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First-time playwright Anna Longaretti on breaking into the theatre world with comedy drama SEX CELLS

Set in a busy call centre selling sex toys, Sex Cells is a bittersweet comedy drama that explores motherhood through the relationships and rivalries of four women and their manager, Mr Causeway.

Sex Cells is Anna Longaretti’s first foray into theatre-writing, after 22 years as a hair and make-up artist working on fashion shoots with the legendary likes of Mario Testino and Nick Knight. She has also written for TV and film and began honing her craft in 1992 by studying with renowned British playwright Bernard Kops.

Sex Cells is produced by new company Coy Content, which is run by Longaretti and her husband, commercials director Mark Denton. It is on at Riverside Studios from now until 27 October.

A few days into the show’s run, I spoke with Longaretti about putting the challenges of motherhood on stage in Sex Cells, both writing and producing the play, the joy of changing career paths and the importance of perseverance when it comes to achieving your ambitions.

What inspired Sex Cells?

Having a child. The feelings I had before I had a child, having a child, bringing a child up and then trying to let go. I have one daughter.

Why the call-centre setting?

For a couple of reasons. I used to do a lot of improv; it wasn’t stand-up comedy, we tried to create a whole play out of nothing. We’d just practise scenes and I saw one between a guy and two girls. He was being a taskmaster, and it was a sex-line call centre. I really liked that premise. I’ve been writing for years and you read all of the books and they say put your protagonist in a difficult situation. Sylvie is trying to conceive – she’s having IVF – and I thought, well, if sex becomes something you have to do at a certain time, three times a day, on these two days… you hear people talk about how that becomes so unloving, and even a chore. I thought that if I put her in a call centre and people are ringing up because they want to enhance the fun they’re having with sex, it would put her in quite a difficult place.

Sex and motherhood are still such socially loaded subjects, aren’t they?

Absolutely. That’s integral to the play. There’s this thing that we do that results in a child, and yet so much of our society is about how to have a great sex life – and that you’re not really a good enough person if you haven’t got a great sex life.

Do you explore the pressure on women to be mothers?

Oh yes, that’s definitely in the play. There are about four strands I explore, including the dream of wanting a child, the need to have one. But when the child is born… I don’t want to give the ending away, but a woman is faced with a baby and, of course, what happens is that the baby’s need ends up superseding everything. That’s what happened to me. I thought, ‘Oh, I want a baby and it’ll be like this, and I’ll go to work after three months and I’ll do X, Y and Z.’ I was really quite shocked – and this will sound ridiculous – that she wasn’t me. She was an individual!

What role does comedy play in the story?

This play is really emotional. People who have seen it are saying that it’s touching them very deeply. Mothers are saying that they’re going to go home and ring their children. They’re thinking about it afterwards. And if you don’t put comedy in… first and foremost I think the job of a playwright is to entertain. There’s a lot of heavy topics in there, but they aren’t delivered – hopefully – in a heavy way. People have talked about being on a rollercoaster ride when they’re watching it. Comedy makes the heavy stuff palatable.

How did the play end up at Riverside Studios?

Because they had a space, and you pay for it. Nobody tells you what you can and can’t put on there. Because if I was waiting for that, it still wouldn’t be showing. They’ve been great. With the Mother and Baby showing, we had cake-selling, book-signings… we’ve been given a lot of freedom.

Was it important to you to have a mother and baby performance?

Yes, because I want to make the play as inclusive as possible. I felt quite isolated when I had my daughter. I didn’t really have friends around me who were having children. I had no yardstick. Were my feelings normal? I’d been successfully self-employed, where you only get a job if your last job was good enough. You don’t get rebooked unless you’re completely professional. You’ve got all your gear, you never say anything is impossible. You always deliver. And then you have a baby and you can’t even get out of the house until 4pm because you’ve got to feed her, wash her, change her and then wash you, dress you, feed you – and then she needs changing again. I thought my life was over! So it was a big shock to me. It would have been good to know that those feelings weren’t that unusual. That’s all in the play.

Sex Cells’ set-up and online trailer could belong to a TV comedy drama. Would you agree?

