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Izzy Tennyson in Brute

London Must-Sees: the best writing by women this spring

5 March 2016 Lydia Cooper

To mark Women’s History Month this March, we spoke to two talented female playwrights, Florence Keith-Roach and Izzy Tennyson, about the difficulties of writing in your twenties, the inherent sexism in female characters, and the complexities of friendship between women.

This spring, two critically lauded plays from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe are transferring to the London fringe scene: Izzy Tennyson’s Brute and Florence Keith-Roach’s Eggs. Both Tennyson and Keith-Roach act in their own work and have had a hand in producing it. Tennyson’s play is ‘a semi-autobiographical piece about my time at an all-girls school, which slowly gets darker and darker’. It’s written in monologue form, and Tennyson herself plays the main character, Poppy. Similarly, Keith-Roach plays one of the two characters in her work Eggs, which is about two women in their twenties confronting issues of fertility, female friendship and identity.

We caught up with both writers individually to discuss the imminent London productions of their plays, and the challenges they have faced as millennial female playwrights.

 

Female friendship

Whilst Brute focuses on a particularly nasty phase of friendship between a group of 14 year old girls - social demands, betrayal, bullying - Eggs examines how female friendships are altered in your late twenties by societal pressures. The theme will resonate with any woman watching who went to an all-girls school, or has a difficult relationship with a female friend: as Tennyson observes, everyone has their own story about a nasty incident in that kind of environment.

‘At school, female friendships are all about rules that don’t make sense,’ says Tennyson, ‘The ‘pretty’ girls are only the pretty girls because they all have Jane Norman bags. My friend used to buy pyjamas from La Senza so she could carry the bag around and it would look like she was buying bras.’

Tennyson’s work nails the indescribable dynamics of an all-girls environment, the complex and potent combinations of factors that dictate a girl’s rise to popularity, or the tiny reasons a girl might be shunned and bullied (‘often it’s because they’re overweight’). It captures the intensity of feelings at that age, and how obsessed teenage girls become with being as close to their friends as possible.

‘When there are no boys, some girls take on a role that’s not quite male...but you do get quite intense about best friends, it becomes like a relationship. If your friend sits with someone else you get jealous.’

‘I saw Izzy’s play in Edinburgh,’ comments Keith-Roach, ‘I felt very anxious watching it, because it reminds me of what it was like to be a teenager. I think when you get older, with friends you’ve known for a long time, what’s so interesting about close friendships is they can drag you back six years ago, to the person you’re trying not to be any more. They can make you feel like the geeky teenager that you were, that you’re desperately trying to forget. When I address female friendship what I’m trying to tackle is the complexity, the lack of definition, the fluctuation... I definitely don’t want to portray women who are at each other’s throats - these women love each other - but it’s about the fact that those we love the most are those we can be most callous to, or careless about. Those journeys and ups and downs are what I think is so interesting, and hard to pin down.’

Keith-Roach’s work Eggs captures an entirely different phase of female friendship: the difficulty of being in your twenties, being told you can ‘have it all’, and then being forced into a pseudo-competition as a result of this, a bizarre mixture of wanting your friends to do well but feeling a slight pang when they announce an engagement, exciting new job or a pregnancy.

‘In my late twenties, suddenly all these ideas about fertility and ticking time-bombs are being bandied around,’ Keith-Roach remarks, ‘Some people are really affected by this, others not at all. I wanted to examine whether this is something culture is giving us, as biological, fertile women. It also explores the agency of our bodies - these days we are told we are independent, we are feminists, we don’t need men, but the idea that you might be lonely, or not doing what you want, means that this becomes your fault and society presses this upon women. You must be fertile, successful, beautiful, young, whatever that means. The play considers these anxieties and how we internalise them.  And also how we transfer them onto the people closest to us, which in this case is other women.’

 

On millennial writing

As women in their twenties, both Keith-Roach and Tennyson are part of a generation that cannot afford housing, burdened with student loans and graduate debt. In the millennial age, you’re actively encouraged to have everything and do everything, and the moment you realise you can’t do that is a particularly pivotal one.

