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EP 9: Amanda Whittington

Amanda Whittington is a playwright from Nottingham.

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Amanda Whittington’s work is widely performed by theatre companies across the UK.  Be My Baby has been a popular GCSE and ‘A’ Level choice for 20 years.  She had three titles in Nick Hern Book’s Top Ten Most Performed Plays of 2018: Ladies Day, Be My Baby and The Thrill of Love.  She also works extensively in radio drama, with 16 titles for BBC Radio 4.  D for Dexter won Best Series/Serial in the 2016 BBC Audio Drama awards and ran for seven years.

Amanda began her writing career as a freelance journalist for titles including The Face, New Statesman and Nottingham Evening Post.  She was awarded a PhD by Publication at the University of Huddersfield, her thesis Bad Girls and Blonde Bombshells: Lived Feminisms in Popular Theatre exploring the diffuse and sometimes contradictory feminisms in her work.  She is currently an Associate Artist at Nottingham Playhouse and member of Northern Broadsides Arts Squad.

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Anisa Archer:
This is Anisa Archer on the 20th of February 2020, recording for Lights Up at Derby Theatre. Please, can you introduce yourself and tell me where and when you were born?

Amanda Whittington:
My name is Amanda Whittington. I was born in Nottingham in 1968.

Anisa Archer:
And what do you do?

Amanda:
I'm a playwright.  I write scripts, plays, dramas for theatre and radio, mainly.

Anisa Archer:
What is your connection to the East Midlands?

Amanda:
Born here. Family, parents from Nottingham, from West Bridgford. I was born here, raised and worked here until my mid-forties, so I've lived in Nottingham, in the East Midlands for most of my life. Now I live in West Yorkshire but I consider myself a pure East Midlander.

Anisa:
And who did you live with growing up?

Amanda:
I lived with my parents, my mum Sue, my dad Dave, and my brother Paul, who's 18 months younger than me.

Anisa Archer:
And what did your parents do for work?

Amanda:
Well, my dad was a quantity surveyor first. I think he left school at 15 and trained after he left school, went to night school and became a quantity surveyor. He did that until his 40s and then he had a kind of career change. He was always really good at arts and crafts and stuff with his hands, so he became a painter and decorator and started making furniture. He also took up acting in later life, so he had a big turn in his life, really. My mum was a housewife until I was about 10, I think. She was at home full-time, then she retrained as a secretary and went into estate agency. She absolutely loved that, she loved working, it was really the making of her. She retired in her early 60s.

Anisa:
Can you remember your first memory of theatre?

Amanda:
I can. We went to pantos and I remember always being the kid who was petrified that they were going to get called up onto the stage. I remember Cinderella: they had the slipper under somebody's seat, and I was thinking, 'Please let it not be my seat!'  My really first 'wow' memory of theatre was an adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, a book my mum had given me. It had a profound effect on me, I absolutely loved it. Jo, the central character, is a girl who wants to become a writer and I completely related to her.  I'd read the book several times and it was on at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. I think I was seven. Mum got tickets and I went with her and my Nana, the three of us, which was really quite special because I don't think we'd ever gone out like that in the evening before. It was a big deal. I can remember the whole experience: sitting in the Theatre Royal, the feeling of being in that building, then seeing the story of Little Women on stage. There's an iconic moment in the book where Jo has her hair cut off and I remember the character coming in, having had her long hair cut to short and it was just extraordinary. I think just something clicked with me about the power and magic of telling stories on stage. I'd always been a reader but something about seeing it in the moment, in three dimensions, in that building, was just amazing. And I can see the whole thing now, still, it was kind of burned onto my consciousness.

Anisa:
What was the main trigger for you to want to work in the theatre?

Amanda:
Well, I think partly that [Little Women] planted a seed.  Prior to that, I think I'd always thought about being an author. I don't know where it came from, where this desire to write came up, but as soon as I started reading, I wanted to write, I think, and tell stories. And I do remember me and my brother, we used to … well, I used to set up a little theatre in the garage and make him do plays with me for the other kids. I  found some old bits and pieces from my primary school and there's something about us doing Cinderella in the garage so, that must have come from panto. But then in secondary school in the 80s, we had a fantastic drama department, I say ‘department’, it was a drama room and two teachers but back then, you could do ‘O’ Level Drama and ‘A’ Level Theatre Studies, which I did at South Wolds in Keyworth. It was one of the few schools in the county where you could do ‘A’ Level, so I got into drama through that, really. Having all of that opened up to me, the theory of drama, the practice, playwrights … by the end of that I was a massive theatre geek, really!  We used to go to Nottingham Playhouse and see everything. We had 50p tickets we got through the council, through school.  I was exposed to some amazing ideas and work through that experience and at the end of that, I was super keen to work in theatre. But again, I didn't quite see myself as being able to be a playwright at the time, I thought that was something that would come a lot later. I remember looking reading about Stage Management courses and wanting to do that, but not having the confidence. But age 16, 17, 18, that's what I thought my way in could be.  Then I left school and knew I wanted to write, and started as a freelance journalist. So, that's kind-of how I started to make the transition into being a writer.

