Lucy Kaufman’s latest play keeps the home fires burning

We have showcased Lucy Kaufman’s work at She Writes, so we are delighted to tell you about her full-length play, on at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre. 

HOME FIRES explores the impact of World War One through the eyes of women – mothers, wives, sweethearts, and munitions workers – using actual letters, diaries, poetry and song.

Featuring an all-female cast, this musical play brings to the stage the real-life stories and experiences of Sydenham’s gas workers and their families. The result is a touching, sometimes comic, and engaging story which embraces universal themes of comradeship, love and loss.

HOME FIRES was developed as part of the Heritage Lottery and Arts Council England-funded musical theatre project TILL THE BOYS COME HOME, and premiered at the prestigious Sydenham Arts Festival 2014 in July.

Tues 28 April to 2 May  2015 at 7.45pm Book here

Tickets: £14, £11 concs. Suitable for 10+

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Heather Jeffery Q and A

Heather with cast member Joey Bartram (Sam Mellish Photography)

Heather with cast member Joey Bartram (Sam Mellish Photography)

Heather Jeffery’s play FACE TO FACE is at the Drayton Arms Theatre from tomorrow. We asked her some questions about writing… 

What first drove you to write?
I have a very vivid imagination, so stories are coming to me all the time. It seemed natural to put them on paper.

How and when do you write?
I have a laptop on my desk under a window which gives me a view of a copse of trees. I write for several hours a day, often finishing late afternoon. I do sometimes write during the night if I cannot sleep and my mind starts bringing ideas that seem important to record. Usually when I read it the following day it goes in the bin!

Who inspires you and how?
I am inspired by women who have achieved amazing things or have lived through incredible traumas. I am always so surprised by them, mainly because woman’s stories are not being told often enough and as a result it is easy to underestimate them. Reading about these women encourages and motivates me to be more ambitious.

Do you only write plays? Or do you write other things?
At the moment I largely write plays but I also get involved in marketing, blogs, reviews and forums. They are all creative and require different approaches which I find very satisfying. I would like to write novels and film/television/radio scripts but for the moment I am happy to concentrate on fully realising my potential as a playwright.

What advice would you give to other writers?
Each form of writing has its own disciplines; they are crafts which can be learnt. However originality cannot be taught, so do not be afraid to experiment with whatever you feel you have to offer. There are so many platforms for your writing and finding the right one is a great place to start and then keep working at it.

Are you working on anything right now?
I am busy with my current play FACE TO FACE which is being performed at Drayton Arms Theatre in South Kensington 28 April to 23 May. I have been involved in the rehearsal process, mainly making edits and joining in the discussions about back story and subtext. I will continue to be involved in this way during the run as we expect to make small changes to keep the actors responsive to changes which will help them to keep the characters alive. The artwork exhibited in the FACE TO FACE set was kindly lent to us by the artist Hardijs Gruduls.

Tell us about FACE TO FACE and the process of developing the play
As a writer I am most interested in changes in society and the way we live our lives now. I was intrigued by all the press coverage about problems of isolation in big cities. This raised a number of questions such as how far did social media fill the gap and what would be the effects over a period of time. These would be my themes but to find the story I preferred to take my inspiration from specific sites. It really began to emerge when I visited a studio which had belonged to Bossanyi, a stained glass artist who came to England as an immigrant escaping persecution. It seemed really pertinent that society is so mobile and that people often settle in places far from their community and families. These thoughts gradually led to a story about an artist who had been involved in an accident which resulted in her living in her studio separated from her family and friends. We meet her at the point of crisis when the three other characters have become emotionally trapped, unable to move forward until her problem is resolved.
Niall Phillips directs FACE TO FACE at the Drayton Arms Theatre
28 April to 23 May,  Tickets £15/12
Rachel, a young female artist recovering from a serious injury, develops a relationship with her sitter. Their shared exploration of deeper themes of artistic endeavour is shattered by the arrival of Shaun, who drives a wedge of distrust between them. Is Rachel’s growing belief in a dangerous conspiracy a product of her overactive imagination or a very real threat?

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50/50 Applause Award for Theatres Recognizing Women Around the Globe

Today, the International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP) announced the nomination window for its prestigious worldwide annual award: The ICWP 50/50 Applause Award which will open in one week’s time. The award, now in its fourth year, increases awareness and honours theatres which produced a 2014/15 season with an equal or greater number of plays written by female playwrights.

The nomination period for the 2014/15 theatrical season runs from May 1–22, 2015. Requirements for eligibility for the award are listed on this web page.

The ICWP anticipates an overwhelming response this year, so get ready to nominate your gender-equal theatres in May. A button for accessing the nominating form will go live on the ICWP website at that time.

