Q&A with My Mother Said I Never Should playwright, Charlotte Keatley

Ahead of the very well-known play, My Mother Said I Never Should, coming to York Theatre Royal, I got access to a Q&A with the playwright! Charlotte Keatley is an inspirational woman so it’s great to hear her opinions and thoughts on the success of her play…

Has the enduring appeal of My Mother Said I Never Should surprised you at all?  

It’s a play that anyone, any age or gender, can relate to: it’s about family, and ordinary family, working class and middle class characters. And love, how we show it or withhold it; and ambition, what that is in each generation. And it’s both funny and moving, so it’s a play that makes us react – either acting in it or watching it. When I’m writing plays I think about this: I want the audience to laugh and cry and be truly moved, in one evening. Since I wrote it, there are still very few plays which show women’s lives as they really are – the day to day, “ordinary” lives, not women being super detectives or political heroines, but the less visible way in which women really can change society: how we raise the next generation, a pretty massive responsibility, but one which is still not seen as a hugely important “job”. As parents we wrestle with how much of our own value system to pass on, and are confronted with what we’ve made of our lives, when we bring up a child, or choose not to. This is still a pivotal decision in women’s lives: look how media comment on whether women politicians, Olympic athletes, film stars, company managers etc have children or not, how they manage that or not. 

Is the play based on your own experience?

The play is not at all autobiographical.  I never write directly from my life, as I think it’s my job to be a human Hoover: I listen and watch hundreds of people over time, and slowly absorb what people fear, or hope, or want to solve in their lives. I write a play as a way to explore this, and develop the characters as I write. This play comes out of watching the new opportunities and pressures on women which I saw in the 1970s and 80s. I had far more choice as a 25-year-old than the 80-year-old woman next door ever had for her life. I set about inventing four generations of women who all made different choices. 

How has the industry’s attitude to women in theatre changed since you wrote the play?

I’m not called a “woman playwright” nowadays but a “playwright”.  There are now many great plays written by women in the UK. But very few women across history wrote plays until the last 50 years, so many conventions about theatre are still those defined by a male point of view, such as what subjects or characters define good plays. What’s encouraging is how many theatre companies are now finding and staging great plays by women with parts for women – and men – which smash the old stereotypes. And many theatres have new writing workshops, encouraging new voices.  What is worrying is that the cost of drama schools and colleges is so high now, we’re getting only a privileged range of young people who can afford to enter theatre. It is the voices of outsiders, especially in playwriting, which break the mould and re-invent theatre, as I did. It’s scary to do, that’s why I’ll run workshops in places in the community if I can, where there may be someone with a new voice who needs to be heard and encouraged.

What advice would you have for aspiring young playwrights?  

Go to theatre and read hundreds of plays before you write yours – be sure you really have something new to write. Then try your scenes in a room with some actors, or friends. You have to see a play aloud and in action if you want to know if it works. Listen to feedback, re-write, try it again; then when you send it to a theatre or BBC writers’ room, you will have more sense of what works or doesn’t. Listen to all criticism then use your instinct to know what’s right for your play.  Try staging a play in a fringe venue or pub, to understand the process, and listen to audience response. Don’t expect to earn money from it, do it because you want to move people.

Don’t miss My Mother Said I Never Should when it comes to York Theatre Royal from 20th-24th November.

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