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Oscar Wilde, the 70s, and psychiatrists: The Importance of Being Nihilists

Cherwell Stage interviews the writer of 'The Importance of Being Nihilists', Anna Stephen.

What made you want to write the play?

I drafted an initial, much shorter version of the play in Year 13 while studying The Importance of Being Earnest for A Level. I wrote all the parts with my classmates in mind, and at the time it was just a bit of a laugh. Last term, when I was dipping a tentative toe into Oxford drama, I discovered that all you had to do to put on a play was get a bid together. I thought I could rewrite Nihilists and put out a call for a crew…and that’s what ended up happening!

How has the rehearsal process been?

It’s been fantastic: great fun and I’ve learnt so much from it. We started with a Zoom readthrough just before Christmas (after I had panic-written the rest of the play in the week after coming back from the Varsity trip). We then started online rehearsals in the new year. We spent 0th week, 1st week and 2nd week fitting rehearsals around the schedules of eight cast members (relying a LOT on When2meet and Exeter’s Cohen Quad). The cast are all brilliant and we get along really well – it’s always fun thinking of new warm-up games, and I often leave rehearsals feeling like I’ve had a decent ab workout from laughing.

How has the pandemic affected the process of putting the show together?

It’s definitely had an impact on my blood pressure. But in all seriousness, I didn’t really consider that having a cast of eight would significantly increase the risk. We’ve had to be extra careful in the weeks leading up to the show: wearing masks in rehearsals and making sure no one gets too close to one another (which proves tricky when trying to coordinate a fight scene). It’s a shame when people have to pull out due to Covid, and my heart goes out to all the other productions in the same situation. It’s stressful, but you can get around a surprising number of things if you’re determined enough.

Any fun rehearsal stories?

It’s always fun doing ridiculous warm-ups. We all became particularly fond of ‘What Are You Doing?’, a game that involves walking around the room until someone points to someone else and asks, ‘What are you doing?’. Some bizarre scenarios have ensued from this, including a casual conversation with an electrician happening at the same time as a story about killer seeds taking over the world. Rehearsing a scene in the style of a teen high school movie was also hilarious. And I always look forward to blocking the scenes involving throwing Lucas into a piano.

What has your favourite part of the process been so far?

Meeting so many brilliant people. Whether that’s chugging coffee with crew members, spending 80% of my time on Facebook Messenger, or watching the cast giggle their way through the final act, it’s always about the people.

What makes this project unique?

The play is inspired by Oscar Wilde, his wit and his words…but Nihilists goes in many different directions. It’s sprinkled with anachronism, so watch out for 70s song lyrics and hippies reminiscing about the good old days. Although the play has its fair share of farce (we’ve got psychiatrists being transported inside pianos, very quick costume changes, and a lot of panic), at the end of the day the play is about who we are as people. It digs into some of the most important things we have to face in our lives. Sexuality, family, the education system, the way we judge others and ourselves. It’s tough to navigate life and love.

Describe the show in three words.

Pianos; deception; triviality (or is it seriousness?)

What advice would you give to those wanting to write/direct a show in Oxford?

Even if you don’t think there will be time, or you’re a bit unsure about your idea…go for it. Oxford drama has AMAZING resources and there will always be people enthusiastic about your project who want to get involved. I had never directed anything before this, and despite watching some National Theatre behind-the-scenes videos in pure fear before the first rehearsal, I realised that once you’re in the room with the actors, there’s no ‘right way’ to do it. The whole team, both cast and crew, work together to create something that everyone is proud of. As for the writing, there’s so much new writing popping off at the moment and always room for more – now is the time to get that project out there!

Why should people see the play?

If you want slapstick, wit, high energy, role doubling, love in many forms, a dash of seriousness, secrets and lies, vibrant costumes, bizarre but very human characters, and ultimately a good laugh…this is the play for you!

Image Credit: Sophie Magalhaes

The Importance of Being Nihilists ran at the BT Studio from 1-5 February.

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