ABOUT ICWP

Established in 1989, The International Centre for Women Playwrights is a an organization that exists to bring attention to the achievements of women playwrights and provide a place for peer support, knowledge-sharing, and play publication. It is the goal of ICWP to enable women playwrights to have their plays professionally produced on the major stages of world and to receive just recompense for their efforts. When the numbers are no longer tragically skewed against women, we will no longer be needed. http://www.womenplaywrights.org

ICWP 50/50 logo

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Introducing The Directory

One of the best ways to promote and support gender equality in the theatre is to disseminate information about female practitioners, or make that information easier to find. We have been thinking about ways to do this since 2009…

Lucy Kerbel of Tonic Theatre brilliantly observed that the way to stop people saying they’d like to have more women on stage, but ‘where are the plays with roles for women?’, was to research and write her book ‘100 Great Plays for Women’. Lucy’s book has made it impossible for people to say they don’t know any plays with good roles for women.

Through the course of many discussions about women in theatre, a question has been asked, ‘is there a list of female-led and/or feminist theatre companies?’ and our response has been, that no, as far as we are aware, no national list exists (although many organisations such as FemaleArts have useful link lists).

THE DIRECTORY is going to be our response to this. People will not be able to say – we’d like to work with more female theatre companies, but… We are going to create an online database of female-led and feminist theatre companies in the UK. We are defining female-led theatre companies as those which are wholly or majority run by women, and feminist theatre companies as those who programming a majority or equal number of plays written by women and with an equal or majority number of roles for women.

We would also like to produce a printed and extended version of this database, with some specially written articles,  which can be on the shelves in theatre offices and drama libraries, and are researching possible funding models for this.

Initially The Directory’s online version will be a snapshot of female companies working in the UK in 2015, and we will aim to update this on at least a 6-monthly basis. Over the Easter weekend we were contacted by 70 theatre companies, and entries continue to come in – so we know that this is a project that people really want to be part of. You can add your company’s details here. We’re looking forward to finding out about you!

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Win After Electra script

After Electra by April de Angelis

After Electra by April de Angelis

We have teamed up with the Tricycle Theatre, who are currently hosting the Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production of April de Angelis’ ‘After Electra’, and we have two copies of the playscript to giveaway in our competition.  

It’s Virgie’s 81st birthday and she is bucking convention with a very surprising trick up her sleeve. But always a more committed artist than mother, Virgie has not reckoned on her family and friends’ determination to thwart her distinctly unusual birthday plans.

Will her loved ones consent to her last wish, or could the secrets of their past stand in the way?

April De Angelis’ After Electra is a deeply moving and blisteringly witty black comedy that re-imagines the meaning of family and explores how the choices we make can change our lives forever.

After Electra, follows April De Angelis’ Jumpy (4 stars from Guardian/Telegraph/The Arts Desk) which transferred to the West End following its sell out success at the Royal Court and is now receiving international acclaim.

‘It’s such a pleasure to see an octogenarian character as complex as Vergie on stage – determined, passionate, selfish, antagonistic – and Marty Cruickshank plays her with verve and glitter.’ The Stage

By April De Angelis
Directed by Samuel West
A Theatre Royal Plymouth production

Post show Q&A: Tuesday 14 April. Included in ticket price.
Tue 7 Apr 2015 – Sat 2 May 2015
Book Tickets
At the Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR

COMPETITION QUESTION: Who were the original Electra’s mum and dad?
To win a copy of the script – please email us with the answer to this question, plus your name and address. (Competition is open to UK and NI based readers only, and closes 00:01 on 15 April. All correct entries received by the closing date will be put into a hat and two winners randomly chosen.) Good luck!

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Memory Monday

Just been listening to the third podcast from our 17Percent launch mini-festival in March 2010 – featuring the Artistic Director, of Sphinx Theatre Company, Sue Parrish; Director Lucy Pitman-Wallace, Aurora Metro founder Cheryl Robson and playwright Emma Adams.

Sue Parrish, Lucy Pitman-Wallace, Cheryl Robson and Emma Adams

Sue Parrish, Lucy Pitman-Wallace, Cheryl Robson and Emma Adams

Listen here.

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Female-led companies – we want to hear from you!

An ambition of 17Percent has long been to compile a database of female-led and feminist UK theatre companies, which we will have available on this site. We are now able to start our year-long project of making this a reality. We will be breaking the task down into regions, and our new blogger Joanna Lally will be helping to compile the database.

To clarify, we are seeking companies that are led by a majority or equal number of women, you don’t have to be female-only, and you don’t have to produce only work by women. If you are a theatre company comprised of women and men and consider yourselves feminist, and you program an equal or positive number of plays by female writers, then we’d also like to hear from you.

If you run such a theatre company and would like to feature in this listing – please get in touch!

You can now submit your information via our contact form.

