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Vivienne Franzmann: ‘There comes a point where I have to just sit down and write’

Vivienne Franzmann and her dog Mabel Vivienne Franzmann and her dog Mabel

The award-winning writer is known for tackling social and ethical issues and her new play Bodies is no exception. Catherine Love finds the former drama teacher taking aim at white middle-class privilege in the heart of Chelsea

As a writer, I’m interested in confronting uncomfortable stuff,” says Vivienne Franzmann. Her first play, Mogadishu, explored white liberal guilt and the power of false allegations. This was followed up by The Witness, which stripped back the ethical conundrum faced by a war photographer. Now, in her latest play, Bodies, she’s aiming her fire at white, middle class privilege.

“I was thinking about the degree to which white middle class women are complicit in the oppression of women with less privilege and power,” she tells me. “As a white middle class woman, that felt confronting in a good way.”

The idea was sparked by a Royal Court workshop led by director Katie Mitchell on feminism and theatre, during which Franzmann and other participants “talked about the idea that some women were winning in the capitalist structure and what that meant for women who were not winning”.

Bodies follows a woman who is winning as she enters a transaction with those who aren’t. The direct subject matter is the surrogacy trade in India, which is booming thanks to privileged couples around the world desperate to have children. Indirectly, though, it addresses much more.

Malachi Kirby in Mogadishu, staged at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2011. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

“It’s not simply about a couple’s need or desire for a child,” explains Franzmann. “It’s about the politics of choice and the power and privilege that Clem, the white middle class woman, has that enables her to make that choice.”

It’s been a research heavy writing process, including a trip to New Delhi to see the surrogacy industry close up. Franzmann visited a fertility clinic and learned that parents typically go in twice: first to drop off the sperm and eggs, and then again after nine months to collect their child. “That just felt so… so unbelievable,” says Franzmann. “That you could just pop in, go home, and then return on a specific date when there would be a caesarean and the child was born.”

She also met doctors Ranjana Kumari and Manasi Mishra at the Centre for Social Research, who are campaigning for regulation of surrogacy in India. They had met many surrogates and witnessed exploitation in the unregulated industry. “They told me these women are often targeted because they’re known to be vulnerable,” says Franzmann. “It was really illuminating and horrifying at the same time.”

Research is important to Franzmann: “I couldn’t have written this without going to New Delhi. I would have felt wildly at sea and ill informed.” It also forms a large chunk of her writing process. “I spend a lot of time thinking about the work and digging into it before I’ll sit down and write anything,” she says. “What happens is that I’ll research so much and I’ll think so much that there comes a point where I’ve just got to sit down and do it.”

Franzmann admits that she’s “really bad at routine” and prefers to write late into the night. “I’m not a writer that does eight hours a day,” she says. “I wish I were, but it doesn’t work for me.” She also thrives on deadlines. “I was always the person who did my homework – or didn’t do my homework – on a Sunday night,” Franzmann says. “Being a writer is a bit like that, really.”

It was the pressure of a deadline that nudged Franzmann into becoming a playwright in the first place. After several years of working as a drama teacher and writing “little bits and bobs”, she went on an Arvon playwriting course one summer and decided she wanted to write a play. Soon, though, work took over again. “And then I saw the Bruntwood Competition and it was a deadline,” she remembers. “You do something because there’s a deadline.” Her aim was simply to finish a play (“I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it”), but Franzmann ended up jointly winning the 2008 competition with Mogadishu. “It was absolutely massive for me,” she says of the prize. “I thought I was going to be a teacher for my whole life. My life was really firmly going one way, and then it suddenly went another way.”

The transition from teaching to writing had its challenges. “Winning a competition, getting 10 grand – emotionally you’d think that would be really straightforward,” says Franzmann, “but actually it was quite difficult not teaching anymore and being alone.” She stresses how lucky she was to be able to commit to writing full time, but the change in working habits “took quite a long time to get used to”.

The isolation of writing has been eased by the support of organisations like the Royal Court, which commissioned Bodies, and Clean Break. Franzmann was writer in residence with Clean Break for a year, culminating in Pests, a play inspired by the women she met in prisons with the company.

“Clean Break is an incredible company and you feel very nurtured by it,” says Franzmann. “As a writer, you’re normally on your own, plugging away. That’s why Clean Break is such a brilliant experience for women writers, because you feel really nurtured and like you’re doing something important.” At the Royal Court, meanwhile, “you are supported as much as you want or feel you need, whether that’s a workshop or notes or discussions or research”.

Sinead Matthews and Ellie Kendrick in Pests at the Royal Court. Photo: Tristram Kenton

That support was particularly important for Bodies, which has been through a long process of redrafting and refining. Even as we speak, with the play in rehearsals, it’s still being tweaked. It’s the most involved Franzmann has ever been during the rehearsal process, and she describes the constant rewriting as “a mixture of terrifying, exhilarating and -completely necessary”.

“The intellectual and emotional responses to the work by the actors have been absolutely key to this and it has felt like a true collaboration,” she adds. Together with director Jude Christian, they’ve been looking closely at how people are represented on stage and how to show the agency of the characters. Again, conversations about privilege have been at the heart of the process.

That interrogation of privilege extends to the audience. “I am really aware of the level of privilege in the Royal Court audience, just by the nature of where it is,” says Franzmann. “I’m definitely interested in speaking to people with privilege in the room and confronting that privilege in the way that I’ve confronted it – or am confronting it – in myself.”

While she has had “one eye” on the audience, she insists that hasn’t defined the play. “The play that I write is always the play that I can write. I know that sounds really basic, but you can only write the play that’s in you. You have to be authentic to yourself. I have definitely evolved as a writer,” says Franzmann, reflecting on how things have changed in the years since she won the Bruntwood Prize. While every process is different, though, some things are always the same. “The constant is bloody hard work and really interrogating stuff and being prepared to get rid of what doesn’t work”.

CV: Vivienne Franzmann

Born: 1971, London
Training: Liverpool John Moores University
Landmark productions: Mogadishu, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, and the Lyric Hammersmith, London (2011), The Witness, Royal Court Theatre, London (2012), Pests, Royal Court Theatre, London, and the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester (2014)
Awards: Bruntwood Prize (2008), George Devine Award (2010), Pearson Playwright Bursary (2012), BAFTA (2014)
Agent: Nick Quinn at The Agency

Bodies is running at the Royal Court Theatre, London, until August 12

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