Award-winning playwright Sam Brooks says New Zealand’s theatre scene is dominated by a sexist old guard who can’t write female characters. He plans to show it’s easy by writing a fresh script live on stage each night while an actress performs it.

COMMENT:

1. Is your new play Actressexual a comment on sexism in New Zealand theatre?

Absolutely. I get frustrated seeing so many talented actresses handed these lacklustre scripts where they're playing the same tired old roles of the mother or the angry wife who's wants to stop her husband having fun.

Our big stages are dominated by playwrights like Tom Scott and Roger Hall who represent a certain type of older male who believes they are liberal and that is exactly how far it should go. They haven't learned since they stopped learning back in the 80s. Because they're still in that headspace, their female characters are badly written and I believe directly harmful.

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2. What can audiences expect from this Fringe Festival show?
Each night I'll be on stage with a different actress who will start reading a monologue I've pre-prepared. While she's reading that, I'll be typing up her next monologue. It's quite scary because I have to write a completely fresh script each night worthy of 10 of our finest actresses including Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Bree Peters and Kura Forrester.

The aim is to show up those old-school playwrights: If they can't write women as whole people with all their years of experience and funding, how come I can do it in half an hour? It's both an angry show and hopefully an uplifting one.

3. What gives you the ability to write women characters well?
As a man, I can only ever write from the outside but you can learn by reading and listening and absorbing women's perspectives. My mother brought me up to note down all the books I read, films I watched and albums I heard and ensure that at least half were by women.

When I got older I realised how few men actually engage with art that's made by women and that really frames how they view women. If you don't know how women think about the world, then you can't see them as whole people or treat them equally.

4. Your plays are notable for their cracking dialogue. What gives you a good ear for the way people talk?
I've had a stutter all my life. That makes you very aware of how people talk. You spend more time listening and notice things like the way people phrase things and the habit they have of talking around things. I've found that being up front about having a stutter means that people are more likely to give me their time and their patience. It sets up an even playing field. They're like, "Well, he has a thing. That's fine."

5. You're a prolific writer. How many plays have you written since starting nine years ago?
About 27 plays so far. Actressexual is my 17th play to be staged. Last year I had three staged — Burn Her, Jacinda and Twenty Eight Millimetres in Pride. My biggest year was 2015 when I staged six shows while doing a post-graduate diploma in journalism. I was very overworked. I treat writing a bit like sport. To stay fit you need to keep practising and pushing your own boundaries. I'm still honing my skills. I don't think I've mastered writing yet.

6. Who are your writing heroes?
Simon Wilson at the Herald has the ability to make any issue, no matter how small, feel as relevant and as important as Shakespeare. Jo Randerson is talented and funny. She should be famous and have her plays performed on the big stages. The sexism infuriates me. Theatre is behind film and television in acknowledging the problem.

7. As The Spinoff's culture editor you write about music, gaming and TV. What's the most controversial column you've written?
About two years ago I posted a list of my top five favourite stand-up comedians. They were all women and the amount of vitriol I got from men: Literally hundreds of comments like, "How about Chris Rock or Ricky Gervais or Louis CK?" and "He knows nothing about comedy" and "I hate The Spinoff with all its leftie virtues". I had to say there was no conspiracy against men. I wasn't making a statement, I was just giving my opinion. I don't find men that funny, frankly, and I never have.

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8. What's your favourite show on TV at the moment?
Russian Doll on Netflix. I binge-watched the whole series the day it came out. It's about a woman who keeps dying and waking up on her birthday. It's about accepting trauma and it's really funny, dark and smart.

9. Growing up in Papakura, did you show an early interest in playwriting?
I went to Sacred Heart College, a very rugby-focused school. They did a play every year but I wasn't interested then. As the only gay boy at an all-boys Catholic school, I should have hated high school but strangely I loved it. I just had this confidence. I never got shamed or if I did I didn't notice. I first noticed I had a skill for writing dialogue randomly at age 19. I just fell into it and haven't stopped since.

10. What's the hardest project you've taken on?
Writing Jacinda, the graduate show for last year's actors' programme. I had to write a play that showcased the talents of 16 different strangers while fitting them into one overarching narrative. I'll never do something with that many parameters again.

11. Your sell-out show Burn Her exposed the inner workings of political parties. Did you do much research?
I didn't do any. I don't know anything about that world either. I just assumed that was how things would work. It's funny — so many people who work in politics told me it's exactly like I wrote it. They were sure I'd based a character on someone they know. I don't know how that happened, but it's awesome.

12. What is your next play about?
I plan to write about my mother. She was a staunch feminist. It's because of her that I am who I am. She was amazing — so strong and also absolutely monstrous. But I have only love for her. I'm an orphan, so I don't have to worry about anyone saying, "That's not how it happened."