Joanna Alpern is a fourth year English literature student whose Backbone will be going up today. Backbone is an ‘issue play,’ Joanna wrote it because a fourth year who works for Anthony Nolan blood cancer charity saw her play Wolf Whistle and thought she might like to write something for the charity. It’s the second ‘issue play’ she’s written. She says she had to do a bit of research for it, and think about how issue plays work; what can go wrong and what should be avoided etc. Katherine Weight is directing the play with a mere two week turnaround.
What is Backbone about?
It’s about five individuals who have been either distantly or directly affected by blood cancer. Delilah and Oscar are current sufferers, whilst Ethel has lost a neighbour to leukaemia. More strangely though, English student Fiona is donating marrow to make amends for a previous wrong, and drama school graduate, Jack, has been approached to make a short film about marrow which, to his dismay, turns out to be an advert. We tend to see ‘our world’ and the world of the sick as separate, so what I’ve tried to do is ease the audience in with what is recognizably ‘our world’, showing Fiona partying and having domestics with her boyfriend, and having Jack show off in front of his flatmate, before making the two worlds collide.
What do you hope people will take away Backbone?
I hope people will learn something about marrow and perhaps feel inclined to join the Anthony Nolan register. I would also like for people to enjoy themselves and the characters. When people get sick, this tends to take over their identity. They have to stop doing all of the things which give them a sense of self-worth, as in, their job, looking after their family, any creative pursuits, and they are also seen differently by others. Instead of a sexually confused adolescent and aspiring artist, Oscar might just be seen as sick. Instead of a feisty hairdresser and excellent mother, Delilah might just be seen as a cancer patient. I’ve tried to shed light on this in Backbone, and make sure the characters’ non-sick attributes always take center stage.
Backbone will be your fifth play to have gone up in St Andrews. Does it become easier each time?
It’s become very easy recently as I’ve handed over all directorial authority to Katherine Weight and so from the read-through onwards, I’ve done very little. There are few people I would trust with my work, but anyone who’s worked with Katherine will know how fun, authoritative, perceptive and exact a director she is. It’s a huge confidence boost knowing I can hand over my work to someone who knows what to do with it.
You have a lot of experience in writing. Do ideas come to you more quickly now?
I don’t have more ideas than I used to have, but more confidence to follow them through maybe? Everyone has ideas all the time but the hard part is actually putting pen to paper.
Are you inspired by other writers? Were there any specific literary influences on your latest project, Backbone?
Yes I really am. I read and see as much contemporary theatre as possible. I studied Tony Kushner in Dr Parry’s American Drama module right before starting Backbone, and only realised until after I’d written it that Kushner had wormed his way in. His treatment of AID’s in Angels in America is impressive. It’s educational, poignant, and actually really fun. The worst thing you can do is let an issue overwhelm the characters’ stories. If you start veering towards didacticism or sentimentality you have lost your audience. This is something Kushner was more than aware of, and it really informed my approach to blood cancer in Backbone.
What are your future plans, will you pursue playwriting?
I would really love to. I’m applying for some partially funded MFA’s in the US and MA’s here but some of them are very competitive to get into. I’d also be perfectly happy to sell my soul and write for TV or radio, or literally anything that would have me.