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A thousand plays for Shakespeare

Annie Jenkins

Annie Jenkins

Annie Jenkins is a 24-year-old playwright from Tottenham, North London. For the Shakespeare in Shoreditch Festival 2014, she was locked in a shed for 10 days by immersive theatre-makers RIFT. During that time she was challenged to accumulate 1,000 original plays. She encouraged visitors, audience members, and the public to contribute to her mission and by Day 10 she had written 700 plays which saw the birth of Granny Annie, Winita, The Jaundiced Ghost, Monica and Chandler Paul, and a bunch of real people.

The 300 plays she had donated included contributions from Oscar-winners and 4-year-olds and covering subjects as varied as The NHS, funerals and Zip Vans. 17Percent stumbled across her website annies1000plays.com and thought it such a brilliant idea that we’d ask her more. 

Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing: what is your writing background?

Loads of people who like writing or are writers often remember having written stories and all sorts for as long as they can remember, sadly not the case with me so I don’t have a massive writing background other than school and university stuff. That said, I did write a touching novel when I was about eight called ‘The Tennis Ball Friends’.

I decided when I was about seventeen that I wanted write a play but didn’t really know how to go about it and became a bit distracted by going to the pub so that was that until I did a writing for performance module run in conjunction with The Royal Exchange at university by the end of which I’d produced a sixty minute play. I think that gave me a lot more confidence as well as teaching me how to write a play. Since then I’ve done a couple of writing courses and a first draft of a full length play as well as sitting in the shed for two weeks as part of the Shakespeare in Shoreditch Festival last October.

Give us some more info about the 1000 plays project?

I had been helping with the development of Shakespeare in Shoreditch since early last year but it was out on hold for the summer as RIFT staged their overnight production of Macbeth. I wasn’t involved in that so hadn’t really seen everyone for a little while. When I went to see Francesca (who produces Shakespeare in Shoreditch) towards the end of Macbeth’s run she sprung the idea on me that they’d like me to write a hundred plays in a shed as part of the Festival. I was like, what? And just said yes, October seemed ages away. The next time I heard anything about it the number one hundred had evolved into a thousand and I was vaguely horrified but it still seemed ages away. I had loads of good intentions about practicing doing some every day for months but as has become a familiar theme with me over the years I didn’t carry out my good intentions and suddenly there I was sitting in the shed with the number one thousand looming before me. So yeah basically the thousand plays project ran alongside the main body of the Shakespeare in Shoreditch Festival which consisted of ten pieces of new writing reimagining some of Shakespeare’s characters for a twenty first century Shoreditch. The plays were staged in site specific locations on Hoxton Street and the surrounding area, for example Abi Zakarian’s take on Titus Andronicus, ‘The Best Pies in London”, in F. Cooke’s pie and mash shop and Ali Muriel’s ‘Community Payback’ which took inspiration from Romeo and Juliet in the Hoxton Trust garden.

The idea of the festival is to reconnect Shakespeare’s Shoreditch (it’s perhaps less well known that some of his best known work including Romeo and Juliet was first produced there) over the two years between the 450th anniversary of his birth (April 2014) and the 400th anniversary of his death in April 2016. The idea of the shed plays was to get everybody creating and imagining, and everyday I opened the doors of my shed to audience members to donate their own tiny plays. In the end I received about three hundred donations. Lots of people were tentative about writing something when I first approached them but when I said all you have to do is write something down where something happens or make some people chat to each other the results were brilliant, often hilarious and surreal. Now the plays are being published two a day on tumblr (see annies1000plays.com) and we’re trying to continue the idea of a collaborative body of work by asking people to donate responses with the aim of creating a massive online gallery in the style of Miranda July’s ‘Learning to Love you More’ or Sophie Calle’s ‘Venice Pavilion’. The plays are also being published in three volumes, the first of which will be in April along with the launch of the next festival!

 What has your response to the plays written in response to your plays?

It might sound a bit silly or obvious but what I find the most interesting is the diversity of people’s responses. Or maybe it’s just a massive case of narcissism in that it’s interesting for me to see the different ways other people approach an idea that I initially thought of and communicated in a certain way. For example, one play has responses from Rebecca Lenkiewicz who is obviously a very well known playwright and also from a year seven student called Abigail. It’s probably easiest to communicate what I mean by just showing you the contrast in responses!

My play: 

Harold:           I don’t think it is unreasonable to throw tantrums, not ever.

