Liv Hill talks Alma Mater, feminism, and life as an actor

Images by Marc Brenner

Theatre is an art form known for pushing the boundaries of social conversations, this includes discussions about feminism. This is certainly the case with the upcoming play, Alma Mater, coming to London’s Almeida theatre this summer. Written by Kendall Feaver and directed by Polly Findlay, the play discusses the differences between generations of feminists when talking about sexual assault and how to use activism to push the conversation forward. One of the lead actors in the play, Liv Hill, took the time to speak to us about her role, the play, and how it has shaped her perspectives on feminism. 

Can you tell us about your character in Alma Mater and what drew you to this role?

Yes! I play Paige Hutson, she’s 18 years old and she’s from the Welsh Valleys. I have some links there so I felt like I could get a sense of who she is. We meet her on her first day of university at Freshers Week. She’s very warm, bright, full of hope and aspirations like most young students. Unfortunately, that hope is seriously broken by what happens on her first night at uni. I was drawn to the role because of her arc, it’s an incredibly fulfilling role. Kendall has written a really incredible play full of incredible characters; each character feels full and complex. It was very easy to say yes to this role.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the play itself? 

It’s funny because all of us in the cast have been trying to think about how we explain this to our friends and family because it so layered and complex. It’s about rape culture on a university campus. It’s also about the conflict between different generations of feminism and how we tackle the issue of assault. It asks whether it should be a public trial or it should be in a court of law and the use of social media in that conversation. 

How does your character’s experience and perspective highlight the generational divide between feminists depicted in the play?

I guess because of what happens to my character, that she’s sexually assaulted her first night of uni, the question is if you’re a victim of sexual abuse, should that define your life? Should that become your identity and do you have a responsibility to share that story with others to help? That’s the difference between my character Paige’s generation and Lia Williams’ character Jo’s generation. Paige’s generation thinks we need to use our platform to give a voice to this issue and this is our identity; that we should be proud of what has shaped us. Then there’s the other train of thought from the older generation who think ‘Well why should I have to share my story, it’s my story and this shouldn’t define my life forever’.

Alma Mater deals with heavy themes such as sexual assault and activism. How did you prepare emotionally and mentally for such a challenging role?

It is challenging. I think with any role like this you must approach it with a sense of empathy and sensitivity always. Having an openness to listen to other people’s experiences and how they deal with them is what’s amazing about this particular play. The director Polly has created such a safe environment for us that it feels incredibly well-supported. The Almeida is doing everything to make us feel like we can take risks in that rehearsal room, to able to share ideas and not be shut down. I feel very well supported emotionally, physically, in all areas, so I am in the best place.

What has it been like working with Polly Findlay as the director and the rest of the cast, particularly Lia Williams and Phoebe Campbell?

Polly is quite amazing, from four weeks of working with her so far, I can see she’s just so emotionally intelligent and calm, modest and bright. I think that is what makes her the director she is. Her awareness of others of all different backgrounds and that she can read a room. She’s been able to pick apart this play and the intricacies and the details of it to create something that’s really detailed and special. Lia and Phoebe are incredibly talented actors to work with, as are the rest of the cast and are genuinely lovely people. I’ve been lucky, we’ve all been lucky I think, and that we share that feeling, that sentiment.

How do the interactions between your character and Lia Williams’ character, who represents an older feminist perspective, highlight the conflicts and commonalities in feminist thought?

Paige is a young white woman and one of the debates included in this play centres around how she’s very privileged. Yes, what’s happened to her is incredibly awful but is it an obligation for her to use that privilege compared to someone else who this might have happened to, to therefore help others and have a platform? For so long women have not had a platform and have not been heard or listened to. We have to make our voices loud. Whereas, I think in Lia’s character the line of thought is very much ‘No, don’t make this your identity. Don’t make this who you are’ because drawing attention is making it more of a thing. You’re making this your life, you’re letting it control your life I guess.

What has been your personal takeaway or revelation about feminism through your involvement in Alma Mater?

