Laura Neal Interview: From Secret Diary of a Call Girl to Killing Eve

Laura Neal is a British writer whose TV credits include Secret Diary of a Call Girl (Tiger Aspect/ITV2), My Mad Fat Diary (Drama Republic/C4) and Tatau (Touchpaper/BBC). She has also written multiple episodes for Netflix projects including the Idris Elba series Turn Up Charlie and the international hit Sex Education.

Laura has written on the third series of Killing Eve (Sid Gentle/BBC) and has recently been announced as the lead writer and an executive producer for season four.

There are some people whose presence and personality fill the room and leave a lasting impression; Laura Neal is one of those people. I’ve known Laura for many years and it has been no surprise to see her career go from strength to strength. Most artists would testify that making your way in the creative arts industry is no easy task, and that’s as true for writers as it is for actors, directors and every creative in between. When Laura was at an earlier stage of her career, I recall how the all too familiar struggle of being an artist turned her eye to the Met Police. Whilst I have no doubt that she would’ve made a fantastic detective, I’m delighted that her perseverance has paid off and now sees her as an executive producer and the lead writer of BBC’s Killing Eve. I have every faith that her interest in criminal investigation will be satisfied through her work on the show’s MI6 security operative, Eve Polastri!

I was lucky enough to catch up with Laura in between trips to LA.

Could you give us an insight into the process of creating a high-budget TV show in the UK?

If you’re being trusted with a high-budget TV show, chances are you’ll have a few solid credits under your belt already. Even so, there will probably be several months, if not years, of development. You might come up with the idea yourself and pitch it to a production company, or a production company will approach you with an idea or, more often, a piece of IP they’ve optioned. From there, you’ll spend time working together to create characters, storylines and, normally, an episode one outline (or script). At some point in this process, a broadcaster or network will be approached to buy the idea and fund the remaining development. This is a big milestone! Once they’re on board, they can either “green light” the series straight off (rare) or ask for more development (common). Once a green light is granted, the remaining scripts are written (and rewritten!), either by you, the creator, or with the help of a team of writers. Later, directors are brought on board, heads of department are hired, actors are cast and the production begins. For a UK series, the filming process usually takes about three months, followed by a post-production period of a couple of months. The final product might not be on TV screens until two or three years after the idea was conceived!

Could you take us through the journey that brought you to where you are now?

I always liked drama at school, and did both acting and writing (but I was better at writing). I did the Royal Court Young Writers Programme in my teens, followed by various schemes for new writers run by places like the Old Vic and Paines Plough. Around this time, I also went to Bristol University to study drama and carried on writing there, both for university societies and for theatre companies back in London. One of the first full-length plays I wrote had a rehearsed reading in London, which some TV producers were at. Afterwards, they offered to mentor me and, months later, gave me my first TV commission on Secret Diary of a Call Girl. That commission, combined with completing some other more screen-focussed schemes such as Channel 4’s Coming Up, secured me an agent. After I graduated university, I carried on writing (and waitressing!) until I built up enough momentum to write full time. Gradually, my number of professional credits grew and now I work both in the UK and America, on shows such as Sex Education and Killing Eve.

Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens, Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri - Killing Eve Season 3
Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens, Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri – Killing Eve Season 3 – Photo Credit: Nick Wall/BBC America

How much/often do you get to work with actors? And what does that entail?

Traditionally in the UK, TV writers don’t have a huge amount of interaction with actors. The scripts are generally written in advance of production starting, so conversations with actors are often done by the director or executive producers. If you’re the creator of your own TV show and you hold an executive producer credit, you’ll have much more involvement but for your average jobbing writer on a TV show it’ll be minimal. However, this is beginning to change. British writers are having increasingly greater exposure to the American system, where writers are much more involved in production… and that idea is beginning to take hold here. 

Here’s a hypothetical: I’ve written a TV pilot that I believe has huge potential, what do I do now?

Firstly, make sure it’s in the best shape it can possibly be in. Leave it for a few days. Read it again. Rewrite it. Get other people to read it. Rewrite it. Know what happens after the pilot finishes. What is it about the series that’s unique and different? What journeys will your characters go on? How does the series end? Is there a series two? Three?! When you know the answers to these questions, send your script out! If you have a literary agent already, get them to read it and distribute it. If not, there are several schemes out there designed to give new writers a leg-up into the industry. Kudos, BAFTA, Channel 4 and the BBC all have them. These schemes are often the best way to get an agent. The BBC Writersroom website is also a valuable treasure-trove of advice and opportunity. Don’t give up. If this script doesn’t yield results, write another one. It’ll be better than the last.

