Anna Longaretti used to be a hairdresser but now she will only style hair if it can be 'bonkers', usually for stylish and somewhat out-there photoshoots art-directed by her uber-creative husband (photos by Fern Berresford). Anna is now a playwright, and her first play, Sex Cells, is currently on at Riverside Studios until October 27th. This look at modern motherhood is set within a call centre that happens to sell sex toys. Following the stories of four women who man the phones, and their cake-munching male boss, this is both hilarious and moving. The trailer alone oozes with intrigue and dazzles with colour and sleek style, the programme is akin to the editorial of a glossy magazine. This is one sexy comic drama.
Speaking of sexy comics... You started in an improvisation group didn't you?
Anna Longaretti: It was great, we'd get on stage with nothing and see what developed. One day we did a scene with two women working somewhere, and their male boss was getting them to make sexual phone calls. The play isn't like this, but that sense of claustrophobia and built up emotion sparked off my imagination.
Is Sex Cells based on personal experience?
AL: Yes, but not the call centre. The play is completely personal; how I felt about and coped with motherhood. From the dreams I had of having a child, to now having my daughter be twenty-five and having to let go. The four female characters represent these different stages of hoping for children and having them.
What has been your journey as a mother?
AL: For me there was almost a naivety in hoping for a child, and how I'd manage that with work. Nothing can prepare you for the reality of everything you want in life now taking second place. You do everything for them, but you have to realise that you don't own your children. It struck me that my daughter was separate to me, I just had to guide her and give her the best life I could. You love them [your children] so much, and then they decide to hitchhike from Edinburgh to Morroco and worry you to death. But that overwhelming weight of responsibility is in the play, it's from my guts. It means a lot to me that my daughter, Saskia Rothstein Longaretti, does the music for Sex Cells. She is fantastic!
How does the sex-toy business setting mix with motherhood in the play?
Did you go and hang out in a sexy call centre for research?
AL: No research was done, I had to imagine the experience. I created the world I wanted to create. Though after I'd written the play I saw this programme on TV called "More Sex Please We're British", which featured a call centre called Love Honey. Theirs is a massive business in contrast to the tiny call centre in Sex Cells, but it struck me how accurate my play was. It's everyday for these women, it's not a Carry On film with knob jokes, it's a place of work.
There's a fantastic mixture of humour and genuinely moving moments in the play.
AL: You can't knock the audience over the head with these themes. It's subtle, sophisticated humour. Grown men in the audience are crying. The audience laughter is making the cast have to pause slightly before delivering their next lines. It's touching people, and that means a lot.
Did you always want to be a writer?
AL: I loved drama at school, but I genuinely always wanted to be a hairdresser, even though it was unfairly seen as a job for thick girls. I was a hair and makeup artist for twenty-two years. I worked for Harpers and Elle, and with celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Faye Dunaway. Then I moved on to commercials, that's where I met my husband. It fulfilled an artistic need to a point, but I was also doing creative writing courses at places like City Lit and the Soho Theatre.
What was the process of getting Sex Cells staged at Riverside Studios?
AL: I sent it to all the usual new writing theatres, but nobody wanted it. It wasn't so tough, because I always had a second plan. I set up a rehearsed reading and got great feedback from the audience. I love performing but felt like I'd written a play that was better than my acting ability, so I stepped down from being in the final cast. I sought advice from the Society of London Theatre, and they were fantastic. I was advised that this is a commercial play and I should try and make money out of it. I've hired Riverside Studios and self-funded the production, but I'm not doing it to make a profit. It was a case of me getting fed up of waiting and setting the date for a run of the play. I wanted Imelda Staunton and Mark Rylance for the cast, I aimed high! But I love my cast, too!
Do you think it's hard for women to get their first play staged in London?
AL: It's hard for all new writers, not just women. If you're older it's virtually impossible. There are so many schemes for young writers where theatres will work with writers to develop their work with them. There are creative writing courses, but no structured writing scheme for those aged over fifty. On the plus side, my age works for me because I had money to stage it myself. Plus, I couldn't have written this play when I was younger; it's about life experiences. But I don't think new writing in the theatre should only be from young people and their perspectives.
What's your advice for anyone wanting to be a playwright?
AL: Keep working on your play until you get to a stage when you feel totally ready. Find collaborative groups, workshop your work, put it on above a pub, just put it on. There's nothing like what you learn from touching people with your work.
If money were no object what project would you do next?
AL: I'd tour Sex Cells, and also get a cracking producer to take it to the West End. I've also got a farce in mind, set in a 1970's hair salon. I used to work at John Frieda's and have some great stories. Another idea is a story set in a country house in the 1800's, though that might be a film script. I'd love Sex Cells to be published and to find a literary agent.
See Sex Cells At Riverside Studios up until 27th October 2013. Mother and baby matinees available.