Evan Sunderland is a storyteller. Sitting in a corner of a tea room in Fade Street, his black hoodie and dark-rimmed glasses were in sharp contrast with the pink and white china tea set on the table in front of him. He looked incongruous in this environment and yet, funnily enough, the scene is perfect. Evan Sunderland is the writer of Alice the Rebel, a play coming to Dublin in a few months. While it is still a work in progress, Sunderland aims to avail of the variety of theatre festivals around the city. He tells me later that fateful coincidences such as these seem to follow him. When he met with his co-writer Mandy Campbell to discuss the first production of Alice the Rebel almost a year ago, the shop beside them was a haberdashery store called “Hatters”.
Sunderland has always been interested in storytelling. He always had a deep fascination with movies and films, having seen Pulp Fiction and The Godfather at ten years of age before graduating to French Connection and Rocky Horror Picture Show at twelve. His beginning in theatre was not unlike the experience of any other “young geeky drama kids”. He participated for a few years in paid theatre workshops in the Gaiety Theatre, but eventually stopped, realising that he did not enjoy the experience at all. “As you get older,” he muses, “you look back and you realise that they are a bit scammy.” That would have been the end of his theatre experience had he not met Clara Burke, a theatre practitioner who visited Sunderland’s school in transition year. She later became Sunderland’s mentor, teacher, and close friend. Using Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as a model, she introduced Sunderland and the rest of her class to the basics of theatre and the ropes of the industry, and encouraged them to pursue the art further. With Burke’s support, Sunderland joined Dublin Youth Theatre, which he credits for “nearly everything” he knows about the industry. “She wasn’t so much interested in doing a school play as much as she was interested in doing this huge, fairly intensive, introduction in theatre.”
The class took field trips to see various productions, and for most of them, the experience was their first exposure to theatre. Most of the shows they saw were solo performances, made with little budget but a lot of resourcefulness and imagination. “A lot of what I was seeing was made for next-to-nothing, somebody decided they were going to do a show [and] wrote it,” Sunderland remarks. “Onstage, it is just them, maybe two chairs, one piece of nondescript furniture, and that can be a whole world unto itself.” Shows such as Man of Valour, performed by Paul Reid, and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Pondling, which Sunderland says is still one of the best things he has ever seen, had a massive impact on him, so much so that many of his shows have followed the same format. For example, the first Alice the Rebel show featured only Alice and the Hatter, and a weathered tea set on a table. The play took on the subject of mental illness, portraying the Hatter as a force growing inside of Alice’s head. Sunderland and Campbell wrote the piece to initiate a conversation about depression, but they wanted to do it inconspicuously. “Never used that word,” Sunderland says. “Never used that kind of vernacular or vocabulary that comes with [the topic of mental illness], but we were describing an Alice and a Hatter, and Hatter was something that was growing inside of her head, trying to become something more.”
The new show, which features not only Alice and the Hatter but also the March Hare and the Dormouse, is set to become another conversation starter. The play will tackle the topic of confirmation bias, wherein a person who has existing ideals and beliefs tends to interpret situations and new information as confirmation of those beliefs. In the show, Hatter and Hare have stagnated in a situation that they call “the state of tea”. It features empty teacups and teapots, and teatime, which was once a pleasurable activity, has deteriorated into chaos. Alice then becomes the “fair, objective force” standing up against Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse. “It ties with this idea of language policing and everybody wanting to be politically correct,” Sunderland remarks. “And [political correctness] has great merits to it but I think that a lot of people’s ideas about that can be quite militant and fascistic.”
Given the current political and social climate, there is a good chance that this play will ignite quite a discussion among those who see it. However, Sunderland says that he is not trying to be controversial. “We’re not trying to be too on-the-nose about it, I think. I hope,” he says. Sunderland imagines that his audience will be separated into roughly two factions: one group who will not interpret the play in the way Sunderland intended, and another who would interpret the play as he does, but wouldn’t necessarily agree with him. “I love seeing something, coming out of it, and one person saying, ‘Well, wasn’t that shite?!’ and the other person saying ‘well, hang on…’ and that’s what’s great about storytelling, so I like to provoke that.”
Sunderland admits that the show has tested his theatrical expertise in ways that his previous shows hasn’t. A lot of his own time and energy has been spent writing the show alone, which he says took about seven months. Designing the characters has also not been effortless. “At this stage, I have forty A4 pages of different sketches of Hatter,” he says. Putting on the show itself has also been a challenge. “There’s quite a few hurdles along the way. The fact that we’re not funded, [and] we’re doing [only] okay for space. But what’s different is that we’ve got foundation this time. We intend to take this quite far.”
He also recognizes that the show’s cast and crew are all made up of students, who, although they have a lot of experience and education behind them, are not what one would consider professionals in the industry. However, he hopes that the success of the play will bring the team opportunities from those who will support them. “I want to do as good [sic] as we possibly can, and get some attention from it,” he says. “I want to show other practitioners, ‘hey, this is me. This is them. Look what we can do, look at what we’ve done.’ [I’d also love to get] the chance to work on something similar to Alice [the Rebel] again, with support.”
Despite the intricacies of putting on Alice the Rebel, Sunderland cannot wait for opening night. “I’m very excited, but I’m shitting myself at the same time, but that’s all part and parcel,” Sunderland says. “Game face on. I want this to have a life and I want to meet audiences who goes to see it. They can hate us, that’s fine. But once it’s out there, I’ll be happy to have done something. And then do it again.”
On his own future, Sunderland hopes to keep writing and telling stories, whether as a writer for cinema or theatre, or producing his own. “Writing is sort of the point for me,” Sunderland says, “and then I’ll let whatever other ventures stack on top of that”.