Interview: Katherine Mitchell

“I’d like to tap back into that fearless eight year old, harness that belief and share it out with other women who are scared and doubt their ability to do it.”

Katherine Mitchell photo

Katherine Mitchell

Last year was a very productive one for West Country-based writer Katherine Mitchell. Bike, her first full length professional production, premiered at the Rondo in Bath and at the Bristol Bierkeller at the end of last year. Her short radio play CSI Millionaire was broadcast on Radio 3. Find out more about her great year on Katherine’s blog.

What you do:

I write. My passion is character and story, and I like to tackle uncomfortable issues while giving people a wildly entertaining night out. Jazz hands, jazz hands, sucker punch. I believe in the power of stories; there is medicine and magic in them. As a culture we need to start examining what stories we’re telling and what effect they’re having on us.

What your background is:

I wrote my first play when I was eight and got my friends to act it out. I kept writing, acting, directing until I got to university (BA Drama, Bristol) and then hit a wall and totally lost my confidence. Obviously, those early works shouldn’t be interpreted as any form of precocious genius, but it was clear that I was on track for a career in theatre, that I’d found my passion… and then I got derailed. I stopped writing plays and didn’t start again until a couple of years ago. Such a lot of wasted time. Now I’d like to tap back into that fearless eight year old, harness that belief and share it out with other women who are scared and doubt their ability to do it.

Do you feel being a woman has hindered your career in any way?

There are no simple answers to this one. Yes, and no. No, because I believe my work is being accepted/rejected on its own merits rather than because of my gender. Yes, because it’s harder to get my work out there in the first place. Having children, being a mother makes it harder to write as you’re giving so much of yourself to them that there’s often not enough of you left to devote to your creative practice. Yes, because being a woman means it’s harder to have a voice in our society, or have the same confidence of opinion that most men have. We’ve been told that our feelings and opinions aren’t real since we were small girls and first started questioning blatant chauvinism such as Page 3. Things that have made us feel deeply uncomfortable are shrugged off with “It’s just a bit of fun,” “It’s harmless,” “Don’t get your knickers in a twist.” So we find it harder to own our voices, we equivocate and try to accommodate everyone else’s viewpoint.

Writing is also an incredibly vulnerable act, and women have an uneasy relationship with vulnerability. We might think that men find it harder to be vulnerable, after all no one finds it easy, but women are actively trained to avoid vulnerability; don’t walk home alone at night, don’t get in a taxi by yourself, don’t leave your drink unattended etc. We equate vulnerability with a threat to our physical safety, and so while the act of writing can feel like a huge risk, sending out work can prove too terrifying to contemplate. Fear can prove an insurmountable obstacle.

Finally, girls are taught to be nice; people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding, accommodating (to the point of over-compromising) modest and not at all pushy. These are not necessarily traits which will guarantee success in the theatre.

What advice would you have for other women starting out?

Aim low and get it done. That sounds terrible! What I mean is: you learn by doing. It’s better to have a ten minute rehearsed reading performed in public, than be endlessly re-writing full-length plays in the hope that they’ll be produced by a major theatre, and getting nowhere. Think of your career as a series of small building blocks, rather than pinning your hopes on one huge achievement. Watch and read as many plays as you can, and network like your life depended on it. Which basically means showing up for other people’s stuff and making friends, not working the room with a stack of business cards.

Do you feel that there is a glass ceiling?

There seems to be the equivalent of the Berlin Wall between studio spaces and the Main House in most theatres. If a woman manages to get a commission for the Main House, it’s usually an adaptation of an existing work. Where are the women writing original work for Main Houses?

Has the situation changed in the last 10 years for the better or got worse?

I’ve only been writing professionally since 2010, so I’m not the best person to ask in terms of playwriting. I would say that as a society we seem to be sinking back into sexism, after a brief lull of political correctness that’s now receding into distant memory. Apparently the sexism is “ironic” this time around, thanks to lads’ mags and their hysterically funny retro-style babes-in-bikinis photo shoots. I’m not finding it ironic, just sexist. But if I complain, it’s because I’m a humourless feminist. Is it ironic that Moira Stewart and Arlene Phillips were fired from the BBC? So I’d say that we’re in danger of losing ground in terms of equality, if we haven’t lost it already. And that’s without looking at the blatant misogyny in many music videos and lyrics. Depressingly, it’s getting worse out there but as I have a young daughter I don’t want to admit that.

What do you think is the best way to get more work by women into the theatre?

As an audience, we need to start asking for it. We need to challenge the Artistic Directors and question them as to why they’re not programming more female playwrights. It’s not a deliberate attempt to keep women out; most won’t even be aware that it’s an issue. As makers; we have to be our own advocates, market ourselves and be prepared to find ways of going it alone. Build strong networks and champion each other.

I’d also question the financial models being used. The money is getting stuck at the top level and not trickling down to grass roots. Given the current economy, I’d like to see the larger theatres scaling down their big productions in order to spread the money more evenly. Particularly in regional theatre – if as a writer, you’re hoping to develop a relationship with your local producing theatre, but the Artistic Director is only producing dead white males then you’re buggered, frankly.

Addressing the issues of confidence and vulnerability would be hugely valuable, but of course if we admit that it’s an issue then we won’t be seen as being professional. I think more women would be comfortable sending work in if they’ve had a chance to meet the literary team and start building relationships. Perhaps we need to question why we have to fit in with the established, patriarchal way of doing things. The established way isn’t necessarily the best way. Oh, and get used to having babies brought along to meetings.

What made you want to work in theatre/entertainment in the first place?

I’m not sure you have a choice; the bug bites you and that’s it. There’s a magic and power to it that hooks you. The earliest actors were shamans and priests, we still call famous actors stars  – it’s clearly powerful stuff.

What are your next plans?

To continue with my creative practice while also developing workshops and e-courses to encourage other writers, especially women. There’s a saying that you teach what you need to learn; I lost my writing voice for a long time and deeply regret that, so I’ve got a real passion for empowering other women to write. I’ve had a very busy Autumn, with several productions coming to fruition within a couple of months, so I’m looking forward to a period of downtime and the ability to get going with some of the new stories circling inside my mind. As long as that downtime doesn’t last all year! I’m also beefing up my business acumen as I’m determined to make my writing financially sustainable; this is another aspect that I’d like to be able to help other creatives with.



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