Anisa:
Could you tell me more about what it was like being a freelance journalist?

Amanda:
Well, it's interesting because it was the late 80s. I'd left school, I’d done my A Levels, I'd got a university place but I decided I didn't want to go. I was being quite rebellious. Well, it was a kind of rebellious-slash-having no confidence. Y’know, it presented as being rebellious – “I'm not going to university” - but actually it was feeling, “I just don't know whether I can do this. I don't feel able to do it,” for all sorts of reasons, I don't really know. So, I took a year out and worked at Asda, and did various jobs because basically my parents said, “Well, if you're not going to university, you can go out there and work.” Which they were absolutely right to say because I learned a huge amount in that year, just by going out and working in ordinary jobs like people do, and getting experience of the world that way. But as this year came to an end, I thought, “I don't want to go to university. I want to be a writer. I'm going to do it now.” It was almost a get-out for the inevitable of having to go and study for three years!

There was a scheme called the Enterprise Allowance Scheme in the 80s, which gave you £40 a week to set up your own business. It was a way of getting people off the dole and it was amazingly kind-of open. If somebody wanted to be a window cleaner or open a shop, or be a clothes designer or I don't know, whatever, you could apply for the scheme. You put in your application, you had to go for a half-day session where they explained all about it and then off you went.

I signed on the dole for eight weeks in order to be eligible. They basically tick the paper, and go, “Right, that's you. You're a freelance journalist and this money will come to you, £40 a week for two years” which was quite a lot of money then.  So, I've got this government grant, £40. I've got a title - freelance journalist. I've got my parents on my back because they thought I was crazy, and I had no experience of being a journalist.  I had quite a lot to prove, and a lot to live up to, really.

But back then, there was a boom in publishing. There was loads of quirky, weird little titles all over the place ... magazines on weird and wonderful subjects. I just went to the library, looked at everything there was, and then started ringing editors. The first thing I did was for a magazine called Office Secretary, which dates it. Because there's no such thing as the office now, there are no office secretaries anymore. It’s like some kind of throwback, isn't it?!  But because my mum worked in an office then, I wrote an article on an aspect of work called the YTS Scheme, where young people were employed as secretaries. I interviewed my mum, I interviewed other people and I produced 2,000 words for this magazine. They said they'd take it, and they did, they published it! And I thought, wow, gosh... this IS possible. So, then I just started coming up with any random and wild and crazy ideas, anything I could think of to try and pitch to magazines.

Back then, it was surprisingly easy and different to today. We got paid quite well.  It wasn't expected you work for nothing, like it is now for sort of online content, it wasn’t the case that you pitched stuff and wrote stuff and didn't get anything for it. So, I learned on the job, really. I learned how to write to deadline, how to write to a word count. I learned if I didn't write, I wouldn't get paid. So, that was a discipline too.  I wrote to the Nottingham Evening Post and said, “I'm 19 and I'm a journalist. Can I write for young people?”  And they said, yes and gave me a weekly column. That's how it started, really: a combination of my naivety of just thinking, Oh, well, you probably just ring up editors and they're OK with it.' And they were. 

I had to stick at it and I do remember every month I used to think, “just hang on in for another month,” and I’d get something which would get me through this month, and the next month, and the next month.' And it was like that for two years. Looking back, it probably seems easier than it was, but that's how I got going. I just came up with ideas and got on the phone, basically. (LAUGHS)

Anisa:
Who was your biggest inspiration in those early years?