What has been one of the highlights of your career so far?

Getting a job as a writer on the third season of Killing Eve and being able to write lines for Fiona Shaw, who I love.

Who and what inspires you?

Early on in my career I was inspired by playwrights like Lucy Prebble, Sarah Kane, Dennis Kelly and Anthony Neilson. Once I started working in TV, I was inspired by the people who mentored me through my first jobs; great executive producers such as Roanna Benn and Jude Liknaitsky and writers such as Tom Bidwell. Great producers make a huge amount of difference to a writer – they can help bring an idea from your brain onto a page, they can advise on structure, characterisation and plot and, most importantly, they’re responsible for actually getting the thing made! When I started watching American TV, I looked up to show runners (writer-producers, who do both the job of a writer and an executive producer) like Vince Gilligan, Jenji Kohan and Liz Flahive. Nowadays, I’m inspired by shows with great female characters, dark humour and unique takes on the world, like Killing Eve and Sex Education. I’m also, like everyone, obsessed with Succession. If I could create and write something like that, I’d die happy.

Finally, if you were assembling a team of superheroes, which TV characters would you put together (no actual superpowers required)?

Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale for her bravery, Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation for her can-do attitude, and Midge Maisel from The Marvellous Mrs Maisel for her GSOH. Oh, and the Hot Priest from Fleabag just… because.

Jodie Comer as Villanelle – Killing Eve Season 3 – Photo Credit: Des Willie/BBC America

Olivier Award-winning Director, Donnacadh O’Briain: “The Drama is Always First for Me”

Donnacadh O’Briain is an Olivier Award-winning director whose productions have played at The Royal Shakespeare Company, in the West End, and internationally. In 2017 his production of Rotterdam received an Olivier for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre and went on to play at The Arts Theatre (West End) before embarking on a UK tour. His other credits include Always Orange (RSC), PEEP (a unique cross art form pop up theatre show) and the multi-award winning Electrolyte (Wildcard / Edinburgh / UK Tour).

I first worked with Donnacadh on Time and the Conways by J.B Priestly at The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in 2012. He was the first director I’d worked with that expressed no desire to block the play. The philosophy (it seemed to me) was that if we immersed ourselves in the landscape of the play and knew every inch of it in vivid detail – both psychologically and somatically – then, with solid stage craft supporting us, the blocking would take care of itself. With no set staging to adhere to, we were free to remain open to our impulses and that meant you couldn’t stop listening, not for a second, because you were never quite certain what might happen next. Whilst we did collabortively establish some structure to our movement and action by opening night, we never lost that sense of freedom and spontaneity. To me, as a young actor, this was liberating.

Another technique which enabled such freedom in rehearsal was a total ban of scripts on stage, right from day one; something which Donnacadh discusses further in this interview some eight years later. Here’s what he had to say:

Could you give us an insight into the creative process behind Rotterdam, your Olivier Award-winning production?

Well, I read a lot of unproduced plays until I found a gem. That was a big part of it – had the play not been so accomplished, very little else would have happened. After that there’s no doubt that finding actors who could bring it to life was equally as important. Once I had those key elements the next phase was about creating an environment that would nurture a deep understanding of the characters, and a relentless commitment to representing them fully and honestly in the work…and finding the laughs! It’s a very funny play, though finding the comedy came later in the process, the drama is always first for me. In terms of getting the company to really make the play sing, I use a series of approaches and exercises that I’ve developed over the years; a mix of things I’ve picked up. One important element is that I use line feeding instead of scripts so that whenever actors are on their feet, their bodies and eyes are free to connect and be present, rather than have the distraction of the script which can shut down both intimacy and one half of the body. The simplest way of putting it is that I try to embed the possibility that anyone can do anything at any time, through a combination of improvisational elements and a disinclination to work towards staging in the first couple of weeks. I want to get a company working together with real immediacy, understanding and playfulness, and once they’re there, directing the play is easy.

Are there any particular qualities that you look for when auditioning actors, irrespective of the role?

I suppose any director wants to get a feel that someone will bring a positive, open and creative energy to rehearsals, both because you need that yourself and because the other actors need it. How you judge that is hard to express in words. Also, I look for someone who is bringing empathy for their character, who is finding a connection.

Many proactive actors like to contact directors. Would you generally encourage actors to reach out to you or is it better to go through casting directors for specific productions?

I don’t have any objection to being contacted directly. I try to respond when actors do. It certainly increases the chances of being noticed but inevitably you can only meet a small number of actors for any role.

When you’re casting a play, do you have any audition room bugbears that actors do?

