There’s no time to waste.
Really there isn’t. Thousands of first years have the direction of their university careers disrupted in the very first moments. Freshers week can be fuelled by the drive to fit in only to find that you may just have singled yourself out.
Writer G Sian talks to writer Natalie Beech about her play Collegiate which addresses freshers culture, misogeny and sexual assault on university campuses. It is a view of the vivacious, energetic and fierce forces at play in early adulthood. Characters Kev and Tash are about to loosen control and their respective careers career into non-choice.
“No, it didn’t happen to me, don’t worry.”
What is the point that you’re trying to make?
I’m reluctant to define that, as I don’t want to inform how people should respond to it. However, I would say Collegiate is about confronting the impact of misogyny on both men and women. Misogyny is having a very negative impact still, on both men and women. People will say that it’s not, and that feminism doesn’t need to exist, but it absolutely does. It’s particularly important with young people, as we are the ones who are supposed to be changing the conversation.
While we’re getting straight to the point: why is it called Collegiate?
Collegiate means ‘of or belonging to the students’ and for me that’s what this culture is. Campus culture in general and particularly ‘freshers’ and the social elements at play; it’s something that’s very much made by students and separate from the academic elements of university.
And what’s your experience of campus culture having been a student?
Better than the characters in my play. Although I definitely saw a lot of the things that are in the play and a lot of it is based on people I knew or met at university. I did the whole freshers experience and there are lots of really fun, beneficial things about it. I was interested in the pressure at university to have loads of fun all the time. Underneath that there can be a lot of darkness, which is not really accepted in that social environment. I get people asking, ‘Is this based on your experience?’ and I’m like, ‘No, it didn’t happen to me, don’t worry!’
Does Collegiate benefit from your being a student, experiencing ‘campus culture’, or does it employ an outsider’s eye?
I think a bit of both. I feel as a writer that’s something that you do a little bit. I guess it’s probably a curse and a blessing, but writers can be somewhat removed from things and observant in that sense. I wrote Collegiate after I was at university, after reading a lot about sexual assault on campus and its relation to lad-culture, and I wasn’t surprised, I’d seen a lot of that type of behaviour even if it wasn’t as overt. I don’t think I would have been able to write the play solely from my experience of campus culture, but I wouldn’t have been able to write the play having only done outside research either.
Who needs to see the play?
I would love for university sports societies to see the play, because even though that’s not who Collegiate is about, that’s where a lot of what we’re exploring is happening. Interestingly, lad-culture is perpetuated as much by the female societies as the male societies.
Also the staff of universities, it would be good for them to see it because they don’t see that side of their students most of the time, so may not see the issue. That’s why we’ve done so much work with universities. The risk is that you have a theatre full of arty people coming in with an opinion and basically leaving with the same opinion. I hope it’s a thought-provoking play and that it will make anyone that comes reassess their position. It’s good that it’s here at Attenborough Arts Centre, what with it being linked to University of Leicester.
Why do you want the sports societies to come and watch it?
A lot of the things we hear from working with students is to do with sports societies having nights out. They’re not allowed to call them ‘initiations’ anymore but that is what they are essentially. They have to do tasks and it’s often bullying, humiliating things – someone in the group will get picked on all evening.
Talking to the women in female sports societies was really interesting, they were saying how much terms like ‘slags’ and ‘bitches’ are used amongst the girls. It’s always about being the toughest, everything being a joke, and nothing can be taken seriously then.
You can see why that culture is attractive to people because it is about having fun, but the line is always being crossed. Based on the students that I’ve spoken to, it’s at the point where it’s putting people off doing sports at universities because they don’t want to be involved in that.
Where do you think that behaviour comes from?
I think it comes from school a little bit, the kind of behaviour that bullies display in school is the same behaviour that you’re seeing in these situations. You have all these young people thrown into a social situation where they don’t know anybody, so they’re trying to impress each other and make friends. You’re so desperate to make friends, you can behave in ways you might not normally to fit in.
What I value about Collegiate is its equality. You present male and female provocateurs, the vulnerable, the bullied, the authorities. You’ve been as critical and observant of both sides.
When I first wrote it, it was a short play and I was way more antagonistic towards the male side, because it came from a place of rage. I re-wrote it and decided to make it longer, so explored the issue way more deeply and that changed that feeling.
It was important to me that Kev got as much coverage as Tash and that neither side are cliché. Or if they begin that way, that we start to investigate those clichés, and I think that’s part of making it more than just a dramatisation of a news story. When we see the male side it’s often not really about their experience of going through that process.
It was always going to be harder to write the male than the female. I have some very helpful men around who I could ask about it, to make sure I was getting it right. I think the main thing for me was looking at the way that men think about and express their emotions. I ran it past a few of the men in my life and sometimes I would write something and they’d be like, ‘That’s exactly what I have thought or felt,’ and sometimes it was, ‘That’s totally unrealistic.’ So it’s vital that you do that research.
Did you sense-check the feminine with women?
