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Ask Me Anything - In Conversation with Co-Director Jemma McDonnell

March 23, 2020

Ask Me Anything is a play about us. It is about our stories; our grievances; our experiences; our memories. The Paper Birds Production Company use verbatim stories to create a deeply personal play with themes of self-expression, peer pressure, sisterhood, and youth suicide. The immersive play is a “loud, live, love song” to the universal feeling of not having it all figured out. Combining 90’s décor, sensitive stories, and bold acting, Ask Me Anything is an ode to every generation; “what we [young people] can teach the next generation and what they can teach us”.

 

The Company asked today’s young people to write in, and truly ask them anything, with nothing off limits. So, I asked, specifically, Jemma McDonnell (Co-Director of The Paper Birds) anything and everything about the creation of Ask Me Anything, from its vulnerable nature to its diverse musicality.

 

 

It’s almost as if the audience and the play have a mutual connection, they play off of each other. What was it like directing a play of this nature?

 

Jemma: We [The Paper Birds] have a history of using other people’s stories and experiences in our work. Ask Me Anything is fact not fiction. A play that relies on real-life stories is powerful because each person responds differently to it and the investment in it is completely different. The audience really connect to the stories being told; they sympathise, they laugh, and they see themselves in the work. As a director, it’s an honour and a responsibility to direct a play of this nature because it’s someone’s actual story that they’re living.

 

 

What is the significance of placing verbatim material within the script? 

 

I think sometimes you need to hear people in their own words: how they articulate themselves, how they describe themselves. That’s the power of verbatim. The stories have been spoken in a particular way, so they’re not edited. We’ve also put that into the music. At the end of the play there’s a verbatim song, which uses snippets of the letters as lyrics.

 

 

You said that what really struck you “was the absolute honesty and vulnerability within the letters” from people. Was that always the goal of Ask Me Anything? To create a space of genuine conversation?

 

You never really know what you’re going to get, until you get it. We didn’t know the contents of the letters before we had received them. To be honest, we got a real mix - so, we didn’t try to manipulate what we had to only show one perspective. A lot of the letters are funny, a lot of them are relaxed, and a section of them are darker and more serious. Our goal was always to create a show that reflected that exactly.  

 

 

As a young person myself, what can I expect from the play? What is the message you want young people to take away?

 

I think the overriding message is about how can we talk to each other. It’s a reminder that you don’t always have to hide what you’re feeling. It shows that adults aren’t these perfect creatures and there’s no end point to happiness, like when you get enough money. The play highlights the complexities of growing up.

 

 

What was it like to work with Rosie Doonan?

 

She’s amazing! A really versatile performer. She’s performed with Chris Martin, but she’s also been in rock-bands – similarly, she didn’t just bring one style. She’s written multiple songs which are all quite different. The play itself takes a journey and I think the music should reflect that. The last song is more punk, and some songs are more upbeat. She writes to reflect the mood of the scenes.

 

 

The play is a reflection of the messiness, chaos, and vulnerability of real life. The ‘Agony Aunt’ approach is interesting because it’s as if the audience feels comforted and advised.

 

In many ways, we’re encouraging the audience to take up the role of an Agony Aunt. The audience can’t help thinking about their own teenage life, and so they also jump between being a teenager and an agony aunt. There’s that option, in a way. It’s as if we’ve made a show for different people, it invites sympathy and criticism, and the audience is encouraged to give it. It was a difficult piece to construct because we knew we had such a diverse audience, but it’s interesting because each person can take something different from the play.

 

-

 

This is a play about the Agony Aunts (The Company) speaking to their audience at Chats Palace. Ask Me Anything’s verbatim stories reflect the complexity of a community that has responded, and the play invites us to see their world through their words.

 

[Ask Me Anything is currently suspended but for latest updates, follow @ThePaperBirds]

 

 

 

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