Meet a group of intellectually fierce women making waves in the London theater scene and beyond.
Kristin Winters and C.C. Kellogg met while working on Bloody Poetry—Howard Brenton’s play about a complex love-quadrant involving Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron—in which they both performed atBrooklyn Art Library in the summer of 2016. The two speak very warmly of one another, and both seem delighted that the friendship they portrayed onstage, as Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont, respectively, became a genuine one offstage, as well. As Winters recalls, “I knew the day [C.C.] came in after a car accident, and still brought her full self to rehearsal, that we would get on.” The good news is that Winters and Kellogg will have the opportunity before too long to revisit their roles and their collaboration: Bloody Poetry will go on tour to several far-flung festivals over the next year, including ones held in Austin, Texas, Bristol, UK, and Avignon, France. Winters is pleased to have the chance to revisit her role: “I think the first time around, I didn’t have the luxury of time to fully delve into all of Shelley’s writings—something that I think will shape the performance in its next iteration.” Although Winters and Kellogg spent the bulk of their professional careers in New York City, they’re both currently based in London, which they’re slowly but surely, embracing as home, too. Winters grew up in London, so the transition has felt like less of a radical one. Still, both women confirm that they occasionally miss the pulsing energy of NYC. When I ask Kellogg (who serves as both a producer and a performer) about building and maintaining an international career, she’s level-headed and insightful in her response: “You need to be open to new collaborators while also holding on the people who jive with you creatively, even if you’re in different cities. I think it’s really crucial as a young artist not to start making myopic work: Making work lots of places tests the quality of your ideas and also helps keep them fresh.” —Kate Handford
Which actress would you love to meet for lunch?
Kristin: I’d love to meet Isabelle Huppert. I have been watching her movies since I was small, and recently was lucky enough to see her in Phaedra(s) at the Barbican Centre here in London. As silly as it sounds, it made me so happy to learn that she is the same size as me (we are both about 1.6m)! To know that such a powerhouse as Isabelle is just as small is always comforting. I don’t think I have one specific question—I’d love to sit down over a coffee and listen to her talk about the roles she’s played, how she created them in her mind, and how she has overcome the male-dominated world that so rarely allows strong, opinionated women (on and offscreen) to survive in this business.
C.C.: As a producer, Emily Dobbs, who is behind Found 111 in London, is hugely influential and has made theater I consistently admire. That company is currently on the hunt for a new space. As a performer-deviser, The Rude Mechs, an Austin-based, internationally recognized company, have created a team with a truly collaborative structure that I'd love to emulate. They're also about to lose a theater, after 25 seasons. Space is always at such a premium in this business—it is a basic necessity, and such a hard thing to maintain. Every time you get to make work in the spaces of others, you should be grateful. With Bloody Poetry, this 2017 tour, and the original production at Brooklyn Art Library, we feel that immensely. One day, I hope I'll be in a position to return that favor to other emerging theater artists.
writer of Girls (Soho Theatre, presented by Talawa Theatre Company & Hightide)
Jaclyn Bethany: Hi, Theresa! Where are you from, and where are you currently based?
Theresa Ikoko: I was born, raised, and still live in London. I’m originally from Nigeria.
JB: Do you recall the first story you ever wrote?
TI: I've only been writing outside of my bedroom (e.g. not in secret) for two years. Growing up, I always had tons of notebooks that I would write things in that I heard or saw (particularly things that I shouldn't have heard or seen). I don't really remember the first story I wrote, but when I was in Year Four (7 years old), my teacher made us write poems about colors. I wrote a poem called “Mr Turquoise,” and she asked me to read it out loud. I remember her reaction to it felt special, and I remember feeling so connected to the character and the world I had imagined. It's really easy for me to recall that moment and that feeling, even now.
JB: Where did the idea for Girls come from? Was it directly inspired by the 2014 incident surrounding the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram?
TI: I'm reluctant to refer to Girls as a political comment or statement. For me, it's a story about 3 real girls. These girls worthy enough, without an agenda. They don't need a justification for the space they take up on the stage or page. They don't need to be a part of something “bigger”—they are big enough.
I guess maybe that's the comment, if there has to be one. I think sometimes—in news, in art, in the Western media—the people who are actually in the stories are lost to the politics of the story. I think this strips us/them of our value—and the audience of their opportunity to truly connect.