It’s frustrating when someone is underprepared, it can feel like they’ve not given themselves a fair chance or me the opportunity to really know whether they’re right or not. The more prepared you are the more of yourself you can show and the more you can connect to the material. If someone’s borderline suitable but they’ve put in the work, learned the text etc, then they give themselves a better shot at getting a call back. I know how time consuming learning the text can be, but I do think it gives you an advantage.

Always Orange (RSC, 2016)
Always Orange (RSC, 2016) Photo by Richard Lacos

What has been your favourite production to direct and why?

Impossible to say really. In recent times, I really enjoyed directing Always Orange for the RSC. I really felt that I was able to work exactly the way I wanted to. And also Philistines for RADA, due to the challenge of directing such a huge play – made all the more huge as I added a whole off-stage abstract movement element. Day after day we worked on character through table work and improvisation and pushed ourselves in the scene work to go emotionally and intellectually to the places the characters go. I was able to keep testing my aesthetic and pushing at the boundaries of the style to see how far it could go. We were playing with naturalism, expressionism and metatheatricallity with a bit of music-hall and melodrama thrown in; it’s a mad play and I wanted us to be able to serve all its contradictions. It was relentless, but the level of ambition and determination in the room was incredibly exciting.

What’s next for you?

Next up I’m directing a new play I’m co-writing about border control for Ice & Fire, then opening Electrolyte in London and New York before sending it off on an international tour. I’m also making a new show, Arms Flung Wide, about helping, with Bella Heesom and our company All About You, and directing a one person show for Edinburgh called A Story of Destiny. And spending as much time as possible with my kids – 3, 0.5 & 0.5 (ages not names).

What do you mean when you say that Arms Flung Wide is about helping?

Well, it’s in part a biographical piece about a woman with MS who progressively needs more help as her illness develops. Her daughter, amongst others, helps to manage many of her most basic human needs. More broadly it will be about the fact that we as individuals need help – or to use a more politicised word, co-operation – to do anything. In part, we may dramatise that idea by the audience needing to help Bella in order to actually complete the show itself.

Finally, just for fun, could you describe the secret to acting in a cryptic, abstract metaphor?

Drop your shopping, take off your coat and show us your secret dance.

0/7/02/2020 Weekly Acting Workout With Donnacadh O’Briain: Donnacadh is running laboratory-style rehearsal days over the next seven weeks. A chance to stretch the muscles for the new year, geared towards anyone in a period of auditions but missing the rehearsal room. The days are a drop-in style so you can attend as many or as few as you like.

Shekinah McFarlane on Her Life, Career and Six The Musical

I first met Shekinah McFarlane at a youth drama group in Leicester, where I have particularly fond memories of playing Kenickie alongside her Rizzo in Grease. The group was run by a passionate tutor who gave up his time voluntarily to teach young people about drama. Looking back, it’s groups like that which gave me the confidence to journey into the performing arts industry, heart first. Sadly, that particular group has now closed down due to a lack of funding – a stark reflection of the Arts today. Since then, I’m priveleged to have worked with Shekinah professionally on a number of occasions and she remains one of my oldest and closest friends.

Shekinah’s previous credits include American Idiot (UK Tour), Hair & Hair50 (Hope Mill Theatre – Vaults Theatre), The Lion King (Disney Theatrical, UK and International Tour) and most recently, her West End run of the smash-hit musical Six which she’s currently taking on its UK tour. Despite her jam-packed schedule, she made time to chat and answer a few of my questions.

Six is the latest musical megastorm to hit the UK. What’s it like being part of the show?

Starting with the easy answer, it’s amazing. It blows my mind that I get to be a part of such a phenomenon, something with such power that’s exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. It’s a special gem of a show. It’s also (at times) overwhelming because of what the show brings. Through the stories we tell we are spreading messages of self love, confidence, intelligence, heartache, tragedy, inner power (I’m sure the list goes on), and our Queendom – a wonderful array of beautiful people – look up to us. I’ve become a role model and with that comes certain responsibilities. So finding the balance of it all is quite something but I am enjoying and embracing everything; learning everyday.

Could you give us an insight into the journey that brought you to the West End?

Well, I have been singing since I was three in church. Around the age of six or seven I became a StageCoach Leicester Kid and had my first role, playing Bluebell in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Shakespeare for Kidz. I enjoyed the applause, I loved working with people who were different, I was wowed by the adults doing what they love and seeing an audience mesmerised by the honest and full-hearted performances. It was then that I knew this was something I had to do. My heart was in it.

