Interview: Erin Layton


Erin Layton is not Irish. But if you have seen her in Magdalen, you will probably think that she is. Erin Layton, very fond of “impersonations and mimicking since a very early age”, the writer and multiple character performer of Magdalen is an impressively insightful young woman from St Louis Missouri, whose Irish roots have been beautifully intertwined with her feminist anxieties. Raised Irish Catholic, Erin’s politics are influenced by her Catholicism, her sense of Justice and her profound devotion to her art. Magdalen was one of the first plays I reviewed at this year’s Edfringe. It is the story of the Magdalen Laundries, a harrowing account of how unwed mothers, unsuspected rape victims, prostitutes, mentally disturbed women and little orphaned girls were promised absolution from sin and eternal membership of Paradise if they entrusted themselves to the ‘care’ of nuns in Ireland’s notorious Magdalene Laundries.

“I trained with Anne Bogart at New York’s Site Company” she tells me proudly. “Our ethos is very much about developing our craft based on Japanese theatre practice, including Tadashi Suzuki’s acting method”. Theatre director and philosopher Suzuki, the founder of The Suzuki Company of Toga, is renowned for his own works such as On the Dramatic Passions and Trojan Women as well as international collaborative productions of King Lear and Oedipus Rex. “Shortly after graduating I co-founded the Eastern Ensemble and started to make my own work”, Erin continues. “Magdalen was researched in the United States and in Ireland and its value was recognised literally from the first rehearsed reading. I was offered a venue and the services of Julie Kline as her director and dramaturg. Julie helped me develop the text and it is still evolving”. Despite Layton’s solitary presence on stage, the harrowing events which took place over the 90-year period at the Laundries are incredibly vivid. “Some of the sites are still operating as commercial laundries” she explains. “While researching the play, I visited the site on Sean McDermott Street which is currently a hostel. I was led through a narrow passage. My guide and I just stood in the corridor as he told me story after story about the disturbing accounts of these girls’ lives”. I ask her whether she actually stepped inside the rooms where the women “worked” and suffered. “I couldn’t” she tells me. “I almost felt it would be sacrilegious to do so”. I agree.

The play does not really need verbatim accounts to attain emotional heights. They are already inside the text and Layton’s chosen method of delivery for each character. My next question was about choosing characters. Given the diversity of the different women’s characters, I wondered whether this would have been a hard choice. “Each character was about an aspect of how I felt about what happened” she explains. Erin’s delivery of the disabled girl, in my opinion, the most excruciating of all, was “about the purity of her character” Erin tells me. Her deliberate lack of linguistic coherence in the delivery of this character is its most powerful weapon. It is all about the physicality and the urgency of her plight: hunger, bodily infirmity and abandonment by the world is enough to narrate the story and you really need to by human injustice and prejudice and Erin does this magnificently. The text is alive and very much ready for a more extended version, “hopefully to include more stories and complete certain of the characters’ journeys”.

Layton’s first visit to EdFringe has been a resounding success with producers from London and the Brighton Fringe already in discussions about a possible UK Tour. “I love Edinburgh” she enthuses. “Sometimes I look at a building and wonder: is this real?”

I’m delighted we charmed her and I hope she will be back soon with more Magdalens for us to enjoy. Layton has a very precise sense of political direction and architectural orientation. The politics of Magdalen are structurally inbuilt within the architecture of her text, the physicality and the choreography of her alternating characters.
Before we parted, I wondered why a young American woman would engage with a theme so profoundly political, so torturesome as the deeply buried secrets of these victims. “This is about my own general sense of justice” Erin tells me. And her sense of justice is spot on with her first EdFringe participation with Magdalen. “I’m a feminist” she confesses. “I make my own work, I produce, I perform.”
She does this very well. And we all know how valiantly noble and difficult that is.

Effie Samara©

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