Hammersmith-based actor, writer and director Florence Keith-Roach on her latest play, EGGS – a dark comedy about female friendship, fertility and freaking out – which is heading for London’s Vault Festival this month
You studied Classics before making the move to acting, how did that come about?
I always acted and loved the theatre and that was naturally accompanied by a love of literature and language. At school I had the opportunity to study Latin and I just took to it. When I left I was torn between drama school and university. I got the grades to study Classics at university and, coming from a family who never went to university, it seemed like an amazingly weird and lucky opportunity. And amazing and weird it was! I took up Ancient Greek in my first year, which was hard but I loved it, it was like learning a made up language from Lord of the Rings, and spent three years learning about ancient theatre. When I left university I knew acting was still what I wanted to do, so I applied and got in to Drama Centre.
Tell us about your play EGGS, which is coming to The Vaults festival this month…
EGGS is a dark comedy about female friendship, fertility and freaking out. It’s an intimate two-hander looking at the struggle of growing up as a part of Generation Y. It is structured as a series of dialogues between two women in their late twenties taking place intermittently over the course of a year. Both have been friends since university, but in the years since they have started to make very different life choices and as a result live utterly divergent, almost in-commensurable lives. They also lost a friend a while ago, and in the time that has passed since this traumatic event, they realise that without the link of this ‘third leg of their tripod’, they actually have very little in common.
EGGS presents two very complex, intelligent, witty, at times irrational, women, facing life’s obstacles and making bold, but tortured and sometimes quite reckless decisions about how they choose to live their lives. The piece focuses on their friendship, their journey. Both women are at an age where society forces them to confront the ‘ticking time bomb’ that apparently is their fertility, and we witness how these two different women internalise this systemic anxiety. It deals with broader questions about the link between the political and the personal, the visceral alienation that our laissez-faire, capitalist society engenders in people’s subjectivities. And it’s about human beings coping with a mounting sense of alienation in an increasingly fragmented world.
EGGS is a dark comedy about female friendship, fertility and freaking out. It’s an intimate two-hander looking at the struggle of growing up as part of Generation Y
Where did the inspiration for EGGS come from?
I began writing EGGS to confront questions and predicaments that at the time felt personal and singular. This was aggravated by the phenomenon of entering my late twenties and being bombarded with more and more information about my biological clock (how do those pop-up adverts know when to suddenly appear and terrorise?), was time really running out for me at 27? Of course the answer was no. And the people who reminded me of this were my female friends. These relationships were and had always been my source of my strength and rationale, had brought me back from many a precipice. I started trying to document these connections, their mysterious, mercurial qualities, their volatility, their dynamism, in a constant state of emotional ebullition.
I wanted to convey the truth of these under-explored relationships, which had been so formative for my self and my understanding of the world. At the same time, I was reading and watching an increasing amount of work by female artists. Painstakingly honest memoirs and TV shows like Transparent. Work, which told stories with a new honesty and insight, that I had been unconsciously starved of in my male canon-heavy education. I was hungry for the female gaze, for a perspective that reflected my own experiences and ones that I had not yet thought to explore. In these artists’ daring honesty and intellect, I was privy to ‘fragments of reality’ (Elena Ferrante) and they were thrilling to me. This set me off to attempt to write in a new wholly more honest and nuanced way.
EGGS has been described as ‘a truly great depiction of the enduring qualities of friendship’. What are the ‘enduring qualities of friendship’?
That was a quote from a lovely review of the work in a progress run of EGGS in Edinburgh last summer. It makes me think of Waiting For Godot: even though these two men torture each other, you get the impression they would rather be together torturing each other than waiting out there alone. I think this is very true of human nature, and what makes friendship – i.e. relationships not bound by romance or blood – so mysterious, heart-warming and ridiculous all at once. Nothing binds us really – and yet we keep coming back, even when tested to the brink.
I was hungry for the female gaze, for a perspective that reflected my own experiences and ones that I had not yet thought to explore
How big an issue is gender inequality in theatre and what would you like to see change?
There is a very long list of things I would like to see changed, but I’ll try and be succinct. Both in film and theatre there are less female parts, less female directors and less plays written by women – though we make up 52 % of the population. This issue is not in any way limited to ‘the arts’, the gender pay gap has been well publicised of late, and seeps into almost every profession. And the problem is also certainly not limited to gender, as Finn Mckay wrote, ‘to seek equality in an unequal word,’ is not the aim of the feminist. We all need to engage fully in trying to shift the normalised, everyday discrimination that is rife in our society: be it gender-related, class-based or racially motivated. In terms of theatre, all writers, commissioners, directors and producers need to work to produce a constant flow of complex and diverse alternatives to the deafening, white middle-class male hegemony.
Who in your industry do you admire?
So many people. But currently the top of my list is Jill Soloway for what she is doing for TV. Not only is she making work that is, in my opinion, exquisitely different in its sensitivity, aesthetic, pace and diversity. She is also posing pressing questions about gender, identity and sexuality with such originality and authenticity. It is also really really funny and illuminating. She is also insanely cool and eloquent in all her interviews. She doesn’t give a f**k, which is inspiring to hear sometimes.
Do you prefer writing, acting or directing?
Writing and acting are, for now, the two disciplines that I am most drawn to exploring further. Writing has given me this outlet and drive to tell better stories about diverse people and subjects and to take action and change into my own hands. It has been incredibly empowering. It is also a huge challenge, demanding all my mental and physical attention and has taught me so much about self discipline, rigour, and self criticism. Acting in comparison is this huge adrenaline rush. It too can be exacting, but the freedom of inhabiting another’s outlook is so relieving. An actor is always revealing themselves, no matter what the part, but when the writer is also performing, as I often do, the confession is rawer. This adds an exciting new dose of piquancy.
How do you switch between tasks?
Writing, acting and directing are all concerned with the same thing: telling stories, so it is not that much of a switch. Having said that, they do occupy slightly different head spaces. I write mainly with performance in mind, I speak the words as I write them, I act them out, and I imagine myself performing the dialogue in front of an audience and that fear pushes me to go for even more honesty. When I am acting, however, I am no longer the writer, I am the actor and am led by the other actors in the scene and the director. It is a relief to be guided and to collaborate. I have co-directed things which I have also acted in, but that was manageable as when I was acting, the co-director was guiding me.
How long have you lived in Hammersmith?
I have lived here for just over a year. I like the calmness of the area and the fact it is so close to the river. I like to go for long walks with friends, setting the world to rights accompanied by the water.
What’s next for EGGS, and for you?
EGGS is hopefully going on a small regional tour. Being originally from Dorset, I am very excited about the possibility of bringing this rude piece to my local arts centre. I am also currently writing a feature film loosely based on some of the themes of EGGS and a TV sitcom. After EGGS I am playing a role in a new web series.
EGGS runs at Vault Festival from 24 February to 6 March. See vaultfestival.com