16 Days Interview with
Jen Sutton

Why be a playwright? Has writing always been something you intended to do, or was there a significant turning point in your life that motivated you?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was 15/16, and I was writing these episodes of a sitcom idea that I had, about high school students hanging out and enjoying life, and I was writing this show while in the early years of my depression as an escape, but I found the escape to be something I’m really good at creating. So I set my sights on studying Creative and Professional Writing at QUT after I graduated, and six years after graduating from high school I finally made it. Being a playwright feels like the right path. I had several years of theatre experience, high school and community, on-stage and off, and a deep fascination with the scripts. I could tell which ones were tired and stale, and which ones were important and well-crafted, and I wanted to create something which would make for an interesting show. I originally tried to write a superhero musical, sort of like ‘Mystery Men’ with pre-existing songs, it was a really ugly shithouse and I’m glad I stopped after one scene. Cut to present day, and a play about me and my mental wellbeing is about to be performed, I’m screaming.

What are the playwrights or poets you take inspiration from?
Sylvia Plath, Jeet Thayil, N. Scott Nomaday, Anne Sexton, and Michael Leunig are wonderful poets who have especially had an effect on me this year. I’m not particularly familiar with any playwrights aside from John Patrick Shanley and Shakespeare, but I remember the writer of ‘Calendar Girls’ wrote a supportive letter to the cast and crew of our community production back in Bundaberg circa 2012, so they’re aces in my book.

Why should people come and see 16 days…?
Fortunately, I’ve been listening to my cast and people who have helped bring the show together, and one of the things that makes this show important is the fact that no other show has plumbed these depths in such an explicit and comfortable fashion. Everyone wants to make a show about gender or mental health issues, but they wrap it up in arty subtleties so that an audience has to perceive it instead of confront it. This show is honest about the issues that we discuss, about living with mental health issues and being transgender, and the show is not afraid to bear its heart and try to get audiences to understand and empathise. I’ve heard the script described as ‘radical’, and not in the teenage mutant ninja turtle fashion. Also, my cast is incredible, so you gotta see them shine.

Without giving too much of the plot away, why is mental illness an important topic to discuss on stage?
It’s important to discuss mental illness because it is an active killer in our society. I’ve recently had to experience a friend of mine writing a final post on Facebook and trying to kill herself, and she lives far away so I had no way to comfort her except through Messenger. She’s someone who has had a rough childhood and really struggled over the last decade to come to grips with her mental health, and she deserves to have her experiences represented on stage. She deserves a moment of catharsis where she gets to see herself and her daily struggles and know that it’s okay to have bad weeks or bad months. Art needs to have representation of the people, of all people, especially those going through an unspeakable struggle. To speak about that struggle in an open and honest fashion means a lot to the community.

Music plays a large part in the script and I was wondering how did your love of music start?
My love for music started on road trips in the 90’s, listening to Tina Arena’s ‘Don’t Ask’ as we drove through roads in the bush, the afternoon sun blaring through the trees. My uncle on a couple of birthdays bought the So Fresh albums, back when they had actual hits and different sounds. But the moment where I really needed to hear a large diverse range of music came with this book of 1001 great songs compiled by Toby Creswell, which I first picked up just to make sure that The Offspring had a song in there (‘Come Out and Play’ made the cut, to my delight). That book’s where I discovered Nick Cave and Tom Waits and Kate Bush, and then I eventually discovered Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound. I have a library of over 14,000 songs, a fair amount I know just by listening to the first few seconds of the track. Music’s important to the show because it’s important to me, it’s how I view my world and come to terms with my emotions. Music honestly helped me feel human, during times when I really struggled to declare that I was a normal breathing person. And music helped keep me connected to who I was while I was recovering in hospital, like the simple joy of hearing Sleater Kinney on the morning radio was enough to get me through the day.

What would you say to anyone who was considering applying for MH3 next year?
The experience is honestly the most exhilarating mix of feelings. I’ve been blessed with incredible luck that everything I’ve had throughout the show has been more than I could ever have hoped for. My co-director Finn Kube has been beyond supportive, just an incredibly astute creative force who I’ve never been less than proud of; my cast were all amazing as individuals and as a collective, from their auditions and within the rehearsals they have all put in brilliant work and I’m in love with them all. My crew is filled with intelligent and wonderful people who’ve given their time and energy to helping this show become as wonderful as it is today. My advice to anyone who wants to apply next year: put everything you have into your script. I put my heart and my talent, my life and my humour, into every single page. You don’t have to make a script about your life to be considered, but if people can see that your heart beats on every page then you’ve got a great script that needs to be shared. Once you’ve got that script, make sure you’ve got someone early in the process who can help figure out the production with you, someone who knows so much about theatre and is dedicated to making your show work. Choose a cast who amazes you and makes you smile and breaks your heart, get a dedicated crew together, and rehearse the heck out of your show until you have a polished gem you can show your friends and family and strangers, who will all applaud you at the end and give you trophies and then you get a million dollars from the mayor and also a tour of the magic chocolate factory. I mean, that’s the dream, and you’ve gotta believe that it can work out for you, because that’s been my Main House 3 story.

16 Days on a Sterile Hospital Floor
at Festival of Australian Student Theatre

QACI Studio

61 Musk Ave, Kelvin Grove

Saturday 1st October | 4-5.25pm
Sunday 2nd October | 5.30-6.55pm