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Theatre Collective Spotlight: Margaret Perry

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 Margaret Perry

Margaret Perry is a writer from Cork, based in London. Her theatre and radio credits include Porcelain (Abbey Theatre, BBC Radio 4), Collapsible (Bush Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe 2019, HighTide Festival and Dublin Fringe 2019, where it won the Fishamble New Writing Award) and most recently, A Passion Play (Ellie Keel Productions and 45 North, originally developed as a Paines Plough seed commission). She is currently under commission at the Abbey Theatre and The Bush and her upcoming projects include Oak Tree Close (BBC Radio 4) The Royal Court's Living Newspaper, and Young Vic Five Plays. For television, she is developing a new series with Balloon Entertainment and is currently writers' assistant to Alice Birch on the upcoming Amazon/Annapurna adaptation of Dead Ringers. She was part of the Royal Court's invitational writers group 2018/2019, led by Alice Birch and Alistair McDowell.

What was your first experience watching theatre?

The first piece of theatre I saw was probably a panto at the Cork Opera House. The first piece of theatre I remember impacting me was a production of Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs at the Granary Theatre, which is a small black box space in Cork. It’s a play about Cork and I remember thinking, wow, you can write about where I’m from. You don’t have to write about London or Paris or New York.

What was the first play to make you want to write plays?

I've kind of answered this with the above - Disco Pigs was the play that planted the seed for me.

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

I like that theatre unfolds across one evening. That's inherent in its form and I like the challenge of telling a story in that way. You meet an audience at one particular moment in their life and then you let them go. What will you say to them while they're there? I like that urgency inbuilt into theatrical form. It serves a different function to poetry or a novel or a song or a TV show which all have different places in the fabric of our lives.

What influences your writing?

All sorts of things really. Novels, visual art, music, poetry... and small revealing moments of human behaviour. Those the most.

Which playwrights have influenced you the most?

Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, Samuel Beckett, debbie tucker green, Alice Birch - because of the way they are always pushing the form forward, and because they remind me that you are allowed to tell a story from the perspective of how it feels. I think it's easy to get caught up in trying to render something "objectively" or "realistically" but I think that there is no such thing as objective reality, so why bother trying to make a play look like there is? Every single piece of art ever made is from the subjective perspective of its maker. The playwrights I love own that. They say - this is how life feels to me. And that's what I try to do too.

How has the theatre industry changed over your time working?

I haven't been in it that long. It does feel that it is slowly creaking towards allowing a greater diversity of voices in to sit at the table and tell stories. Much too slowly though.

How do you spend the opening night? Do you read critics?

I find opening night so stressful I usually do something stupid, like drink too much or miss the first five minutes of my own play cos I am nervous to the point of near blackout. But then I get over myself and have a nice time. Yes I devour all things written about my plays, good and bad. I'm not sure it's healthy but I don't know how to not do it.

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

My first "proper" play, Porcelain. It changed form a hundred times over and every time I sat down I had no idea what to do next. Not that I particularly know what I'm doing now when I re-draft, but I have a process now - things I can try, questions I ask and that makes it feel a tiny bit less like diving off a cliff. A tiny bit.

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

Apply to free writing courses (Royal Court, Soho Theatre) and do short play nights, there are loads - The Miniaturists is a great one that allowed me to test out plays, including an early short version of Collapsible. And you can meet collaborators that way too. Also, Twitter can be useful - follow people who's work you like. People are mostly pretty kind and open to reading a new play. I met Thomas Martin, the director of Collapsible, on Twitter. Specifically as a woman, Ellie Keel the brilliant producer of Collapsible has just set up The Womens' Prize for Playwriting, along with Paines Plough (a company run by two amazing women) - so entering that would be a pretty great idea. The biggest advice though is to write a play that you are proud of and send it to as many theatres as you can.

Do critics and other creatives presume that you are writing autobiographically, because you are a woman?

YES - this is such a good question and is so prevalent. I was asked on live radio if I've ever had post-natal depression, and when I said no, the male interviewer said, then why are you writing about it? I find it enraging that a middle aged white man who lectures at a university can write a novel in which the protagonist is a middle aged white man who lectures at a university and it's lauded as great fiction, but if a woman writes about literally anything, it's assumed to be thinly-veiled autobiography.

What did you find different about writing for theatre and writing for radio?

They're both joyous in a different way. Radio is a logic challenge sometimes - like, how can I give a listener the tools they need to see this scene in their heads, without the listener knowing that's what I'm doing? How can I show them that Ned is standing looking at a dead dog without someone entering a room and saying "Ned what are you doing staring at a dead dog".... you know? (No idea who Ned is but you get me) Radio is also such an intimate conversation between story and listener and I love that you don't have to think about anything except sound. It's so pure in that way. Theatre, a more tangled beast sometimes. I try to write theatre as if there's no budgetary restrictions, as if anything can happen on a stage, because it kinda can. I also try to ask myself - does this story have to have human beings in a room telling it live?

I loved ‘Collapsible’ because it felt important and urgent (like it was pushing to come out)- why did you write this play and what was the process like?

Yeah I wrote it right after I finished doing a masters degree which I felt had squeezed all the life out of my writing - all that was me in it. So I wrote Collapsible initially just for myself, and put my heart and brain on the page, and decided I didn't have to show it to anyone if I didn't want to. I still try to write like that and trick myself into thinking no one will see it so I can be braver on the page. The process was long. The version that made it to the stage was maybe draft 15 or so. I wrote about five or six of those drafts with a lot of notes and help from Deirdre O Halloran at The Bush and from Tom.

I felt like the lighting and set design were so integral in the piece, is this something you envisioned whilst writing? Would love to chat lots about 'Collapsible'!

The lighting, by Alex Fernandes and set design by Alison Neighbour were incredible, as was the sound design by Jon McLeod. I didn't envision anything to do with the set or lighting when writing, the text has no suggestion of setting whatsoever. The fact that the design felt so integral to the piece and drawn directly from it is because brilliant Tom is obsessed with detail in a way that I'm not at all. And so he and Alison took the images in the text - the height, the sand (an image which in turn came from a quote from The Passion According to G.H, an extraordinary novel by Clarice Lispector)- and turned them into stagecraft. And then Alex took the tone of the play and turned it into light. I don't know how he did that. I was so lucky with the brilliance of every single person I got to work with on that show.

What are you writing next?

Lots of things. Another radio play, which should be out soon, and a TV script. Both are queer female love stories of sorts.

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