Hannah Greenstreet’s latest piece Canon Warriors will be up in Edinburgh this summer. She describes it as being both feminist and queer; the story of two puppeteers and the breakdown of their relationship. It sounds like a truly exciting piece of work, if you are up in Edinburgh you may well want to catch it. LGBTQ Arts’ Amie Taylor interviewed Hannah this week to find out more about this piece.
AT: First of all tell us a little bit about your career as a writer…
HG: My first play was entitled ‘Welcome to Year 3’, was performed in school assembly and featured the line, ‘I like lunch’.
While I was at university in Cambridge, I was selected as a writer for Menagerie Theatre Company’s 2013 Young Writers’ Programme and Tricycle Theatre Young Company Summer Project 2013, both of which culminated in showcases of short plays. Canon Warriors, which is about the disintegration of a lesbian relationship between feminist puppeteers, Punch and Fleur, was my first full-length play. It was followed by Cashiered, a fictionalised account of the life of transgender American civil war veteran, Albert Cashier, which was performed at the Burton Taylor Studio, Oxford in February 2016, directed by Anna Hagen. Over Easter 2016, I was a resident playwright at the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford as part of their TheatreCraft scheme. As well as mentoring from playwrights Bea Roberts, Chris O’Connell and Barney Norris, the residency provided a wonderfully low-pressured space in which to experiment with new ideas and styles in collaboration with young directors and professional actors. At the moment, I’m working on a new play that grew out of the residency called, This Much I Know, exploring education and family relationships through the format of gameshows.
AT: What inspired you to write Canon Warriors?
HG: It was a lot of things coming together at the right time. I’d recently read Faith Healer by Brian Friel and was fascinated by the showman character, past his prime, as a sort of tragicomic figure – but I wanted my central character to be a woman. That’s where Punch came from. She was originally going to be a ventriloquist, as I read a fascinating interview with a female ventriloquist who talked about the sexist heckles she’d faced. But then I decided that learning ventriloquism was too much to ask of performers, so Punch became a puppeteer instead. Margate, which is a contender for most depressing UK coastal town, seemed the perfect setting for the play about a show and a relationship that has been on tour too long.
AT: This may sound like a silly question, but is writing for puppets any different to writing for humans?
HG: One thing to make clear is that Canon Warriors is not puppetry but a play about the relationship between two puppeteers (and their puppets). Although I’m amazed by the visual impact and the capacity to tell a story of puppetry shows, in Canon Warriors I wanted to use my skills in creating narrative through dialogue. Punch and Fleur’s puppets, Sid and Dog, have their own personalities and contribute to conversations, as well as being used in Punch and Fleur’s shows. The puppets can allow Punch and Fleur to say things to each other that they couldn’t otherwise say, but Fleur at least also feels they are an obstacle in their relationship. I’m interested in how people communicate in long-term relationships and within families, in ways that are a bit dysfunctional. So writing for Sid and Dog wasn’t different from writing for Punch and Fleur. I think it’s more difficult for the actors, especially in the metatheatrical bits, playing themselves playing their puppets, playing another character!
AT: Who is the piece for?
HG: Canon Warriors will speak clearest to members of the LGBTQ and feminist communities. As the team is made up of former and current students at the University of Oxford, we also hope to attract a student audience. But I hope that Canon Warriors will find a wider audience beyond this, rather than being side-lined as ‘niche’ because it tells a queer story. I was struck by something Livi Dunlop, who plays Punch, said about Canon Warriors: ‘this play is so beautiful because it’s simultaneously vitally important the characters are queer, but also completely irrelevant, as that is not all they are, nor is it all the story is about’. Canon Warriors is about the breakdown of a relationship, which happens to be queer.
AT: What do you hope people will take away from watching?
HG: I hope that it makes people feel something. And that, despite the ending, the sense of fun from the puppets prevails. I hope that it makes people think – about the continued underrepresentation of women in the theatre, about the sexism of swathes of literature, about the choices we make out of economic or other necessities. Although the play was written two years ago, the bleakness of Fleur and Punch’s living situation seems weirdly resonant with the UK political situation at the moment. Canon Warriors asserts the importance of the arts and tenderness in a hostile political climate.
AT: Tell us a little about the journey of the show so far…
HG: I started writing Canon Warriors for a playwriting class at Harvard University, where I was a fellow for a year. I organised a rehearsed reading, but the cultural references (Thanet District Council, M&S sandwiches, Christmas crackers) didn’t quite translate. Canon Warriors was first performed in the UK at the 2016 Oxford New Writing Festival, judged by April de Angelis, where it won the award for Best Overall Production. Director, Ell Potter, and I decided to take the show to Edinburgh, along with New Writing Festival producer Rebecca MacDuff, so it could have a wider audience. The original cast, Livi Dunlop (Punch) and Matthew Shore (Aidan, the awkward Thanet District council worker who comes to evict Punch and Fleur from their beach hut) is joined by Imogen Allen as Fleur. It’s been great to watch Livi and Imogen work out Punch and Fleur’s relationship afresh in rehearsal; Imogen’s Fleur is more vulnerable than Daisy Hayes’s interpretation in the original production, which adds something new. I’ve been making changes to the script right up until the last minute to keep it fresh.
There’s also a more personal aspect of the show’s journey, which is my own as a queer woman. I began the play two years ago, at a time when I was questioning my sexuality. It was as if writing two women in a relationship gave myself permission to imagine myself in a relationship with a woman. I realised that was what I wanted – although not Punch and Fleur’s relationship because that’s a bit dysfunctional. So as well as the play’s extensive literary development, Punch and Fleur’s relationship and how I conceived of it developed from ‘It’s ambiguous’ to ‘Yep, definitely a lesbian relationship’. Canon Warriors has also proved an effective coming-out tool; I showed a recording of the play to my grandma.
AT: At LGBTQ Arts, we’re aware of the lack of queer female / lesbian character stories onstage, just last week Director Hannah Hauer-King wrote an article about it for The Stage. Do you think it’s changing at all, or ever will?
HG: I completely agree that there is a lack of queer female/ lesbian characters on mainstream stages, which is partly why I wrote Canon Warriors. (Punch and Fleur call their act ‘Canon Warriors’ because they are fighting against the male-dominated, heteronormative literary canon). There are, however, some exciting young companies and playwrights that are producing work focusing on queer female stories. At the Edinburgh Fringe this summer there’s Pussyfooting, a devised piece exploring womanhood, by Knotworks Theatre and Callisto: A Queer Epic by Howard Coase, produced by Forward Arena. So I hope it will get better in the future, but it is about providing institutional support to such companies and projects to allow them to reach a wider audience.
AT: Describe the show in 6 words…
HG: Fun, political, tender, tragicomic, meta, lesbians
AT: Where will we find you at Edinburgh?
HG: We’re at Paradise in the Vault (Annexe), 15th-20th and 22nd-28th August at 17.35. Follow us on Twitter @canon_warriors for updates.
Interview: ©AmieAmieTay 2016