‘That’s exactly it!’ says Tennyson. ‘When I left university, there was a kind of elite self-congratulation in the ceremony, like “go forth into the world, you’ll do so well now you’ve been here”.  They build you up so much, and when you leave and the bubble bursts, it’s so hard. It’s really difficult to get work in the arts industry and you have to make your own luck. That’s why I started writing and acting in shows.’

Keith-Roach explains that her motivation for writing partly stems from wanting to depict her generation with honesty: ‘I think we appropriate our own voice. For a long time, older people were writing our stories and not getting it quite right: that’s how I felt, at least, watching television or film, the kind of women I was seeing who were supposedly my age did not reflect anyone I know. I found it really frustrating, and it got to the point where I wanted to write about it myself, starting with what I knew. I wanted to document reality with real honesty, it made me realise how hungry I was for a truthful gaze, one that came from female writers.’

 

Finding form

It’s curious that lots of writers in their twenties are creating plays that only have one or two characters, written in monologue or duologue form.  Perhaps it’s the perfect form to capture the highly personal, confessional style that a lot of contemporary writing employs.

‘If I’m honest,’ says Tennyson, ‘I do think there’s a financial aspect to doing a one-person show. Lots of people my age can’t afford to finance a big production.’

Keith-Roach pauses. ‘I think my decision to write a duologue was based on a few different things. I wanted to focus on the female gaze, and to explore, for an exercise, cutting out men entirely from the narrative. You might notice that in my play, no male names are ever actually mentioned. That’s just something I wanted to challenge myself to do, as we so often think in terms of a default male gaze. It was interesting to push myself and question that, and nice to explore interesting, charismatic female characters, of course.’

 

Female characters

Of course, there are already myriad social media accounts that draw attention to sexism in the film and television industry, and the lack of nuanced female characters, from the excellent Tumblr Casting Call Woe to producer Ross Putman’s Fem Script Intros on Twitter, in which he posts descriptions of female characters from scripts he’s actually read, anonymised into the character ‘Jane’. Many of these adhere to the virgin-whore dichotomy that plagues writing about women. Both Keith-Roach and Tennyson are aware of the tired gender stereotypes prevalent in writing at the moment, and their plays seek to combat this.

‘From a female writer angle, there are too many plays that use female characters as a victim or a love interest,’ says Tennyson, ‘It’s fun to own a character that isn’t sympathetic. I hate boring female characters, and I hate it when people can’t handle that women can be horrible as well - we definitely can! I watched the new adaptation of Macbeth the other day and they literally turned her character into a grieving mother figure. They just added it in to make her more sympathetic, and that essentially fucked that character.’

She adds that American television is a key influence in her writing. ‘Girls is obviously a problematic show, but it doesn’t show them in a sympathetic light, which is what I find appealing - they’re all horrible. I like to grow close to a character and connect with them about something you feel guilty about, rather than thinking “oh they’re such a nice person”.’

Keith-Roach’s influences also include American writers. ‘I love Jill Holloway, who writes and directs Transparent. She speaks, eloquently and often, about the sexism she experienced as a TV writer. She writes with the female gaze in mind. She speaks really interestingly about how we’ve been brought up to think that the camera is male, and ways that a director acts like a tyrannical man. For me watching it, there’s a real change of pace and meditation. It has a tone I’ve never seen before, her rhythm of writing is very female and it’s amazing. I also love Broad City, a web series written by two women about their experiences in New York. It’s very funny and scrappy and bold.’

 

Where to see Florence Keith-Roach and Izzy Tennyson’s work

What is most striking about Tennyson and Keith-Roach is that they both have unique and distinctive voices, writing intelligently about issues that are often sidelined: it seems almost unfair to write about both of them at once rather than devoting separate features to their work. If you find time this spring to see them perform, you will discover why Keith-Roach received so many 5 star reviews at the Fringe, and why Tennyson won the IdeasTap Underbelly Award in 2015.

 

Florence Keith-Roach’s work Eggs is on at the Vault Festival until 6 March. A few £16 tickets are still available for performances that weekend. You can get £15 tickets for Izzy Tennyson’s play Brute, which is at the Soho Theatre on 15, 17 and 19 March.

 

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