Penelope Skinner: 'Both Meek and Angry Alan were prompted by the shifting political landscape'

Playwright Penelope Skinner on her two new plays, which are both on at the Edinburgh Festival this year

Penelope Skinner
Penelope Skinner
© Rebecca Need-Menear

After firmly establishing herself as a writer of note on the fringe scene in 2008 with her break out play F**ked at the Old Red Lion and following that up with hit Eigengrau at the Bush in 2010, Penelope Skinner's plays have been performed up and down the country and beyond. Her play The Village Bike was staged at the Royal Court in 2011 and starred Romola Garai and was directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins and promptly won Skinner an Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, as well as the prestigious George Devine Award. Since then she has written for TV including for hit series Fresh Meat and penned Linda, which ran at the Royal Court and then in New York. This year she's got two plays on in Edinburgh – Meek, staged by Headlong, running at the Traverse, and one she's also directing, Angry Alan at the Pleasance. Here she tells us more.

Have you ever had two shows on at Edinburgh at the same time before?
No, it's a very new experience. The last show I had in Edinburgh was nine years ago. But it's not entirely coincidental that they are on together, as I knew Meek was going to be in Edinburgh. We heard that and thought we could do the same with Angry Alan.

Have you been away from the Fringe for nine years for a reason?
I didn't avoid Edinburgh, it was fun, mad fun, like Edinburgh is. I had always wanted to go back, but the opportunity to do a play there hasn't arisen.

The plays sound quite different, but they have similar themes, is that right?
Yes, I would say on the surface they are different and tonally very different, but what they are worrying away at is, maybe, the same thing. They also feel quite immediate. Theatre can take a long time, but both of these things have come relatively quickly to the stage. They are both a response to recent political events.

What's Angry Alan about?
It's set in America now and it's about a man who feels left behind by the world, and then he finds his way online to a new ideology, which takes him on a journey. That's my sh*t version of what it's about. It's probably better to read the marketing blurb.

Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan
Donald Sage Mackay in Angry Alan
© The Other Richard

Was it prompted by anything specific?
Various things – my partner is an American actor and he was doing a play in New York during the inauguration of Trump and that has dominated American, and also British, politics since. I also watched a documentary about Marta Becket who basically started her own ballet company in an abandoned theatre in the Nevada desert. At first she had no audience, then she painted an audience onto the walls, then gradually people came and she built an audience. My play was in this real spirit of making your own work and just putting in on. Sometimes that gets forgotten the more established you become.

How are you enjoying directing?
I am a control freak, so I'm enjoying it. I've directed a short film, but not theatre before. It's making everything terrifying again. It's exposing in a new way.

Does it help or hinder that your partner is in it?
Helps definitely. We have a language already and this is the third play of mine he's been in. He knows my preoccupations and obsessions with how things sound, he's dealt with me before as a playwright, so he knew what he was getting himself into.

Meek seems a bit harder to pin down …
It's set in an alternative modern time. It's not exactly sci-fi, but I guess genre-wise it is, because it's an alternative reality. It's hard to talk about what happens without giving things away. It's a mystery set in a modern day Scandinavia about a woman who is in prison.

© Helen Murray

What prompted Meek?
I think I sat down to write Meek in July 2016, just after the referendum when I think a shift in political landscape was beginning to happen. I think that's what fuelled both plays.

What is it that makes you want to write a play – is it a story? A political idea?
It's different every time, sometimes it starts off as an image or character. With Angry Alan there was a character. But it needs to be something which feels like it can come alive in the right way, be a story in the right way and talk to right now.

What are your tips for surviving Edinburgh?
Don't get too drunk, certainly not in the afternoon and not before you see a show by me. Laughing and heckling aren't too bad, but nodding off is terrible.

Angry Alan runs at Underbelly Cowgate, while Meek runs at the Traverse Theatre.

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