Interview: Lizzy Mansfield | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Newcastle writer and Writers’ Assistant on the Emmy-Winning AppleTV+ Show Ted Lasso Lizzy Mansfield brings her debut play Supernova to the Durham Assembly Rooms on 11th – 12th July. The play is inspired by Lizzy’s background as a physicist, and weaves real science through the story. It stars Adeola Yemitan (RSC: Much Ado About Nothing) and Emilio Iannucci (The Death of Stalin) and is directed by Fay Lomas (The Girl Who was Very Good at Lying). 

Alongside the performances, there will be an engagement workshop for local schools taking place on 12th July with a short talk from Dr. Francesca Chadha Day about access to university physics. Tickets are available here.

We chat with Lizzy to find out more…

How did you get into writing and which writers inspired you growing up?
The first thing I ever wrote was a story called Ellie’s Wellies about an elephant with a welly obsession. I thought it would win the Booker Prize and was determined to get it published. Neither of those things happened. I was eight. 

For a long time after that, I wanted to be an astronaut. But when I eventually realised astronauts miss out on loads of great stuff like chips and birthday parties, I decided to give writing another go. Constructing a script feels like building your own universe out of word-Lego. It’s got a similar appeal to space travel but you can still go to the pub afterwards. 

In answer to the second question, I haven’t grown up. I’m trying very hard not to. As a kid, I loved reading writers like Tolkien, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Phillip Pullman… pretty much anything which had a fantasy universe and an epic quest. Still do. I’m also a big sci-fi fan. I remember discovering Doctor Who existed just as the show was entering its Russell T. Davies/David Tennant era. That blew my tiny mind.

How did the switch from being a physicist to writing come about?
It never really felt like a switch. I studied physics & philosophy at uni because it sounded really interesting. And it was. I got to learn about the most fundamental things we’ve discovered about the universe, from time’s arrow to the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. Real physics is often weirder than anything you could make up. My degree felt like someone had jammed several extremely complicated science fiction films together and then tried to convince you it was real.

I was interested in theatre alongside that. I joined First Act Theatre in Newcastle aged seven, probably because all my friends were doing it, and quickly realised that being on stage is the most fun you can have as a seven year old. Later on, I started making films at the Tyneside Cinema’s Northern Stars Filmmaking Academy, a hobby which continued through university (and then turned into my job). Having these kinds of opportunities available in the North East – and across the UK – is so important for young people. They made me realise that pursuing a creative career was a viable option and gave me the confidence to do so.

Writing Supernova was my first attempt at combining ‘real’ physics with narrative storytelling. In other words, it was me trying to put all the things I like in one place. I was a bit nervous that nobody else would be interested in a play full of science, but thankfully the script has had a great reception. It reached the final of Hope Mill There’s Though the Mill playwriting competition in Manchester then got picked up by London’s Theatre503. Now it’s going on a UK tour!

How has the scientific discipline influenced your writing?
It’s definitely given me a lot to write about. Time and space are the gifts that keep on giving. There are so many stories you can tell.

The craft of writing also feels very scientific to me. When a scene isn’t working, there’s almost always a logical reason for that, just like when an experiment doesn’t turn out the way you expected it to. Figuring out what’s gone wrong in your script is a lot like fixing the problems with your homemade science experiment. But less messy, most of the time.

Tell us more about your debut play Supernova. What’s it about and what inspired it?
It’s a very personal story about love, grief, and trying to go back to the past. The lead character, Lucy, is a scientist who’s struggling to cope with her dad’s death. So she grips hold of the only thing she can rely on – physics – and uses that to try and go back in time by un-burning toast. Her partner Phil watches this unfold whilst being powerless to stop it. I won’t tell you what happens. But come and find out!

The play was inspired by my experience studying physics. I spent so long engaging with abstract scientific ideas that it altered my perception of reality. It felt strange to do ‘normal’ things like going to the pub, or going out with friends, or eating a meal. Supernova is really an exploration of that feeling. I hadn’t seen it explored in fiction before.

The play was directed by Fay Lomas. What has she brought to the production?
Everything! The script would still be gathering dust in a desk drawer if Fay hadn’t got involved. She has been so helpful throughout the process, from her specific and insightful script notes to working with the creative team to source a LOT of toasters. It’s an ambitious script which presents some fairly major challenges for a director, especially in the short time we had to rehearse, but Fay has proved herself to be more than capable. She and Adam (the show’s producer) have worked tirelessly to bring together all the different pieces of the jigsaw. I feel incredibly humbled to be working with such a dedicated creative team.

Do you think weaving real science into the story is an effective and accessible way of people learning about and engaging with science?
Supernova has a lot of physics in it, but it’s still a play not a science lesson. The physics is all there to help tell the story. That said, I do hope the play inspires people to go and read more about key concepts like time and entropy – which are pretty amazing when you dig into them. 

In general, we tend to keep our arts and our sciences pretty separate. They’re like two kids in a playground who don’t know they’re allowed to talk to each other. But in my opinion, this seems like a shame. My own curiosity about ‘big’ scientific ideas definitely started outside the classroom and I think there’s loads of really exciting work you can make when you start blurring this boundary. We should introduce them. They should be friends.

What do you hope audiences take away from watching Supernova?
It’s a love story. So I hope the audience walks away from the play rooting for the characters and their relationship. I hope they find some kind of emotional resonance with the journey that Lucy and Phil go on. Of course, if they pick up some fundamental facts about time and space along the way, that’s a bonus! If someone told me they’d learnt physics by watching the play, I’d be thrilled.

You are also the Writer’s Assistant on Ted Lasso. How are you finding that and what have you taken from the experience?
I am. I’ve worked on the show for two seasons now and my role has really developed over that time. They even let me direct the ‘Ted Lasso does Comic Relief’ sketch for Red Nose day earlier this year which was a dream come true. I did the entire thing wearing a red nose. Seeing the Ted Lasso scripts get built from the bottom up, and being part of that process, has taught me so much about comedy writing. It helps that the writers are extremely generous with their knowledge and experience. The shoot hours are pretty long which means we spend a lot of time together. We’ve turned into a kind of strange, highly caffeinated, co-working family. They will read this and laugh at me.

Have you got any future projects on the horizon?
I’ve just started a comedy-physics podcast called Physics for Phiish, where I interview real physicists about their research for the benefit of “Phiish” – hypothetical beings who live in nine-dimensional vector space. It’s very silly, but has a lot of real physics in it as well. Another comedy-science crossover. Coming soon! 

In terms of writing, Supernova was my first play and I’d love to write another one. I have an idea I’d love to get on a page but it’s still brewing. Or stewing. Or whatever ideas do before they fledge your brain. I’m also hoping to move forward with some TV and radio projects once Ted Lasso ends. Then maybe sleep for a month! It’s been a busy year.

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