Everyone who’s seen it says they can see it on the TV or radio. My first teacher was the playwright Bernard Kops, but theatre wasn’t my first medium. Over the years I’ve read all of the books, done loads of courses and ended up writing for film and TV. Finally, I just got to the point where I thought, ‘Well, I could actually write something and have it made.’ The trailer was written by my husband and shot by Fern Berresford, who works for Coy. And we garnered lots of favours from Speade on editing, Moving Picture Company and Pure Soho on sound.

How did all of these people come to be involved?

From my years in film, I knew some people. And my husband is in advertising. He was an ad man and now he’s a TV commercials director. A lot of people from the advertising world have been supportive. I’ve had a digital billboard at Hammersmith Roundabout, for free. Dave Dye, who’s one of the top creatives in London, wrote me five ads for it. I don’t even know if Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber gets a digital billboard!

Why did you move from writing for TV to writing for the stage?

I can’t complain about how tough it was in TV. I’ve never got myself a literary agent because I’ve been too scared of rejection. I’d been writing for years and I would submit something to, say, the BBC, and they wouldn’t read past the first ten pages. I was so disheartened by that, but I carried on. I’d always had a yearning to have my work heard and I knew I could put it on above a pub somewhere and act it myself. That seemed accessible, because I could do it myself. When I’d written Sex Cells, the first person I let read it was my daughter, who said, ‘Mum, I think you’re onto a winner’. And she’s always been really honest with me. I felt like I’d got the structure right, too. I just believed in it so much.

What happened next?

I had a rehearsed reading, saw the audience’s reaction and realised that the play was better quality than my acting, so I started to look around for actors. I sent the play everywhere – all the places that would take new writing – and nobody was interested. I can’t really believe now that my drive was so strong, to continue to make it happen. But basically between my husband and myself, we did. And then we were lucky enough that the director of the first rehearsed reading was looking for something for someone else. He asked what was happening with the play. Until that point, we hadn’t been able to find a director – or a producer.

Is that why you started you own company, Coy Content?

My husband runs Coy Communications, so we opened up Coy Content for that reason, yes. Personally, I don’t ever want to produce again. I’ve really trained to be a writer but I did no training whatsoever to be a producer. The fact that I’ve managed to produce what I have done, is – for me – a miracle! And it’s been really, really tough. But I can’t really knock myself. I’d never done it before. It’s just not what I want to do! So whatever we do next, I won’t be producing. Actually, we’d like to write a musical. My daughter did the music for Sex Cells, so hopefully we’ll rope her in again. It’ll be a proper family production.

Earlier you mentioned being taught by Bernard Kops. How has he influenced your work?

He was my first writing teacher – and I’ve had lots – and he had such a direct manner. He takes no prisoners. The first thing he got us to write was, ‘You’re a grandparent and a grandchild. You’re meeting one another and one of you has kept a secret from the other’. We had ten minutes to write it. The first person got up to read what they’d written, and it started ‘Hello, Granddad’. Bernard went, ‘No!! People don’t talk to each other like that. You have to listen to people.’ I got a lot from that. Sometimes you just need it between the eyes.

Was transitioning full-time to the relatively solitary lifestyle of a writer difficult?

I had definitely grown tired of what I was doing. It wasn’t to do with doing hair and make-up. It was to do with travelling to unknown locations, being in the freezing cold, working really long hours and not knowing when you were going to wrap. I’d had enough of that after ten years. But I had to wait 22 years until I could stop. So I haven’t missed that, at all. But writing is lonely. It’s taken me years and years to learn how I should work. It’s like training a muscle. I am sociable, so a great week for me is if I write for two hours a day and manage to have coffee with a friend.

What are your hopes for Sex Cells?

I’d love someone to tour with it. I would be happy to adapt it for TV or radio. I’d just be happy for it to have a life outside this run. I would still like mainstream press and producers to come to see it. We’re still working really hard to get that.

Sex Cells is at Riverside Studios until 27 October. For more information, and to buy tickets, see: http://www.riversidestudios.co.uk/cgi-bin/page.pl?l=1370425036.






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OffWestEnd.com is a United Kingdom (UK) based company serving the international, the UK and London based theatres and theatre goers.
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Registered office address: OffWestEnd.com Ltd., 19 Eugene Cotter House, Beckway Street, London SE17 1QS United Kingdom - Company Registration No. 5308910



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