How are preparations going?
They’re going well. The show changes every time because it’s got a bit of audience participation in it, so I’ve been working out the variables and finding my feet with it. It’s all still very new. I went back into development and ended up rewriting the whole thing in two weeks. But now I have a show that’s saying all the things I want it to say. I’m looking forward to being at NEAT because it’s back in Nottingham and it’s a home crowd, but it’s an international festival as well.
How long has the show been in development?
A year. I started making it when I had a BBC Performing Arts fellowship, but I was still really tentative in terms of being a theatre maker. It’s only the second solo show I’ve done, and I feel like it explores some things that are quite difficult for me to talk about, but are really important to the work. Before the redraft, I felt like I had this piece of work that wasn’t doing all the things I wanted it to. I wanted to challenge myself to go a little bit deeper with it, so that’s what I’ve done.
What can we expect from the show?
There’s quite a bit of gardening, which is funny because I’m not an avid gardener at all. In fact, I hate it. There’s a bit of comedy and a character’s walk of death – which sounds more dangerous than it actually is. I’m exploring what it means to be a woman, and the pressure that we feel in terms of time – when the time is right for us to do things, or when time is being imposed on us by other people: “Why are you not a mother yet? Why are you not married yet?” I think women don’t get celebrated enough for their other achievements – career achievements don’t seem to mean as much as bringing another person into the world. In essence, the piece is about keeping up with yourself. Not feeling like you’re dragging behind, but being the constant.
Do you think being single and career driven is something that affects men and women differently?
The biggest difference that’s undeniable between men and women is the fact that men can have children whenever they like – providing it all works properly. Women have that time thing. I’ve never thought, “Oh, I wanna get married.” It’s always been about my career. Then, next thing you know, you’re thirty and you’re like, “Oh, I haven’t met anyone yet, but it doesn’t matter because I’m still happy doing my thing.” There’s just too much pressure on it. I have to say to myself, I will have kids, or I won’t. It shouldn’t stop us achieving the things we want to, but I understand if it’s something you want and you have to bear that in mind a little bit.
Race played a big part in your piece How I Wear My Hair. Is that an element that you consciously seek to include?
That work was specific because I wanted to explore the impact of the idea of a specific black woman, and I felt that her hair played a part in defining that character and that archetype. I wouldn’t say that this piece itself is culturally specific. It is because I’m a black woman and in some ways, a black woman on stage is a political act itself. I’m making work from my own experience, and my experience is of life as a black woman, so it’s always going to be a part of the work but I don’t think it’s a dominating factor. This piece is about being a woman, and it’s about being a human.
You’re on tour at the moment. Have you received the audience response you expected?
I’ve been surprised by the amount of men who’ve come up to me after and said, “I’m in my thirties and this is how I’m feeling.” That’s been really interesting because I thought it was mostly a show for women. It’s not necessarily about having kids, it’s about looking at life and thinking, “Okay, this is where I am and it’s not where I expected to be. How can I get on the right track?” Ultimately, I’m trying to tell a story so it’s nice to see people engage.
Your work contains a lot of your own personal life experience. Is that liberating or something you can find yourself regretting?
I think that was why I was struggling with the first draft of the piece because I wasn’t comfortable talking about something. If a piece is autobiographical, it can seem very self-indulgent and the work isn’t supposed to be that. The only reason I talk about the things I do is because these things are hidden. Nobody speaks about them, and it liberates other people to hear them being discussed.
Sometimes I think, “Why have I done this?” But you write what you know. I still have poetic license to expand and develop things that may have been true in life but didn’t necessarily happen in the way I describe them. I think I’ve found my writing voice a little bit more now. I’ve been able to experiment with the way I write. It’s quite poetic in parts, then there’s some stuff that’s quite candid and more conversational.
You’ve got an alter-ego called Barry who can say things you’re unable to. What’s he all about?
This Barry character was in an early iteration of the show. He’s been ditched and replaced by a dog, which sounds really weird. Barry was this idea of an alter-ego, but I think he alienated other men in the room because he was quite chauvinistic and misogynistic. He was supposed to enable me to say the things that were difficult for me to say. I just womaned up and decided that I would stop trying to use something as a distraction technique.
You typically perform alone. Is that challenging?
What’s difficult is carrying an hour-long show by yourself, particularly if it’s physically demanding and you don’t have a co-actor to feed you a forgotten line. This show is almost like a ritual. Every time I get to the end I’m always pleased, not because it’s the end, but because I feel content with the journey.
I’m alone on stage, but I’ve got a great team of people with me. Debbie Hallam is my outside directorial eye – she’s an amazing, fierce, feminist creature. Naomi Cohen is my designer and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about creating a set that feels like I own it. It’s like another character in the show. Louise Stevens has been amazing with dramaturgical support. I have an established producer, Anna Smith, Jade Kerry is my technical manager and Melissa does my lighting. The show wouldn’t be what it is without the input of those people.
An all-female team – was that intentional?
There’s one guy this time. But yes, I’m celebrating women who can do all these amazing things. We’re all doing stuff for ourselves. That hardly ever gets celebrated. I feel so grateful to have the support of such creative, strong women. I was a bit dubious about having a man on the team this time, but he’s been really good. I’ve got a man and a tour dog.
I, Myself & Me, Neville Studio, Nottingham Playhouse, Thursday 9 June, 7.45pm.