Annie Fox’s Woman Caught Unaware is one of the plays being performed at the Arcola Theatre as part of Heretic Voices, the monologue festival running at the Arcola Theatre from 9 to 20 January 2018. She spoke to Love London Love Culture about how her play examines body shaming…
Congratulations, Annie, for being selected for Heretic Voices. How excited are you about having your work performed?
Thank you! I am absolutely delighted that Woman Caught Unaware was selected, in the excellent company of the plays by Tatty Hennessy and Sonya Hale, to be performed at the Arcola Theatre. Often, when you are writing, it’s a bit like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it out to sea – you don’t know if anyone will read it or, if they do, if they will understand it. There were some excellent writers whose work I admire on the long list for Heretic Voices, so, even at that stage, I thought I was punching above my weight. Now, as we approach opening night, it is thrilling to see the input of the creative team and the way they are using their talents to make it a very special theatrical event.
How did Woman Caught Unaware come about?
There was a much-reported case of an older woman being photographed, without her permission, naked in a changing room. That image was shared and mocked online. My first reaction was probably a lot like other people’s – I pitied her and thought of her as a victim. But then I began imagining how much more there might be to her beyond this one image – what a rich, interesting life she might have. My reflections about the case coincided with reading the requirements for the Heretic Voices competition. A substantial monologue was the perfect form to allow this character a chance to tell her story uninterrupted. The play is entirely a work of imagination – it is now set at a university in England, for example – but it explores the many emotions a woman who has been humiliated might feel and her subsequent actions. It also gave me the opportunity to write a really meaty, challenging role for an an older actress.
Woman Caught Unaware has been described as an “examination of body shaming” – how have you approached the topic?
I intentionally did not do a lot of research about the specific case which provided the initial stimulus because I didn’t want to write a documentary. Instead, I opened up the piece to something which I thought might resonate more widely. But attitudes towards women’s appearance/bodies/ageing is something that interests to me. Try googling ‘What does a woman of 60 (or any other age over 40) look like?’ What you mainly see is guidance on how to look ‘decades younger’ or celebrities who have had a lot of expensive ‘help’ to achieve a youthful appearance. An older woman who looks like an older woman is considered a failure – whatever her accomplishments.
How do you feel about body shaming? Do you think the problem is getting worse in society?
Body shaming is alarming for so many reasons. I used to teach teenagers and I would see how pressure about their appearance could lead to problems from eating disorders to school refusal. And the speed with which unflattering images or cruel remarks can now be shared is shocking. At its worse, body shaming can lead to people thinking: if I am going to suffer this abuse, what’s the point in going out and doing anything?
Social media and the media in general play a huge part in body shaming – do you think companies such as Facebook and Instagram could do more to try and stamp out the problem?
Social media and other media do play a part in body shaming. When I walk by a newsstand with magazines featuring photos of a celebrity who is apparently considered too fat or too thin, I wonder what that image is doing to someone else’s self esteem. And the internet is a bit like the Wild West, isn’t it? This lawless expanse full of opportunity and danger. I admire how women like Mary Beard have taken on internet trolling and refused to be silenced or to disappear. The responsibilities of the internet companies are being reviewed for all sorts of reasons and there are undoubtedly ways they could help. But what is important is that body shaming – even of people we don’t like or respect – should not become a norm of social discourse.
How do you think that Woman Caught Unaware could help those who are perhaps suffering with body confidence issues?
My first goal is that anyone seeing the play would be entertained and gripped by it. It is, I hope, funny, moving and even alarming. But beyond that, I think there are two important takeaways from the play for those suffering with body confidence issues (and who doesn’t, to some degree?) One is that older women, who are frequently under-represented on stage, have something to say. They are not just a punch-line or a figure to be ridiculed. That is relevant not only to older women, but also for younger people to realise that there isn’t a sell-by date on their importance to the world. Secondly, that appearance, simply being seen, is over-rated – life is about what you do.
After Heretic Voices, what would you like to happen to Woman Caught Unaware?
‘Woman Caught Unaware’ is being published by Nick Hern Books in the Heretic Voices collection and I hope other actors and theatre companies will want to perform it. It is the first of a trilogy of monologues I’m working on called ‘Crone/Damsel/Troll’ using fairytale motifs to explore contemporary social issues, so it may eventually performed in that format.
What’s in store for you this year following Heretic Voices?
My ‘day job’ is writing educational books and I have several being published in 2018, including an Oxford Literature Companion to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ In terms of playwriting, I have just completed a full-length play and am now kicking around ideas for an ambitious large cast play set in the future – it may be great or goofy, at this stage, I’m not sure.
A huge thank you to Annie for taking the time to answer these questions. You can see Woman Caught Unaware being performed as part of Heretic Voices at the Arcola Theatre from the 9th to the 20th January. For more information visit: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/heretic-voices/