Rebecca’s:

Look at Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. They did it. And I did it in Paris. With a guy who had been unfaithful but we’d already booked the Eurostar tickets. I sulked around the various cafes with him because I thought it would be better than bellowing on the streets of Southwark but it wasn’t. It was completely humiliating every time a couple looked over  a bridge and kissed. And when he scoffed an apricot tart and said it tasted nice and gave me what was meant to be a conciliatory, suggestive and seductive look I lost it so completely. And the tourist board must have wanted to evict us because it’s the city of love and I was just tourette’s in my rage. Screaming at him down the streets so that I could feel the back of my throat starting to tear. Whilst thin Parisian women with long hair passed by in their skinny jeans, eyes down. It felt fantastic though. I was quite lost when all the bile stopped.

Abigail’s:

‘Harold has a tantrum’

(Stomping up the stairs) Ugh I just came from school. EVERYBODY teased me except my best mate, Sam! He was quiet all day, I tried talking to him but all he said was “umm umm how? What?” I told my sister first, but she told everyone, that’s how the news spread! I hate my mum! She is so annoying she doesn’t even care that I got teased at school about me being a girl not a BOY! She even said to me you shouldn’t throw tantrums when you don’t need to! That was the last thing she said to me before she went to prison yesterday morning. This is an EXTREMELY good time to throw one, to be honest I don’t think it’s unreasonable to throw a tantrum, not ever! (Flinging onto the bed) She even kept it a secret that I was a girl 7 years! She cut my hair short, dressed me in boy clothes, named me Harold. If she is that desperate to have a boy then why doesn’t she have another child! But boys are kind of cooler than girls. But it has no reason why she had to do that to me! Now she’s in prison I hope she’s happy now! I just found out yesterday! How could she do this to me? HOW? Dad thought I was a boy too, he found out yesterday at 5.00am. Mum had the nerve to tell him! He was also the one that told me! Then, as soon as I heard, I called child services! I am soooooooooooooo angry!

See what I mean? It’s great! We’ve also got loads of responses from the art foundation students at Kingston University which are visually brilliant. We’re running a series of workshops with ideastap over the next couple of weeks to generate more responses over a variety of disciplines including radio, film and animation so I’m really looking forward to what people produce during those.

What are you working on next?           

I’m still involved in the production of Shakespeare in Shoreditch and we’re putting together an exhibition of the responses we’ve got so far/will have by the launch of the next festival on the 23rd of April. I also hope I can do some sort of shed related thing for the next festival, think the shed may become a bit of a motif… But not sure what the story with that is yet, shall have to see.

I have also written a full-length play which I need to re-draft. I was very happy to get onto a National Theatre workshop in April specifically about redrafting so that should hopefully be really helpful in actually getting me to finish the play I’ve written instead of just sitting about staring at it.

Are there any playwrights/directors that you admire?

One of my favourite playwrights is definitely Philip Ridley. I really like theatre that is visually striking and I think he’s wicked at that. Also what I like about him, and that I try to achieve in my own writing is a representation of worlds that are very like ours but in which something is slightly off or skewed, either in the way that the characters talk or see the world or the way that their lives are presented to the audience. If that makes any sense. Also the kind of underlying sinister nature is what appeals I think, without making me sound mad… I think in a similar vein I also really enjoyed Vivienne Franzmann’s ‘Pests’ last year, in which the sisters speak in a fictional language; it’s not English as we speak it, but the audience still understand everything they are saying. Again the idea of a world we recognise but not quite the same.

What advice would you offer to young playwrights?

I don’t think I’m particularly in a position to give anyone advice just yet. Maybe just make yourself do stuff and you’ll often be surprised with what you can produce! I’m slowly getting better at making myself do stuff.

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WINK: Click, Scroll, Accept Request…

Phoebe Eclair-Powell in rehearsal

Phoebe Eclair-Powell in rehearsal

Joanna Lally talks to Phoebe Eclair-Powell about WINK, her first play, currently on at Theatre503.

Even as I write up notes from my conversation with Phoebe Eclair-Powell about her debut play WINK, I intuitively stop to look at my Facebook newsfeed, check emails, opening up multiple windows, none of which I am focusing on fully, but constantly being side-tracked from one to the next, and eventually winding back again to my original task. Of course, this repetitive pattern of Internet usage has become ingrained as a kind of generational habit; yet, as technology inevitably advances and younger age users are learning to click and swipe with supernatural ease (most likely before they can walk or write), what kind of impact will this have on modern personalities and relationships?