Amanda:
I think in terms of journalism, I was a big fan of Julie Burchill, who was a journalist who'd started, I suppose, in a similar way. She was a teenager who sent a piece to the NME music magazine and got that published, but then became a high profile music writer, and a controversial opinion-based journalist. But what I liked about her was that she was a young woman. She was fearless in her writing, but she was also working. You know, she was a working writer as well. She wasn't waiting til the muse struck, she was filing her copy every week. She was a big influence on me, really. And also, I was massively into music.  When I look back now at the 80s, at what was in the charts and what was big, all the acts - whether it be Culture Club or Adam Ant, the big commercial acts - were also incredibly artistic and individual and self-created. There was a whole culture then where you could sort of create yourself and invent yourself. And what was different and weird and strange about you was also interesting and quite mainstream as well.  I was watching the Brits this week and it just looks so corporate, like a West End show. It made me think about growing up in that 80s culture, where mainstream music and films and all of that was incredibly individualistic. So, I think I was unconsciously influenced by that.

Anisa:
What's your personal journey into the industry?

Amanda:
Starting as a journalist and doing that for the best part of 10 years, I think … from being age 19 to late-20s, working for magazines and newspapers, but also doing PR stuff as well, doing various jobs for county councils, writing very uninteresting things for the fire services' monthly staff magazine. Not that that was uninteresting, but it wasn't especially creative.

I spent best part of 10 years doing that, earning my living. But it taught me to write directly and to communicate directly and to speak to people. I wasn't writing literature, I wasn't trying to be especially intellectual, I was trying to speak directly to the reader and tell the truth. And actually what I found was, as a journalist, when you're interviewing people, you record it and then you transcribe it, then you find the quotes and you find the story within that conversation you're going to write up. So, that was me beginning to understand playwriting: you're transcribing speech and making speech into a story, using what people say. That's dialogue. 

I found that, actually, journalism was an interesting training ground for a playwright in terms of having an ear for a story, what people say and don't say … that’s what a play is, it's what people say and all the subtext beneath it. And as I was working as a journalist, I started writing plays in my early 20s. I wrote a couple that went nowhere; I started sending them to various theatre companies, and it went absolutely nowhere, nothing happened.

Then I met Gina Reeves, who ran a pub theatre company in Nottingham called Takeaway Theatre. I interviewed her for The Evening Post, and she was, you know, we just kind-of clicked. She has a company, they didn't have any funding, they paid for everything by box office and they used to take shows around little pubs in Nottingham. Again, it was part of that 80s create your own culture. (And of course, that still happens today.)  At the end of this interview, I said,  “Oh, I've written a play' and she said, “Send it to me then.” So, I did.  And she liked it and she put it on.

I started to learn about production as well by working with Takeaway, learning how to put on a show, what rehearsals were, and lighting, how to sell a show, how to go around and put your posters up and get people in, all of that. So, again, it was like on-the-job training. And it was brilliant, you know, and I loved every minute of it. 

From that, my confidence grew a bit and I started sending work a bit more locally.  I got a rehearsed reading at the Playhouse, and I a commission from New Perspectives Theatre Company in Mansfield, purely because I’d had my work on through Takeaway, I'd had reviews, quite decent reviews - only local ones but it meant I could send them along with the script. There was an opinion on it that was positive.  I got commissioned to write a youth theatre play by New Perspectives, and I ended up doing three youth theatre plays with them, then writing for their touring company. And one of the plays we did with Takeaway I'd sent to Soho Theatre with the review, and they saw something in that. I got asked to go on their Writer Development programme. That's when it really started, in my mid-20s, I started to feel I was breaking out of Nottingham and making some kind of connection with the industry in a wider sense.

Anisa:
When did you first recognize that you were pretty good at this whole writing career?

Amanda:
I haven't yet.

I think when... I'll tell you when … I went on a workshop, at Soho Theatre with four or five playwrights.  It was really good. It was the first time I'd actually been taught the principles of writing, because prior to that, I hadn't read a book about playwriting or anything, I'd just kind of gone from my own instinctive knowledge. And it was just great. Then at the end of this week, we took an extract of something we'd written and they got actors, professional actors to explore the scenes a bit.  I watched the others and they were all really good, so I was nervous when mine was coming up. But when they did it, I saw the actors connecting with the characters in a way I felt they hadn't quite connected with the others. It was just some indefinable thing where I thought, “Oh, I get it. I get what actors are looking for in character, this thing to play.”  Often a scene is about power, where the power lies.  It was a bit of a lightbulb moment about what these words on a page … if you're a playwright, actually, what happens is those words go into the hands and mouths and hearts and heads of actors - and character is everything, because that's really what an actor connects with in theatre. So, I think that was ... I thought, 'I think I can do that.' I think I get it.'

