Interview: Leigh Douglas

The Minerva Collective come to Ovalhouse (London) in July with their show, Waking Beauty - a coming of age fairytale for the twenty-first century in a fresh look from an LGBTQ perspective at some traditional stories. It sounds right up my street, and so was naturally delighted when I got to interview the writer, Leigh Douglas, about it for Female Arts.

(Interview by @AmieAmieTay)

AT: First of all tell us a little about you and how you came to be a writer?

LD: I’ve been writing, in some way or another all my life. As a child I lived next door to my grandfather who was a playwright in Dublin in the 1960s and 70s. He had to leave school at 12 and was entirely self-educated from that point, working shifts as an electrician in the night and reading and writing during the day (along with raising my Father and his five siblings). For Granddad, writing gave him a voice he wouldn’t otherwise have had. It empowered him to enter the public discourse in a way most men born to his circumstances in 1920s Ireland would never have been able to. Even when I was little he made it very clear to me how important he felt it was for me to read and study so that I would be able to write and have a voice of my own.

AT: What are you interested in writing / have you written previously?

LD: Along with the rest of The Minerva Collective, I’m interested in writing theatre for and about young women. A gender imbalance still exists in our theatre. Young female audiences are less likely to see their stories reflected back at them on stage than the older, male demographic. I think this is an imbalance which needs to be addressed. In addition, I am passionate about raising awareness in the wider community about issues affecting young women. Waking Beauty is my first play.

AT: What inspired you to write Waking Beauty?

LD: Maybe it’s just me, but I think women who love women deserve to feel that they can be a fairy-tale princess too—that their love stories are just as worthy of the genre as heterosexual romances. Waking Beauty is a fairy tale like any other about a beautiful maiden finding her true love—it just so happens that it is a woman she finds her happy ending with, not the Prince.

So long as homosexuality remains absent from the genres of our folklore, our cultural heritage, it is doomed to be relegated as “other” or “a modern construction” when it is neither. In order to really address heteronormativity, LGBT love stories need to be told within the framework of our most institutionalised narrative structures.

It is time to do away with the notion that gay women aren’t just as capable of being the perfect princess as a straight woman should they so wish.

AT: Do you think Disney are getting any better at all at writing Princesses that are good role models for young women?

LD: I think the key thing which is becoming clear is that Disney is giving princess characters more agency to choose their own fate. Elsa makes decisions about her future. Rapunzel in Tangled chooses Flynn Rider just as much as he chooses her. Even Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991) is fully in command of all her faculties and able to speak her mind throughout the film which is more than can be said of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989) who are respectively unconscious and mute for large portions of the time in which their Princes are meant to be falling in love with them.

Another key development is that, unlike Cinderella, these new heroines are princesses in their own right and therefore, having their love interest is a nice to have rather than what confers on them their future fiscal security.

The thing is, as deeply problematic as I find many of the Disney princess films as a grown, feminist woman, I’m not ready to give up these stories and I’m glad Disney isn’t either. To condemn the entire genre would be a deep betrayal of the five year-old I once was—and I think a lot of women feel that way. So I for one am glad Disney is adapting their princess characters for the modern age—avoiding the old awkward themes of female submission—and helping to reclaim the princess for the next generation—mostly because I still want to be able to watch Disney princess films without feeling like a secret traitor to the feminist cause.

AT: What can we expect if we come to see Waking Beauty?

LD: When I wrote Waking Beauty I wanted to create the fantasy world which so engrossed me as a child and experiment with how characters within that world would respond to the political and social issues about which I am now passionate. I’m not ripping apart the fairy tale genre, I’m paying homage to it. I hope that by coming to see Waking Beauty you’ll be swept away into a world of magic and princes and dark forests and curses and spells and come away questioning how different our own world really is from that. The play begins following the narrative structure of any other fairy tale, the beautiful maiden goes to the ball and the prince falls in love with her at first sight. However, as The Girl—an outsider to her society and the narrator who guides the audience through the story—goes on to say “A simple story finds its happy ending easily. Yet this story is not as simple as all that.”

AT: Who is the work for?

LD: This work is for every little girl who dreamt of being a fairy tale princess but worried that she wasn’t slim enough, charming enough or straight enough for the role. It is also for any young men who worry that maybe they’re not brave enough or strong enough or attractive enough to be someone’s knight in shining armour. As well as the young people that the show was originally aimed at, some of the most powerful audience feedback we have received has been from the adults in the lives of
young people dealing with these issues. For example, when the show ran at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, the pastor of the actress playing the princess came to see the show. We were all on tenterhooks waiting for his response. But he said the piece had been thought-provoking in terms of whether homosexuality should be accepted by the church. I love that the show is capable of prompting a dialogue in that way.

AT: Describe the show in 6 words...

LD: Revisionist fairy-tale. Enchanted feminist love-story.

AT: Sounds incredible! So what are you working on next?

LD: My other piece which is under development with The Minerva Collective, Foodie, is a verbatim piece about young women’s relationships with food. In creating that piece, I was shocked at the number of young women who I interviewed who had struggled with some kind of an unhealthy relationship with food. All the girls represented in the show are between the ages of 18-25 from the UK, Ireland and the United States. They are also all girls who I consider my friends. I didn’t go out searching for girls who’d suffered from horrific eating disorders. I spoke to my friends and discovered an alarming number of them had struggled with bulimia, anorexia and binge eating without me ever having even suspecting it. The issue being, if someone doesn’t want you to know they’re struggling with food, you won’t. It therefore becomes an invisible issue despite how endemic it is in the young women of today.

AT: Where can we follow you on social media.

LD: @minervatheatre on twitter, “like” The Minerva Collective on Facebook or visit our website www.minervatheatre.com

Booking: http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/waking-beauty

(Also published on LGBTQ Arts, with a variation on questions).

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