This is one of the central issues explored in WINK, and during our short interview Phoebe cites ‘the double-edged sword of the Internet’ as an impetus for writing the play – that is, the incredible possibility of ‘being anyone you want to be’ online, versus its power to shame and destroy. Add to that the addictive nature of social media, and the increasing grasp it has on our self-perception. In WINK, the narrative sees the lives of John Martin (Leon Williams), a good-looking and brash 27-year old school teacher, and Mark (Sam Clemmett), one of his Year 11 pupils, become irrevocably intertwined through a series of broken rules and misinterpretations. Mark, a dissatisfied teenager whose own online addictions include Facebook stalking and pornography, nurse him through recent family loss. The play begins with Mark listing to the audience the number of app notifications he has woken up to, and what pornography sites he briefly visits before getting ready for school. Mark has a slightly perverse obsession with his teacher, ‘Mr Martin,’ and deciding that it’s the teacher’s life he desires, creates a counterfeit identity – Tim Walker – an imposter and rival to the real John. Then, by intruding into his girlfriend’s privacy to accept Tim‘s friend request, John becomes more susceptible than he could possibly imagine, and falls into Mark’s trap.

This might seem like unusual territory for a female playwright, but Phoebe explains that her interest in issues surrounding mental health and young men stems from her own feeling of closeness to that ‘awkward teenager’ phase. Although an only child, she connects to and often writes young male characters, and Mark and John are amalgams from previously worked material. When I ask how where the concept of the play developed from, she attributes much of the initial inspiration to her collaborator, director Jamie Jackson, who after working together on several short plays, asked if she would write a full-length piece. The choice of subject matter, she says, stemmed from their mutual interest in mental health in young men, the idea of ‘lost boys’ and their relationship to Internet use:

“At that time [Jamie] asked me to write it, in the news there was a boy who had killed himself because he had been bullied online – there was very much a spate of these stories that had happened in the press – and I just thought that it was really, really terrifying. That you could be so embarrassed, so ashamed, and made to feel shame as a teenager,that you’d take your own life – because it’s not worth living, it’s not worth going through.”

Spurred on by the impulse from Jackson, and a broader awareness of what was (and still is) taking place in contemporary online culture, she carried out research by sending out questionnaires relating to Internet use to male friends in their early to mid-twenties, and to their younger brothers. Phoebe has also drawn on her own experience of online addiction; “I am so addicted to Facebook, and Instagram and Twitter. I actually can’t stop and I really hate it within myself.” Like many other people, Phoebe uses social media as a means of self-organisation; “It’s my diary, it lets me know what I’m doing, like my own PA. Which is weird, especially when it’s an advertising tool really – it’s not actually you in control.”

We then discuss the realisation that suddenly we find ourselves having to fill a space that never used to require filling, and somehow now that space becomes full of screens, and the compulsion to click, scroll and swipe constantly. Following a two-year long dramaturgical process, firstly through the Old Vic New Voices and later as part of Theatre503’s 503Futures programme, what has emerged from Eclair-Powell and Jackson’s mutual concerns with the issues above, is an intensely engaging drama that exercises its own compulsion to view and be viewed. The production provides a sharp, clinical observation of its characters. This is highlighted in Bethany Wells’ set design – a large reflective screen is draped across the stage, onto which Mark and John project both their online and real selves. The lighting is equally illuminating, but one of the truly distinctive features of this production is the direction of movement, accompanied by a riveting musical score, composed by Max Pappenheim. Along with the rest of the creative team, Jackson has moulded the distinctive visual and sonic nature of the play, so that it becomes almost interactive, almost immersive, but not in the way we might typically understand with certain performance trends today. The movement coincides perfectly with the pace of the writing. Interestingly, the only stage direction given is that the production should use both sound and movement. Jamie, who joins our conversation roughly halfway through, explains that there was no need to superimpose these elements on a preconceived text; once they had decided that the production would make use of these media, Phoebe was able to create a rhythm in her writing that would drive the scenes of high drama and tension where music, movement and text combine.

As John and Mark become entangled in a dance of online personas and communication, this is reflected in the choreography that emphasizes their physical relation to one another. Rather than representing the motions of web browsing through having technological devices as props for WINK, their associated actions are instead buried into the quick-paced language of the play, and the constant clicking and scrolling that Phoebe alludes to, creates its own physical language. There are moments that capture a feeling of tenderness, possibly mixed with a confused sexuality that passes between the two.  In one particular sequence, repeated several times, they link hands, before Williams lifts Clemmett off the ground, holding him at a horizontal so that their bodies create an axis, before commencing a slow turn across the stage, elegantly done by both performers. Later on, as the characters approach a crucial point of collision, the intermittent pulsation of words and movement hurtles the audience through the narrative. The alternating aggression and tenderness of the actors’ physical and vocal deliveries (often their lines are simultaneous or overlapping) gives way to an enthralling ninety minutes on stage. In this time, WINK distills the virtual world of its characters’ lives/predicaments, which quickly begin to seep into one another, an act of interfacing.

