At the age of 19, Polly Stenham was catapulted to fame when her play That Face—the first thing she ever wrote, she says, other than “terrible poetry”—was discovered in a writing workshop and produced by London’s Royal Court Theatre to widespread acclaim.
That Face moved to London’s West End and eventually to New York in 2010, winning Stenham a Critics’ Circle Award and three Olivier nominations at a time when her peers were still in college. Ten years on, Stenham has produced a body of work that is the envy of playwrights twice her age, with three more London shows. “Starting young made me fearless,” the 29-year-old says. “You don’t know how many ways in which you can fail.”
Her plays grapple with mental health, family dysfunction and -middle-class privilege, leading some to call her the voice of a particular kind of generation—the young and well-off, now forced to confront their lives of monied entitlement. Her own upbringing, as the daughter of a wealthy Unilever director and an artist mother who suffered with mental illness, gave Stenham very personal insight. “At what point are you accountable for your actions, and at what point are you the helpless sum of your past?” she asks.
She has plenty of fans—Girls creator Lena Dunham among them—but Stenham is self-effacing about her achievements. She also shows no sign of slowing down. She helped write Nicolas Winding Refn’s new psychothriller, The Neon Demon, a hit at Cannes this year, and is working on an adaptation of The Odyssey for Britain’s National Theatre—an epic, but one that embraces her themes of loss and homecoming.
If Stenham has learned anything from the past decade, it’s to embrace her self-doubt and use it to strengthen her resolve: “I think by just working through it, I try to overcome it.”