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Theatre Collective Spotlight: Annabel Brightling

Empower Her Voice Theatre Collective introduces…

‘Spotlight: Female-Identifying and Non-Binary Voices in Theatre’

This is a new series of interviews, released monthly, to broadcast the emerging and established voices of female-identifying and non-binary creatives within theatre.

Introducing Annabel Brightling

Annabel Brightling is a London-born, Midlands-based writer. She has created short films, stage plays, features and TV scripts, predominately in the dark-comedy genre. Her scripts centre on social status, complicated relationships, and mental health. She is a Cohort from the Writing West Midlands Room 204 Programme and a finalist for the BBC Galton and Simpson Comedy Bursary. Annabel wrote episode one for the original television drama, SeaView. She co-wrote a script for the web series, #GoingViral, which was nominated for a Royal Television Society Award. She has also worked as a writer for the BBC EastEnders Shadow Scriptwriting Scheme. Annabel is inspired by single-camera comedies such as You’re The Worst, London Irish, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Insecure.

What was your first experience watching theatre?

My background is musical theatre, so one of my earliest experiences was watching pantomimes such as Dick Whittington on school trips and eventually traditional musicals like Wicked whilst I was in performing arts school.

What was the first play to make you want to work in theatre?

As I went into my teens, the theatre trips became less musical, and more drama-orientated. Coram Boy was impressive. The way the production created the ship on the stage stuck with me.

Why theatre for you? Why is it the right form for you?

When people come to see your work, you enter this non-verbal contract with the audience where you say, "Here are the rules in this universe, you have to accept it's different to what's going on out there, okay?" Then you can create this world, where a character can spin around and be in another room or a lighting gel can completely change the intention behind a scene.

What influences your writing?

Music. Of any genre, really. I always start with two characters arguing over a situation. And when they part ways to cool off, I think about what song they would play to distract themselves from the conflict that just happened. I can normally create a premise for a short, film or TV show from that.

Which playwrights/performers/creatives have influenced you the most?

If we’re talking just women whose careers that I admire, then possibly Joan Rivers. Back when women were demonised for going to work, she stood on Johnny Carson’s stage and did an absolute beast of a set. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, for grabbing a guitar and outdoing everyone around her. Lisa McGee, Our Lady J, Bisha K. Ali, Kit De Waal and of course my fellow Ghanaians; Michaela Coel and Ama Assante. Also, any writer who had to hold their own in a writer’s room back in the day and has their show now, like Amy Sherman-Palladino and Rachael Bloom. I admire people that get told they can’t do something, they ask, “why not?” and get given a shrug and they react by grabbing a pen, mic or instrument and prove those people wrong. It’s exciting.

What's the hardest play/extract/project you've ever written and why?

I've written a piece about a girl who deals with mental health issues and has toxic friends and tries to navigate life in an all-girl’s school in a rough part of London. It's pretty much based on my experience, but I haven't quite hit the mark with that yet. I was writing that whilst at school, because I wanted to capture all the moments in real time. That piece has been a play a film, a short and a TV show. It's lived many lives in many formats.

Are there ideas and themes that you keep coming back to?

Chaotic relationships. Living with CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) has been an experience. I used to see people as good and evil. I had a very black and white mind. No grey. But since the first lockdown, I'm seeing more grey and that's been reflected in my recent work.

What advice would you give to a woman wanting to work and write in theatre, but without obvious access streams?

Go online and search for free events on sites such as Eventbrite. Some of them will be great. Some will be awful. It’s a great way to network with people and find out if there are any opportunities. Also, look up writing opportunities and competitions on the BBC Writersroom opportunity page. This is good practice to learn how to write to a deadline. Or search for “Theatre opportunities” online and see if there are any writing assistant or script reader trainee roles.

Try not to do too much for free. I know it's tempting, but people will take advantage. Keep a log of everything you do and remind people of what you have done. Pitch ideas and if someone talks over you whilst your pitching, keep talking! Or if someone repeats your ideas in a room louder than you did, say “I already said that two seconds ago”. It’s funny when the room goes silent. Awkward situations are a great source of comedy.

Have you written in other forms?

My earliest writing was poetry and short stories from primary school. I wrote a poem in year nine and my English Teacher carved out some time in her English sixth form lesson to read my poem and analyse it in class. That was wild and validating. I started off wanting to work in theatre, then film and finally found TV. I wrote episode one for a TV drama series called SeaView which was made by Strictly Arts. Episodes 1-3 will debut in The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry this November. The production even created some of the sets at the Belgrade, which I thought was such a great way to use the space.

What are your top tips for emerging female playwrights/creatives who have not had formal training?

Look for like-minded groups. I am currently part of a West Midlands writers group called Script Sirens. Network. When you message people in the industry, it’s easier if you have a mutual friend than DMing them cold. Hence why it’s best to meet as many people as you can. Out of courtesy, always check with your friend if you can message their industry contact or if they would even be open to making introductions. Go to as many different live performances as you can afford. See experimental one-person plays or even stand-up comedy nights. Anything involving people on stage will give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t and helps you learn the rhythm of people’s speech. If money is a factor, there are some plays on YouTube, but the sound quality can be hit or miss.

If you could go back to the beginning of your interest in theatre, what would you tell yourself?

Watch as many different genres as possible. Comedies, horrors, social commentary, Shakespeare plays. Not just musicals. I watched Seven Souls in the Skull Castle on Netflix recently and I've gone down a rabbit hole of looking at more theatre shows from around the world. It's really cool seeing the similarities and differences.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on writing a short film script with The Urban Young Actors theatre group in Leicester. We go into production this autumn.

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