Papercut Theatre is a company on a mission. Committed to breaking new ground within the writer/director relationship, it’s been steadily nurturing new writing through a series of innovative
projects since 2011. From budget cuts to intimacy to illegal organ transplants, no subject is off limits to the fledgling writers Papercut supports. It’s the most recent topic that’s got us all excited though, as Papercut seeks to break down pre-conceptions of gender behaviour and identity; by removing gender prescription altogether. XY is a short play event incorporating 16 plays from multiple writers, all of whom were given a simple brief: write a play without specifying the gender of any of the characters, or as Papercut’s website succinctly puts it: “One play. No gender. Endless possibilities”. Right up our alley I think you’ll agree, so we jumped at the chance to catch up with Artistic Director Melissa Dunne, as she prepares to take the issue of equality to Edinburgh…
Hello Melissa, thanks for taking some time out from Edinburgh prep to talk to us! How excited are you to be taking the project to the festival?
Very. This is the first time Papercut Theatre will be taking a project to Edinburgh. It’s a daunting task and the producers and I are working very hard to make it all happen, but every now and again we catch ourselves and think, ‘Wow. This is going to be so cool.’
It does sound like an intriguing idea for a show. Does XY’s gender-blind focus feed into your main goals as a theatre company?
Papercut Theatre’s main goal is to interrogate the writer/director relationship, with a special focus on questioning the way we’re taught to write and direct plays in the UK. I suppose taking gender out of the equation causes writers and directors to really examine how much they take for granted in terms of the sexes in their work. Something that was previously unconscious to them – how they think of gender – becomes something very conscious.
On your website you say you’re more interested in developing
writers as artists than demanding finished products of them. Do you think the theatre industry too often expects young writers to deliver plays as products? And do you think that damages theatre as an art form?
I think it takes a really long time to hit your creative stride and that there’s a really unhelpful cultural expectation to achieve at a very young age. A choreographer once told me that it takes fifteen years to make a dancer, and that to me feels like an appropriate amount of time to ‘make’ a writer or director. I think we live in a society that likes short-term, clear results which is not conducive to artistic endeavour. You can be an absolutely brilliant director or actor, well respected with a decent profile, and still be scraping by on couple of grand a year. That’s a very difficult journey to be on as a creative person and even more so when the merit of your work and your status is constantly being called into question.
You’ve created XY, and curated it since its first
inception at Theatre 503 in 2012. How did the project come about? Was it a response to a particular experience you had with the theatre industry?
It came out of going to a lot of panel and post-show discussions, where the lack of female writers being produced and the poor quality of female characters being created was a common topic. I wanted to come up with a practical way of exploring that. There were a lot of conversations about representation, but none about equality or practical, creative solutions to solving the problem. I suppose XY came out of that.
And what did you learn from the Theatre 503 shows? What discoveries have you made about gender, character and writing so far? Has anything surprised you?
Because of the nature, some might say limitations; of the gender brief given to the writers, I think the core creative team and programmers expected a lot of formally experimental, poetic, sub-Beckettian pieces of work to begin with. The delightful surprise has been the number and quality of naturalistic, psychologically realist plays being produced for the festival. I think it reinforces my own belief that in storytelling, gender is largely irrelevant and that writers should focus on character and dramatic stakes instead.
And do you think that this gender-blind approach to writing can also help interrogate prejudices against transgendered people, or those with non-traditional sexual identities?
I would love the project to do so. I think it’s really easy to see romantic relationships in hetero-normative terms and any deviation from that is still termed as ‘other.’ There was a concern at the beginning that in trying to be gender-blind we’d end up neutering the sexual desires of our characters. I think though, that by taking our pre-conceptions about gender out of the way we liberate how we perceive sexual identity. I do think there’s a massive generational shift going on also in terms of how sexuality is perceived. People coming out in the workplace, or adjusting to transgendered identities used to be a massive social upheaval as well as an emotional one. Being more tolerant about non-traditional sexualities frees people up to be happier individuals and to tell more interesting stories.
As you say on your website, the XY brief has endless possibilities. Will the Edinburgh run help you to explore these more?
At Theatre 503 XY has always run for a night or two. At Edinburgh we’re going to be up there for the entire month, with a changing line-up week to week which is going to teach us a lot about what an audience gets from the project.
And where would you like to go next? Do you think the project would work elsewhere for example?
The purpose of the project is to raise consciousness about it and to encourage writers and directors to examine their own prejudices and to communicate these ideas to as wide an audience as possible. To that end, yes, I’d love to host XY events in different parts of the UK. I also have a slightly ridiculous dream to produce XY in New York, but I have no reason for that beyond liking the sound of ‘XY/NY’. (Laughs)
XY will be previewing at London’s Theatre 503, 23rd-24th July, and runs at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh from 31st July to 25th August 2013. Visit www.papercuttheatre.co.uk for more details, or follow on Twitter @papercuttheatre. Follow us @TheatreLGBT for more Spotlights on LGBT shows at Edinburgh!