Fleabag is a multi award-winning solo show by Phoebe Waller-Bridge; both she and the play have won an impressive array of awards since its first showing at Edinburgh: Fringe First Award 2013, The Stage Best Solo Performer 2013, Off West End Award For Most Promising New Playwright 2013, Off West End Award For Best Female Performance 2013 and Critics’ Circle Award For Most Promising Playwright 2014.
Fleabag has been described as ‘Unbelievably rude… extremely funny and confirms Waller-Bridge… as a serious talent to watch’ by Time Out. The play tells the story of a young woman who is outrageously, unashamedly delighting in, and defined by, sex, and the adventures and problems this leads to. It is a peculiarly zeitgeisty play, capturing a modern feminism with all its contradictions and confusions.
We caught up with Phoebe to find out a bit more about her writing, her theatre company DryWrite, an Associate Company at Soho Theatre, which she runs with best friend and Verity Bargate 2013 winner Vicky Jones. Last year they produced Mydidae by Jack Thorne and after a successful debut at Edinburgh and a run upstairs at Soho Theatre, Fleabag now returns to the main space at the Soho Theatre till 25 May.
Tell us about your background – What inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always been interested in writing. I have a collection of horrendous childhood poetry that my grandmother sweetly put together into a little book. I rediscovered it recently. There is a terrible one about a frog sitting on a window sill in a little boy’s room. Makes absolutely no sense, no real rhythm or structure and has a pathetic anticlimax. But I remember I was SO proud of it and it made my Mum inexplicably die of laughter. Sometimes when hesitating about writing something, because I’m not sure other people will get it, I think about that and it makes me go “fuck it”. I liked it. And my mum liked it. That was all that was important.
I’ve also been going to the theatre my whole life, captivated by stories and how they are told. Then I saw Closer, by Patrick Marber and freaked out. I knew I had to aspire to being involved in that kind of play. I still remember the feeling it gave me. I was thrilled, a bit scared, laughing and dying all at the same time, it set the precedent for how I think all audiences should feel, all the time.
Acting really influenced writing. I was frustrated by how few interesting female roles were available to me as a young actor. They were often damsels in distress or damsels disguised as ‘strong women’ because they argued with a man or had a singular controversial opinion. They rarely seemed complicated or true and were often there for someone to fall in love with. I got very bored and very angry and eventually started writing the crazy bitches I wanted to be playing.
What/who are your influences?
I had an incredible drama teacher, parents who insisted on entertaining each other at family dinners, a best friend / co-artistic director who makes me feel like I can do anything, a genius boyfriend who is really hard to impress and some absolutely inspiring friends. Them and Jennifer Saunders, Daniel Kitson, and Olivia Coleman. They can break your heart half way through a laugh. They kill me.
How did you get ‘into’ theatre? What is it about playwriting that you like – rather than other types of writing?
I was always a sucker for an audience growing up, so acting felt like the best way to feed that addiction. When it works, there is a magic about theatre that you won’t find in any other art form. Making people willingly believe something is real when it isn’t, is thrilling to me. It’s cathartic; a way of talking about our lives without lecturing or judging. Theatre makes people think for themselves as well as educating people on a point of view.
I enjoy playwriting because, on the whole, it’s about humans… the words that fall out of their mouths and the effect those words can have on the world and each other. Usually they are trapped between a limited number of locations in theatre so it all has to be about the words, the suspense, the moment to moment interactions.
What do you love or hate most about the writing process?
I love it when it’s finished. I hate everything else, but in an ecstatic, obsessive, euphoric way.
Does your writing run away with you, or do you plan meticulously before you start?
It definitely runs away with me. I feel like I’m strangling an idea if I plan it. So far I’ve just written people saying things until I get interested then get all those bits together and string them together with a story. That can leave me writing for a looooong time, but it can be worth it! TV is very different as I am discovering… It’s all about structure first… agh.
What is the project you dream of making happen?