I was the kid who performed with her friends in the school playground and that continued into Secondary. Any opportunity that came along I took it, from singing in the school choir to putting on a fashion show that I could perform in myself, I never wanted to stop. If I wasn’t singing I was dancing, or teaching an artistic discipline to younger students, or writing/collaborating or learning how to play the saxophone. Around this time I wanted to delve more into acting, I wanted to be a Triple Threat. I wanted to see what my Best Me was and I was excited by the self discovery. That’s when I joined a youth group called Kiss My Face (which became Young Actors).

Obstacle number one: This came when they cancelled all upper GCSE arts courses at my school. My fix was to out-source my music GCSE from another school. I watched so much So You Think You Can Dance to keep up artistically/choreographically. After secondary school, I went to Brooksby Melton College and joined the two year musical theatre course. It was an interesting two years.

Obstacle number two: People don’t like it when you work harder than them. Yeah! What I came to understand is that some people who aren’t as driven as others strive to bring you down in order to hide their own poor work ethic. I couldn’t adhere to that. I’m a stickler for staying in my own lane and doing me. I became one heck of a person. Gosh I loved her! Whilst there I put on a tribute to Bob Fosse and thrived in being not just a performer but a creative, giving me a new-found respect for creatives. Finishing my two years at BMC, I headed to London for a one year course at AMTA. It was definitely an eye-opening year. By this point I was determined to reach my goal of performing professionally as an adult. It was just a matter of when,. Everyone has their time.

Obastacle number three: Being compared to other women of colour. Being compared to people who were stronger in different disciplines led me to suffer a massive loss of self confidence, something I’ve only recently overcome. There was no overnight fix. Six years on from BMC, golly, that girl is back; older and wiser and I love her all the same. ‘Self Discovery’ – She’s still on it folks! Now when I’m alongside other people I ask myself three questions: What makes us different? Where can I improve? What am I doing right? In a world filled with negativity be positive.

Obstacle number four: The NOs. Ooft, guys, there have been a few, but I’m surrounded by some great people who remind me in times of I-don’t-knows that something’s coming. I’ve had the pleasure of playing the Arts Theatre twice, The Lyric W.E, numerous national and international tours and it’s all been a journey. Not one that has been all stars and flowers but it’s mine and, in my not so busy times, I like to reflect and see how far I have come.

Obstacle number five: Injuries. As a performer, we’re always told the show must go on, so when you don’t feel 100% it can be hard to take time off. You feel like you’re not the performer that people hired you to be, that you’re not doing your job. Then, when you’re ready to come back, the producers may decide you still need more time away and that can put you in a bit of a hole. I’ve been there and it’s hard to get over the thought that you are now a tainted or broken performer. You’re not. Listen to your bodies. Take care of your health; body and mind.

Obstacle number seven: Not-So-Nice People. I’m not gonna delve into this but all I can say is, keep your wits about you, don’t become entitled, know your worth and be a kind person. Reputations are a thing.

Photography by Johan Persson

Who inspires you?

To name a few… My family; their support is genuine love and that, THAT inspires me. My Nan; she always used to watch me singing with friends and in groups in church. She used to say, ‘When are you going to embrace your own shine?’, encouraging me to seize opportunities for myself. I think she knew where I was going and I that think she’d be uber proud of where I’ve come. My friends; seeing them thrive in all situations, good or bad. Chris Tendai (a college friend); we’ve both had journeys which take my breath away. We are doing what we always said we would. Adam Scown (choreographer/director): I worked with Adam on my first job after training, he helped me to discover what kind of performer I was. My past cast mates: I tell you, being around different stories, different views, it keeps you real and grounded. To the most recent, My Queens: these women have taught me so much and shown me love on a different scale. And finally, I’m inspired by a passion to inspire others.

Over the past year there have been negative comments on social media aimed at understudies. As someone who’s been an understudy, what do you say to the critics?

Everyone on a job is booked for a reason and we can do the job we’ve been booked for. I know you’re going to feel a little upset about it but I guarantee you’ll still leave with a smile on your face. If you catch someone on their debut you’re in for a treat. The energy on that stage will be electric, it’s filled with extra love and support for that individual so how about you shoot some back, because we are giving you our all. Some of our understudy chances are far and few between. We perform like it’ll be our last, every time. You won’t want to miss it!

To my fellow Swings/Understudies/Alternates, you are all amazing human beings, I am truly inspired by you all. The skills it requires, the effort and time it takes to stay on top of it all – it’s a mad ting! I tip my hat to you all. The show cannot go on without you. You are valued, you are phenomenal, you are Swing Bible Ninjas. All the respect and love to you!