Not so much, in that I am a woman! But working with Brigitte was helpful, she directed the short so she knew the characters well. When it got to rehearsals actors are really great at suggesting, ‘I don’t think this is something my character would say.’ So in the final version some bits were cut. The actors were helpful in that they understand it’s more about character than it is about masculine or feminine. If you know your characters really well then it takes on a life of its own.
The actors are both from East 15…
Yeah, and they are both really good, we’re very lucky. Becca was the first person that we had in to audition and she was so good. It was more difficult to find a male actor, but we were put in touch with Stephen and he was perfect. They have made it their own and done really interesting things with the characters. It’s just the two of them and they learnt a play which is heavy with monologues and multi-roling in just a few weeks and nailed it. I really like watching actors multi-role, there’s something so satisfying about seeing them change completely.
I saw Collegiate in London, at Clapham Fringe. There was young man in the audience who I spoke with afterwards. He was shaken, experienced catharsis, or an epiphany. He admitted that he had been through the same experience as Kev. As an artist – what’s your responsibility, in terms of aftercare?
It had an impact on a few members of the audience, some were very upset about it, which kind-of makes you feel you want to have an impact, but you don’t want to traumatise anyone. But at the same time you can’t start censoring things, it takes us to a bad territory artistically. If people can re-assess their lives or their behaviour after seeing it then that is a great impact to have, even if it is hard for them. So I’m okay with that, you know. I don’t feel a responsibility for their reaction.
Can universities and colleges package Collegiate and discussions into their services?
I think universities need to get better at dealing with it. From what we know they’re very keen to brush it off, because the minute they account for it it becomes a bad statistic for them. Now that it’s becoming more talked about they are making more of an effort to tackle it, which is good, but we’ll have to wait and see whether it makes any difference. From some of our research there’s an actual effort made not to engage with it. Staff are told, ‘If you can make students not report this, then do,’ which is pretty shocking. We’d love to take it into universities, if they’ll let us, because this can be a little incriminating I think for them.
Written Foundations have recently led workshops at DMU, directly working with drama students on domestic violence and sexual abuse.
We did some workshops with students where we used the opening scene of Collegiate, which they read in class. We talk to them about it and it’s been really interesting to get them to think about their own nights out. A lot of them say it’s something that everyone knows happens but no one acknowledges it, or they say that it makes them reconsider the language they use, particularly towards each other. I hope that it is having an impact.
What Brigitte and I always want to do is tell another perspective, not the one you always hear. We try to get students to think a bit about what is an interesting perspective or an unheard voice, and what they want to say. So I think in that respect it has had an impact on making them think about their social scenes, but I suppose it’s hard to tell the impact ultimately.
How has your study at City University helped shaped you as a dramatist?
Before I did the MA I hadn’t really done any playwriting, I thought theatre was for pretentious thespian-type people and that put me off! But my first module was playwriting and it completely changed my mind. I was having to write something brand new every week and have it pretty brutally evaluated in class, but that was good in really pushing me to get better.
Part of the course was writing an adaptation of a scene and I chose La Ronde, by Arthur Schnitzler; one of the scenes I adapted into what is now the opening scene of Collegiate. My teacher was playwright Oladipo Agboluaje, and he really encouraged me to submit it to competitions. So I did, and that was put on at the Arcola last year as part of Sheer Height Theatre Company’s Women Redressed event, where I was paired up with Brigitte.
So, from never having done it a year and a half ago to having a full-length play on, I think it was helped me enormously! I would definitely recommend it.
And now you have a meaningful ongoing collaboration with Brigitte…
Brigitte owns Written Foundations Theatre company, and I am the associate playwright for the company at the moment. We were paired up through this short competition at Arcola with Sheer Height Theatre Company. The way they do it is that the directors read the plays that have been selected by Sheer Height, and express a preference on which they would like to direct. Brigitte chose mine, and then our collaboration began there.
So having done it as a short I’d been thinking about expanding it, and she said she’d love to direct it. I think a lot of why the play was successful in London was down to her direction. In rehearsals I’ve often had a thought about something we need to change, and 90% of the time she’ll express it to the actors before her and I have even discussed it. Having that person you can trust is really valuable.
It’s a good time to be a female writer. There are so many brilliant female playwrights, and right now there’s a big push to get more women involved in theatre, and I personally think that positive discrimination is a good thing.
There is something annoying about being called a ‘female’ writer rather than just a writer, but it’s going to be hard to escape if you are writing about issues that relating to gender and sexism. And in a way I don’t mind, because I think female writers do need more profile, so if people are talking about us in that way at the moment that’s okay. At some point hopefully we won’t need the ‘female’ preface.
‘No’ means ‘no’, consent is resolved, and sexual abuse is no more – now what do you write about?
I’m quite keen to go in a different direction right now. I’ve always gone for naturalistic plays about social issues, so I might try something else. What I say to the people that we do workshops with, is that you just have to really be passionate about what you’re writing about. You have to have a reason for doing it other than just because you want to be a writer. I did a bit of comedy recently for Commentary, I think that’s something that I might pursue because it feels so great making people laugh.
Directed by Brigitte Adela and written by Natalie Beech, Written Foundations Theatre Company bring Collegiate to Attenborough Arts Centre, 28 January 2017.