Albatross, Gate Theatre

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by Laura Kressly

There aren’t many writers who conjure stories the way Isley Lynn can. Her innate instinct for achingly human characters in situations rarely – if ever – seen on stage sets her well apart from most young playwrights. Her oeuvre includes Skin a Cat, a hilarious and necessary story of a young woman navigating dating and sex whilst unable to be vaginally penetrated, and Tether, the journey of a blind woman and her guide training for a marathon. These intimate stories leave a huge impact when set on stage, their echoes long reverberating with her audiences.

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Interview: Isley Lynn on Skin a Cat

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The upcoming opening of new venue The Bunker has certainly generated plenty of buzz, but what has excited me most about their debut season is that Rive Productions is bringing back Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat for a three-week run. Hugely deserving winner of Vault Festival’s Pick of the Year, Skin a Cat is the coming-of-age story of Alana, a young woman who, like most young people, just wants to lose her virginity – but there’s something in the way. I spoke with writer Isley Lynn about the importance of Alana’s story, why stories like hers need to be told and how Lynn is working for more diversity in British theatre.

TPTTUK: Why does Alana’s story need telling?

IL: I’ve always been most interested in telling stories I haven’t heard before. I get so bored and frustrated when I see a show that’s beautifully produced/designed/directed/written/performed but tells me nothing I didn’t already know, or shows me nothing I haven’t seen so many times over. The bar really is so low for new stories – stories about differently abled people, women-centred stories, unconventional stories of anyone non-white, I could go on. Stories that give us new perspective are so important and exciting that I want to spend my time telling them. And the stories about sex – especially first sex – never matched up with my own experiences, so I figured I should tell mine. It really was as simple as that, but that’s also why it’s important.

TPTTUK: You use several dramatic forms and styles in Skin a Cat. Tell me a bit about these choices and the reasons behind them.

IL: To be honest, the play was so easy to write that it came out without too much thought. The stylistic qualities were organic to the material – and I had plenty of lived material to work with! I felt the direct address was important because it allows Alana to be honest and open with the audience in a way she isn’t able to be with the characters onstage with her. In a play about the pressures of how others see you and what effort it is to please, it felt crucial to keep this [play focused on] her story, her testimony, her voice.

So much of the action happens mid-coitus, and I had no idea how to put sex on stage. All credit to our wickedly brilliant director Blythe Stewart for its staging (this was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in rehearsals, and I’m still impressed with how she managed to create a representational, physical language without resorting to silly hip thrusts).

TPTTUK: What would you like audiences to take away from Skin a Cat?

IL: We only had six performances at the Vault Festival, but after every one I had someone approach me and share their own embarrassing story, or their own experience of sexual shame or difference. That’s exactly the reaction I hope for at the Bunker – I want people to be able to see themselves in Alana’s story, and feel emboldened to talk about their experiences with strangers and friends and loved ones, because that’s the only way we can start to realise how we all “fall short” of the expectations placed on us – and not just with sex, but in so many other areas of our lives – and how unimportant and unhealthy those expectations can be.

TPTTUK: What are the biggest issues in the theatre industry today? Is your work combating them?

IL: I hope I am – I’m trying to. So many of the issues in our industry have their roots in the lack of representation. I’ve already talked about how important it is to have a diversity of stories and that’s a big part of it, but the responsibility for that is at the feet of everyone, not just writers – It’s important to create opportunities for underrepresented people on the stage, but it’s worthless if those individuals are not in a position to take opportunities available to them because they can’t afford to work for low or no pay, for example, or if they couldn’t afford the outrageous drama school audition [fee] in the first place. I have no idea how to fix that with unpaid work being the foundation for any career (certainly mine) and so much the norm.

Often, only people with strong financial support behind them can take full advantage of what’s out there. There are great one-off schemes, and great venues doing their part (like the Hope Theatre with their Equity house agreement on pay), but until the entire industry is a viable career option [for anyone], we won’t have a community that reflects the world we live in, and that’s the primary job of the arts.

TPTTUK: Isley Lynn fans are dying to know: what’s coming up next?

IL: I’ve been working with one of my absolute favourite actors on a one woman show that, if all goes well, should have a life at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and hopefully beyond. It’s about a English-Egyptian woman who takes up pole dancing when her husband leaves her for the revolution in Cairo. It’s going to be a unique perspective on the battle over women’s bodies and what that means when you have to navigate two very different worlds, when you’re not fully on one side or the other.

Skin a Cat runs 12 October – 5 November.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Skin A Cat, Vault Festival

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Without question, my best new writing discovery of 2015 was young writer Isley Lynn’s play Tether at Edinburgh Fringe. This surprising, diverse two-hander also made it into the top five of my Top 10 Shows of 2015 so I was excited to receive an invitation to her autobiographical play Skin A Cat at Vault Festival. Having been so blown away by Tether, I worried I would find her other work underwhelming, but Skin A Cat is driven by the same sort of quick-witted, emotionally honest characters on a path of discovery that Tether boasts. Skin A Cat’s not about sport, though. It’s a tale of a stubborn vagina and an epic journey of self-acceptance in a world obsessed with sex. Phenomenal performances and humour tell Alana’s struggle with vaginismus and vaginal penetration with refreshingly frank, honest writing.

Theatre (and Western culture) doesn’t shy away from heteronormative sex, but a main character that hates it due to a psychosexual disorder is most rare indeed. Beginning with her first period on holiday at age nine, we see Alana (Lydia Larson) navigate teenage sexual exploits, several boyfriends, university and her twenties as a heterosexual young woman who finds vaginal penetration excruciating to the point of impossible. Try as she might, it doesn’t happen and the older she gets, the more burdensome and upsetting her virginity becomes. Alana tells her story directly to the audience with support by the excellent Jessica Clark and Jassa Ahluwalia, who play everyone else she encounters along the way, sometimes on mics and sometimes in conventional dialogue scenes, seamlessly switching between the two styles. Larson’s fantastic, perky Alana is genuine, funny and grows up before the audience’s eyes; that and Lynn’s unfettered dialogue cause us to feel like we know her inside and out (#sorrynotsorry) at the end of the 90 minutes.

Lynn’s gift for dialogue and detailed characters within a cleverly framed style shines here, and is generally well supported by director Blythe Stewart. Despite the serious subject matter and the control vaginismus has over Alana’s life, Lynn and Stewart use humour delightfully and liberally in both the writing and staging. Sex, attempted sex and orgasms hilariously abound, along with poignancy, tenderness and dogged desperation. It’s a beautiful balance.

Holly Pigott’s set solely consists of a bed; the pressure of its associated activities dominates Alana’s life. Some of the costume choices puzzle, though. The dungarees that Clark and Ahluwalia wear are androgynous and childlike, and rather old fashioned. Larson wears layers of undergarments that creates a simultaneously sexy and exposing, and completely unsexy and concealing effect – a great manifestation of Alana’s inner conflict.

Skin A Cat evokes belly laughs and empathy, nostalgia and wonder. Though it raises awareness of a psychosexual condition, Lynn manages to not make this an “awareness” play. Instead, it’s a story about growing up, loving yourself and making friends with your body’s quirks. Excellent writing and committed performances in Skin A Cat prove Isley Lynn and the cast are ones to watch.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.