We had the chance to interview Stewart Roche, writer of Snake Eaters ahead of its opening in the New Theatre next week. It is the tale of a US Marine returning to Nebraska from a disastrous tour of Afghanistan and struggling to adjust to civilian life.
Snake Eaters by Stewart Roche – New Theatre – Nov 30th – Dec 19th
Opens Dec 2. Previews Nov 30 & Dec 1.@ 7.30pm – Tickets: €16 (€12.50 conc.)
You only started writing in 2012, what inspired you to make the transition from actor to writer?
I think deep down I’d always wanted to write for the theatre but didn’t have the courage to make the leap, which I knew would be terrifying. With PurpleHeart, (the company I’m the artistic director of) I was constantly reading new international plays, probably 20 or more a year, usually of really high quality by people like Tracy Letts, Mike Bartlett and Annie Baker, to name just 3. I’d find their work inspiring and intimidating at the same time because it was so utterly brilliant, so genuinely touched by genius. But in later years I found myself reading certain plays from America and the UK and thinking ‘I can do that’. They were still good plays but they didn’t seem to be so far out of reach anymore. I think I always felt I could write good dialogue (usually by creating random scenes in my head, mouthing the words while walking down the street, looking a little bit like a crazy person) but plot and structure were things I knew I had to learn and still do. So I submitted a pretty rambling, fairly shambolic play into the New Theatre for their new writing week and it was accepted despite its flaws. It was invaluable as I discovered a lot about revealing information, character development, stagecraft and so much more. There was a lot wrong with the play but crucially from my point of view, there was also enough that worked to convince me that playwriting might be something worth pursuing. Though not with that particular piece, that one’s been buried in a landfill like the Atari ET game.
Is the New Theatre something of a home for you?
It really is. I’d worked there many times in the past as an actor and had a very good relationship with Anthony Fox. I’ve had nothing but happy experiences there. It’s a wonderful venue that I think has started to receive the recognition it deserves for its championing of new writing. Anthony, Karl Shiels (Theatre Upstairs) and David Horan (Bewleys) were the first people to show real belief in me as a writer so those venues will always be very close to my heart. ‘Snake Eaters’ will be my third play to have its premiere at the New Theatre in 2 years. As a writer you really couldn’t ask for much more support than that.
Where did the name ‘Snake Eaters’ come from?
It’s army parlance for a special-forces soldier. ‘Snake Eaters’ actually focuses on a Marine but I liked how it sounded, I liked the mystery of it. Titles are hard I have to say. A lot of the time I hold off until about halfway through writing the first draft and then it comes to me. Well, that’s the theory anyway.
The subject matter for this play is quite far removed from your previous work. Is this something that has been troubling you for a while?
Up to this point I’d had something of a free ride when it came to subject matter. I more or less wrote about what I wanted to and then talked to the venues. So I could write about a director making a zombie movie and mistakenly casting a vampire in ‘Revenant’ or a guy uncovering a murderous plot during the financial crisis in Dublin which was ‘Tracer’. But ‘Snake Eaters’ was the first commission I’d received as a writer and sprang from a conversation I had with Anthony Fox about Bowe Bergdahl’s experience’s in Afghanistan (He was the only American soldier taken prisoner by the Taliban). The Guardian had made a very powerful short movie about his father just before Bowe was released, which Anthony sent me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about a real-life, very much still alive person but the subject piqued my interest enough for us to continue the dialogue around a potential play. During my research about Bergdahl I came across an article in the New York Times called ‘War Torn’, which highlighted the difficulties some veteran’s had re-adjusting to civilian life. A particular fact intrigued me – the majority of people that commit a violent crime in America have some previous criminal history but most war veterans that perpetrate a homicide don’t. So in effect, this violence seems to spring out of nowhere. And yet other veterans seem to settle back into society without any outward signs of difficulty. I wanted to examine that disconnect and the play took off from there.
Did you do much research on the topic of war veterans returning to civilian life?
I researched the war in Afghanistan pretty thoroughly so naturally veterans returning home would come up. One thing I noticed, and this was really surprising, was that there were a lot of American TV shows and documentaries about the war in recent years. I suppose it’s because now both the Afghan and Iraq wars are over, there’s a desire for answers as to how these wars were conducted, to discover if they were actually worth fighting. This has prompted a lot of media coverage which in turn was of great help to me. Sebastian Junger’s visceral book ‘War’ probably had the biggest impact on the play, along with ‘Little Afghanistan’ by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Junger’s documentary ‘Restrepo’ and Ben Anderson’s ‘This is what winning looks like’ were both invaluable. The latter is on YouTube and I’d highly recommend people watch it.
How involved have you been with the rehearsal for the play? Is there much dialogue between director Caroline Fitzgerald and yourself?
I was in during the first week and am going to be in almost full time during our final week. I prefer to leave the cast and director alone initially though, to allow them a lot of freedom to explore and examine the script. I’m lucky enough to have a talented, instinctive cast that have really committed to the play and found great depth in every scene.
I speak to Caroline nearly every day. I ask that any script changes be run by me but invariably she’s right with any suggestions that she makes. Caroline has been closely involved in the development of script so I trust her completely. She’s brilliant. She’s had a lot of experience dealing with new writing over the years, particularly with Sebastian Barry, so she’s rigorous and she’s doing a fantastic job on this.
What are you working on after Snake Eyes or are you thinking that far ahead?
I’ve just finished an adaptation of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ which I’ve modernised and added to the gore content. I have been involved in the unofficial horror-theatre movement in Dublin in recent years and I was jealous of all the brilliant shows I saw at Halloween. So I want back in! Hopefully it’ll happen next October. In January I’m starting work on the screenplay of ‘Revenant’ but after that…….