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Meet Elinor Cook, the playwright subverting the male gaze

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Out of Love, a new play by Elinor Cook, is currently previewing at Theatr Clwyd and will soon begin a series of performances at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Revolving around the relationship between Lorna and Grace, two friends whose lives diverge into two very different paths, it seeks to explore friendship, love, and rivalry between the two women, and how their bond lasts over three decades. In light of this new work, we got a chance to chat with Elinor about her inspirations and the collaborative process behind the play.

What advice would you give to up and coming playwrights that would have been useful to know when you were first starting out in the world of theatre?

"A piece of advice I’d give is that it takes a really long time, so don’t be disheartened if you don’t stride into fame and fortune and bright lights immediately. There’s a lot of building relationships and rejection and having to get better. To give you some context, I wrote my first play in 2006, and had my first professional production in 2014, so it’s a marathon, not a sprint."

Which plays do you feel have shaped your life and works?

"In these 10 years that I’ve been writing, there are so many more women writers out there doing exciting things, which is fantastic. When I was a university student back in the early 2000s, it was all Caryl Churchill and Sarah Kane; particularly Caryl Churchill just felt so exciting in terms of reinventing form and being able to do all those bold and brilliant things. I guess traditionally it felt like the realm of experimentation was quite a male thing and it felt exhilarating that there were women out there doing that.

"By the same token, I went to see Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s play, three times and, looking back, oh my god the female characters were so rubbish, but that was a play that absolutely captured me and so many other people. It was thrilling to see something so epic; a huge, beautiful story onstage."

What concepts and themes are you interested in exploring and seeing others explore in theatre right now?

"You can probably spot a theme emerging with me: I’m all about disrupting the male gaze, about owning and defining what the female gaze may look like. It feels like theatre is miles ahead when compared to other art forms, particularly very recently; it’s truly exciting to see writers given much more space.

"Something like Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch at the Royal Court Theatre, directed by Katie Mitchell, and that foregrounding of female stories and guessing at what a female story might be. I think that’s really rousing, I’m all about it."

Are there any current affairs and events that you’re excited to see play out on the stage in the coming years?

"I mean obviously, God, we’re in such a time of flux and change, aren’t we? I guess I’m interested in what political theatre means. I’ve kind of always resisted that quite male version of what a political play is, setting it in the houses of commons, and that being the only space where we can say ‘oh, this is a political play’.

"I went to see Low-Level Panic at the Orange Tree (a play by Clare McIntyre), and it’s just three women in a bathroom; for me, that feels like a really political play and a huge play, but its scope is kind of small. I’m sure loads and loads of intriguing stuff is going to come out of the current days, which is a ray of hope, isn’t it? I guess I’m always interested in something that makes me think in a different way."

So in light of these themes, why have you decided to explore female friendships in Out of Love?

"I think that female friendships can be some of the most important relationships in your life. I have a best friend who I’ve known since I was basically one year old and we’ve very much grown up together. That friendship is hugely instructive in my life and she’s always sitting on my shoulder. I’m always thinking about what she would think about something - sometimes to a destructive point; I’m not listening to myself because I’m thinking about what she’d say. There can be something quite romantic about a female friendship and when you fall out with them it can feel as devastating as any breakup. I think it’s such a fascinating power play there. 

"It’s always really refreshing to see a female friendship written in a way that isn’t just gossiping over some martinis. I mean that sounds like I’m cussing Sex in the City, I’m absolutely not, I bloody love that show. And I actually think as a depiction of female friendship, Sex in the City is amazing. But in a lot of popular culture female friendships are portrayed in quite a limited way and I just think the more representation we can have of it, the better."

Out of Love was produced alongside Black Mountain and How to be a Kid, with the same actors and director (James Grieve). What has it been like working alongside the other playwrights and how collaborative has this process been, if at all?

"I think it’s really nice to know that you’re part of a season with two other writers, and certainly me and Brad [Birch] in that early drafting process were contacting each other being like 'how are you doing?', ‘are you gonna meet that first deadline?’, ‘no’. Obviously, we had to make a decision in terms of what kind of age we wanted our actors to be, if we wanted more men or women, etc., so it was satisfying to agree on a ‘two women, one man’ dynamic for our three actors.

"We had readings of all three plays quite early on in the rehearsal process which was great, so we all got a chance to take a look at everyone else’s work and then all three of us were there for auditions. All three plays are extremely different but with themes and ideas that sort of nod to each other, which is kind of nice and also accidental. Brad has apparently picked up on a couple of things in mine and Sarah [McDonald-Hughes]’s plays and woven them into his play, little references to a few things, which of fun and very unexpected. I mean they’re still three separate plays, and all three of us have separate processes, but it’s definitely nice to feel part of a gang."

You’ve got quite a big body of work behind you: which of your works would you most like young people to read, out of them all?

"I personally wouldn’t make a distinction between if I was recommending the play that anyone should read versus what I would recommend for young people, because I don’t think that young people are a separate demographic. Young people are as informed, if not more so, and I’d never want to patronise them in any way and pick an easier play or anything like that.

"I guess I’d say Pilgrims, which was on last year at the HighTide festival, which is a three-hander about mountaineering, with mountaineering as a metaphor for masculinity. Rachel, the female character, is trying to disrupt the traditional hero’s tale and wrestle back the narrative into her own hands. The play covers how daunting a task it can feel when confronted with history and literature and how completely male driven it has been for centuries. I think that’s certainly encapsulating what I’m about; it absolutely articulates that."

Out of Love will be running alongside Black Mountain and How to be a kid from 4 – 27 August as part of 'Roundabout @ Summerhall' during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2017. It will also be touring the country at various locations, details of which can be found here.




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