Phoebe Eclair-Powell

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Playwright Phoebe Eclair-Powell grimaces as she remembers performing at the Edinburgh fringe in her teens: “We were those really horrific kids on the Royal Mile who sing songs and wear costumes and do jazz hands and aggressively flyer you.” Next month, however, she’ll be back at the festival with two new plays, after a third one has run at London’s Soho theatre. “Three shows in two months is really, really stupid,” she admits with a broad, if nervous, smile. “I’d quite like to sleep for all of September.”

The London production is Fury, her updated take on Medea, while her Edinburgh premieres are Torch, about womanhood, and Epic Love and Pop Songs, about teenage friendship. The Edinburgh fringe is familiar territory for her. From a young age, she accompanied her mother, the comedian Jenny Eclair, to the festival. Her mum became the first solo female comedian to win the fringe’s Perrier comedy award in 1995. Eclair-Powell’s own attempts as a performer were short-lived (“I go bright red talking in front of people on stage”) and, after doing an English degree at Oxford University, she joined the young writers’ group at the Royal Court. When she found a job in the building (first in marketing, then as artistic director Vicky Featherstone’s personal assistant), “everything magically fell into place”. She describes her time at the Court as “the best education I could have had”.

While she never wanted to be a comedian – “Jesus Christ, no,” she says with good-humoured vehemence – her mother’s outspoken standup acts were a big influence. “She’s bloody amazing,” she says, adding that she is still the person whose feedback she trusts the most. Watching her mum perform comedy when she was a child helped Eclair-Powell to realise that “there’s a world where adults also play and don’t have to grow up”. She believes comedy is a “really good way of getting across a message” and describes Epic Love and Pop Songs as a “really playful” show that takes audiences into the world of teenagers Doll and Ted. It’s about “your best friend, lying and winery” (white wine and Red Bull, apparently).

Even in Fury, an otherwise dark and angry piece, she balances the rage with humour. “I hope there are still a few laughs in there,” she says, “because I don’t think I can write anything without putting a joke in.” The play is about a single mother, exploring how “that phrase itself conjures up so many images and has become such a stereotype”. While writing Fury, which won the 2015 Soho young writers’ award, she found herself considering how mothers are still “pressurised and judged in a way that fathers aren’t”.

Gender-related expectations are a recurring theme in her work. Her debut, Wink, staged at Theatre503 in London last year, explored the pressures of modern masculinity. Torch, a collaboration with theatre company Flipping the Bird, asks what it means to be a woman today. It was born from an earlier piece which used anonymous surveys to explore people’s attitudes to sex. “We decided we wanted to repeat that model and do it about the experience of identifying as a woman, which was much harder, bigger, more complex,” Eclair-Powell explains. The result is a collage of a show that lies somewhere between play and gig, weaving in performances of songs by, among others, Patti Smith and Miley Cyrus.

Torch’s frontwoman is Jess Mabel Jones, best known to theatre audiences as Tourette’s hero Jess Thom’s sidekick in Backstage in Biscuit Land. Eclair-Powell explains that Jones’s personality has had a real impact on the piece. “She has so much of her own stamp on this show. I’ve had to really wrangle with the script to make that part of it.” She also found herself wrangling with the survey responses. “Unlike the sex questionnaires, which came back as largely positive and funny and embarrassing and gross, these ones came back as being insecure, nervous, anxious, negative, upset,” she says. The play is incorporating these feelings, though Eclair-Powell is adamant that it should ultimately be a “celebration of womanhood”.

Writing Torch has forced Eclair-Powell to confront her own views. “I thought I was a really on-it feminist. I’d grown up as a feminist from a very young age – and I feel like I’m losing a grip of what that means and I’m losing a grip of my own politics.” Acknowledging that it’s impossible to represent all women or speak for the entire feminist movement, she has made Torch “incredibly personal – and that does feel quite exposing”. She continues: “We all build a self that we show to the world and conceal the parts of ourselves that we would rather remain secret.” Torch, half performance and half confessional, “lives in the gap between the two”.

Photo: Sarah Lee.

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Deborah Pearson

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Deborah Pearson wants to talk about white privilege – a desire the writer and performer recognises is a huge privilege in itself. For people of colour, she suggests, there is an expectation to be conscious of race relations, whereas “if you are white then you can not think about it, and not talk about it, and nobody will necessarily call you out on that”.

In her show at the Yard theatre in London, Made Visible, Pearson makes the choice to discuss these issues. The show is influenced by Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which lists 50 everyday examples of white privilege (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group”; No. 32: “My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races”). Made Visible similarly reveals some of the ways in which invisible systems confer privilege on some at the expense of others.

“I don’t know if I really know how to talk about this,” Pearson admits. With the show, she is anxious to join ongoing conversations about racism and privilege in a way that is “productive and useful”, without replicating the same power structures she’s critiquing by taking over the debate. The show stages a conversation between three women – one white, two of Gujarati heritage – sitting on a bench in Victoria Park, east London. The conversation is undercut by interjections that expose the workings of privilege and debate the politics of representation. “The actors swap characters quite a lot and they are constantly complaining about particular forms of appropriation,” Pearson explains. One of the performers, for example, protests against the sari her character is forced to wear, calling out lazy representations of Indian culture. “So it becomes this meta-commentary on the consequences of a white writer approaching this kind of material,” says Pearson.

With its actors frequently disrupting the scene and addressing the audience, the play draws attention to the problematic assumptions we are all too used to seeing on stage, setting up racial and cultural stereotypes in order to undermine and question them. It’s deliberately messy – much like the complex conversations it is responding to. “It needs to be less tidy,” says Pearson, who is still making final tweaks to the script when we speak. “It needs to let the white character off the hook a little bit less.”