From then on, I've always been about character over everything, really. Character-driven stories, which I think has served me very well. Of course, when you get produced and get good feedback in the rehearsal room and from your audiences, when you sit with an audience watching a play and you realize they're engaged with it, they're enjoying it, that’s confidence building. So, my confidence built but even now when I'm writing the first draft of something new, I'm thinking, 'I don’t know how to do it, I can't figure out.' It's too difficult!' So, it never leaves you but I think that's quite good. Because actually, if you become complacent, then what?

Anisa:
OK. Thank you for your honesty. I'd love to know more about your style of writing. Could you tell me more about the way that you do that?

EDIT

Amanda:
I'm interested in character. When I sit down to write, what I start with is a subject or a world. I don't think I start particularly with characters or voices. For instance, Be My Baby - the play I eventually went on to write for Soho - began as a competition entry.  They were doing a new writing competition for a 10-minute play on the subject of food. I thought about having an actor baking a cake on stage. From that came the idea it was a birthday cake for a child the character had given up for adoption. Every year she baked this cake to mark that moment. So, I wrote this little play and put it in the competition and it didn't get anywhere.  Apparently, there were six chosen to be performed and this was the seventh. But Soho said, “there's something about it we like, so see if you can develop some ideas.” 

I started thinking about the character and what was happening to her now, with a grown-up adopted daughter somewhere out there.  I thought about what her backstory was and started reading about unmarried Mother and Baby homes, where in the 60s, she’d have gone to have her baby and would have had the baby forcibly taken from her and given up for adoption. Reading about those home, I thought “oh, that's the play.”  It's an untold story about women's live, which I was very interested in foregrounding in my work - instinctively interested in it - and then when it became noticed I was doing that, I was very consciously interested in doing it.  I’d be asked “why do you write so many female characters?” “Because you ask the question, that's why!” 

Be My Baby began with the world of the home, the unmarried mothers and the girls being made to give up children against their will. There’s social history and a political aspect to it, the untold stories. And from that, I started to build character and relationships.  Who would be in the home? How would they relate to each other? What would they be thinking and feeling? What would they bring into the home? What would their journey be?   I look for an issue, or a world, or an injustice, or something that gives it... something I'm interested in. And I think working as a journalist, researching and finding stories, is something I’ve taken through into my playwriting career.

Amateur Girl was about the amateur porn industry, I was interested in all of that, and talking to people who had done that. The Thrill of Love is about Ruth Ellis, who was the last woman to be hanged in Britain in the Fifties … and again, in terms of injustice, I’m doing a play at the moment about women's football in the 1920s: it was massive and then it got banned. The world of the women's football team and the political issue at its heart is where it all starts, I think. Then character grows out of that.

Anisa:
Thank you for sharing that. And what do you find comes easily for you in your process?

Amanda:
I think dialogue is where I feel most at home - character and dialogue. But you can't write that unless you know what story you're telling. I mean you can, you can keep sort of writing dialogue and see what story emerges but what I find most difficult is structuring the play, the nuts-and-bolts, and thinking, “what is this play about? Where is it set? What am I trying to say? And actually, how practically do you make it into a piece of theatre?”  Once that's been done - if I know who my characters are and where they're going and what they're saying - I really love writing the dialogue. That's the pleasurable bit but it doesn't kick in properly till the third or fourth draft. The first draft is all about building the engine, the nuts and bolts, the machinery of the play the audience doesn't necessarily see.  Then you build the car around it. So, yeah, I love writing character and I love writing dialogue. That's my favourite thing.

Anisa:
What do you most struggle with in your process?

Amanda:
Structure, I think.  And also the uncertainty of it all. When you're commissioned to write … I’m very fortunate to be commissioned.  As a process, you start with the seed of an idea, you have some thoughts, you have a conversation with a theatre company, but then you have to make it into a real piece of work. There’s a contract, there’s an expectation - and an expectation on yourself - that you’ll do it. So, actually, it’s having the stamina to work through from the seed, from a conversation: to research it, think about it, come up with ideas; write a first draft, feel very insecure about the first draft; get feedback, write a second draft which doesn't feel ‘right’ either; and then go through many, many drafts, often over a few years.  Having the stamina to keep believing in it, to keep the faith that sooner or later you'll go, “Yes, this is it! This is the play, this is what I wanted.” And often that doesn't happen at the end of the writing process because you end up just running out of time. It can happen in the rehearsal room or in a second production, you can go, “Oh, yes, that's what I was doing!” 

