The next interview in our stagey chat series, is with writer and filmmaker, Sophie Stemmons. Sophie's latest play, Second Temple, is running at the Riverside Studios from 12th to 18th February 2024 as part of the Bitesize Festival.

Get yourself comfy and join us for the next segment of Stagey Chat!

Hi Sophie, thank you so much for chatting to Stage to Page today. Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell us how you first got into writing?

Hi, thanks for having me! I’m Sophie, a writer and filmmaker based in London. I’ve been writing bit and bobs for as long as I can remember, and wrote a play in school as part of the National Theatre New Views playwriting scheme (I shudder to think what I would think of it were I to re-read it now!). It was only once I got to uni that I started to build proper confidence in my writing, and consider it as something I might be able to do going forward. At uni, I threw myself into the comedy scene and quickly found a love for writing comedy. I wanted to be a part of making people laugh.

Second Temple is due to open on 12th February at Riverside Studios. Can you tell us more about the play?

Second Temple is a dark(ish) comedy in two acts about love, loss and Jewish idiosyncrasies. It follows one multigenerational immigrant family as they grapple with their grief following the death of the beloved family grandfather. For me, this play is all about home - what that means and who it connects us to. In the Jewish diaspora, this can be about harmonising ancestral and adopted cultures, and so forming a hybrid that is both and yet not quite either. One thing I love about comedy is its potential for engaging audiences with difficult subject matter. Second Temple uses comedy to connect audiences with a group of people dealing with grief and intergenerational trauma, and make those themes digestible whilst still allowing for a good laugh along the way. 

The themes of this play are incredibly important. What inspired you to bring this story to life, and then to the stage?

Second Temple is semi-autobiographical in that the experiences of the family grandmother, Leah, closely mirror those of my own grandmother. My grandmother was born in Baghdad in what was then a large and flourishing Iraqi-Jewish community. Her early years saw the Farhud which was followed by a forced expulsion of Jewish people from Baghdad in the early 50s. My grandmother’s tale is one I have found to be little told as many British representations of Jewish people focuses on the Ashkenazi community. As wonderful as those representations are, I wanted to throw a Sephardic story into the ring.  I also wanted to explore Jewish narratives outside London - Jewish communities exist all over the country, and my own family is from Leicester. Jewish culture is rich and varied, and includes a lot of subcultures. This is an account of one of those lesser-represented subcultures. My grandmother reckoned with hybridising her Baghdadi, Jewish and British experiences until the end of her life, and I wanted to make sure this story had somewhere to be. For me, theatre was the obvious choice. Theatre is immediate and full of life in a way no other medium is. I wanted to create a link of emotional intimacy between audience and characters. In inviting the audience into the family’s household, I hope they are able to connect with this story on an embodied human level. Actually in this production, Leah is played by my own mum! After a long hiatus from acting, she is thrilled to get back on stage to revive this side of her heritage. Theatre means different creative voices come into the text at different stages, and it means a lot that my mother can also be part of the creative journey this time around. For me, this really adds a layer to the idea of keeping cultural narratives alive.

From rehearsed readings, to a run in Cambridge - is there anything about Second Temple that has changed along its journey?

I would say a lot! At the beginning, it was more of a straight comedy with some hints at history, whereas I have paid a lot more attention to the history in the Riverside production. We started with a rehearsed reading - as a play with only two scenes, this was an invaluable way for me to really get a grip on the pace and flow of the piece. Soon after, I was very honoured to win an award for Second Temple, which included a 3-day run in Cambridge. There were not many changes between the reading and this production - aside from some tweaking, I wanted to give the original a real run on its feet. I loved that production, and the cast and crew were truly incredible. The actors portrayed the characters in a completely different way than the reading, which gave me a real sense of the directions all the characters could go. For Second Temple’s London run, I really workshopped the script with my wonderful Director and Producer, Mimi Pattinson and Maddie London, to draw out the most interesting and emotive parts of the play. There is definitely more history in it now, that’s the main thing. I think partly that is because my grandmother sadly passed away in the meantime, and I wanted to make sure her history was not lost. Storytelling as a means of recording history is an ancient part of Jewish tradition. Dark comedy has also become something of a hallmark of Judeo-British identity - so what better way to preserve my grandmother’s story than to combine the two?

