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Theatre Collective Spotlight: Sophie Max

This is a series of interviews, released monthly, to broadcast the emerging and established voices of female-identifying and non-binary creatives within theatre.

Sophie Max is an actor and writer from London. As an actor her film credits include The Whole Truth (Best Actress Honourable Mention at Prague International Indie Film Festival), Callie (Amazon Prime Video), Swallow (Tribeca Film Festival); theatre credits include The Merchant of Venice (The Show Must Go Online), Ideology and Hair Gel (Edinburgh Fringe), Upstander Bystander (Kraine Theater, NYC), Nowhere Man (Theater for the New City, NYC) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Under St Marks, NYC). She is currently completing her MA Acting for Screen at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, graduating in 2021. As a writer, her film credits include The Whole Truth (Official Selection LA Femme International Film Festival/NYC Independent Film Festival/Prague International Indie Film Festival, Flickers’ Roving Eye Festival, Best Short Honourable Mention/Best Female Director/Best Actress Honourable Mention/Best Supporting Actress at Prague International Indie Film Festival), Callie (Amazon Prime Video) (Dis)Connected (Winner Best Film- Harwich Shorts). Her book of poetry, lost and found, was published in 2018. Her play, Till It Stops, is a Quarterfinalist in the Screencraft Stage Play Competition and is currently in production at Culture Lab LIC in New York to premiere there in April 2021, directed by Samantha Wendorf.

What was your first experience watching theatre?

I don’t remember my first, but I remember a very memorable night seeing the Lion King on the West End when I was a kid. I couldn’t believe the magic I saw on that stage. It was the most exciting evening and really pushed the boundaries of what my childhood self knew theatre to be.

What was the first play to make you want to work in theatre?

On my fourteenth birthday I saw Romeo and Juliet at the RSC. I was absolutely mesmerised. I remember sitting there, on the edge of my seat, eyes glued to the stage and during the party scene I thought: “I want to do that”.

Why theatre for you? Why is it the right form for you?

I work in both theatre and film/TV and I love how visceral storytelling is in both forms. I like theatre’s urgency. I think screen serves a different purpose in that in a film or TV show, the audience can almost be inside the character’s thoughts and be transported inside the story. In theatre, having the actors and audience in the same physical space- there is this exchange of energy that is really powerful. And there is trust in the suspension of disbelief- the audience has to place their trust in the writing and the actors, and can almost breathe with them, be in sync, in the shared moment. I have always loved the very palpable atmosphere that theatre creates in the energy exchange between actors and audience.

What influences your writing/work/acting?

Everything! Movies, plays, music, visual art, poetry. Human behaviour, emotions and my own life experiences. I am often inspired by anger, actually. There are so many issues and conversations in the world that make me angry and things I want to speak up about and change and stories often come from a desire to speak to those issues. Because storytelling, be it theatre, film or television has an incredible power to make people feel seen and understood, or to make audiences empathise with experiences far from their own. So I often harness the conversations I want to be having into art.

Which playwrights/performers/creatives have influenced you the most?

Alice Birch, Sadie Hasler, Michaela Coel, Emerald Fennell, Greta Gerwig (big fan of female creators!!)- their work all has this beating heart, this pulsing undercurrent and electricity that is so exciting. Their writing (and performing) has an energy and anger and drive that I think is so rare and their female characters are beautifully complex. They showed me that you can be true to your voice and tell the stories you want to tell from your own perspective- and trust that they will resonate with audiences. They have such confidence in the stories they want to tell which comes through the writing and they challenge audiences in really specific and important ways. They strike that delicate balance between art that says something profound and reflects specific issues and experiences, but which is also hugely entertaining and compelling. And that’s the work that I love creating, both as an actor and a writer.

How has the theatre industry changed over your time working?

It is slowly opening up to more diversity of voices, which is such a necessary change- but it is happening too slowly. I hope to see much more change in that area as my career continues.

What's the hardest play/extract/project you've ever written/performed and why?

Writing the ending of The Whole Truth was really challenging. I kept re-drafting it and it changed drastically so many times. It was a really challenging story about a young police officer questioning a teenager who had been sexually assaulted by her teacher. I needed to do justice to the characters and their story, while also striking that delicate balance of not giving it a ‘happy’ ending which would not ring true, but also not writing a negative ending which would betray the characters’ strength. I wanted to strike the right note that was hopeful and empowering, but didn’t give the illusion of tidily tying up all loose ends. It was a challenge to find the ending that would do the characters, their experiences and the complexity of the story justice. Performing that ending scene was also the most challenging day on set; I was nervous because I needed to honour the character and her courage at this crucial moment in her story. Thankfully I had an incredible director who guided us there with absolute care, and we ended up getting my coverage in one take. It was definitely the most vulnerable I’ve felt on set, but incredibly rewarding. Writing Till It Stops was also challenging- it was my first time writing a full length play so it was really like diving off the deep end. It was challenging to crystallise what I was trying to say and find the right form. Thankfully, I had great friends who read and gave feedback on various drafts. When I write, I tend to get kind of obsessed with that script and fall completely in love with the characters; with Till It Stops that was definitely the case, so realising when it was ‘finished’ was hard- I could re-draft forever, even if I’m only making tiny changes. The version of Till It Stops that is going to the stage is about draft 20 or so. I find writing a little bit terrifying, so I always start by writing just for myself, telling myself I won’t show it to anyone, so I can be brave in my work. Then eventually when I do show people- it’s still nerve-wracking, but I know I have written everything I want to say without fear and I can be proud of what is on the page.