The difficult balance for Pearson in the process of writing Made Visible has been between unpacking her own privilege and giving room to other, non-white voices. “There was a draft of the piece where I just gave over the entire ending to different theorists of colour,” she says. “That was really dry and theatrically it didn’t work, but conceptually I know why that’s what I wanted to do, because it’s about using my privilege to amplify other voices.”

While attempts to address racism often focus on political and social institutions, Pearson is clear that “culture is not blameless in this”. If anything, she adds, culture has to answer for the dominant white narratives it reproduces. “I think that as people who work in culture, albeit a very small fringe area of culture, we have to be aware of the fact that we contribute hugely to this discourse,” she says.

These are issues for theatre to confront as a sector. Despite numerous diversity drives, theatre organisations remain overwhelmingly white. Last year the Warwick commission found that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers represent only 6.7% of the workforce in music and performing and visual arts, while Arts Council England reported that 13.7% of those working in its national portfolio organisations in 2014-15 were BAME. “The fact that so few of the people who work professionally in theatre aren’t white is not an issue for people of colour to deal with – that’s an issue for all of us,” says Pearson. “As a white person who’s working in theatre, you have to think about it really carefully and just be aware of the choices that you make in terms of what you see, what you curate, which voices you’re paying attention to.”

In response to racially motivated hate crimes and police violence, novelist Marlon James has argued that being non-racist is not enough. “We need to stop being non and start being anti,” he insists. Pearson agrees that in an unjust, unequal society, staying silent is not an option.

“The easy thing for white people to do is to not talk about it,” says Pearson. “If we don’t talk about it we don’t risk being criticised. But at the same time, if you don’t talk about it then you are complicit in enabling that power structure to continue.”

Photo: Ian Willms.

Cressida Brown

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Originally written for The Stage.

Not many directors start their career with an ambitious site-specific project that generates headlines. Cressida Brown made an immediate impression 10 years ago with Home, a show set in one of the tower blocks of Leyton’s Beaumont Estate and based on the stories shared by its residents. It was, she suggests, an extraordinary fluke. “I didn’t even realise that I was a director until someone told me,” she remembers.

At the time, Brown was training as an actor at Central School of Speech and Drama. Wanting to do a site-specific version of an Edward Bond play during her Christmas holidays, she spoke to someone at the local council about available spaces and was pointed towards the Beaumont Estate – then in the process of being emptied ready for demolition.

“He said, ‘We have these three tower blocks and they’re being emptied’, and I said, ‘Great, can I go in there with a Bond play?’. He said, ‘We have enough violence on that estate, why don’t you interview the people who are leaving and create a play with their words?’. So actually it was somebody else’s idea that set me on the path for my whole life.”

Read the rest of the interview.

Gary Owen

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Originally written for The Stage.

A certain philosophy characterises Gary Owen’s work as a playwright, in which complexity of subject matter is married to simplicity and clarity of storytelling. “There’s something very simple about someone standing on a stage telling you a story,” he says. In one-person shows such as Iphigenia in Splott or collections of monologues such as Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, characters simply address the audience and share their experiences. Directness and narrative are key.

Owen never intended to be a playwright. Growing up in rural west Wales, he hadn’t even seen much theatre in his youth – he describes his theatrical education as “very minimal”. But when plans for a career in academia began to founder, Owen found himself in Aberystwyth, where he fell in with a group of actors who persuaded him to write a play for them. That play turned into Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco, which – via a long chain of readers – ended up on the desk of Vicky Featherstone at Paines Plough.

“To my extreme good luck it arrived when a couple of their commissioned plays were late arriving,” Owen remembers. “She decided to do it not having met me, which is probably something she’ll never do again. But it worked out well for me.” The play toured, Owen became writer-in-residence at Paines Plough, and Featherstone immediately commissioned him to write another play.

Read the rest of the interview.

Photo: Kirsten McTernan.

John Heffernan

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Originally written for The Stage.

Arriving at Jerwood Space to interview John Heffernan, I’m nervous about using the ‘M’ word. The actor is rehearsing to play Macbeth – He Who Must Not Be Named in theatrical circles. But Heffernan, chatty and affable from the moment he sits down, is quick to laugh away any superstitions around the role.

“When you’re working on it everything would take twice as long if you were constantly calling it the ‘Scottish Play’,” he reasons. “We made the decision quite early on: we’ve just got to say it, we’ve got to dive in.”

This production, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin at the Young Vic, marks a welcome return to Shakespeare for Heffernan. It was the playwright who ignited the actor’s love for theatre: first via the television series The Animated Tales and then during Saturday matinees at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London home, the Barbican. Later, as a teenager, Heffernan ushered during the summer in Stratford-upon-Avon, watching the likes of Samuel West and David Tennant tread the boards. “I’m going to sound like a complete anorak,” he warns, “but I think I’d seen all 37 [Shakespeare] plays by the time I was 19 or 20.”

It took a while, though, for Heffernan to pursue acting. Instead, his early aspiration was to be a theatre critic. “I just thought ‘what job will allow me to sit in the stalls all the time?’” he remembers. “I enjoyed writing and analysing, and I thought it would be a really blissful, happy job.” While at drama school, he even did a bit of reviewing under a pseudonym – “I thought ‘This is great, you get two free tickets, you get a free programme, you get a free drink in the interval’,” – before friends warned him off trying to combine acting and theatre criticism.

Read the rest of the interview.

Photo: Tristram Kenton.