Interview with Kate Webster: RED Women's Theatre Awards finalist playwright

With 'Gone' Kate Webster is a finalist playwright in the inaugural RED Women's Theatre Awards showcase this Sunday 6th March at the Greenwich Theatre, London.

Kate Webster is a writer and occasional director, and last year was longlisted for The Old Vic 12 scheme with "Shed" (a play about a man dealing with dementia by moving into his garden shed) and shortlisted in the Euroscript Screen Story Competition.

"I'm fascinated by science and have written a series of Fringe pieces that use personal stories to explore big scientific ideas, like quantum physics. Working with brilliant new writing company The Pensive Federation, I've written four ten minute plays, each created and performed in ten days, working with a specific group of actors. I'm really interested in identity and in telling compelling stories."

Please tell us more about your play GONE

'Gone' is about what it means to be a citizen and what happens when the law says something you know isn’t right. It starts with sisters Annie and Issy burying their brother, a soldier killed in Afghanistan just months before the British army’s scheduled to leave for good. He’s splashed across the front pages as a tragic hero who died for his country and suddenly politicians and the public want to hear what Annie thinks.

It came from thinking about which voices we’re not used to hearing, and the impact on families of people who hit the headlines (for positive or negative reasons). Doreen Lawrence – now Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon – is an amazing campaigner and has done so much to promote police reform and better community relations, but if her son hadn’t been murdered, it’s hugely unlikely the Home Office or the Met would’ve listened to her.

The play’s inspired by “Antigone”, and I realised that even though the play’s named after the character, it isn’t really about her; I wanted to put her back in the centre.

Why do you think (if you do) that theatre can be a platform for politics?

I think politics can so often feel complicated, boring and removed from everyday life, and theatre is great at bringing empathy and character into that – it can make people think differently without being didactic or beating the audience over the head. The current debate around the EU referendum is mind-numbingly tedious, but the effect on say a British women whose Swedish partner would have to leave the country if Brexit happens makes that real and immediate.

Theatre also has the power to put different people and different voices at the centre, compared to the overwhelmingly white, male, privately-educated voices in politics and news.

What appealed to you about entering RED? Why is it the time for a new award for female playwrights?

I was really interested in a scheme looking for overtly political plays, which I think’s great – especially when they’re written by women. I think there’s still a bit of a perception that stories centred around men are the norm; the way that a novel about a man is a novel, one about a woman is “women’s fiction”. While I love small, intimate, personal plays, I think it’s really important to have an award that encourages writers to think bigger.

Do you think there is gender equality in the performing arts? If not then why?

There definitely isn’t gender equality in the performing arts, which I think is because there isn’t equality in society yet. We won’t have equality in the arts while there’s still an assumption that a woman on a hospital ward’s a nurse not a consultant, that a woman in a meeting is there to get people coffee and take notes. I feel like that’s slowly getting better, but we’re not there yet.

In the arts specifically, there are still a lot of male stories being told and a lot of scripts in which the female characters are “wife/girlfriend” with no real role in the plot. I really enjoyed “The Big Short”, but was struck by the only female character who got any screen time being the wife of one of the central characters, who was there purely to give him someone to talk to. Sometimes it’s as simple as writers and director consciously asking “Does this character need to be male, or could this journalist/doctor/waiter/assassin be a woman?”. The same’s very much true of racial equality, where we still see such a tiny, unrepresentative number of people who aren’t white on stage and screen.

What advice would you give to others wanting to get into playwrighting?

See lots of plays, read lots of plays, find something that interests you and start writing about it – you don’t need an answer, just a question. I think listening to people and how they talk is incredibly useful (and justifies some eavesdropping!). It both helps you bridge that gap between real conversation and dialogue, and understand how much of people interacting is subtext. As David Mamet (I think) said, “People may not always say what they mean, but they always say something designed to get them what they want”.

For playwriting specifically, it’s great to remember how much freedom you have – you can set a play on the moon, you can have an actor play a character’s anxiety or their invisible friend, you can talk directly to the audience. So I’d say don’t get too hung up on realism; there’s so much more you can do.

Who do you find inspirational?

As we’re thinking about politics, I find both the people risking everything to get out of an impossibly dangerous situation and the volunteers stepping in where governments have failed inspirational. I can’t quite believe we’ve got to a point where politicians have consciously decided to let people fleeing war drown, in the hope that might put others off trying to escape.

As a writer, I’m inspired by writers who make me feel and think – in the last few months I’ve found Gary Owen’s “Iphigenia in Splott” and Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” have both kept me on the edge of my seat in the theatre, but also stuck in my head long after the play’s finished.

What will you be doing on International Women's Day?

At work, I’ll be promoting voter registration to students and encouraging people to think they can change something. Then I’m looking forward to seeing Janet McTeer and Elaine Cassidy in a production of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” directed by Josie Rourke for the National Theatre, and being glad we’re moving further and further away from a woman’s only choice in life being which man she marries.

What are you working on at the moment & what's next?

I’m working on a longer version of “Gone” that tells the rest of Annie’s story, and a play about making first contact with aliens that’s been percolating in my head for a while. I’m interested in doing something that really involves the audience, that’s about a shared experience rather than sitting back in a darkened room while people perform for you.

Bonus Q - What question do you wish I'd asked?

Why should people be coming to the theatre (as well as seeing films and television)?

Because the experience of live theatre is still like nothing else – your reaction is part of the performance and every single one is unique and unrepeatable. As a teenager, I did some outdoor touring theatre and still remember one particular night when Merlin did his speech about casting a spell; on the final word, a sunbeam hit his outstretched hand and the whole audience gasped. Genuine magic.

(c) Kate Webster / Female Arts 2016


See Kate Webster's play 'Gone' in a rehearsed reading directed by Alice Kornitzer at the Greenwich Theatre, Sunday 6th March 2016 as part of the inaugural RED Women's Theatre Awards

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