It takes a lot of stamina, I think. And ultimately, even though you can have fantastic collaborators, you’re on your own. You're on your own in that room with the computer. Day after day, just thrashing it out, trying to figure it out, trying to stay focused, trying to stay confident. So, that's difficult. And I think in a way, that's what makes writers writers, just keeping their bum on the chair till it's done.

Anisa:
I really agree with you on that.

Amanda:
Yeah. Stamina is everything.

Anisa:
Can you tell me about the first play you wrote?

Amanda:
The first proper play I wrote was called Stand Up Cherry Pye. It was a monologue.  I thought a monologue might be easier to write than a multi-cast piece because I hadn't written a full-length play then. It was about a stand-up comedian who made it in that era before alternative comedy, when comedy was sexist and racist, the kind of stuff I'd grown up watching on television. I look back on it and I can’t believe that stuff went out then. But she [the character] came up through that route and navigated her way, had fame, then fell and was lifting herself back up again. It was a kind-of rags to riches story. And that was the first thing I wrote as was a complete piece, as an adult, which I thought had something about it.  We put it on with Takeaway, we did two or three productions over the years. So, it was the very first, very, very first thing. And I haven't read it since we did it, so I'd probably look back now and think “I don't know …!”. But there are things in that play I'm still … some people say as a writer, you're always trying to write the same story better. That play was about women's lives, untold stories of women's lives, social history, all of that, entertainment, the sort of... the onstage character, the backstage character, identity. I think lots of those themes are still very much alive in my work and always will be, probably.

Anisa:
Was there anyone who gave you your big break, or really championed you?

Amanda:
There's been loads of people along the way who've opened doors and given me a career, really. Starting with Gina at Takeaway, who was the first person to say, “I'll put your play on”, which then was a massive thing, a massive leap of faith by her. That was a turning point for me.

Soho Theatre, Abigail Morris at Soho Theatre, who judged the playwriting competition about food and chose the six, but liked the seventh, which was mine, and gave me some development money for what would become Be My Baby,and directed the first production. Without her, I wouldn't have seen my career opening up in the way it did when I was in my late-20s. I think had there been a male director of that company, I'm not sure he would have connected with the subject matter - the birth mother, the adoption and all that was saying - in the way that Abigail did. And she was a young mother herself. Something in that story, however raw it was, really resonated with her. So, she was a key person, really, in believing in me and getting my stuff on in London, which was a big jump. 

From that, I got an agent, and interest from regional theatres.  I mainly worked in the regions, you know, mainly I haven't worked in London. I think that [Be My Baby] might be the only London commission I've had. So, I went on to have more of a national career than a London-centric career. And in those theatres, there have been numerous people, I think, who've connected with the work and opened doors. But I would say Gina and Abigail in the early days were the ones.

Anisa:
When did writing become your career?

Amanda:
Well, it gradually became my career in the late 90s. Throughout the 90s, there was a transition period between earning my living as a writer and writing plays for myself, then gradually getting productions of the plays and getting paid for it. By the time I'd worked for New Perspectives in the late 90s and got commissioned by them, there was interest in my plays around 2000-2001 …. No, earlier than that, possibly the late 90s?  Sorry, yes, Soho Theatre started producing my work in the late-90s, so that was when the change was made.  I started earning money as a playwright and getting opportunities. Then, I kind-of phased out the journalism and also got an agent, which opened doors as well. I'd say from the age of about being 28 - 25 or so years ago now - time flies!

Anisa:
What gave you the confidence to pursue this as a career?

Amanda:
It's hard to say because I don't know if, in the beginning, it was confidence? I think it was a desire. I felt like a writer and I wanted to be a writer as a child, but I’d never met any. Writers wo seemed to be so distant and so magical, and either living in ivory towers or long dead. I had no idea how to do it. But getting into a freelance journalism and almost doing that as a way to get out of university … I got a place at Manchester Polytechnic to do English Lit but I don't think I had the confidence to go. I just didn't at that age. 

I think it's a ‘thing’, isn't it: at 17 or 18, we're supposed to be able to decide what we want to do and who we want to be, and leave home and go to a different city, and be that person and go onto a career. I didn't feel like that at that age.  So, doing the freelance journalism was almost a way of backing away from all of that; thinking, you know, “I've got to do something so I don't have to leave Nottingham and go to university, it's too daunting. I'll start writing because I want to be a writer one day, so I might as well do it now.” And that looks like it takes a lot of confidence. I think it took a lot of bravado, and I don't know if what I'm saying now I would have said then. I've kind-of styled it out and pretended I was much more confident than I was. 

