Interview: Leigh Douglas

The Minerva Collective come to Ovalhouse (London) in July with their show, Waking Beauty – a coming of age fairytale for the twenty-first century in a fresh look from an LGBTQ perspective at some traditional stories.  It sounds right up my street, and so was naturally delighted when I got to interview the writer, Leigh Douglas, about it for The LGBTQ Arts Review.

(Interview by @AmieAmieTay)

AT: First of all tell us a little about you and how you came to be a writer?

LD: I’ve been writing, in some way or another all my life. As a child I lived next door to my grandfather who was a playwright in Dublin in the 1960s and 70s. He had to leave school at 12 and was entirely self-educated from that point, working shifts as an electrician in the night and reading and writing during the day (along with raising my Father and his five siblings). For Granddad, writing gave him a voice he wouldn’t otherwise have had. It empowered him to enter the public discourse in a way most men born to his circumstances in 1920s Ireland would never have been able to. Even when I was little he made it very clear to me how important he felt it was for me to read and study so that I would be able to write and have a voice of my own.

AT: What are you interested in writing / have you written previously?

LD: Along with the rest of The Minerva Collective, I’m interested in writing theatre for and about young women. A gender imbalance still exists in our theatre. Young female audiences are less likely to see their stories reflected back at them on stage than the older, male demographic. I think this is an imbalance which needs to be addressed. In addition, I am passionate about raising awareness in the wider community about issues affecting young women. Waking Beauty is my first play.

AT: What inspired you to write Waking Beauty?

LD: Maybe it’s just me, but I think women who love women deserve to feel that they can be a fairy-tale princess too—that their love stories are just as worthy of the genre as heterosexual romances. Waking Beauty is a fairy tale like any other about a beautiful maiden finding her true love—it just so happens that it is a woman she finds her happy ending with, not the Prince.

So long as homosexuality remains absent from the genres of our folklore, our cultural heritage, it is doomed to be relegated as “other” or “a modern construction” when it is neither. In order to really address heteronormativity, LGBT love stories need to be told within the framework of our most institutionalised narrative structures.

It is time to do away with the notion that gay women aren’t just as capable of being the perfect princess as a straight woman should they so wish.

AT: Recently we saw the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag go viral on Twitter- do you think Disney will embrace this eventually?

LD: I think unfortunately, until there is a large shift in American society towards the socially liberal, this is not going to happen. And that is one of the key reasons why I wrote Waking Beauty—to point out that a homosexual love story within a fairy tale framework is not as revolutionary as that reality makes it. It’s just a love story like any other. But it wasn’t that long ago that I was in American public high school myself in the comparatively liberal city of Seattle. In my year of 600 students, there wasn’t one girl who was openly gay. Guys, yes, girls, no. There are two issues here, the first being that Disney is first and foremost an American corporation and conservatives in America are more conservative than conservatives in the UK. Second, I think male homosexuality is generally more acceptable to more of society than female homosexuality. Not only this but the content Disney creates is targeted at children. Thus socially conservative activists are going to be even more defensive and vocal in their opposition of such a mainstream cultural enterprise as Disney championing LGBT stories.

So much progress has been made that it is easy to forget how many people are still openly against the LGBT cause. In the Edinburgh run of this show in 2015, a woman stood up as the actors were bowing and started shouting at the rest of the audience that “Everything you have just seen is wrong. They’re brainwashing you. They’re going against God.” As a good Catholic girl from Ireland, it’ll be a while before I forget being told that I had committed a sin by putting something I’d written in front of an audience. And that was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I would love to see Elsa with a girlfriend but I fear Disney may become something of a final frontier for the LGBT cause.

AT: What can we expect if we come to see Waking Beauty?

LD: When I wrote Waking Beauty I wanted to create the fantasy world which so engrossed me as a child and experiment with how characters within that world would respond to the political and social issues about which I am now passionate. I’m not ripping apart the fairy tale genre, I’m paying homage to it. I hope that by coming to see Waking Beauty you’ll be swept away into a world of magic and princes and dark forests and curses and spells and come away questioning how different our own world really is from that. The play begins following the narrative structure of any other fairy tale, the beautiful maiden goes to the ball and the prince falls in love with her at first sight. However, as The Girl—an outsider to her society and the narrator who guides the audience through the story—goes on to say “A simple story finds its happy ending easily. Yet this story is not as simple as all that.”

AT: Who is the work for?

LD: This work is for every little girl who dreamt of being a fairy tale princess but worried that she wasn’t slim enough, charming enough or straight enough for the role. It is also for any young men who worry that maybe they’re not brave enough or strong enough or attractive enough to be someone’s knight in shining armour. As well as the young people that the show was originally aimed at, some of the most powerful audience feedback we have received has been from the adults in the lives of

young people dealing with these issues. For example, when the show ran at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, the pastor of the actress playing the princess came to see the show. We were all on tenterhooks waiting for his response. But he said the piece had been thought-provoking in terms of whether homosexuality should be accepted by the church. I love that the show is capable of prompting a dialogue in that way.

AT: Describe the show in 6 words…

LD: Revisionist fairy-tale. Enchanted feminist love-story.

AT:  Sounds incredible!  So what are you working on next?

LD: My other piece which is under development with The Minerva Collective, Foodie, is a verbatim piece about young women’s relationships with food. In creating that piece, I was shocked at the number of young women who I interviewed who had struggled with some kind of an unhealthy relationship with food. All the girls represented in the show are between the ages of 18-25 from the UK, Ireland and the United States. They are also all girls who I consider my friends. I didn’t go out searching for girls who’d suffered from horrific eating disorders. I spoke to my friends and discovered an alarming number of them had struggled with bulimia, anorexia and binge eating without me ever having even suspecting it. The issue being, if someone doesn’t want you to know they’re struggling with food, you won’t. It therefore becomes an invisible issue despite how endemic it is in the young women of today.

AT: Where can we follow you on social media.

LD: @minervatheatre on twitter, “like” The Minerva Collective on Facebook or visit our website www.minervatheatre.com

Booking

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