Paula Matthews is one of our #12NOW writers: a children’s author, playwright and theatre director. She is the founder of Marginal Theatre and editor of The Launchpad Journal, which showcases new writing for children in Northern Ireland/Ireland, and recently became the new Director of the Northern Ireland Mental Health Arts and Film Festival (NIMHAFF). Lagan Online talks to her about her work and finds out about her forthcoming poetry collection with Lapwing.
How has the reaction been to you being announced as one of Lagan Online’s 12NOW writers?
That’s been really exciting. A lot of people have messaged me to say congratulations, and people I’ve worked with have sent emails, so it was nice because it seems to generate goodwill, which is obviously a very positive thing.
You’re very talented, working in a lot of different avenues – theatre, poetry, children’s writing, prose, etc – but could you tell us a little bit about your background to start off with?
My background, although I am an artist, is really in social work. I worked for eleven years looking after children, but I needed creativity. I wasn’t doing any creative writing, so I got into poetry, and this developed into the poetic form of writing plays, and getting to know lots of different artists and connecting with NIMHAFF.
There is a thread running through all of my work, which is mental health. It’s no secret that I have suffered from anxiety, which is just part of who I am. I get a lot of recovery from art, and talking to other artists about de-stigmatisation, so that was the beginning of my practise as an artist.
Coming from that background of working with children, it has obviously influence your own writing for children, and as editor of The Launchpad. Is mental health a consideration in that genre as well?
It has become something I have tried to develop. Most of the stories I wrote for In Touch were about communication, so I suppose that was the foundation for an awareness of mental health. The stories might be about getting confused, gender, or your daddy knows what birthday cake you want, but you haven’t told him – things like that. At the moment, I am trying to darken down my children’s writing, if that doesn’t sound too depressing! Sometimes I think I underestimate what children can take, so I’ve been reading a lot of authors like David Almond and Bernadine Everisto. They write quite hard-hitting stuff, but it would be for teenagers and young adults.
What I would really love to do it write for looked after children, but deal with the real issues in a way they can connect with. I’m currently developing that and reading as much as I can, but it is an ongoing process. I wrote a book recently, for five to nine year olds, about a child that was being brought up by his grandmother; but I’m revisiting and reediting that now, realising that you don’t need to wrap children in cotton wool in your writing. It’s a tendency to protect children, but sometimes writers can take it too far, and I think I’ve been guilty of that.
In regards to Marginal Theatre (an theatre company formed in June 2015, supporting untold stories, with particular interest in supporting females in theatre), how has your work formed on that front?
I have written a play for adults called ‘Echoes’, which I received a SIAP award from the Arts Council to develop. It’s about the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus, where Echo ends up only ever speaking other people’s words; so again, it’s about communication and agency and those sort of issues that relate to mental health. The Arts Council very kindly gave me a mentorship with Jo Egan, who is a theatre director, and I’ve been meeting with other directors on how to bring the play forward. So hopefully, I will be able to make an application for funding further development, workshopping, and eventually, it will be ready for production!
As far as your own work goes, will you be sticking to the writing side, or would you like to touch upon producing and directing as well?
I’m very interested in directing and stagecraft, so fortunately, through NIMHAFF, we are going to get to do a little bit of that. We have some monologues about eating disorders, which I am ecstatically delighted about.
I would love to give dramaturgical support to new writers who maybe have a mental health issue, or a looked after child, or who have come out of prison, the sort of people who have been marginalised. So if I could get enough experience to be a bona fide dramaturg, I would be over the moon.
You mentioned a little about the therapeutic side of writing and art, and how communication is a key theme. What kind of personal benefits do you feel you’ve got from your practise?
I think making a transition into thinking of myself as an artist has been very good for my self-esteem. I wrote a collection of poems, The Shadow Behind Me, which are being published by Lapwing in the next few weeks. At the time I wrote that, my children were babies. I suppose I had a bit of postnatal depression, or I was coming out of that, so I wrote about those experiences, which is very cathartic, but also, people connect with it. To realise you are not the only one is very therapeutic.
Being active in so many areas, and having recently taken on the directorship of NIMHAFF, you’re obviously very keen to get your work out there. What do you feel is your main drive behind all of this?
I think I am searching for that art that beings people out of the margins, the democratisation of the arts. I’m bringing art into prisons in my own way through my work with The Reader, and the festival is very much about diversity and challenging stigmas. I do a lot, but I just can’t stop!
The idea of collaboration is clearly important in your work. With the Lapwing collection coming out, as poetry is usually a solitary enterprise, did you find a difference in your personal approach?
I get real pleasure in being able to edit my own work, and I can be quite savage. When you are working collaboratively, you have to be very careful that you don’t edit a person’s voice out of the work. The Lapwing collection is very much of my own experiences, and some of the short stories I’ve written have little glimpses of my childhood or something similar, so it is quite personal then. But in writing plays, because it is more collaborative and you are working with actors, it broadens out into a bigger perspective, and there is great pleasure in all of those approaches.