What seems to be the most remarkable aspect of the play, to me, is that it’s just three average teenage girls who love pop music and pop culture, but who are stuck in a dangerous, life-threatening situation. It's that sort of juxtaposition between real, identifiable characters and the shock of what is actually going on in the world around them. They have to create a balance to survive.
JB: The experience of living life as a woman in Africa has recently been brought to the forefront in theatrical productions such as Lynn Nottage's Ruined and last year’s Eclipsed by Danai Gurira. Do you feel these sorts of stories in this part of the world have been hidden?
TI: I don't think [they’ve] been hidden, I just think we haven't looked for [them]. Like I said before, it's easy for women, people of color, and people far away from us to become lost while we look for the “bigger” pictures; while we look for reasons, agendas, or politics to justify them. Then, once we have those, we forget the people entirely. It's hard to connect with people you don't know exist or who you don't know listen to the same music as you.
Perhaps pushes for diversity, demands from audiences, funding requirements, shifts in commissioners, tide changes, all of the above, or other reasons entirely, have meant that these stories have been provided with more “mainstream” platforms, but they've always been there.
JB: What do you hope that audiences take away from the production?
TI: I would like people to take away joy from [seeing] Girls. I think it's a beautiful way to fall in love. I am absolutely in love with [the characters] Tirana, Ruhab, and Haleema (even though I disagree with almost everything they say, think, and do), and it's like wanting people to love your best friend as much as you do. It’s amazing to see people fall in love with the girls. And I'm convinced by the galvanizing power of compassion and love.
JB: What's next for you?
TI: More people and more stories—writing, telling, getting to know, listening to, bingeing on, falling in love with, and sharing them.
Theresa Ikoko was born in Hackney, East London. She is the youngest of nine children, and was raised by a single, Nigerian mother. Her debut play, Girls, completed its run at the Soho Theatre at the end of October 2016. She received the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play in 2015, as well as the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2016. Girls was also shortlisted, with judges commendation, for the Verity Bargate Awards (2016). Ikoko is also one of the winners of the Channel 4 Playwriting Award (2016), for which she will receive a bursary for an attachment to Hightide Theatre, and she’s also a part of “The Soho Six” (2016/2017). She is currently under commission and in residence at Soho Theatre.
Ikoko holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice. In addition to her theatrical work, she also works with young people involved with and affected by serious violence and group offending.
Damsel Productions organically formed during the production of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land at Jermyn Street Theatre. Director Hannah Hauer-King and producer Kitty Wordsworth were introduced by producer Jenny Topper, who thought their production and directorial skills would complement each other. Clearly, her hunch proved true.
Wordsworthhas been visiting the West End since she was a child. Her early theater visits include The Lion King, Les Misérables, and Spring Awakening, (for which she learnt all the songs by heart); getting up-close-and-personal to actors at The Globe, despite the rain; a two day long production of Nicholas Nickleby at The Lyric Hammersmith (aged nine); and an unforgettable production of Jerusalem starring Mark Rylance.
She went on to study English, and cites Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as a solid part of her university education. Somehow, she has managed to combine two of her great loves—feminism and the theater—into a full-fledged career. Wordsworth took a few moments out of her day to chat with me for Constellation.
Charissa Shearer: How can playwrights tell us something we haven’t heard before?
Kitty Wordsworth: Women are too often characterized as either heroines or grotesques. Women can be funny and fallible, courageous and complicated, magnificent and mean—all at the same time. The world is in a state of flux, and there’s plenty that hasn’t been said before.
CS: What do you look for when casting a play?
KW: A well-written story that invites empathy. Multi-layered female characters. Actors who can inhabit parts totally.
CS: When it comes to new plays, do you prefer instinct over intellect?
KW: It’s only fair to read well into a play rather than dismiss it after the first page. Even the best plays can be a little slow starting, and I could easily miss a gem.
CS: What are you working on at the moment?
KW: I'm in post-production for a short film I'm producing called Little Hard (also featured in Constellation) about the day-to-day reality of a young woman living with mental health issues. We want it to be as honest a representation as possible, without frills or hysteria.
CS: What does the notion of a “21st-century woman” translate to for you?
KW: It depends on where you live in the world. For me, being a 21st-century woman means being free to express myself in any shape or form, without fear of persecution or abuse. Many, many other 21st-century women are not as lucky as I am.
CS: Ok, last question: If you were an animal, what would you be?
KW: Some kind of feral cat. Or a bonobo monkey, they're pretty sociable.
