by Holly Robinson
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Cast: 9f 10m
Performance fee: £70 per performance (plus VAT where applicable)
A compassionate and probing exploration of youth and aging, nostalgia and regret, and the dangers of refusing to get old.
All children grow up, but what if they could grow back down again? A new medical process is being attempted, and it’s got an extraordinary aim: attempting to ‘de-age’ its volunteers back into young children.
The scientists don’t know if it’ll work. The doctors aren’t sure if it should. And the friends and families of those undergoing the risky procedure can’t understand why anybody would willingly do this in the first place… Why would you want to be small again?
small was first performed at Soho Theatre, London, in a production by Oxford School of Drama.
Content guidance: This play contains strong language and sexually explicit language, as well as exploration of adult themes including death, suicide,
depression and neglect.
About the author
Holly Robinson is a Birmingham-born playwright, who has lived in London for a decade. Her first play, soft animals (Soho Theatre, 2019), saw Holly nominated for the 2019 Stage Debut Awards for Best Writer, longlisted for the Bruntwood Prize and shortlisted for the Tony Craze Award. Other work includes small myth (VAULT Festival, work-in-progress showing, 2020) and small (Oxford School of Drama, 2019). Holly has been part of BBC Writersoom’s London Voices; the inaugural Hampstead Inspire Playwrights; Hampstead’s Writing the Bigger Picture and Soho
Theatre’s Soho Six.
Interview with Holly Robinson
small is about a medical trial to ‘de-age’ its volunteers into young children. What drew you to this subject matter?
small was originally commissioned by Oxford School of Drama for their 2019 MA Cohort. The idea came, as ideas often do, from a number of inspirations. I had recently read a short story by Amy Bonnaffons about a woman signing up for a procedure which would turn her into a horse and the weirdness and confidence of the conceit has always stayed with me. Every podcast on the planet seemed to be about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal which had me thinking about medical tech companies. I had taken part in a few medical trials as a student so had some first hand experience which is always helpful. And, of course, Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, set on a medical trial, is a play that’s always humming away in the back of my mind, as the greats do! But most crucially, as part of the commission process, I met with the actors and heard them talk about ‘issues’ they cared about. Underneath the big political ideas, they shared seemed to be a running, unspoken theme, an anxiety, about growing up; aging; adulthood; responsibility. This chimed with the cultural conversations still on going about millennials and their (our) inability to grow up. I liked the unspoken fear meeting an almost over-spoken trope and found that in the midst of them was strange, knotty and sad question to explore; would you go back to being a child, if you could?
In your opening note you mention ‘Somewhere under everything is a child-like wonder. A magic.’ Why is this important?
The central conceit of the play - adults turning into children – is pretty farfetched. You could play the whole thing for laughs or with a sneer. But the play only works if you take that idea as seriously as the characters do. The participants are obviously enthralled by it, the doctors fascinated but even those characters working against the idea must see it’s seductive possibilities to be so concerned by it. So, I think the stage direction is a steer towards sincerity, towards finding what might be magic and joyful in that proposition and allowing that to animate the characters and the production. I also love an open-ended stage direction that allows directors and actors to play.
The play is for an ensemble of 19 actors. How did you give a distinct personality to each character?
Before writing small, I had only written a two hander so the idea of 19 characters (as requested by the drama school) was pretty terrifying. I knew I needed source material, as my characters are always based on real people in one way or another, so I asked the students to send me videos of them talking about their childhoods. Each of them had something I found interesting, it might have been how the actor held themselves, a word choice, an anecdote. I remember one actor filmed theirs in bed – which was such a strikingly nonchalant choice! I took these beginning and mapped them onto the characters you might find associated with a trial like this; participant, friends/family, medical staff, reporter, tech company founder, etc. That was another draw for the medical trial setting – the sheer number of characters it could hold. Each of these characters had totally different motivations and feelings towards to experiment which helped differentiate them. And the final step was to trust the actors. Any character, however specifically written, is going to be completely transformed when an actor brings them to life.
Do you have any advice for actors performing the play, or for directors staging it?
Writing small, I really loved the research stage. Reading about medical trials, their ethics, how they go wrong; medical tech companies and their dubious claims and morals; epigenetics and the genuine possibilities in age reversal which feel like magic. It’s all fascinating – so enjoy that. But also use it as a lovely excuse to think about your childhoods, to watch your favourite films, remember your favourite books, try to remember the last time someone carried you sleeping from a car to bed! Indulge in a little nostalgia on me.