repeat lately! I really recommend checking it out.
  • A film/TV show that you can watch/have watched repeatedly? Gogglebox. It’s a feel-good TV show and always makes me laugh.
  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance, or concert)? The first stage production I saw was Trevor Nunn’s stage adaptation of David Almond’s children’s novel Skellig at the Young Vic in 2003. I think it was for a school trip, I was about eleven years old and so fascinated by it all.
  • What has made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad and Mad: The rising house prices in London! I would like to be able to own my home one day in
    the area I grew up in. Going backstage for the first time and seeing the Running With Lions set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, in the main house at the Lyric Hammersmith! It was a very special moment. Bringing the play to life is such a huge team effort from so many talented people. We can’t wait to share this production with you.

Running With Lions 10 Feb – 12 Mar @ Lyric Hammersmith. More info here

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