The actress Sandra Dickinson left her native Washington DC in 1970 to follow an Englishman man back to his home country. Even though that relationship didn’t have a happy ever after ending, she fell in love with the country and stayed. The English fell in love with her too and for the past almost 50 years she has had a very successful career flitting between TV movies and the Theatre. Last year she starred in a play about Lucille Ball which gave her the best reviews of her career, and now she’s found herself another meaty role in The Unbuilt City that is due to open next week. We caught up with her via a Facetime when she had just rushed home from rehearsals
QG: Welcome to Queerguru and congratulations at being back at London’s Kings Head Theatre after a very long absence with the revival of your play which you wrote some 35 years ago. So can we start with briefly talking about what A Prayer for Wings is about without giving it all away?
SM: It’s a story of a mother and daughter living in a disused church in Swansea in Wales, which is where I am sitting right now. I was born here, and I left when I was 17 years old, and have now returned and am in the process of buying and renovating a house here right on the coast. It’s probably very similar to Provincetown where you are : very dramatic with cliffs, sea and beautiful.
The play is set in Swansea in this disused church and the mother has got multiple sclerosis and the daughter is a very young carer and she has looked after since she was 10 years old. The mother is only in her 40’s now when the play takes place, and the daughter is a late teenager and frustrated by her life and dreams and yearns to get away . One of the places she dreams of going to is America
QG: So it’s set in Swansea where you grew up, but is there anything else in the play that is autobiographical?
SM: Yes of course, there is a lot of me in the girl. When I was a young boy I dreamt of getting away, getting into the theatre, getting into show business and going to America. In the culture I grew up in It seemed such an exotic place. I later found out that my parents had been planning to immigrate when I was about 14. However, my father had a heart attack so we had to stay here for his health. I do have American family and cousins and I just dreamed of being with them.
Although the play is about a mother and daughter, in my life my mother did nurse her mother, and then my father who did die from heart disease. So a lot of the compassion in the play is based on my mother’s nursing skills and how the physical pressures of caring affected her in the end. Once you get rid of the disease of the body then it gets around the carer as a disease of the household. It’s all very tough for someone as young as Rita.
You know there are a lot of kids in the UK as young as 8, 9 and 10 who are carers and the Government is doing nothing to alleviate that problem as the National Health Service is bursting at the seams and is going through a major crisis.
When I was asked to revive the play I was terrified about its relevance today, but it turned out that is now even more relevant that when I wrote it.
QG: It took you 35 years to produce it in Swansea?.
SM: That’s odd isn’t it? The play has been done in various places, but I’ve not directed it since I first directed it, but that wasn’t the play’s debut as that was directed by Joan Plowright.
QG: When I read that today, I thought how exciting.
SM: Joan directed is at the Edinburgh Festival but couldn’t direct it when we came to London. Of all people Faye Dunaway had read about the play and another one I wrote, and she decided she wanted to act one and so started stalking me. I was having dinner with her the night I had to phone Joan to see if she could do the London transfer. However she couldn’t and I came back to the table and Faye said that I must direct it. So we can thank Faye for kicking me into theatre direction.
QG: Sean, why was it important for you to review the play now?
SM: I’d been thinking and hoping that I would like to start writing again. A life of directing is very exciting and I have had a wonderful life directing but I feel I have neglected something and I feel that I have left something behind. Out of the blue I got this invite to come to Swansea which was celebrating 50 years as a city. So to come back as a Swansea artist with a play I wrote called Swansea Boy written in the late ‘90’s which dealt with the devastating effects on sexual promiscuity with the arrival of AIDS.
It had only had a studio production at the National Theatre, and so I said I would really have to look at Swansea Boy rewrite it, revise it, but A Prayer For Wings is ready to go. They said they would take that instead.
It has been an incredible baptism for me as I have come back to where that play was set, and retracing my footsteps and it made we want to go further with the play,and I have even started work on Swansea Boy again.
QG: You have a Welsh Cast at the Kings Head in London, is is the same cast as Swansea?
SM: It is. When we came to cast it I was worried what the pool of talent was like in Wales as I hadn’t worked there for years. I needn’t have worried as there is some phenomenal talent there. I ended up with three Swansea actors, two of whom now live in London, and all super talented. The authenticity of their voice , and the idiom so accurate is really exciting.
QG: You have another show in London right now McKellen On Stage, How easy or difficult is it directing someone you have been very close too over all the years?
SM: Well of course we were in a relationship for nine years and since then we have worked together at least a dozen times in America and in England and on tour. We are a good team I suppose.
QG: There’s been no fights?
SM: (grinning) There’s been a few fights and some real humdingers but I supposed I’ve mellowed. I am more the fighter and he doesn’t like confrontation. I get frustrated and want to get things sorted out . We don’t fight so much now, but let me tell you he’s not beyond it
QG:You mentioned that you have worked with Sir Ian many times but it’s all been very diverse. From Widow Twankey in Aladdin to playing Waiting For Godot on Broadway, do you have a preference/ or favorite from this body of work?
SM: One of my favorites was directing him in Uncle Vanya many many years ago, but Godot would be up there too. I think my favorite production I directed him in would be No Man’s Land with Patrick Stewart. Godot is my favorite of the characters he created, as was his performance as Gogo in it. There was something so sublime between him and the character, it was so seamless. Ian has been at it for such a very long time, that he is a master of it all now,
QG: My favorite works of yours both include the actress Siân Phillips. I loved your National Theatre production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and of course as I am a gay man I so appreciated at how totally fabulous she was as Dietrich
SM: She’s another Welsh artist. We started off together in Wales with a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts which we did in the Welsh vernacular , but we workshopped Marlene for years at the Studio and various other places, and ended up going on this worldwide tour. It was a wonderful experience.
QG: Is there life for A Prayer for Wings after the run at Kings Head? Do you plan to take it elsewhere?
SM: Who knows. I don’t know what will happen , I think it will depend on London’s reception of it . I think it will be a curiosity with people saying ‘oh he’s a writer too, I‘d forgotten.’ So they’ll be a bit of judgement of that. I think there’s something about its very Welshness …….do you know about the TV series Gavin & Stacey?
QG: Of course, I’ve not totally forgotten my British life.
SM: Well that had this wonderful combination of East London and South Wales and it really helped people to appreciate the special quality of South Wales. My play includes that same quality and I think people will be curious to see that.
Also politically it may not be totally appreciated as some people will say that it’s a ‘woman’s play’ and Sean should not be directing but I’m afraid I’ve been selfish here and I wanted to revisit my own writing.
QG: Is there anything in your near future that we SHOULD know about?
SM: (grinning) We are going to be announcing very soon, but I cannot talk about it , but yes I have quite exciting plans for next year . Hopefully we’ll also stage Swansea Boys in Swansea next summer.
QG: Before we go, I need to ask you for a very important favor. Next time when you see Sir Ian, whisper in his ear, if they are going to make a sequel to Downton Abbey The Movie and Dame Maggie Smith steps down, he should play her part .
SM: (laughing) That’s very funny you should say that because last night we watched an episode of his TV series Vicious and he plays that character called Thomas a one-line role in Downton Abbey. So I will tell him.
QG: It’s been a real pleasure talking with you, and good luck with the Kings Head run, and one of Queerguru’s London based Contributing Editors will be there to review it. Maybe I should ask our Welsh one?