Are there ideas and themes that you keep coming back to?

Yes. I write mostly female-led work and I love writing about female relationships and tackling themes around sexual violence and mental health. These are issues which of course are being discussed and portrayed in media more and more, and I welcome those conversations when they are helpful, respectful and constructive. I want to explore these themes honestly and from a female perspective; I want to move away from them being fetishized or glamorised. I always want to create dynamic, bold characters where these issues are part of their story but are not their whole story; they are not the one thing given to a woman to give her ‘depth’. And I want to challenge audiences and encourage discussions and awareness.

What advice would you give to a woman wanting to work and write in theatre, but without obvious access streams?

Trust your unique voice and don’t compromise or doubt it, because that is what will be noticed. Learn from others, read plays, watch theatre, apply to free writing courses- but basically just write. The only way to write is to just…write. I find that if I sit there and self-critique as I go, the process is torturous- but if I just let it flow, get something down on the page- it’s much easier to improve on a draft than a blank page. And that takes trust; trust that you will get there, trust that your first draft will probably be bad but it will improve, and trust in your voice as a writer and what you have to say. Also write down every idea you have; not all of them will turn into something, but the ones you keep coming back to are the ones you have to write. And listen to your characters. It sounds strange, but when you truly know your characters, they will tell you what their story is, and you just need to listen and write it down. It makes writing so much easier. And once you have something you’re proud of, send it to as many theatres as you can.

Do critics and other creatives presume that you are writing autobiographically, because you are a woman?

Often, yes. While a lot of my writing might contain aspects of things that are autobiographical, or part of the narrative might come from something I want to say based on my own experiences nothing I have written is fully autobiographical. I think people think, because of the ‘difficult’ issues I write about, that my writing must be autobiographical- but it’s not. I care about these themes partially because of my experiences, but when I write I don’t write myself. My characters are distinct and are purposefully not myself. I acted in The Whole Truth, a film I wrote, and some audiences assumed that the character I played was autobiographical, which it wasn’t. I had a very purposeful separation between the character’s experiences and my own. I think it’s also such a gendered thing; men can write men and be hailed as great artists, it’s never questioned if their writing is autobiographical, but as soon as a woman writes women…that question rears its head. Women can write female characters who are not themselves!

Have you written in other forms?

Yes! I started writing in short stories and short plays when I was a kid. I returned to writing when I was in New York studying my undergrad in acting- and I wrote mainly short films and poetry. I published a collection of poetry, lost and found, in 2018 and I’ve written three produced short films: Callie, The Whole Truth and (Dis)Connected. I have also been commissioned to write feature films. I also do some freelance writing, so articles and the like. I returned to writing theatre quite recently, during the pandemic, when I wrote Till It Stops. I think often how the idea comes to me will dictate the form: some ideas I just know are for screen, while others are definitely for stage.

What are your top tips for emerging female playwrights/creatives/performers who have not had formal training?

Make work. Whether that be writing and creating a short film or play with friends, doing a one woman show, submitting for a short play night- you learn so much by doing and you can meet potential collaborators and get an understanding of what your voice is. Use social media to your advantage: follow people whose work you admire on Twitter or Instagram. Read plays and screenplays, work on monologues if you’re an actor- just keep doing the work because that is the most important thing. Also remember why you love it. I always try to remember why I love what I do and come back to that whenever I need or whenever self-doubt creeps in. I have it written down in my journal to read over when I need it. And don’t forget to live your life fully and have hobbies- your work only improves with life experience.

If you could go back to the beginning of your interest in theatre, what would you tell yourself?

To trust myself. To stop doubting myself, putting too much pressure on myself or putting emphasis on other people’s opinions. As soon as I unapologetically started writing and creating and acting in a way that was true to myself, as soon as I freed myself, my work improved vastly.

What are you working on next?

The Whole Truth has its East Coast premiere in Rhode Island in April, then will screen in New York in June and have its European premiere in Prague in September, where it has just won some awards which is an unbelievable honour. And Till It Stops is having its first performance- yes, live theatre with a live audience! - in New York in April, so I’m really looking forward to that (cheering it on from London since the pandemic has curtailed any travel plans for now). I’m also writing some new things; a couple of short films, a series, and I’m planning to write another play. I will be filming a few projects in the coming weeks, including a short film I’m writing, for my Acting for Screen Masters.

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