Jane Upton on All The Little Lights

Jane Upton won the 2016 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright for All The Little Lights. Ahead of its London premiere at Arcola, she reveals where the play came from – and how it grew.

In January 2014, Fifth Word commissioned me to write a play. Any play. About anything I wanted. The only stipulations were that it had to suit their company ethos, and it had to be less than 70 minutes. We discussed a few ideas and I went away and started about five new plays. I was inexperienced and a little overwhelmed and I couldn’t settle on anything.

I hadn’t been writing plays for long and since I’d started I had become aware of the theatre community, critics, recurring arguments about who is eligible to write what, and very blunt twitter threads. I realised all this was stunting me, somehow.

Then I read a news story about the Rochdale sex ring. It focused on an older girl who had been groomed at a very young age and then later became a groomer of other girls. The article was derogatory and cruel in dealing with the young woman who was indeed a victim herself. I was interested in the blurred lines, the characters behind the story, the way this girl had fallen through the cracks. I felt compelled to tell a story like hers.

I met with Derby charity Safe and Sound who work with victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) and they told me that a girl such as the one in the article would be a difficult case. They would be unable to help her as she is over 18. I started to create a back story for the character who would become Joanne in our play. I read case studies and news stories and stayed in touch with Safe and Sound but ultimately I wanted to create a fictional drama inspired by the truth.

It was a long process; largely because I got scared. I wasn’t sure whether I was the right person to tell this story. I knew there’d be judgements. In fact, I was told an early draft we shared with a large audience was walking the fine line of poverty porn, which gutted me at the time. I almost gave up on it. But Angharad and Laura at Fifth Word were brilliant in propelling me forward and we kept going together. Between drafts, I had a daughter. And the time away from writing helped to focus my mind. I finally finished the play when my baby was three months old (I have to add, it was almost done by then. But I was able to solve a few problems, coming back to the script with knackered but different eyes).

The title of the play changed three times. But finally, in October 2015, we did a short preview run of ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS in the studio at Nottingham Playhouse. It was explosive. We’d made so many decisions along the way, decisions that are perhaps invisible in a final draft, but decisions that make the telling what it is. I removed male characters that appeared in early drafts, I set the play in closed space and closed time instead of spreading it over short episodic scenes, and everything was from the girls’ point of view. That’s what I wanted. It just took a while to get there. And, importantly, I chose not to racialise the story. I discussed this with Safe and Sound and Fifth Word from the outset. I didn’t want to make it a story about race. That wasn’t what I was talking about here. Our play was about how girls and boys, young women and men, can fall through the cracks in our society.

Amazingly, in May 2016, I was announced joint winner of the George Devine Award for ALL THE LITTLE LIGHTS and nominated for Best Play at the Writers Guild Awards 2017. We toured the play in spring 2017 while news stories continued to break across the country about other sex rings and abuse cases.

And now we are about to embark on a London run at the Arcola. Awareness of CSE has definitely increased over the last few years with high profile cases attracting huge media attention and of course the BBC drama THREE GIRLS airing this year. But with the massive Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse currently underway, set to be released in 2020 and headed up by the brilliant Professor Alexis Jay, the play is sadly still so relevant. Thousands of children are living this horrific trauma every day and we need to keep talking about it. Our play is just a tiny part of that conversation.

All The Little Lights plays at Arcola from 10 October to 4 November 2017. Tickets are available now.