I see myself as a feminist absolutely. The biggest takeaway for me is that feminism, the feminism of my generation, it’s going to probably seem incredibly outdated in 10 years, 20 years. I think there’s always going to be conflict and clashes between different generations because feminism has to keep getting updated and keep getting checked and keep changing and evolving to create something that will move to be beneficial for everyone. I think the most important thing for me in understanding that there’s always going to be conflict, is to therefore keep an open mind to everyone’s experiences and everyone’s opinions and how they’ve been formed. To not shut anyone down for thinking something different, whilst also retaining your own integrity in your own experience. I was a bit nervous before going into the rehearsals because of all the politically charged topics. It’s sometimes scary to express a new point, but Polly created an environment where everyone feels safe enough to share and for it not to be shut down immediately. For it to be challenged, yes, but everyone’s got an open mind.

Your performance in Three Girls was critically acclaimed and dealt with similarly heavy themes. How do you approach roles that involve portraying victims of trauma?

Well, it’s interesting because I did Three Girls when I was 16, it was my first project and now I’m 24. I’ve been working for eight years and so I do feel a different sense of the weight of responsibility. Three Girls was different because we were playing real people, we met the real girls who we were playing and the BBC handled it with such amazing integrity, care and genuine empathy. They wanted to tell the stories of these girls in the best way possible. Whilst Alma Mater isn’t a true story in a literal sense, it is still people’s stories and so I do feel more pressure to make sure how I portray Paige and her experience of sexual assault is incredibly sensitive, authentic and true. The only way you can go into it is just listening and trying to listen to your gut instinct.

In The Serpent Queen, you played a historical figure, which is quite different from your role in Alma Mater. How do you adapt to such varied roles, and what do you find most challenging?

I connect with the roles that are most different to me. Someone described it once as you basically use your own traits in every character you play; it’s me but just I turn up or turn down the dials of the different parts of myself. It’s definitely the most scary for me to play characters who are most like myself because there is no place to hide. It’s very vulnerable, there’s no place to hide. I think you must be very accepting of yourself to play someone incredibly like yourself because it exposes so many people. I guess the challenge of playing someone different to me is more exciting, and more comfortable really.

What inspired you to become an actress, and who are some of your role models in the industry?

As a child I always enjoyed and loved creativity. I loved storytelling, whether that was writing, acting, or directing my friends in the school park. Then when I was a teen, a young teenager, I started to push that away because I was quite embarrassed to act. It wasn’t something that was cool in school; I was just trying to survive basically. I discovered a monologue in drama class from The Witches by Roald Dahl, and it was to play The Grand High Witch, which was one of my favourite films when I was a child. Angelica Houston played The Grand Witch, and I literally rediscovered it in preparing this monologue for the class. It was incredibly scary at 13, but it really lit a flame and a passion in me. I knew from that moment this is what I want to do; this is really the only thing that makes me truly happy. 

What advice would you give to young actors who are just starting out, especially those who are interested in tackling challenging and meaningful roles?

It’s so easy to say it’s true that what hear a lot in the media; that acting is an incredibly difficult career and you shouldn’t choose it and you’re going to get loads of rejection. That it’s going to be so hard and you’re going to hate your life and whatever. Part of it is true, there is a lot of rejection, and it can be incredibly tough sometimes, especially when you’re in between jobs. You’re thinking ‘My god when is my next paycheck coming’. The biggest thing I can say, and I’ve always held on to this, is that 10% of it is going to be luck and opportunity, and 90% of it is going to be talent and hard work. You don’t know when that 10% of luck is going to arrive, but it will if you keep the faith. You just have to hold that belief in yourself, but make sure you’re ready to do everything you can to create opportunities for yourself. Train, practice, watch great theatre, watch great films, be inspired to develop and bring your complete toolkit. That opportunity will come, and you’ll feel ready for it.

Can you share any upcoming projects or roles you are excited about?

Alma Mater will officially open from the 18th of June until the 20th of July at the Almeida Theatre in Islington. Please come! I think, trying to be non-biased, it is an extraordinary new piece of writing that takes a lot of risks. It’ll be interesting to hear people’s opinions, but whatever you think, you’ll have a reaction. I also filmed an Apple TV series directed by Alfonso Cuarón (director of Roma) called Disclaimer that should come out either at the end of this year or next year. I also filmed a BBC TV series called Miss Austin directed by Ashling Walsh about Jane Austen and her sister. That will also be out soon.

Alma Mater will show at the Almeida Theatre in Islington from the 11th of June until the 20th of July. Tickets are available here.

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