Originally written for The Stage.
Penelope Skinner asks me: “Do we believe that women in general are hungry for stories about them?” The writer, whose plays have all hinged on complex female characters, quickly answers her own question: “I believe that they are.” These are the stories that Skinner often sets out to tell, countering a theatrical establishment that is still largely interested in male-centred narratives. “It happily coincides that I’m also most interested in telling those stories,” she continues. “I don’t think I could do anything else. I feel driven to tell those stories.”
Like many theatremakers, Skinner was first drawn to the art form as a child, when she was taken to see a stage adaptation of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. “It was really amazing,” she says, “and kind of life-changing in how magical it was and how transported I felt to a completely different world.” It was not writing that she initially aspired to, though, but acting: “I think I just assumed I wanted to be an actor.”
While acting “didn’t really work out” for Skinner, it did introduce her to new plays. “I moved to London to try to be an actor and that was when I became aware that people were writing new plays,” she remembers. Enthused by this fresh wave of drama, Skinner started regularly attending shows at new writing venues such as the Royal Court Theatre and the Bush Theatre, where she had a memorable encounter with Jack Thorne’s play When You Cure Me.
“I found it a very meaningful experience watching the play,” Skinner tells me, “but something about it made me want to write something myself.” Ten years on, she struggles to put her finger on quite what it was about the show that inspired her, but she suggests that it was “something about that experience, something about feeling that the audience had responded a certain way and feeling that something more needed to be said”.
Photo: Bronwen Sharp.