I understand that the piece reflects on what home means to different generations of the same family. How did you go about making this feel authentic and believable? 

Great question! Partly, I think this came from channelling different members of my own family in early versions. Though the characters have completely transformed since, this foundation in reality has remained. My personal experience has shown me how ancestral culture can be lost throughout generations, and how older people often respond to this by relaying culturally-specific narratives and traditions. So, in Second Temple, Leah loses a connection to her homeland when she loses her husband, and reacts by telling her children and grandchildren about Baghdad. Sarah and David have less access to their Iraqi-Jewish culture than Leah. Inevitably, growing up in Britain has led to a Britifcation of their identity. This is compounded by cultural distancers such as their inability to speak Hebrew. The final generation is the grandkids, all of whom have an even more diluted experience of their cultural heritage. That said, there are aspects of it they cling on to and transform to fit their everyday, such as Bathsheba’s use of traditional Jewish music in her DJ sets. To answer your original question, it came down to tracing this thread of heritage down from Leah to the grandkids, and considering step-by-step which cultural aspects would be lost and which would remain as tokens of their identities. Since Judaism is traditionally matrilineal, I paid special attention to drawing a direct line from Leah through Sarah to Rachel, thinking about how each would understand their cultural identity based on their own experiences as well as their perceptions of each other’s experiences. And then it came to considering how death might fit into this - if the family member most set on maintaining ancestral family culture is lost, how do other family members react to fill this void? How does this affect their spouse, children, grandchildren differently? I know that losing my grandparents made me feel closer to their culture, oddly, because I thought about it then more than ever before. 

Are you currently working on any other projects? If so, we'd love to hear a little more, if you can tell us…

My main other project at the moment is a short film called Troubled Water, which I wrote and directed. It is a brief encounter with two young people grieving the loss of a peer, and is currently in post-production. In lighter news, I currently have one comedy short (The Littlest Student) doing the festival circuit, and am in the early stages of developing another (Herman the German) with the incredibly funny comedian, Libby Thornton. In terms of playwriting, I am in the development stages of my next script. It is a coming of age in a legal court in small-town Missouri but it is very very early days and so that’s about all the information I can give you at the moment!

My blog is called Stage to Page. But if you could turn any book, from page to stage, what would it be and why?

This is SUCH a difficult question. I’ve racked my brains about it and have decided that my answer is On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. It is a compelling narrative interspersed with forays into beautifully abstract poetics, which I can see becoming incredible non-naturalistic sequences in a stage show. It is a book about the fluidity and flux of experiencing space as an immigrant, and I can see the stage being a stunning place to meld together the disparate spaces the book draws together. To anyone reading this - I highly recommend a read! 

And finally, what do you hope audiences take away from the show, and why should they book a ticket to Second Temple?

Second Temple is obviously about a Jewish family, and I want to share my culture with the audience - but I like to think there’s a little something in there for everyone. Family can be difficult and aggravating, but so often lies at the heart of what we consider to be our home and our identity. I like to think there’s funny quirks in it we all can relate to - whether it be the hippie cousin, wine mum, or fuckboy brother. That said, I also hope this play encourages people to think about how identity might be refracted through generations of an immigrant family, and what impact this might have on individual members’ senses of self. But perhaps this is all a bit heavy. At the end of the day, Second Temple is a comedy, and it was written to make people laugh. The opportunity to laugh is no small thing - I hope audiences leave cackling, and the chance to do so is why people should book a ticket to this show. 

You can buy tickets to see Second Temple at Riverside Studios, here.

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