If you’re a bloke at a bar with Abbie Spallen and she tells you she’s an actress, that means she’s sweet on you. But if she tells you she’s a writer, it’s time to try your luck with another girl.
The 30-something Irish native, who refuses to reveal her exact age, has worn a number of professional hats over the years including working as an actress and voiceover artist. For the past five years she’s found herself writing scripts between acting gigs and her latest play “Pumpgirl” is currently in production at The Bush Theatre. But when it comes time to own up to her exact profession, she chooses her words carefully.
“If a guy’s chatting you up at a pub and you want him to stay, you tell him you’re an actress, but if you want him to leave, you tell him you’re a writer,” says Spallen. She claims it’s her tried and true way of navigating her local Dublin pubs. However, she is capable of finding one title that fits her many professions. “I suppose I’m a hustler really, more than anything else,” she says.
A hustler with luck on her side, that is. “Pumpgirl” is only Spallen’s third full length play and her first to premiere outside of Ireland. Armed with a list of theatres that accept new scripts, she blindly sent hers to as many as possible. The Bush Theatre, which gets sent about 1,500 scripts a year, and produces only a handful, picked Spallen’s. It was first performed last month as part of the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival before coming to London.
As a relatively new playwright, Spallen says that she tries to avoid reading her reviews, but usually ends up giving into the temptation. “Broadsheet reviews are the ones you want,” she says. “When you get four stars in those papers, the others don’t matter.” And she has gotten four star reviews – from The Times, The Herald, The Financial Times and The Guardian.
Her earlier forays into the creative realm were not as lucky. After following her boyfriend to Art College in Belfast she was kicked out after her first semester there because, she said, “I was 18 and just drunk all the time.” But it’s not a situation she regrets, first of all because she classifies her fine art skills as “crap.” Secondly, because, “it was before the Damien Hirst thing took off, so your only choice after you left was to teach art,” she said.
The following year was spent traveling around before she returned home and was talked into becoming an actress by a stage manager friend. What was her friend’s line that convinced her? “You should be an actress because you’re mental.”
Spallen landed a role in “The Magnanimous Lover,” the first play she auditioned for, and her equity card followed six months after that. Ironically, her parents, whom she had followed into the profession, told her not to bother with a career in theatre. Her drama teacher father and especially her actress mother knew the struggles that she would face and wanted to spare her from them.
But the rose tinted view of the profession that Spallen admired her mother with when she was a child had long since left her, and she understood that the best way to survive as an actress was keeping a firm grip on her day jobs. When she was first starting out, Spallen padded her resume, listing “circus skills,” as one of her talents in the hopes of getting any job she was mildly qualified for. Today, she laughs about the “circus skills,” reference, but doesn’t back down from her claim. “I can juggle with clubs and can last about three and a half minutes on stilts,” she says.
Her work as a voiceover actress has been more lucrative. Right now she’s the salty and cheeky narrator for “Lifeboat Luke,” a 52-part animated series.
And, of course, she has her writing. “It gives you a wee bit of power back,” Spallen says about going from being an actress to a playwright. She says that she writes best in the morning after she’s freshened her head with two cups of coffee, but can still only focus for a limited time. “My ears start to bleed after four hours of work,” she says.
“Pumpgirl” was inspired by all of the down-on-her-luck women working at the gas stations she’d stop at during her days as an actress on tour. “I’d seen so many types of her. I’d seen her so many times,” she said. The story’s set in Spallen’s hometown of Armagh, Northern Ireland and depicts the gang rape of a boyish pumpgirl and the consequences that follow. It’s a serious subject for someone to whom jokes seems to come to so easily, but Spallen said that she was interested in writing about rape because of the gray area that surrounds it. The three actors who appear on stage during the play are all given a chance to tell their side of the story, but Shawshank, one of the nastier characters, remains offstage, unable to defend himself. Spallen’s treatment of him doesn’t soften anymore when she talks about her work. “If he wanted to tell his story, he should have shown up,” she says.
It’s these sort of remarks that makes it easy to label Spallen a feminist, but she disagrees. “Feminist – that word has been battered around enough,” she says. “I think it’s time we became women, fuck, that word’s more
But then after thinking for a minute Spallen comes up with the label that suits her better than hustler, feminist or any of the other ones. “I’m an Abbie, and that’s enough.”
Note: Another one from the archives to fatten up the posts. This one is also circa 2006. It was written for school and never published.