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

What is meant for you, will be for you… You may want it all but sometimes the universe/industry will surprise you. Be open to change and grasp the opportunities that are right for you with both hands. Contracts don’t last forever so take the lessons and it’ll become clear why you were there. It was meant for you.

A no is not always the end, It is merely a ‘not yet’. Sometimes you might audition for the same job multiple times and get so close only to face rejection again. But something more fitting will come along. Take me for example, I’ve been seen for one job four times. Three of those I made it to finals and still didn’t get it. That was almost one no too many. But then American Idiot came along and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. That was the yes that followed the ‘not yets’.

Cry, Acknowledge, Accept, Dry… Gosh, it is so ok to cry when things look bleak. An unwanted feeling of lost passion, NOs, horrible situations… Okay, but what’s next? You can’t dwell, life is for living. Notice what it is that upsets you, why it does, and then accept the fact that something has got to change. Go back to class, be creative in other ways to fill your time until the next thing, collaborate, change your surroundings. Little changes make a world of difference. Dry those eyes, there is greatness out there that is yours for the taking.

Quiet doesn’t mean you’re failing, a quiet period is fine. Do you know how much you can grow in that time? Surround yourself with supportive people and come back with new vibrations. Get loud again and embrace different energies. True friends will celebrate your new flow with you. It was level up time.

Know your worth! That one is simple

What’s next for you?

A good few months being a Queen, maybe a workshop or two and some new songwriting. Missing the studio a bit.

Hypothetically, if you were the Queen and could make your own laws, what would be the first law you’d introduce?

Every school would have a self-love class. Too many people cannot say thank you when someone says they are beautiful. It’s not just an aesthetic thing, it’s a vibe, an energy.

Riad Richie on His Season with the RSC

Riad Richie debuted at the RSC for their 2018-19 season, performing in Tamburlaine (Michael Boyd), Timon of Athens (Simon Godwin) and Tartuffe (Iqbal Khan). His previous credits include Macbeth, Mark and the Marked, Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet (Box Clever Theatre) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Tower of London). Riad has also been lead fencer and combat specialist for films including Cinderella, iBoy and Accident Man.

Say one thing for Richie, he knows how to make an entrance. From abseiling onto the stage in Timon of Athens to beatboxing against the backdrop of Iqbal Khan’s concert lighting in Tartuffe, he commands attention, and with a stage presence that fills the theatre, Richie is the kind of actor you just can’t take your eyes off. Throughout the RSC’s winter season, his performances have been captivating, effervescent and delivered with a touch of class. His portrayal of the fiercely loyal Usumcasane in Tamburlaine being particularly memorable for precisely those qualities.

As he now enters the final week of the season and looks ahead to the future, he is certainly an actor I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of. I sat down with him to reflect on his time with the RSC.

What’s it like working with the RSC?

Quite surreal. You really get a sense of community from day one. It’s like going back to uni. When you move to stratford, you are in this campus-like bubble where everyone is friendly and knows you and it’s a little bit magical.

As an actor, what challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Being in three shows can really put a strain on your daily life. Understudy rehearsals pretty much take up your free time, so it’s all about managing your day so you don’t feel overloaded. You usually rehearse two shows at the same time, meaning you can be in one room for the first two hours then whisked into another room for the next. Getting into the right mindset for the needs of each room took some getting used to.

What did you enjoy most about working with the RSC?

The freedom to be bold. In all three shows, I’ve been so grateful that I was always able to make an offer in the rehearsal room, no matter how absurd, and the company gave you the vibe that you could do that and take leaps. So now I beatbox in one show, abseil in another and I’m an ultra-violent killing machine in the other.

Was there anything you didn’t expect?

The hospitality. The RSC don’t just support you on stage, they ensure you are well looked after physically and mentally, even if you just need to talk to someone. If you’re up in Stratford by yourself, things can get lonely at times. The RSC became like a surrogate family for those days. Something else I didn’t expect was the ‘Shakespeare Gym’: workshops for company members in which you get to explore and break down texts of the Bard.

What was it like working with Michael Boyd?

He was like Yoda of the theatre world. You could really feel the weight of his presence in the room and all you wanted to do was listen. He’s incredibly generous and receptive to everyone whilst steering the ship towards his vision. Working with Michael was my first experience at the RSC and it was an undeniable pleasure.

What’s next for you?

Being on stage for the past three and a half years means that my showreel has become stale. I think I’ll be getting that updated to cater for film/TV work. I’m also currently in talks with the team at Ragdoll but I can’t say too much about that right now. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back on the Swan stage sooner than I thought! ;)

Riad L Richie in rehearsal for Tamburlaine (RSC) – Photo by Ellie Kurttz