But there must have been something in me as well, that had a belief that I could do it. And I don't know where that belief came from. I mean, I was encouraged to read and when I wrote stuff at school and creative writing, you know, my parents would say it was good, but there was nothing that really … I don't know, it was just a light inside me. There was something that was struck. I don't know why or how, but I just believed I could do it. Then I had to kind of give my character the confidence to carry that through, if that makes sense. My inner self had the belief and I had to learnconfidence. But I learnt it by doing it really, which is the best way to learn anything, I think. It was stressful, but it kind-of worked out in the end. Yeah, it did!

Anisa:
What was your biggest setback in your career?

Amanda:
That's a really good question, actually.  I don't know if I've had anything that felt like a setback. I don't know, that's a really interesting question …

I think we're now becoming more aware of a lack of representation in theatre; of female playwrights being historically less valued, or the subjects women write about being slightly devalued as being domestic or shallow in some way?  There used to be the idea of only men can write the big political plays on the big stages in the National Theatre. I wasn't writing that kind of play. So, I think certain avenues of theatre, certain routes have not been as open to me as a woman. But having said that, my whole career and the work I've done has been based on writing about women's lives and my femaleness. I wouldn't trade that for anything. So, I wouldn't call that a setback as such but it's an obstacle that's always been there, I think. And it's still there.

And it's certainly …  I'm really happy to see there's such a wide and candid discussion about it among female playwrights, because there weren't that many female playwrights when I started. I didn't really know anybody. And you probably wouldn't have ‘gone on about it’. That was how it would have looked, anyway. And I think the discussion and debate and awareness we now have is going to change things for the better.

Anisa:
What do you most enjoy about your job?

Amanda:
I enjoy the fact I don't have to go to the office or wear a suit orsit in traffic at 7:00 every morning. I enjoy that freedom, that personal freedom of being able to work from home and manage my own time and be free. I always feel there's a lot of insecurity in being a freelancer - financial insecurity - you never know from one year to the next whether you're going to get work. But I've always seen that as a motivation and managed, somehow, to keep going. So, I enjoy the personal freedom of being a writer. 

And I still love to write. I still love to sit down at my desk. If there's not too much crazy time pressure or too much going on, I'm really happy writing. If I can get all the other stuff out my head about what people are going to think of it and how it's going to be received and whether I'm going to get it in in time; if I can just purely focus on the writing,I love that and I still love it. If I didn’t love it anymore, I would stop, I'd have to stop. You can't do it if you don't love it. So, yeah, the writing.

Anisa:
What isn't quite so good about the job?

Amanda:
What isn't quite so good about is the time it takes to get it right. Juggling four, five or six different projects sometimes is hard. It’s not something I'd complain about because most writers would be delighted to have it, so it's nice problem to have. But often, I’m working on several things at once. Not in the same day but certainly every few days, I might be chopping and changing to something else. I would love to be able to just be working on one thing for a sustained period of time, so that can be difficult. It can be a bit manic, but it is a good problem to have. 

I just think the whole wider issues of the politics in the industry is difficult, as I've said about representation and equality, who’s voice gets heard and who doesn't. All that can be very dispiriting, really, because theatres are, you know, they're not run by committee. They're run by individual people who make those commissioning decisions, who are those gatekeepers. If the gatekeeper likes you and opens the door, that's good but it's not the most accessible industry for a lot of people, still. So, that’s a frustration really. It can be quite depressing.

Anisa:
I'd like to talk to you about the changes in the industry for women. What have you noticed?

Amanda:
I think there's more young women writing now, that's something I’ve noticed. There's still not an abundance of opportunities. I think there's a recognition that women's voices matter more than they seemed to matter;  the subjects women write about are more worthy of consideration than maybe they were when I started out?  But I still think there's quite a long way to go. On the other hand, what's interesting is people are waking up to the fact that it's always been the case that women buy theatre tickets. Women, statistically, are the ones who book the tickets and to with their friends or their partners. And so it makes commercial sense to write plays and stories from a female perspective about women's lives. I think that commercial imperative is now being recognized and shows about... I mean, the obvious one is Mamma Mia, isn't it? Whatever you think about Mamma Mia, it's an extraordinary commercial success. I hope some of that filters down and I hope the more political work women are writing gets the same kind of attention. It's not just something ‘women don't write’.  Like the big feel-good, ‘girls night out’ musicals, we can write anything we want to write. We're still trying to fight that battle.  I think we thought feminism had won, now we're going, “Oh, my God, there's still so many more battles to fight.” Theatre is one of them.