Kitty Wordsworth is producer and co-founder of Damsel Productions. After graduating from Sussex University in 2014, she produced the Portobello Pantomime, Peter Panto (Tabernacle, December 2014). Producer credits include: Fury (Soho Theatre), TABS (workshop, Tristan Bates Theatre), Dry Land (Jermyn Street Theatre), Dick Whit (Tabernacle), The Snow Queen (directed by Anna Chancellor, Tabernacle) and Brute (Soho Theatre). Associate producer credits include: world première of Jonathan Guy Lewis’s A Level Playing Field (Jermyn Street Theatre) and the So and So Arts Club’s Repertory Season, Ever HopeFull.
Jaclyn Bethany: Hey, Peta! Where did you grow up, and where are you currently based?
Peta Cornish: I’m born-and-bred in London, and now based in North West London.
JB: How did you discover acting when you were young?
PC: I have always acted, since I can remember: school plays, guildhall exams and competitions. But I think it was playing Salieri in the school production of Amadeus (it was an all-girls school, so I got lucky!) was when it really hit home to me that this was something that made me feel alive like nothing else.
JB: Any favorite roles thus far?
PC: I played a character called Mary in The Welsh Boy by Julien Mitchell. The piece was based on the true story of a music master and his pupil, so I was playing a real woman (I even visited her tombstone in Wales) who really challenged the boundaries of femininity at the time. It was such a privilege to play her. She completely got under my skin. Playing a young mother in Future Conditional (2015, The Old Vic) was also great; my character was manipulative and a bit mental, so that was fun to play!
JB: What are a few of your favorite contemporary theater companies currently developing new work in the U.K.?
PC: I'm working with High Tide at the moment, who I think are fantastic. They're fostering some of the best new work around at the moment. I'm also a big fan of Paines Plough as producers of the most exciting emerging new writers. A group of my friends set up a brilliantly innovative company called Invertigo, which I'm incredibly proud of as well.
JB: What is your goal in developing female-driven projects in the contemporary theatrical scene?
PC: I've been working on my own female-centric projects for the last three years, on and off. I think it's essential that we keep pushing women's voices to the forefront of modern theater—whether it be through productions, spoken word, or song—because for centuries, their voices were suppressed or not their own.
JB: What can you tell me about your project, Love Story?
PC: It was a verbatim piece based on true accounts of people's experiences of love. I think everyone experiences loss or loneliness, and it's about what that means, really. I suppose the message is that we're always alone, in some ways, but we're never alone. Ever.
JB: The piece tentatively entitled Scrambled really fascinates me. Where did your inspiration for it come from?
PC: The play follows two sisters in their ‘30s, Beth and Liv. It's inspired by my sister and her experiences of IVF and all the subsequent women and couples I've met and talked to since beginning the project.It's a subject that is very close to my heart and that I feel passionately about. There has never really been a theater piece about this subject and dealing with it in the modern age—even with all of our advanced technology. There have been films and theatrical works, of course, that deal with abortion, motherhood, and even the struggle to accept motherhood.
The statistics are staggering: one in four women have trouble conceiving. I'm still writing and developing the piece, but I hope to be able to represent all of the above.
Peta Cornish is a London-based actress. She trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and the National Youth Theatre. Theatre: After October (Finborough Theatre), Play/Silence (The Other Room), Future Conditional (Old Vic), Fever (Jermyn Street), To Sir With Love (Royal & Derngate,UK Tour), The Dug Out (Tobacco Factory), The Welsh Boy (Theatre Royal Bath), The Great Gatsby (King’s Head). TV: William & Mary Series 1-3 (ITV), Victoria Wood’s Christmas Special (BBC). Film: Frail (Suspension Films), Two Feet (Firewater Films). Peta has also written and performed spoken word at various venues including Vaults Festival, Hackney Attic, Write It Mic It: Edinburgh Fringe. Other writing includes Love Story (Bussey Building) and Lucy (a one-woman, spoken-word play). She is currently developing her new play, Scrambled.
Interviews and text by Kate Handford and Charissa Shearer.
Charissa Shearer is a London-based actress currently preparing for two feature films, including the new Paul Thomas Anderson project. Most notably, she appeared in Stephen Frears' Philomena and Ralph Fiennes's The Invisible Woman. Her spinning teacher on Tuesday mornings doesn't know her name, but calls her “animal.”