There is an unabashed irreverence in Eclair-Powell’s characterisations that is both startling and enjoyable. However, while the play is in many ways beautifully conceived (and incredibly funny in places) it does not shy away from the nastier elements threatening to break through the surface. More importantly, it is not just ‘another Internet play.’ Phoebe tells me that several critics’ reviews have tended to introduce WINK as such, although most of them do see through to the heart of the play, which is about loss and disconnection. However, she states, what WINK shares with other plays on this subject is that there is ‘always something more going on’ and in this way it is almost impossible not to reference the huge infiltration that it has made into our lives. As a result the question becomes how to plot around technology “when you can short-circuit so many things that would have been drama.” In her opinion, this presents one of the major challenges for contemporary playwrights. Her hope, then, is to incorporate something of what is going on in society at the moment that addresses this part of ‘our story.’ This, Phoebe says, perhaps means that the play will date quickly, althoughit is not an issue that particularly worries her: “I was just interested in trying to pinpoint something that felt like it was happening around this time.”

Bold and unflinching, WINK explores the magical escapism of online identity –the choice to become ‘whoever you want’ – alongside both its comical and sinister repercussions in the ‘real’ world. While the particular lifespan of her first play may be limited by the evolving force of its own subject matter – although it deserves to run again and be seen by many more audiences – it will certainly keep touch with the modern tragedy where the feeling of connectivity is undermined by an isolation from reality: the final image with which WINK logs off.

WINK production graphic

WINK production graphic

WINK runs at Theatre503 in Battersea until 4 April 2015. For more details see the website.

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Helen Benedict’s play about women in war gets first UK outing

Helen Benedict photo

Helen Benedict

“Getting anywhere with writing takes 10% talent and 90% persistence. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen!”

Helen Benedict wrote The Lonely Soldier Monologues entirely in the words of women veterans she interviewed for her books The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq and Sand Queen (a novel). 

When Hannah Roe caught up with Helen, she was informed of a rather interesting coincidence: “[17%] is also the percentage of women in the US military exactly.” Don’t you just love a bit of serendipity? They talked more about the plight of female soldiers and about Helen’s verbatim play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues, which is being presented at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, 6th – 31st May by PMJ Productions. Tickets are available here

HR: Tell us about The Lonely Soldier Monologues – what motivated you to tell these stories about women in the military?

HB: Well, I’ll go back to 2004, a year after America and the UK invaded Iraq. I was so appalled that I just had to do something about it as a writer but I didn’t know what yet. So I began poking around and one of the first things I did was go to a talk in New York that was being given by veterans freshly back from Iraq; this was a year into the war. There were only about twelve people in the audience – that’s how little interest there was at the time. The veterans were all men talking about their experiences in the war, telling us things we never saw in the headlines. Things about not having enough armour, sometimes not even enough food and drink on some of the bases… But at the back of the room, I saw two young women standing there; I could tell from their postures that they were military. I went up to one of them and I said: “Are you a veteran?” I can quote her reply verbatim, and it’s in the play. She said:  “Oh yeah, I was in Iraq for eleven months. I was a gunner, I was shot at every night but when I talk about it, nobody listens and nobody believes me – and you know why? Because I’m a female”. So I said: “Well I’ll listen: what was it like being a woman in combat?” She said: “Well the first thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re a girl in the military, the men only let you be one of three things – a bitch, a ho’ or a dyke. You’re a bitch if you won’t sleep with them, you’re a ho’ if you’ve got one boyfriend and you’re a dyke if they don’t like you, so you can’t win.” And the young woman next to her said: “That’s exactly what it was like for me.”

I was, of course, shocked, and meanwhile I had read that more women were being deployed, wounded and killed in the Iraq War alone than in all American wars put together since WWII.Women were sacrificing their lives, limbs and mental health for wars just like men, and if on top of that they were being treated like this, then something was very, very wrong. But I had to find out whether this was just the experiences of two women, so I began interviewing female veterans. That first soldier I spoke to is one of the main characters in the play. I interviewed her and she put me onto her friends. Then I found out about Veterans for Peace, a huge national group of veterans in the States, and they were thrilled to find that someone was at last paying attention to women in the military. They spread the word and over the next three years, I interviewed some forty women who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan – women from all walks of life; all ages, different ranks, different branches. Then I started to dig around in the databases and I found that the Department of Veterans Affairs had been studying sexual assault in the military and harassment since the Vietnam War. They had all these statistically-sound surveys with shocking figures: 1 in 3 women sexually assaulted, 99% harassed. So that backed up what I was finding anecdotally in my interviews.

Out of those forty interviews, I picked five main characters and wrote my book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, which came out in 2009. I had reams and reams of interviews, more than I could use for the book, and a playwright friend of mine said I should make a play out of it. So I did. But I didn’t know what to do with it because I had no connections in the theatre. Then I fell into conversation with a director at a party and when I told him about my play, he said he wanted to read it. Afterwards, he called me up and said he’d got a theatre where his own play was on in New York. He said he’d ask them to kick his play out and do mine instead, which was very kind of him.That was its first performance in 2010. Since then, it’s been done more than twelve times in different states by various campuses and also professional theatres such as the History Theatre in St Paul, Minneapolis. Originally the play used the soldiers’ real names, as did the book. This was at their request because it was their way of fighting back against the injustices they were talking about. The real veterans came to one of the first performances and sat in the audience, then came up on the stage to talk afterwards – everybody was crying.

