Coventry-born playwright Sarah Woods discusses her connections to the Belgrade Theatre ahead of the world premiere of The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency
Can you talk about your connections to Coventry and the Belgrade?
I was born in Coventry – my parents were both born and brought up in Coventry and my dad worked for the GEC.
We lived in nearby Kenilworth, so for much of my childhood, Coventry was where me and my mum went for shopping trips like buying school shoes (go round all the shops and then go back and buy the first pair you saw).
We used to have lunch out at Elizabeth the Chef, which was a really big deal. You could get a mini pizza, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s was pretty exotic. We’d then buy a quarter of Thornton’s Special Toffee to have on the bus on the way home. A day of luxury.
We sometimes came to The Belgrade to see a show, often the pantomime, but others too. I wanted to be a playwright from the age of about 11 and so going to the theatre was really exciting for me. Once we had a meal in the Belgrade Theatre restaurant and I remember sitting holding the menu and thinking “I’ve pretty much made it”.
When I was a teenager, I auditioned for The Belgrade Youth Theatre and got a part in The Bacchae, which was really exciting. Mikey Roberts, who went on to be in the Coventry band King, did the music.
I then had one of my first plays, Everywoman, staged by the Youth Theatre in the old Belgrade Studio – and got interviewed by The Coventry Evening Telegraph. My mum still has the article, with the photograph they took of me leaning moodily against a wall.
What was it like performing in the Youth Theatre at the Belgrade?
I had been part of the Priory Youth Theatre in Kenilworth, graduating to The Belgrade was the dream. You had to audition and it was nerve-racking. It was the only connection I had to the world of theatre at the time and if I didn’t get it, that was the end of the road as far as I could see.
I remember there were three directors sitting behind a big table at the end of the room and after my audition piece they all looked at each other. Two of them shook their heads and then the third turned to me and said: “I’d like you to be in my production of The Bacchae”. I was shaking so much I could hardly leave the room. The director was Laurence Boswell, who has since directed Madonna, Eddie Izzard, and won multiple Olivier Awards.
One night, the actor playing Pentheus arrived at the theatre really drunk. There was a bit of a fracas in the car park and we were all told to stay in our dressing rooms. We got on with putting on our hessian costumes and, when we opened the dressing room door, there was Laurence – the director – squeezed into Pentheus’ rather tight and minimal bearskin costume, preparing to go on stage. I thought “This is what the rest of my life is going to be like”.
There were so many interesting people doing amazing things around Coventry at the time and the Youth Theatre connected me to the like-minded people I had been craving.
I met loads of people who were into theatre and music and protest and spent lots of time going to gigs at what was The Lanch (The Lanchester Poly, now Coventry University), The General Wolfe on the Foleshill Road and reggae festivals in Hillfields. It was seminal and enabled me to believe that it was possible to do the things I wanted to do in the world.
Has your involvement with the Belgrade influenced the work you went on to do?
My early experiences at the Belgrade opened up the world of theatre to me – both in terms of learning from those around me and feeling like people were interested in what I had to say.
Having a play on at the Belgrade Studio at the age of 16 gave me the confidence and inspiration to keep writing. It was my gateway into the world of the arts.
How does it feel to be presenting a musical for City of Culture at the Belgrade?
It feels like a real home-coming to be putting Ruff Tuff on at The Belgrade – and I’m delighted to be part of the City of Culture too. I often feel like the Midlands gets defined by other people by what it’s not – it’s not the North and it’s not the South. Somehow being in the middle makes it a quietly down to earth place. People often take things as they find them and give others a chance. I feel really lucky to be part of it all.
Can you tell us a bit about Ruff Tuff and how the story resonates with you?
When I was in my late teens and early twenties I spent time living in squats In London – and it taught me a lot. I was amazed by how many empty houses there were and people worked hard to make pretty grim places into welcoming homes.
I feel like we’re at another point in history where we need to make things happen – as individuals and communities. There’s a lot of poverty and inequality, there’s a housing crisis – and creating positive change is something we can all be part of.
Why should people see The Ruff Tuff Cream Puff Estate Agency?
It’s a great story – full of life and fun. Boff Whalley has written some banging tunes. And it’s uplifting. It’s about what happens when we come together and work with each other, for something.