ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Theatre ED2016 Week0 Edition

Sarah Hehir: Zeroing in on zero hours contracts

By | Published on Saturday 30 July 2016

Zero Down

There are always shows at the Edinburgh Festival that draw on topical issues and social ills, and ‘Zero Down’ – whilst not taking a heavy-handed approach – does just that, exploring the uncertainty and difficulties faced by those on so called zero hour contracts.
The play is a three hander focusing on three women working in a care home, and has been written by up and coming playwright Sarah Hehir. I spoke to Sarah to find out more about the piece.

CM: Can you start by giving us a rough idea of what ‘Zero Down’ is all about – what’s the story you are telling?
SH: ‘Zero Down’ is the story of three women and the events that take place in one night in the basement of a rundown care home. It gets pretty dark in places but there is a warmth to their relationships and a relentless kind of energy – almost optimism – that carries the audience along. And carrying the audience along was one of my intentions when starting to write this play. I wanted to see whether I could create a character that we dislike. We might have sympathy for her situation but she says fairly despicable things. I then make her do something unforgivable, but with the aim of having the audience root for her – or at least feel less morally sure – by the end of the play.

CM: What specific themes are you exploring with this piece?
SH: It’s about how people behave when under pressure; when life isn’t going smoothly. It’s easy to behave well when things are going your way, but if you’re vulnerable emotionally and financially, what might you become capable of? It’s about people without power, options or agency and how precarious employment devalues work and the people who do it. It’s also about judgement – the judgements we make as an audience and as soundbite consumers of news through social networking sites.

CM: What inspired you to write about these themes? The focus on ‘precarious employment’ leads us to the issues that surround ‘zero hour’ contracts. Is that something you feel strongly about?
SH: I work in prisons, schools and pupil referral units where I meet people who feel they don’t have control over their lives. I’m interested in how this affects behaviour. It’s very often young people, women with children and those without formal qualifications who end up relying on temporary and zero hours contracts. I’ve worked some strange and unpleasant jobs but I’ve always known I can get out if I have to. ‘Zero Down’ is about people who can’t – people whose choices are extremely limited.

CM: Is there a message in the play? Does it seek to inform, to make a statement, as well as to entertain?
SH: I’d hate to think it makes a statement. I want the audience to be entertained, laugh, cringe, feel uncomfortable and be moved enough to leave thinking about the characters. If, through these characters and their struggles, there emerges some kind of message, I hope it would be something about the snap judgements we make. And the strange kind of society we live in right now.

CM: You did quite a bit of research into the impact zero hour contracts can have on people. What did you discover about how they affect people?
SH: Most often people spoke of hating the unknown: they couldn’t plan ahead as they couldn’t rely on a wage coming in. I spoke to people who felt that if they were critical of work practices – or even expressed an opinion – that they risked losing hours. In this precarious environment, they worried about potentially losing their home, having to take out loans from money lenders and about bad health. Again, it came back to choices or a lack of them. Feeling powerless and entirely in someone else’s control knocks confidence and self-esteem. Some people mentioned the lack of value that was put on them as workers if they could be so easily replaced.

CM: As the playwright, what is your relationship with the production in rehearsal and once it’s up and running – do you step back or do you continue to make a contribution?
SH: I have been very lucky – or careful! – to work with people who are open to the writer being a part of the process. Katie organised various readings during my early drafts so we have always been comfortable discussing language, themes and characters. And Sophie encouraged me to be at early stage rehearsals where the cast ask questions, clarify ideas and language and make suggestions. Though I’ve also learned that stepping away from the rehearsal process to some extent will allow for the piece to become richer – I like seeing what comes of a different approach or interpretation.

I didn’t think I was precious about my scripts but now I wonder if I am! Originally, Katie wasn’t sure about saying “ladders right up to my twat” and I surprised myself how fiercely I reacted: forceful in my insistence that it stayed. I craft the language carefully so I need to understand where a change is coming from before I just agree. I do often agree though and the script is better for it.

CM: Why does the play have an all-female cast of characters? Was that a conscious decision to make good roles for women, or was it just a good fit for the narrative?
SH: I wrote it for Angel On The Corner – a play to order. “Write us a good play with three female characters”, they said – so I did! My first radio play had only one female character and that was best fit in that case. I do always ask myself if there’s any reason a character can’t be female – the same as I would for race, age, sexuality and disability. Sometimes flipping expectations in my own mind opens up possibilities. It might have been interesting to play with the dynamics of introducing a male character into the basement of lies.

CM: What motivates you to write? Was this kind of career what you always wanted?
SH: I write because stories would burn a hole in my belly otherwise. I like telling stories with characters who are complex: who find themselves in situations we wouldn’t want to be in. Sometimes I write comedy but even that has an underlying social question. I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I took a strange route to it that took in frozen peas, setting up a chocolate factory and dancing in a dubious New York dive. And teaching.

CM: You’ve achieved quite a degree of success with your work, winning awards and a place on the BBC TV Drama Writers’ Programme. There are always loads of aspiring playwrights at the Fringe – what advice would you give them?
SH: Write lots. Keep writing new stuff. Write what keeps you awake at night and write honestly. Then come back and rewrite it. Then send it out into the world – open mic nights, ten minute festivals, open calls, submission windows. And be reasonably thick skinned or able to grow skin back pretty quickly.

CM: Have you had plays produced for the Edinburgh Fringe before? Are you excited about this one?
SH: Never and yes, very.

CM: Will you visit Edinburgh during the run of your play? If so, will you also be checking out some of the competition?
SH: I’m coming to Edinburgh for the first couple of days combining it with a research trip to Glasgow. I hope to help the cast and crew get the name of the play known and create some excitement about it. I’m back again with my husband for the final few days and can’t wait to see as much theatre and comedy as we can cram in.

CM: What do you hope is next for this production – do you think it will see further development?
SH: I hope it will be picked up by a theatre and have a transfer. My dream list would be Royal Exchange, Soho, Royal Court, National, Crucible…

CM: What else do you have coming up in the near future?
SH: The BBC have commissioned me to write the pilot episode of a series: a psychological thriller. It’s set in Scotland so I’m hoping to get at least some time to sit in cafes and bars during August, dreaming up scenes.

CM: Where would you hope to be in ten years’ time?
SH: I want to still feel the same about the writing I’m doing: excited, desperate, slightly nervous, but maybe get paid more for it so I can live with my husband and daughters by the sea.

‘Zero Down’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

Photo: Tom Scurr