Having done the non-fiction book and the verbatim play, I found it still wasn’t enough. That’s when I decided to write the novel, Sand Queen, because I found that when I interviewed these woman, so many of them had been deeply traumatised, not only by being in combat and seeing horrible things but by the treatment they received from their male comrades, that they would sometimes hit a wall and not be able to talk anymore. One of them started having panic attacks that made her unable to breathe because the memories were so horrible. Sometimes the women would deflect certain questions with jokes, or just fall silent. I came to feel that it was in those silences that the true story of how one experiences war inside in one’s heart lies. That’s the field of fiction, what is beyond what a real person can tell you. It’s also a way of delving deep into an experience without exploiting anyone or re-traumatising them by digging too much, which I was very careful of as I was interviewing. I had to pick women who were ready to talk about it. They all had PTSD one way or the other, but the thing about PTSD is that it goes in waves – sometimes you need to talk about it, other times you can’t. Even since the play, a lot of those women have withdrawn from me because I trigger their memories, having been the only person they told their stories to, not even their families or therapists.

Throughout history, war has traditionally been a man’s story. Told by men, for men – but that’s different now. There are so many female soldiers in the world and yet they are almost entirely ignored by male writers. So it takes a woman playwright, a woman novelist and a woman author to pay attention to those women. There are very, very few women who write about war outside of journalism; I know almost all of them in the States, so that’s how few of us there are. Just as the military is a boy’s club, war writing is a boy’s club. Often there are panels about war writing without a single woman speaking, which has been interesting and infuriating because it echoes what the women soldiers told me about how they were treated by their male comrades: constant exclusion and being treated as the ‘other’. The military is like a cross between high school and prison. Most people in the military are adolescents, so the in-crowd/out-crowd thing is very strong and it’s encouraged by training. People close ranks around their buddies and choose the weak ones to exclude. Those will almost always be the women and also the men they label as weak – because they’re gay, intellectual, because they wear glasses, whatever. The exclusion and the abuse is very cruel because soldiers are trained to see their platoon as family.

HR: Sexual violence in conflict is a very prevalent issue at the moment. Do you think enough is being done to eradicate it?

HB: No; there’s never been a war waged on behalf of women, with the purpose of liberating women. There’s never been enough care about that. Women lack rights everywhere in the world in comparison to men; the problem is worldwide and enormous, but it’s still not taken seriously enough by governments for any real effort to take place. Even President Obama – of whom I’m a fan – I heard him listing his accomplishments and there wasn’t a word about women’s rights. It’s not taken as seriously as a political issue as it was even in the ’70s. So we’ve got a huge problem.

HR: Did you approach any men about their perspective when you were conducting your research?

HB: Yes, I interviewed quite a lot of men to get their view of women and their view of the war. They were often the sergeants, fathers and boyfriends of the women, so I was talking to them to corroborate some of the stories. I talked to male commanders and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) about the difference between working with female soldiers and male soldiers. All the ones I talked to said the women were better; more mature, more reliable. There are male characters in the book but not the play. I didn’t want to put any men in the play because that’s what everyone else does!

The majority of men who see my play, read my books or come to my lectures are as shocked and appalled as I am by the injustice and abuse. The army is the most macho institution there is, but the majority of male soldiers are perfectly decent. There are just too many who aren’t. For a long time, I was the only person out there talking about sexual assault and harassment in the military and no-one wanted to believe me. I was verbally attacked and received quite a lot of hate mail; men saying that women only join the military in the first place because they want to sleep around. At the end of the day, they were just proving my point about there being a problem!

The Oscar-nominated documentary film, The Invisible War, came out of my work – I’m in it briefly. The directors of the film read an early article of mine and called me up explaining that they wanted to do a documentary about it. After the film’s release, everything I was saying about the issue became more acceptable and more people acknowledged the reality of the problem.

 HR: Did you approach anyone for an interview who didn’t want to be involved?

HB: Yes, a few women didn’t want to talk to me or didn’t want me to use their names because they were afraid of retaliation, either from the military or the Department of Veterans Affairs. They were afraid they’d be denied benefits or get into trouble in other ways. Then one of the main women in my book didn’t want to be in the play, so I rewrote it and introduced another character from the book. I wanted a contrast; I didn’t want all the women to have had the same experience. Since the women I interviewed originally signed the releases back in 2009, I’ve changed their names to allow them some privacy. They have all moved on with their lives since I wrote the play so it’s kinder to leave them be, and I always request actors and directors not to get in touch with the real women.

