Penelope Skinner: ‘Can you be a universal character who’s not a white, straight man?’
Penelope Skinner asks me: “Do we believe that women in general are hungry for stories about them?” The writer, whose plays have all hinged on complex female characters, quickly answers her own question: “I believe that they are.” These are the stories that Skinner often sets out to tell, countering a theatrical establishment that is still largely interested in male-centred narratives. “It happily coincides that I’m also most interested in telling those stories,” she continues. “I don’t think I could do anything else. I feel driven to tell those stories.”
Like many theatremakers, Skinner was first drawn to the art form as a child, when she was taken to see a stage adaptation of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. “It was really amazing,” she says, “and kind of life-changing in how magical it was and how transported I felt to a completely different world.” It was not writing that she initially aspired to, though, but acting: “I think I just assumed I wanted to be an actor.”
While acting “didn’t really work out” for Skinner, it did introduce her to new plays. “I moved to London to try to be an actor and that was when I became aware that people were writing new plays,” she remembers. Enthused by this fresh wave of drama, Skinner started regularly attending shows at new writing venues such as the Royal Court Theatre and the Bush Theatre, where she had a memorable encounter with Jack Thorne’s play When You Cure Me.
“I found it a very meaningful experience watching the play,” Skinner tells me, “but something about it made me want to write something myself.” Ten years on, she struggles to put her finger on quite what it was about the show that inspired her, but she suggests that it was “something about that experience, something about feeling that the audience had responded a certain way and feeling that something more needed to be said”.
Skinner had always written as a hobby – “first chapters of novels, and bad poems, and a diary” – but that night at the Bush was the first time she had considered writing for the theatre. Her first play, Fucked, soon followed – she describes it as “a kind of splurge”. A monologue with a reverse chronology, the play discusses female sexuality by tracing back its speaker’s experiences over a number of years, opening with her working in a strip club. As debuts go, it was attention-grabbing.
The Royal Court, where we sit chatting in the upstairs bar behind the iconic neon sign, has an important place in Skinner’s writing career. After writing Fucked, which went on to have runs at London’s Old Red Lion and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, she joined the theatre’s Young Writers Programme – a notable exception to its usual 16-to-25 age range at 30 years old – and began to hone her writing alongside the likes of EV Crowe, Nick Payne and Anya Reiss. It was a place to learn “the craft of it,” she explains. “They allowed you to explore stuff without being definitive about how things should be.”
It was during Skinner’s time on the Young Writers Programme – and partly as the result of a playwrights’ lock-in one night – that she produced her play The Village Bike, which went on to win awards during its run at the Royal Court and receive further productions in Sheffield and New York. At first, though, the Court turned it down. “I had this meeting with Dominic [Cooke], and he was like, ‘You think it’s about that, but it’s not’,” Skinner remembers. “I wanted it to be about female power and sexuality, but it just wasn’t coming through.”
Skinner’s latest play, Linda, again focuses on female experience. She describes it as the product of “a slow accumulation of things”, the first of which was a comment made about 10 years ago. “Someone said to me, ‘The thing is, no one’s interested in women in their 50s’,” she recalls. “I can’t even remember the context in which it was said, I just remember the comment, and it really stuck in my brain.” Out of this developed the play’s central character: a woman in her 50s who appears to have it all.
The world around Linda, however, took longer to emerge. While thinking about the play, Skinner spoke to a woman who conducts market research for the beauty industry, who told her that “as a woman, as you get older less people try to sell you things, so you’re much less visible in terms of advertising and marketing”. This provided the hook for the drama, in which Linda is fighting against the sexism and ageism of beauty advertising while trying to hold her fracturing family together.
Q&A: Penelope Skinner
What was your first non-theatre job? Being a waitress in a cafe.
What was your first professional theatre job? I was understudy/assistant stage manager on a tour of The Real Thing starring John Gordon Sinclair.
What is your next job? The next thing I know that’s definitely happening is a play in New York called The Ruins of Civilisation.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I was thinking, because Linda is about mothers and daughters, that one thing that my mother is excellent at is imagining the worst-case scenario. And I feel that’s a fantastic thing for a playwright to be able to do.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Running an animal sanctuary is my other dream job.
It’s a play of questions rather than answers. “There is a question in the play about whether things are getting better,” says Skinner, “but it’s also about whether you can do anything.” At the start of the play, Linda believes she is making a difference, but she continues to play within the rules of the industry she’s part of. “She believes she’s changed the rules of that game, but the game is the same. That’s the question at the heart of it all. We are all playing that game – every day that we get up and put make-up on.”
Another of the play’s questions is particularly pertinent for the theatre industry, where debates about representation and equality are ongoing: “Can you be a universal character who’s not a white, straight man?.” The eponymous protagonist of Linda is an experiment in answering that question.
“It took a long time to write this play,” Skinner admits. “I was really worried about it for a long time and I felt a bit impotent about it for a long time. Then I decided to free myself from anxiety and try to just tell a story, and to allow Linda to be a human being who doesn’t have to represent all women. She’s not meant to be perfect or even good; she’s just human. Once I allowed her to be that then the play sort of happened.”
Given her interest in telling women’s stories, and telling them the way she wants to tell them, I wonder how Skinner found the experience of writing for the television show Fresh Meat, where she had to slot into a pre-existing framework.
“It never felt like a compromise,” she insists, stressing the importance of that job as a learning experience. She admits that as part of a writing team for television “you are less free”, but she appreciates the different process and the opportunity to tell other stories. “When you sit down to write a play that is just you, and it’s whatever you want to happen, and whatever you want to say, and that’s amazing,” she enthuses. “But other things are also fun.”
CV Penelope Skinner
Born: 1978, ReadingTraining: Royal Court Young Writers ProgrammeLandmark productions: Fucked, Old Red Lion (2008), Eigengrau, Bush Theatre, (2010), The Village Bike, Royal Court Theatre (2011), The Sound of Heavy Rain, Paines Plough (2011)
Awards: George Devine award 2011 for The Village Bike, Evening Standard most promising playwright award 2011 for The Village Bike
Agent: Giles Smart, United Agents