I’d love to make Fleabag into a TV show. I’d love to write, direct, produce a film. I’d love to write an epic play and a musical. I’d love to do it all!
What was it like the first time you saw your words onstage – and when was that?
It was the very first DryWrite night. Vicky and I had asked writers to submit a monologue anonymously for actors to read out on the same day they received them. Mine was pretty ropey, but I think I was trying too hard to write like other writers I admired, which is never going to work. It scared me about writing anything else. A couple of years later I wrote something purely because it was something that would make me and Vicky laugh, rather than please a mythical audience. That’s when I got the real buzz. I acted in it as well so I had control over the performance. I’d feel awful putting an actor out there with no idea if what I’ve written even makes sense. Better to take the hit myself the first time!
Have you seen any evidence of a gender bias in favour of men or women since you have been writing?
I hear a lot about it, but I haven’t experienced it firsthand. I think because we produced Fleabag ourselves I didn’t make myself vulnerable to that kind of bias. However, the most infuriating question that I am often asked is “Will men enjoy Fleabag?”. Fucks sake. Really!?
What do you feel has happened to feminism?
I think although sometimes it can feel like we are going backward in terms of the portrayal of women in the media, we are in an exciting new phase. Men and women are speaking up in new ways and in new places. Mallika Sherawat, Jackson Katz, Caitlin Moran, Hilary Clinton all unapologetically talk about women’s rights on massive public stages in regard to abortions, domestic abuse, equal pay, sexual exploitation and gender oppression. Tides are shifting in terms of how we talk about these issues, and people are responding well. Bridget Christie winning the historically male dominated Fosters Prize for her stand up show A Bic for Her, was a fucking glorious moment. I think we need to keep being active and positive about the changes in our country. It’s the horrifying reality of what’s happening on other shores that needs serious attention.
Do you feel there are any trends in women’s writing right now? Are there topics women should be writing about that they aren’t? Or are there just general trends in playwriting?
Last year there were a lot of playwrights writing about the over-sexualisation of women in the media. The brilliant Blurred Lines – devised by a company of women and written by Nick Payne. Of course the utterly heartbreaking and inspiring Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model by Bryony Kimmings and Bridget Christie’s awesome A Bic For Her. Fleabag was about similar themes, so it’s undeniable that there was something of a wave last year in regards to that topic. Makes me feel less alone! I think it’s important that women are written about as truthfully and with as much natural complexity as possible. Whether it is a male or female writer shouldn’t really matter.
What advice would you have for up and coming playwrights?
Just write and write and write until you make yourself react. Don’t try to impress an audience that doesn’t even exist yet. Then show it to someone you trust and respect. It suddenly makes it real. Remember that the scary bits are the best bits and don’t lose heart because you’ve written something shit. If you are anything like me, you are bound to write a lot of shit before you scrabble around in it and find the shiny thing.
What is next for you and DryWrite?
I’m developing a TV series and having a go at a film script. Vicky and I promised we wouldn’t do anything with DryWrite unless we have a good idea. We are still debating if we have one at the moment… reeeeally hoping something will come! Vicky’s Verity Bargate winning play The One really changed things for the company. I hope she writes something soon. We need more of her ideas in the world.
As an actor – do you prefer to play in your own work, or somebody else’s? And do you prefer a particular period or genre?
I enjoy it all to be honest. As long as there are laughs and it feels a bit dangerous that’s all it takes to get me giddy.
Did you find performing naked in Mydidae a challenge, or was it the theme and issues of the play that was more challenging?
Jack’s writing is so honest and bold it challenges you to stop acting. Once you realise all you have to do is say his words simply and truthfully, he ends up doing all the work – it’s amazing. I also had the brilliant Keir Charles so I was unbelievably well supported.
In terms of the nudity, after the initial “OH GOD I’M NAKED” freak-out wore off, it became the least of my worries. There is something healthy about not being able to hide. It forces you to accept your weird self for who you are, which can only be a good thing in the end!