Charlotte Keatley: My Mother Said I Never Should Interview
Playwright Charlotte Keatley answers questions on My Mother Said I Never Should. Her award-winning play is the most commonly performed work by a female playwright worldwide and comes to Derby Theatre from Tuesday 5 - Saturday 9 March.
My Mother Said I Never Should is a play that has not only stood the test of time, but continues to be extremely popular. Has the play’s enduring appeal surprised you at all? Why do you think its popularity has continued?
I think it’s a play that anyone, any age or gender, can relate to: it’s about family, and ordinary family, working class and middle class characters. And love, how we show it or withhold it; and ambition, what that is in each generation. And it’s both funny and moving, so it’s a play that makes us react - either acting in it or watching it. When I’m writing plays I think about this: I want the audience to laugh and cry and be truly moved, in one evening.
Since I wrote it, there are still very few plays which show women’s lives as they really are - the day to day, “ordinary” lives, not women being super detectives or political heroines, but the less visible way in which women really can change society: how we raise the next generation, a pretty massive responsibility, but one which is still not seen as a hugely important “job”.
As parents we wrestle with how much of our own value system to pass on, and are confronted with what we’ve made of our lives, when we bring up a child, or choose not to. This is still a pivotal decision in women’s lives: look how media comment on whether women politicians, Olympic athletes, film stars, company managers etc have children or not, how they manage that or not. Men aren’t defined by this.
How much is My Mother Said I Never Should a personal play? To what extent did you write from your own experience?
The play is not at all autobiographical, none of the four characters is my age. I never write directly from my life, as I think it’s my job to be a human hoover: I listen and watch hundreds of people over time, and slowly absorb what people fear, or hope, or want to solve in their lives. I write a play as a way to explore this, and develop the characters as I write.
This play comes out of watching the new opportunities and pressures on women which I saw in the 1970s and 80s. I had far more choice as a 25-year-old than the 80-year-old woman next door ever had for her life. What would I do? Would I ever manage to be a mother? What relationships would I have? I set about inventing four generations of women who all made different choices.
The bond of mother-daughter has been stretched to the limit, I think, by changes in women’s lives that are far greater than those in men’s lives in the past 100 years. It’s dramatic. The great thing is that when we become aware of the choices we’ve made, we can change them if we want. And it is never too late to show someone that you love them.
It was a decade later before I had my daughter, and now she’s at university; and recently I cleared my parent’s house after my Mum died; so now the scenes in the play which show these things make me cry… I think I could only write a play spanning so much when I was at the beginning of my adult life, and observed it all as an outsider.
Do you identify with any one character in the play more than the others? Do you have a favourite?
No, my rule is I must always love every character I write, so I can be sympathetic to each one’s point of view when I’m writing. That makes a better play. And I would act any one of them. I’d actually most like to play Doris, I think I have a very old northern woman inside me - how else could I have written all this age 25?!
Do you remember how you felt before the very first performance of My Mother Said I Never Should? Can you give us an insight?
I was excited and scared - the first performance was a live experiment - would it work? Would the audience understand the story, told in non-chronological order? Everyone did, because our memories jumble events in an order of importance, not chronology. But many theatres had rejected my play, telling me I couldn’t structure a play like this, it was nonsense. I sat at the back of Contact Theatre with Brigid Larmour, the wonderful director who first staged it, she’d assembled a great cast and team, yet we were all so nervous. But it was amazing - you could feel how much the audience were gripped: something bigger than all of us burst into life; I’ve met people who still remember it. The play had only been scheduled for 9 performances but it was extended and people queued round the block to get tickets. And critics and agents from London got on trains and came.
Since that first production, you must have had many conversations with people who have been touched by the play. Is there one that particularly stands out for you?
Recently I cut my leg when out running and a kind woman took me to A&E. The doctor there asked me what I do, and what I write, and it turned out that both women had seen this play - one had read it at school 18 years before - and both loved it. That’s beautiful, the best: when a play adds to someone’s understanding of life; much more important than prizes or fame. And once on a snowy night after a production in America, an old man came up to me, took my hands, and said “Thank you, my whole married life matured tonight”. I was speechless.
You have been a trailblazer for women in theatre over the last 30 years. How do you feel the industry has changed during this time?
I’m not called a “woman playwright” nowadays but a “playwright”. There are now many great plays written by women in the UK. But very few women across history wrote plays until the last 50 years, so many conventions about theatre are still those defined by a male point of view, such as what subjects or characters define good plays. Look at the plays at the National Theatre for example and count the number of parts for women and men, the gender of writers and directors, and you’ll see the imbalance. Critics lag behind in addressing this.
What’s encouraging is how Vicki Featherstone at the Royal Court, David Grieg at Edinburgh Lyceum, Brigid Larmour at Watford, Sarah Frankcom at the Royal Exchange and many others such as the National Theatres of Scotland and Wales, find and stage great plays by women with parts for women - and men - which smash the old stereotypes. And many theatres have new writing workshops, encouraging new voices.
What is worrying is that the cost of drama schools and colleges is so high now, we’re getting only a privileged range of young people who can afford to enter theatre. It is the voices of outsiders, especially in playwriting, which break the mould and re-invent theatre, as I did. It’s scary to do, that’s why I’ll run workshops in places in the community if I can, where there may be someone with a new voice who needs to be heard and encouraged.
What advice would you have for aspiring young playwrights looking to enter the industry now?
Go to theatre and read hundreds of plays before you write yours - be sure you really have something new to write. Then try your scenes in a room with some actors, or friends - you have to see a play aloud and in action if you want to know if it works. Listen to feedback, re-write, try it again; then when you send it to a theatre or BBC writers’ room, you will have more sense of what works or doesn’t. Listen to all criticism then use your instinct to know what’s right for your play. Try staging a play in a fringe venue or pub, to understand the process, and listen to audience response. Don’t expect to earn money from it, do it because you want to move people.