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9th April 2022

Playwright Tim Foley on Electric Rosary, his inspirations, and the power of sci-fi

Head of Culture Michal Wasilewski interviews Tim Foley, the playwright behind Electric Rosary
Playwright Tim Foley on Electric Rosary, his inspirations, and the power of sci-fi
Photo: Royal Exchange Theatre.

Winner of the prestigious Bruntwood Prize Judges’ Award in 2017, Tim Foley’s Electric Rosary is coming to Manchester for its world premiere, playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre between the 23rd of April and the 14th of May.

The unconventional sci-fi comedy follows the Sisters of St Grace Convent, dwindling in numbers and lacking in divine inspiration. Help might come to them in the form of a council-funded robot-nun, Mary (played by Breffni Holahan), who has just been invited to join the convent.

Posing questions about the nature of faith and spirituality in the wake of rapid technological advancements, Electric Rosary is a sharp and timely play that explores what it means to be human in tomorrow’s world.

On the occasion of the upcoming premiere, I talked to Tim Foley to discuss his inspirations for the story and the artistic vision behind it.

The main theme of Electric Rosary is the fear of change and fear of the future. Although written back in 2016, when the UK was preparing for the Brexit referendum, the play held its course and stayed true to what it was meant to convey in the first place.

“There’s been times along the way that I was worried the play no longer had any relevance, because for a while it seemed to tie into Brexit things. And then when it was about to go on in 2020, it felt like it was touching on a lot of that lockdown, on urban citizens who sort of shut off the outside world. It was an interesting process, balancing that timeliness with timelessness.”

“I think we’re always going to be a bit nervous about what lies ahead, which I guess is why it’s a timeless theme. When it comes to sci-fi stories, it can be so easy to write about dystopias, scary Black Mirror stuff. But I quite like sci-fi myself to imagine a better future, so I hope that’s what the play is doing.”

I asked Tim to elaborate on the thought of balancing timeliness with timelessness. Looking back at the most famous and culturally relevant sci-fi works, from George Orwell’s 1984 to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, they still manage to capture the anxiety and fear of their times many decades after their release.

“I think that’s really true. 1984 hasn’t been held back by the fact that its setting was the year 1984. There’s loads of sci-fi things that people can often laugh at, like when we reached 2001 and, unlike in A Space Odyssey, we’re not all in space. But it’s not sci-fi’s job to predict the future. I think it’s using the anxieties of the day to imagine the worst case scenario or the best case scenario. Like you say, 1984 is a great example, tapping into all that post-war stuff that the whole world was worried about.”

Just like myself, Tim turns out to be an admirer of brutalist architecture, often prevalent in sci-fi works from the second half of the twentieth century. He mentions one of his plays, unfortunately cancelled in 2020, that was to be set in a similar aesthetics.

“I’m always interested in forgotten futures, futures that never happened. I’m a big fan of Doctor Who, and I love seeing all the 1970s stories, which are set in these big, concrete buildings, because people assumed that the future would just be full of brutalist architecture. And we kind of laugh at that. So sci-fi stories are really good time capsules of what people are thinking about at the time. And maybe Electric Rosary is going to be a time capsule of life and theatre in the post-lockdown world.”

Coming back to Electric Rosary, I asked Tim which sci-fi works inspired him this time. “I was inspired by lots of robot films”, he replied, “Everything from Ex Machina to Blade Runner. It seems to me that there’s two kinds of robot stories. There’s the one where the robots are servants, and then there’s a revolution. And then there’s one where robots are hyper-sexualised. I wanted to steer clear away from either of those, because I thought that was quite reductive.”

“Traditional depictions of robots is something I’ve always been interested in. I don’t know if you know” – no, I did not know – “but the word ‘robot’ comes from Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, R.U.R. Although there’s not so much sci-fi theatre these days, I think there has been in the past. I also love the work of Alistair McDowall who used to go to your uni [the University of Manchester], who won the Bruntwood himself 11 years ago. He’s really good at putting strange, almost sci-fi tropes into his works and messing around with them. So yeah, I guess they were my inspirations.”

The direct inspiration for the story setting, however, comes from a trip to a monastery Tim experienced about 15 years ago. 

“I’m not a deeply religious person, but I was raised Catholic, and my grandad was very Catholic himself. He’d helped build a monastery back in the 50s, and he kept in touch with all the monks there. And so when I needed a bit of downtime one summer, he was like, ‘You go up and experience living that monastic life and being with oneself’. Old phones obviously still existed, but it was easy to cut myself off then, much easier than it would be now.”

“When I was there, the monks were wrestling with the fact that they were often quite old, and part of their vows was to work the land. Yet, they couldn’t really fulfil those vows. So, they were starting to use technology, including quad bikes, to get around.”

“Fast forward to 2016, I met a bunch of young farmers who were using technology to improve their farms. They had like GPS tractors, they had apps that could work out when the cow needed milking and what injections it needed. And for some reason, I just put that technology together with this image that I’ve been carrying around of this monk on a quad bike, and I was like, ‘Imagine if these monks could get technology. And what would that mean to their faith? Would they still be fulfilling their vows if they hand things over to robots?’ So that’s kind of where it came from.”

I asked Tim whether, since marketed as a comedy, Electric Rosary is some kind of a satire on the Church or on Christianity, and whether it could offend some religious groups.

“No, not at all, I wouldn’t do anything offensive. Like I say, my whole family’s religious, and I have grown up catholic. Although I don’t practice the faith anymore, I still recognise a lot of the good qualities of the faith.”

“Again, similar to the way that robots can be depicted, nuns can be depicted as either very cruel creatures or in a silly, jokey way, like in Sister Act. I wanted to tell a story that was quite grounded, quite true, and quite hopeful. There’s something lovely about these women coming together and sharing something, even if they are struggling, even if they’re a bit broke, even if the world outside gets a bit rotten.”

“It’s been marketed as a comedy, but even then, I’d be like, it’s more of a dramedy. It’s got comedic moments, and you can’t help but have comedic moments when you’ve got robots and nuns smashed together, like the comedy almost writes itself. But it’s not like a sitcom. I think there are real moments of heart and interesting exploration of faith and technology, and how it can possibly intertwine.”

Electric Rosary runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre from 23rd April until 14th May.

Michal Wasilewski

Michal Wasilewski

Managing Editor of Culture for The Mancunion.

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