Features Published 3 August 2016

On Writing For a Different Gender

Playwright Camilla Whitehill's Mr. Incredible is a one man show exploring male entitlement. Here, she explores some of the preconceptions she's encountered around women, writing men.
Camilla Whitehill
Mr Incredible, in performance at Vault Festival

Mr Incredible, in performance at Vault Festival

I didn’t think much about writing a (straight, cis) male character until after Mr. Incredible had done its first preview. We were doing 5 nights at the excellent Vault Festival, and I was having a full-on emotional breakdown about whether anyone would like it, and not thinking that much about anything else. It genuinely didn’t occur to me that this was a play about a man until my straight male friends started messaging me. More than a couple of them, upon seeing the play, felt compelled to tell me that they saw themselves, or parts of themselves, in the character, and that had kind of freaked them out.

This was interesting to me. Mr. Incredible is a one-man play, so all of the focus is on one character – but then again, so is Where Do Little Birds Go?, my first play. WDLBG has been at the Camden Fringe, the Vault Festival, and last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and nobody had ever contacted me to say that they specifically saw themselves in Lucy, the lead and only character. It can’t be about representation – straight, cis, white men have more characters written for them than anyone else – so I was intrigued by this response.

Then, the week after the previews, I had an email from an actor I’d never met. He was sending over his Spotlight link – standard – but also wanted to let me know that I had written a male character really well – for a woman.

This infuriated me for fairly obvious reasons. You wouldn’t commend Ibsen for managing to write Hedda Gabler etc etc not that I’m comparing myself to Ibsen etc etc was my general line of argument. But then I started thinking about the messages I’d had from my male friends. Were they trying to say the same, in a nicer way? Were they confirming that the character was recognisably a straight man, living in modern Britain? By saying they saw a bit of themselves, were they assuring me that I’d managed to decipher the Great White Male?

I mean nah, they were probably being genuinely nice, but it got me thinking. For me, Mr. Incredible is a feminist piece, written by a woman, directed by a woman, with an incidental male actor and character. I’m not being dismissive of the actor (Alistair Donegan, who is excellent) here. I think he’d say the same. I wanted to talk about male entitlement and I felt the best way to do that would be to examine a man.

What’s weird about that, though, is that the play doesn’t match the criteria for “all-female theatre” lists. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. You can’t say it’s “female-driven drama”. The face of the play is distinctly male. The posters have Alistair’s distorted grimace stretched over them. When you sit down and watch this play, you will listen to a man speak for an hour. Isn’t that, like, mega problematic, given that the play is in part about sexual consent? Aren’t I contributing to the already massive bias towards male actors in the theatre industry?

I honestly don’t know. For me, as a writer, this seemed like the best way of telling the story. Putting the problem front and centre, under some lights, seemed – seems – exciting. There was also the fact that I wanted to write a play for Alistair. He has a specific performance energy that is fun to write for, and adding that to my already percolating ideas about consent and entitlement gave me the idea for the play.

There is definite truth in female playwrights (and, I imagine, POC playwrights) feeling they should only be writing about certain topics, or for certain people. I wonder if my male peers feel pressured to write for any particular gender or circumstance. I often go to television meetings where they say they’re looking for someone to write “the British Girls”. I sit there like – should I have worn a stick-on moustache? I don’t want to write that. There’s nothing in my theatre work that suggests that is a logical next step. They literally say it because I’m a girl. And a writer. That’s it.

I tend to pick a thing to obsess about prior to a play of mine opening, and this year my subconscious has gone with this. My feminist guilt at writing a solo play for a man, even if it is entirely justified in the story. Even if I wrote this play for women, for my friends, for any woman out there who recognizes the behavior in the play. Even if I’m a writer, for god’s sake, and I can write any kind of character I want to. Even if it’s directed and produced and stage managed by women. I still feel guilty.

If you’re in Edinburgh this year, come and see the show. Then tell me what you think. I’ll be the one covered in sweat in the corner. But do avoid telling me I wrote a man well – for a woman.

Mr. Incredible is on at the Edinburgh Fringe at Underbelly from 4-28th August 2016. More info here.

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