Anisa:
What are the advantages of being a woman in your role?

Amanda:
I think you can find an audience you can speak very directly to, as I say, because women are the theatre goers and the theatre ticket buyers. And if you can connect with an audience and speak directly to an  audience, it keeps your work alive. One thing that's interesting and exciting about my work is that it gets done extensively on the amateur circuit, and amateur theatre companies have predominantly female members. Historically, there’s been a dearth of plays with strong female casts, or just numerically, more women than men in.  Be My Baby, Ladies Day and Ladies Down Under, the sequel and The Thrill of Love get 75-80 productions a year. Ever week one of those plays are on somewhere and it's simply because women in those companies want to play those roles and want to tell those stories.  So, in terms of keeping the work alive - keeping plays alive -  Be My Baby is 20 years old, Ladies' Day is 15 and fact that they're still being done regularly in villages and communities across the country is because of that female connection. 

That's been a huge advantage to my career, accidentally, because I never set out to do that. Also financially, as it’s an income stream as well. So, it's not always about having, the big critically acclaimed show in London that's going to make your career; actually that’s been happening very quietly, without any kind of acknowledgement or any kind of recognition, really. But it's happening, it's real. People who are in those plays love being in them, love playing those characters and love telling those stories. And that's what you want. You don't really want a play to be done once - and even published - but then put on a shelf to go out once every 10 years.

The  act those plays are living and breathing now is because they're by a woman, about women, for women. And I'm as happy with that as I am, y’know, with a great review.  Lovely, great review in The Guardian but what then?! You want your work to live. And that's been an accidentally surprising and wonderful thing about my work, I think.

Anisa:
While doing research on you, Amanda, I did come across, I think it was a quote from The Guardian about you being the most consistent woman, in regards to playwriting. How did you feel when you read that quote or you came across that quote? How did that make you feel you're performing in this career?

Amanda:
Well, it’s bit of a double-edged sword. It's brilliant to hear it said your work is consistently popular or you're the biggest -elling female playwright. But I don't want to be... I'm one of the biggest-selling playwrights, if I'm one of the biggest-selling female playwrights. To genderize it in the way men's writing never is, I feel quite angry about, in a way. I mean, that quote is a few years old, I think. When I first see it, I go, “Oh, that's really nice.” And then I think, actually, “Why is it gendered? Why?” Because it’ like we're this sort of second subcategory of playwrights, you know? There’s the male canon of playwrights, then there's Caryl Churchill and then there's the rest of us. You don't hear Caryl Churchill very often called ‘the greatest female playwright’. She's one of our greatest playwrights, end of. But most of us get that sticker put on us and, yeah, I feel quite militant about it now.  I would challenge it now in a way I wouldn't have done Then. Going back to your question about what's changed, I’d feel confident to challenge that now in a way that, probably, 15 years ago I wouldn't have.

So, yeah … obviously, it's always lovely to get a compliment, but you've also got to be aware of what context you're being placed in, I think.

Anisa:
What are the disadvantages of your role in your career?

Amanda:
As a woman, the disadvantages …. I think having to work twice as hard to prove yourself; having to justify why your stories might be political and meaningful, because I think you're allowed to be entertaining and funny, and ... you’d tell women's stories to women and women love it, that kind of thing, but actually, I ‘dsay that my work is... the choices that I make are political choices. The choice in Be My Baby to put six women on stage in that play with no male characters was a political choice. I don't think any of that got really noticed at the time. Also, when that play came out, it was the kind of, what they call the ‘in-yer-face theatre’ of Sarah Kane and all of that, and I think Be My Baby looked quite domestic and traditional against those. I think now it's probably being reassessed a bit. It had a fantastic production at Leeds Playhouse in 2019, and for me it was like watching the play again because it was a new generation of actors and director, coming to this play as if it was a big political piece of theatre.

I think the disadvantages have been, y’know, having to justify and prove your worth, really, instead of just being able to get on with it. But having said all that, I wouldn't change anything because I am female and that's the perspective I naturally write from. So, to feel aggrieved about that would be wrong, really, I'm very proud of that. I'm very glad that I could tell those stories and I just needed the rest of the world to come around to it, really!

Anisa:
I know you just said you wouldn't change anything but if you did have a magic wand and you could change one thing in the industry you are in, what would it be?

