Mary Jane Wells lets us in on the story of how Heroine went from one individual's real life experiences to an acclaimed stage show, why survivor humour is so important and how the show's post show discussions offer audiences something quite different.
Mary is a writer and performer who worked in Scottish theatre for 12 years before splitting her time between LA and Manchester. She is known for her work in How To Train Your Dragon 2, Dr Strange, Paddington and HBO’s The Newsroom.
1. Heroine is based on the experiences of a real member of the US Army, Danna Davis, and her experiences. How did you discover her and her story?
I met a mutual friend of hers on a film set. They had written a screenplay together and her friend asked me if I would read it as they were thinking of me for one of the parts. I was really touched and so did, and thought ‘This feels like a true story’. The script did not take off, regrettably, but I had gradually got to know Danna directly through the process and we became pals. I said to her, ‘I’m not famous, and I can’t get this made at the level it needs to be seen - is there a chance you would let me do my own version for theatre?’ - she said ‘Go for it!’. That was 2011.
2. What’s it like to create a piece of drama so closely informed by real experience – what are the challenges and benefits?
The benefits are huge, personally. And I think, for Danna too. I have seen the show form part of a ritual milestone for her healing process which I cannot put a value on. I feel extremely privileged to do this show and be so trusted. The period coming up to a performance is still a difficult time for Danna, but the way it is received has meant that it puts the past in a different place somehow. I think that seeing, hearing and experiencing the audience’s reaction is very important - I try to video it for her and connect her with the audience as much as I can, as experiencing the permission the show gives to others who make their own disclosures seems to be important. We received a letter which said ‘This play gives me hope for what I went through’ and I still can’t read it without crying.
Our working rubric was that it could only be healing for her - and this was a challenge after a certain number of years. We put the show down for a year at one point. It was professionally precarious in the first few years for anyone else to be involved.
More generally, one of the greatest benefits I think is that Heroine provided a safe place for survivors to disclose without forcing them into the public arena, and to begin a commitment to their healing journey by breaking their own silence. The play gives some sort of permission in its message to come forward, that assault and trauma of many kinds can be survivable. We received a deluge of disclosures on a ‘brown envelope’ page set up for people to talk directly to our therapist and to Danna during our run at Fringe in 2018, reviewed for triggering content before it was forwarded to her. Some from people we knew, who had never mentioned it to us before, some from industry peers, some total strangers. One from a perpetrator. Our therapist from Safe to Say had direct contact with many audience members who had seen Heroine and had partnered with them for support to work through difficult feelings that arose from watching. I knew I would stress-test an audience with Danna’s story; that through this process I was also investigating resiliency. Our first run was an important process to gauge how to remain faithful to the content, without overwhelming. I now feel it is difficult for some survivors to watch, even though it is for them. I've realised Heroine reaches out to survivors during the show, but on a broader scale is ‘for’ those who do not understand the survivor experience. It was always my plan to throw the play into the world like a compassion grenade, but God save us from writers who try to be Noble. All the Heroine team work by also creating a place for laughter and lightness with all of it. Survivor humour is essential: for us too.
3. Can you tell us a bit about the tone of the final show when the topics it deals with are so serious?
It’s both comic and serious, in way which I hope gets to the heart of the subject and gives it the dignity and respect it deserves.
The comedy comes from survivor humour - which is some of the darkest, crackliest, most hilarious stuff - it’s important to me to identify it, so that survivors are known for this also, and are never depicted as figures of tragedy. It’s also an artistic pressure valve built into the show’s fabric so that the audience is not overwhelmed.
4. Each of the performances is followed by a Q&A on a different topic, which is quite unusual– why have you decided to do this?
I always thought my job as writer and performer was to tell Danna's story it in all of its colours, that this piece should absolutely not push any overt political or legislative agenda. I believe in letting art be art, despite how tempting it is to support trauma-informed legislation. Plus, no-one goes to the theatre to be told what to do. In participating in her story this way, I have come to be more educated, and it is outside the play where i became an activist for zero tolerance and zero occurrence of MST (military sexual trauma).
The show deals with the art and the Q&As provide a platform for debate and activism. As silence dogs the subject of sexual violence, opening up for transparent and direct conversation about it is very important to me. Listening to the audience is vital. Contributing as much as possible to the doors it opens is not just part of my responsibility for audience care - it is the soul of the show. The show brings you on a journey but the post show talks are both an opportunity to let the audience decompress and share, and to engage with experts on the wider, topical subjects the show raises.
5. How do you hope audience feel having watched the show?
Transformed (lofty, I know). Hopeful. Ready for a nap - in a good way!
6. If you had to describe Heroine in 3 words, what would they be?
The words of the lighting designer are ‘heart and heft’. To that I would add ‘fire’.
7. How does it feel to be performing at the Traverse?
A wild dream come true. I’ve always wondered if that day would come and pinch myself when I realise it has!
8. What are your favourite Edinburgh haunts?
Rollos in Stockbridge, Ting Thai Caravan, the National Museum of Scotland.
9. What’s the best piece of advice you think you’ve been given, either as a writer or performer?
It not going to come from the outside. That your vulnerability, where you most want to hide, is where the creative gold is. So go there and figure out how to create from it. Be bold, be brave, be beautiful - and be brief!
10. What 5 things would definitely be in your kit bag?
Four complete sets of ‘impress your neighbours’ fireworks and a bag of wine gums.