I wonder down into the colourful and cake covered madness that is South Bank Market, and hide away beneath the arches of the National Theatre. Noisy but apt. I meet Katherine who has kindly agreed to discuss with me how theatre can explore gender and reveal to us the stories that we so often cast aside.
What do you think theatre can tell us about gender?
Theatre, for a long time has had gender at its centre. It has always had something to say. For a long time women did not act and were portrayed by men. Shakespeare played with this idea further by having his characters swap genders and roles. Now we expect to see women as much as we see men on stage. Theatre is being scrutinised by people all the time. A lot of people have this idea that theatre is a very white and middle class thing. Women are definitely being brought further into it but then the question is, is it just white women? And then if it is, then that is not doing anyone any favours. So it is constantly being scrutinised and I think that now I have seen things that are successful answers to a lot of gender questions and things that play with gender.
When you take it with a bit of humour particularly a Shakespeare comedy you can explore gender interestingly. You can take it seriously too, but you have to be really on point. Some people get it really right and then it feels real great and I feel that the plays I have seen in the last years have all said something interesting about gender. There are times when It doesn’t work. When I saw Henry V it had an all female cast and I thought that was really cool, but when I went they all had their hair in a bun and were wearing dark suits and I couldn’t tell who was who. If you are really familiar with Henry V you would understand it but surely you want it to be really accessible - not just a bunch of women reading Shakespeare who all look the same. It has to be accessible!
Other than being accessible what are the characteristics of a show that explores gender successful?
I think what makes it successful is when you don’t get handed something that you expect. Now in theatre people who see it a lot and in general with films, they think they know all the tropes. If you can prove that there is still something else to say and you are not just riding on the back of something that everyone already agrees with, that makes it more interesting and successful.
"Theatre has always had something interesting to say about gender"
Interesting, have you seen something like that?
The one I was working on in August and September was Trident Moon. The play was about women in the Indian - Pakistan transition. That was defiantly the kind of play in which you don’t know what to expect. I read reviews by men who complained that all the situations were improbable, that the women were hysterical. I thought, you are just saying that because you don’t have the imagination to comprehend what women had to do with these situation. You are only interested in what men want to do - that they were cutting each-others heads off, but they were doing stuff to women too, they were going around and raping them! Just like it was in the Bosnian conflict, the rape of the women was completely intrinsic to the hold conflict, like in the Congo.
"It's really all about telling stories that don't get told otherwise"
The rape is often symbolic, “we will take your women”.
Yes, absolutely men have done it for centuries and to see a play about that pushes your expectations of what you think you know. It shocks you whilst still resonating with you and not seeming to push you away. It draws you in with the familiarity of them just being women, people that do the same things as you do. In this case they have children, they work, they have friends and they have enemies. I really liked that play and I thought it was really successful. It was very small but even if a few people saw it and that opened their minds then that is successful.
Was the play the reason you focused your dissertation on gender and theatre?
Not all because of that play because that is something that means a lot to me anyway. I usually try to focus my written work and research on something that is about gender or something looking from a Feminist view point. That is what interests me. Doing that play really helped with developing those ideas. Really I was just lucky because I was for some reason attracted to that play.
Could you tell me a little bit more about how a play can develop your understanding of feminism?
When your ideas about how the world is, get challenged. One person’s idea of feminism is different to someone else's. It is really all about telling stories that don’t get told otherwise. That is what is important to me. Maybe it is feminist theatre, the idea of telling stories that are not the typical male centric stories.
Would you say there is a story you would like to tell now? Something you are thinking about?
I have kind of always fantasised about writing a play. I have a feeling that is something I might do when I am a lot older and when I have more experience of the world. I think that I am still completely obsessed with the untold stories, that happen in my life and the lives of other women or perhaps men but not the men you think of when you imagine men generally. The feminine stories that get pushed aside. I do not want to say just women because that leaves out certain other people, trans people. Their story is really important and I have a feeling that over the next 5 years it will become increasingly more important. It's great the idea of telling their stories. I think that if I was going to write something it would be about all of the things you don’t really see because in a way you are used to them and in another way we are so used to hiding these things about ourselves. Because they seem like they are not important.
Turning it the other way around, what can gender tell you about theatre? By taking a gendered perspective do you think that you learnt more about theatre?
I think that you certainly learn a bit more about theatre if you make a point of learning it from anyone’s perspective who isn’t a white male. Because the other perspectives are the ones that we are used to not seeing. Ever since I started looking at theatre from that perspective I have become so much more interested in it. I only chose theatre design because I didn’t know what to do – I went with something that seemed fun to me. I really liked story telling. Till the very end of art foundation I hadn’t thought about the stories I could tell and when I started to think about telling the stories of women and young girls and people who are often overlooked I really became passionate. At the end of foundation I did an animation and instillation that was a bit of a deviation from theatre but I was allowed to do it because it was interdisciplinary. It was the story of a teenage girl who was getting abused by an older boyfriend. As soon as I realised that I could tell that story and a lot of it through personal experience, that was the first time I felt really excited about doing it. Ever since then, when I have times that I go away from It unsure of it, when I come back with a feminist driven view, that always gives me a renewed excitement for what I am doing.
"The feminine stories that get pushed aside"
Do you ever worry that exploring topics such as abuse through theatre might normalise them?
The idea of bringing abuse and such topics out into the open is not to normalise them but to simply normalise the idea of talking about them. Of addressing those issues as issues and not just silly little domestic problems that don’t need to be in the spotlight.
What would you like to see more of in theatre?
I would like to see more non-male writing. What I mean by that is more writing by women, trans women, trans men or anyone who is not heterosexual, gender binary. I want to see writing by them and I want to see directing by them and I want to see more adaptations of Shakespeare and other renowned plays turned on their head when they mix genders of them. When I saw Twelfth Night the other day with Tamsin Grey playing a female version of Marvolio. I didn’t actually know that was who she was going to play because I tend to not read anything about the show before I see it because I don’t like to know. When I realised she was Marvolio I freak out. I love her. I was so excited seeing that play, I saw it the other day. I am absolutely in love with her so that was great for me.