Portrait of the Artist is a new feature where I focus on artists from around the country who are doing interesting things deserving of your attention. This week it’s Nicola Spendlove.
Nicola Spendlove is an actress, spoken word artist, and award winning playwright; originally from Dublin but shamelessly claiming sunny Tramore as her hometown. When she isn’t sinking her teeth into words in all their beautiful forms, she tricks people into believing she’s an adult by working as an occupational therapist.
Tell us about your background
I could spoof you and make up a rake of fancy qualifications, but in terms of my creative work I am largely self-trained. I did acting classes when I was in secondary school, but that’s the extent of my formal education in the arts.
I always wanted to do something creative and have adored writing from the moment I picked up a pen; but I was spooked by the idea of not having a steady income. That was why I decided to train as an occupational therapist- it sounded like a meaningful profession that allowed for elements of creativity when working with clients.
My own creative work – writing and acting – began in 2017, when I took a Modwords creative writing class with Anna Jordan. I started writing and performing my work, and doors just opened. In two years, I’ve gone from throwing up all day at the thoughts of reading a poem off my phone screen at an open mic night in a pub, to being funded to write plays that are performed in major theatres, and having articles published internationally. I’m not native to Waterford, so it really means a lot how much the community has gotten behind me. From the local newspaper giving me regular writing work and promoting my theatre stuff, to all the Modwords gang who have no end of kind words and encouragement for me when I’m doubting myself – it’s a very supportive environment and I definitely needed that level of support to give me the push to do this.
I still do a double take when someone refers to me as a writer or an artist. I have major imposter syndrome about that side of myself, and when I get a compliment about my work my first thought is always ‘they’re lying’!
Tell us about your work
My creative work is essentially just edited word vomit. When I first started writing, I tried to create content about high-brow issues and big political things, and be really clever with my language use and techniques. It was grand, but it wasn’t memorable, because it wasn’t heartfelt – I was writing what I thought a serious writer ‘should’ write, not what was actually in my head.
My first ever poetry performance, I brought two pieces with me so I had a choice of what to read. One was a very intellectual piece about a particular Buddhist philosophy I’d been studying, and one was essentially a big honest rant about how I’d never really felt I fit in anywhere. The thought of sharing the second one had me breaking out in hives because the absolute fear of saying something out loud for the first time that was so personal and having the crowd just stare blankly back at you made me want to throw myself out a window – but I knew that piece was better.
The second I got to the venue I started throwing back drinks to give myself the courage to read the second piece, and I did it. I remember looking up halfway through and seeing a stranger with a tear in their eye, and I knew that moment that for all the scariness of giving away a chunk of yourself on stage to people who might not even listen to you, it was the only way I was going to create from then on. I genuinely believe that people connect to honesty – I’m going to sound like a total hippie here, but if you write from the heart people will hear that and instinctively respond to it.
So in summary, I just write about things that have actually happened and emotions I have actually felt, I try to put raw experiences into words and then if it’s a play I change the names and the identifying details and slap it into a script format. I plagiarise essentially, I plagiarise my life and lock everyone in a room and make them listen to it.
Who are your influences and why?
So many people! I could go on for days but I’ll just name check a few.
I love Pat Kinevane. His shows tells stories that are ultimately quite sad, yet it’s a very uplifting experience to be in his audience because of two things – connection and humour. I go to the theatre on my own an awful lot – I have never once felt alone in the audience of one of his shows, because I feel like he’s having a conversation with just me. That’s a gift. I’ve seen “Silent” eight times, and I will continue seeing it!
I’ve just finished Emilie Pine’s essay collection Notes to Self, and although the essay isn’t a form that I’d usually write in, I was so inspired by it. It’s the perfect example of what I just said about honesty being something people feel viscerally. There was an essay in the book about Emilie’s struggle with infertility, which isn’t something I’ve personally experienced, but the way she wrote about how it felt was so painfully honest that I found myself inconsolable – I had to put it down because it hurt too much. An honest piece of writing can move you – I try to keep that premise at the core of my work.
In terms of attitude, I have learnt so much from Modwords founder and writer, Anna Jordan. Anna lifts people up and gives them confidence in their work, and has created a culture which is inclusive and non-competitive in the Waterford arts scene. Being a very talented person herself, she could easily just focus on her own writing and leave everyone else eating her dust – she doesn’t. What I’ve taken from that is that there’s room for everyone at the table, and someone else being successful doesn’t take anything away from you.
I do think if we’re open-minded and willing to be inspired, there’s something we can take from any and all creativity. I love going to Fringe festivals, and when I go to them I will just buy fistfuls of random tickets to everything from puppet shows to choir performances to mime and just run from show to show all day every day, not even stopping for food, taking notes on what stood out to me in each performance and they’re literally some of the happiest days of my life. I remember one year at the Edinburgh Fringe meeting friends for drinks after a day of show hopping and them asking me seriously was I on drugs because my eyes were like saucers and I couldn’t get rid of the mad grin on my face!
Are there specific themes/issues you try to address in your work?
I don’t really sit down to write with the intention of addressing a particular issue. I know some writers are brilliant at making plans and will map out specific points that their work is going to hit on – that’s not me. I just start writing and see what comes out.
I think the things I’m moved to write about are things that stir up something visceral in me, and if I write something decent it usually comes to me quicker than I can type and makes me feel absolutely exhausted afterwards. The first scene of my first full length play, The Afters, is set in a sexual health clinic and is told through the eyes of a girl who’s just been raped but decides not to tell the staff this – it’s based on a true story, and I felt physically ill writing out the details of it. I’d been carrying this story around since I heard it and I hadn’t realised how heavy it was until I started typing and it literally felt as if a demon was leaving my body.
My new play, Five Year Plan, is out in March, and it deals with alcohol abuse. Much of the writing came from my own personal experiences, and sometimes I’d feel frightened writing it – it was like I was writing what would have been my own future had life gone slightly differently for me.
Things like sexual assault and addiction, they might seem like topical issues that I’m trying to write about to be edgy or relevant. Genuinely not the case – they’re issues that you’d be hard pushed to find someone whose life hasn’t been touched by in some way, and that’s why they’re in my head and in my work.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in your field?
Write for the love of it. Create because creativity is something that we’re born to do, because it’s good for us, because it’s free therapy. Don’t write what you think a critic would like, or what you think would sell tickets or copies. Let the inner benefits of creating be your motivator, and anything else a happy bonus. The whole world could wake up in the morning and decide they’re never going to support another production I’m involved in or read another word I write, and I’d still keep going – because nobody can take away the thrill I get from creating something, or the stillness I get from finally being able to put words on an experience.
But like, please do still support my stuff. I love attention too.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Who knows! Five Year Plan is out in March, and rehearsals are kicking off for that now – so that will be the sole purpose of my existence for the next little while. I have the topic for my next play, but major writer’s block around getting the script together – which is okay, when it’s ready, it will come.
Beyond that, I’d like to play around with new writing formats. I love that in theatre and performance I get to watch peoples’ reactions to my work in real time – but there’s a permanency to something that’s written down, like an essay or book, that’s really appealing as well. I’d like to challenge myself to try that.
One fun little writing project for 2020 is writing and performing my dear friend’s wedding ceremony over in Melbourne – being trusted with something like that on one of the most memorable days of someone’s life is both extremely honouring and extremely nerve wracking. I won’t try my usual Dutch courage technique for this one though!