Photo: Mary F Calvert

Photo: Mary F Calvert / Zuma Press

HR: What specifically about this story do you think lends itself to the stage?

HB: The women I spoke to were such good storytellers; they were spellbinding. When I started reading over my transcripts, I realised these were dramatic monologues – they’re saying a lot of things that people before them had never dared say about the military or the Iraq War, especially at the time, 2008-09. The sympathy they show for Iraqis and some of their criticisms of the war are still controversial. One of the things that amazed me when I was doing my research was how many American soldiers were against the Iraq War after they’d been there and saw what we were really doing. A lot of soldiers were very young and straight out of high school; they had no history education about the Middle East and they were just told: “Go get the bad guy!” And they believed it. They were told that they were going to go and bring democracy. These women were giving their accounts and bearing witness in history, but they were doing it with a personal touch and with drama and humour. I just realised that all I had to do was a little bit of editing and arranging, and I had a play.

HR: What were some of the other processes involved in creating a script from your research and interviews?

HB: I would sit there in the interviews for up to six hours sometimes, non-stop. I had state-of-the-art recording equipment lent to me by the Oral History Department at Columbia University – very lucky! They transcribed them for me in exchange for archiving the interviews for future historians, which was wonderful – the women loved that. All I had to do then was read over the transcripts, edit them and tighten them up. I arranged the play in three acts exactly the way I’d done the book – before they went to war, at war, and coming home. I wanted to show the arc of what war does to people and how it changes people. I wanted audiences and readers to see who these women were before they were soldiers to understand why they enlisted – people are very puzzled by that and think, “Why would any woman want to be a soldier?” Those three acts are the arc of the narrative.

HR: Coming from a journalistic and literary background, how does playwriting compare to those styles of writing?

HB: It’s wildly different. Plays depend on dialogue alone, and you don’t have the tools of description as you do in books. In the case of a verbatim play like mine, I could edit that dialogue but I had to be very true to it. I couldn’t put words in their mouths; I was very strict about that. And I couldn’t go further inside than whatever the women were saying to me. Those were constraints I wouldn’t have with a novel. It could hardly be more different! Also, the play came from outside because of the kind of play it is, whereas my novels come from inside. I make up the characters in a novel – although they do seem to take on a life of their own in spite of me! If I were a fictional playwright, my answer might be different.

Usually I write all alone in a very isolated world as novelists do, but with the play I sat in on some rehearsals. When I saw how much an actor can do with just the lift of an eyebrow and a shrug of the shoulder, I started cutting the play like mad! I felt liberated; I rather loved it. Finally the director had to tell me to stop! So that’s sort of unusual; I think most playwrights are more protective. It was good because it made me think about my own fiction and that I maybe don’t need to explain or describe so much.

HR: Did you spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room?

HB: For the first performance in New York I did, yes. I didn’t have a lot of say; I had to choose my battles because the director was very territorial. But I did give some advice; there was a funny time where the actors all turned up in their army t-shirts but they all had these lacy bras underneath. That would never ever happen in the military! I had to say: “Ladies – sports bras!”

HR: So what’s next for you? What’s your next project going to be?

The novel I wrote about this issue, Sand Queen, came out in 2011 and I’m now writing another novel which will form part of an Iraq War series. Sand Queen is half about a female American soldier and half about an Iraqi woman, and they meet in an American prison camp. As far as I know, I’m the only American author writing about Iraqi women, so I’m continuing Naema’s story in this next novel.

HR: Finally, do you have any advice for budding writers?

HB: Getting anywhere with writing takes 10% talent and 90% persistence. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen!

Helen Benedict is an award-winning novelist, journalist and playwright specialising in issues of social justice. In 2014, Benedict, who is British and American, was a finalist for the Trust Women Journalist Award from Reuters in the UK. In 2013, she was awarded the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and named one of the 21 leaders for the 21st century by Women’s eNews in the US, in addition to other media and book awards. Her writings inspired an ongoing class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of women and men who were sexually assaulted in the military and also inspired the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, in which she appears. Benedict has been featured in the UK by BBC, Reuters and Marie-Claire, and writes occasional book reviews for The Guardian. Website: http://www.helenbenedict.com / Twitter: @helenbenedict

PMJ Productions is presenting The Lonely Soldier Monologues at the Cockpit Theatre after a successful Kickstarter campaign, from May 6th-31st 2015. The show is supporting human rights organisation Liberty’s  campaign Military Justice which has proposals for a fair and independent Military Justice system in the UK.  You can purchase your tickets here. www.lonelysoldier.co.uk

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