AMANDA WHITINGTON:I think …. you know what, I’d change the relationship between London and the rest of the UK; the idea of the National Theatre being this concrete building in the middle of London and a very elitist organization, from my experience and other people's experience - a very patriarchal organization. The evidence is there about how many women they've put on stage or in terms of diversity, writers of colour. All of that is a very white, male, patriarchal, middle class organization, that calls itself the National Theatre. And it's not, you know, the national theatre. We need to rethink that. And I hate this term ‘the regions’.  There's no such thing as the regions because that's, again, patriarchal London and everybody around it. The regions is the UK, that's British theatre. Much I love the West End in London, that's not British theatre. What we’re doing out here, in all the cities and towns and villages across the country is British theatre. So, I’d like to see radically change in terms of our perception of that hierarchy in the industry; where the power lies, and where the status lies, and where the important work is done. I would like that to be smashed to bits.

Anisa:
What's your greatest achievement?

Amanda:
Just staying. Sticking at it. Staying here, sticking at it. Stamina, just carrying on. That's it.

Anisa:
Is there a play that you're most proud of?

Amanda:
I might say it's the one I'm writing at the moment because that's the one that feels most immediate, and one hopes will get better and better. You always hope the play you're writing now is your best play in terms of everything about it, content and theme and style and all that. So, the one I am always very interested in is what I'm writing or what I'm going to write.  I don’t really like looking back too much. 

But Be My Baby, I'm very proud of, because of what it continues to say and to be. I say this a lot but a play that was written in the 90s about the 60s is now being performed by girls who weren't born when I wrote it. Young women are completely connecting with it, in a way … even I don't know exactly what that is.  But the thread going through the writing … what women now connect with, a play about women giving babies for adoption and that sense of, I don't know, control of sexuality or identity is as alive now, as, you know, as it ever has been. People are finding and revisiting the play, performing it and really loving it. So, I think the longevity of that play and the fact that it still remains so relevant is fantastic. But of course, I wrote that in my mid 20s and you don't want the thing you did in your mid 20s to the great thing that you did. So, always it’s about the one now and the next one, I think, that I'm hoping it will be ‘the one’.

Anisa:
How would you suggest a person can get into this industry?

Amanda:
Everything's changed since I started. There was no internet, all we had was a phone and a typewriter. That's what I started with and obviously, the nature of communications, media and performance is changing, although theatre is still theatre. It’s harder to get paid for stuff, there's less money for development. But I think … having worked with new writers and judged competitions, if somebody's got something as a writer, it's immediately obvious. You can tell, you can just see it.  Because theatre is about individual voices and in that way it's the same as it always was. If you've got something to say – if you tell your truth as a writer and it’s there on the page - that will be heard.  Because actually it's quite rare.  You can read a lot of new scripts that are quite well-crafted but have nothing to say. But you can read something that’s a bit of a mess  and go, “Oh, my God, that voice, this!” 

I would say to young new writers, don't try and be original, try to be truthful. Tell your truth because if it's your truth, it will be original.  No one's got your life and no one's had the journey you've had, so no one's experience will quite like yours. So, I think you've just got to write - find your truth and find your voice - get it on the page somehow, send it out and trust that someone will hear. It might not be the first person who reads it but theatres are always looking out for those voices. And I don’t think being female is an advantage or disadvantage. There are more obstacles, there are always more obstacles for people who aren't young white men. But that's what gives you your truth. And I think there's more awareness and understanding that we have stories tp tell than there was when I started out. So, I just say go for it.

Anisa:
What advice would you give your younger self?

Amanda:
I would say you're onto something. Just have faith, be a little bit more confident. Don't worry. Just keep at it because you're going to be able to do what you want to do, So chill out, just get on with it!

Anisa:
Lastly, is there anything you'd like to talk about that I haven't asked you already?

Amanda:
I don't think so. You've covered so many aspects of the industry, as well as my experience. I suppose I would say that one of the great things about writing - of being a playwright - is everybody's route into it is different. So, this is just my story. Because I did it this way, it doesn't mean that's the way it's done.

An actor can work in school and the amateur sector and maybe set up company, or to drama school, get an agent and try and get work … not all actors go that way, but there's a more formal route for, actors in theatre. But for writers, there is no set way.  You could do a creative writing degree or you could not have a degree, or you can never have written anything in your life. Or you could have been writing since the age of four. You can invent your own way in, find your own way through towards your truth. That is yours alone. So, I’d say, listen to writers like me talking, but don't think ‘I should be doing it that way’ because everybody's different.

Anisa:
Thank you so much for answering these questions. It's been a privilege and pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

Amanda:
Thank you.