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Interviewing a Playwright

Women You Know is a play about desire, autonomy and bad sex by Catherine Barrie and Stella Jopling, both students at St Andrews. It premiered on 16 March at the Bedlam Theatre in Edinburgh, and will make its way to St Andrews in April. In anticipation of the local premiere, I interviewed Catherine to discuss her creative vision and aims.

CL: Talk to me about your creative process, what were your influences? What compels you to write?

CB: The process was quite interesting in the sense that I write down funny things that people say to me and I realised that a lot were about sex, my friends having sex. So it was a matter of adapting them, I had the outline, I just had to forge a concept and create characters based on these bits, building it from the inside out. The characters are essentially an accumulation of the relationships of most of the women I know, it’s a play about every woman I’ve ever met. In terms of the writing and creative concept I was obviously influenced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but also Michaela Coel, Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper who did I Hate Suzie. I watched a lot of these over lockdown, it was loads of women being funny on TV, and I thought that was great. Most of the women I know are hilarious, I think being funny is a trait that shows intellect and social awareness - you have to be smart to be funny. I think when something is written it feels real, it feels important and worth writing down, like the Bible or the American constitution. You write to make sense, you write to find the truth in something. Writing about women talking about something menial such as casual sex, or being hungover validates it and makes it real. Some of my fondest memories are being hungover with my friends, talking about our crappy evenings.

CL: To me so much of the play’s comedy stems from the absurdities that emerge when trying to navigate and articulate our desires in the context of casual sex. Do you think these are perennial issues, or is there something uniquely comic in our contemporary sexual culture?

CB: I do think they are perennial issues, the secondary inspiration to the play was me realising probably far too late that I didn’t like the women I was reading about. It was never deliberate but I’d read these books and wouldn’t like the women, I thought they were cold, vapid, weirdly complex and they’d confuse me. I’d read Beautiful and the Damned, Stoner, and On the Road, all these books I really liked, I just never liked the women in them. I always related to the men instead of the women, and finally, I realised, rather embarrassingly, I didn’t like them because they were written by men. They were being completely misunderstood, the reason they seemed cold and complex was that they didn’t like the male protagonists. I think that for every single book that you’ve read by a man, at any point in time, there’s the woman’s side of it, where she doesn’t really like him that much. These women exist, even if their perspectives aren’t there. I think the concept of casual sex has always existed, and women have always partaken in it. I guess in our contemporary culture it’s more exacerbated, we are more sexually liberated but we have less sex than our parent’s generation. We have a hookup culture but I’m not sure it’s fulfilling. But women not enjoying sex, and analysing these interactions with their friends has always existed. It’s in these interactions that the female gaze exists. That’s what the play is about.

CL: Where do you see in Women You Know in relation to British feminist theatre?

CB: Everywhere, we have big plans for it, it feels like part of something new and cool. I had this nightmare after I’d just finished it, I found this article in the guardian, the title was ‘Take that Fleabag! Liz Kingsman, the comic skewering the ‘messy women genre’. I got really stressed out because my women are messy, but suddenly this type of woman had gone out of fashion. I want theatre to show women who can just exist as they are, who don’t have to conform to what’s in or out. I want Women You Know to be part of a British feminist theatre that is inclusive, that understands that women are diverse. Liz Kingsman said she didn’t see herself in Fleabag, that her friends were career orientated, and I get that, but I think that validating the experiences of all women, no matter their creed, colour, religion, or sexuality is what defines feminist theatre, not which female archetype is trending.

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