Writing and performing in Schism three years ago, put Writer, Athena Stevens on the map and now she’s back with a new show, Scrounger. Here, she talks about the expectations put on marginalised creatives and how, despite what we’re told, solo shows aren’t necessarily the easiest of things to carve out.
In the recesses of the internet there’s an often-shared video of Alan Rickman sharing what he believes acting is (or isn’t) –
“So the notion of an actor going away and looking at a speech alone, in their bedroom, at night, is complete nonsense to me… All I want to see, from an actor… is the intensity and accuracy of their listening.”
– and yet if, like me, you are on the outside of theatre’s ‘norms’; something other than the cis-white male who is in the fortunate financial position not to need income for a few months, you are told again and again to make your own work. Write a solo show, they say, like Fleabag or Misty – something that you can invite agents to and watch the work roll in. Hey, it worked for Phoebe! As a woman with a disability, this recommendation usually comes with a suggestion: I should make a solo show. I’m funny and I write well, and enough drama has happened in my life. Plus, if it’s a solo show the budget will be low enough because you aren’t paying other actors, so you could take it on tour and to libraries and community centres!
When I sat down to write my new show, Scrounger, I sat down to write a solo show. It was time, I told myself. I was in a privileged position as a writer after Schism, which started at the Finborough in 2016, before transferring to the Park Theatre. Look at Phoebe! Do yourself a favour. Solo shows are all the rage right now. Everyone wants you to write a solo show. You’ve earned enough status to get something out of doing a solo show. Go on you.
Then it occurred to me: there wouldn’t be anyone onstage to listen to.
The reason why I’m an actor is because I have a deep-seated desire to do everything possible to pull the talent and stories of those with disabilities into mainstream commercial theatre. Yup, I said ‘mainstream’ and ‘commercial’ – two words that artists from the margins might dream about, but often feel very far away from when a small solo show is launched on the fringes. We all start somewhere, no doubt. But a solo show, by definition, is not about integrating theatre. Who are you listening to? What other performers are you inviting to engage in your story? If you intend to create a solo show simply due to budget constraints (or other practical considerations), are you challenging integration within the arts, or encouraging separation?
I’m not willing to say performing an hour-and-whatever-long monologue isn’t acting. There’s any number of thoughts or moments an actor can find to ‘listen’ to. But solo shows – creating a world where one person can sit on their own and tell a story, isn’t the theatre I want to write. Solo shows are the solution we quickly offer marginalised voices precisely because the industry has yet to learn how to equally integrate talent from the margins. I don’t know about you, but a lack of equality never struck me as a very good reason to scale back my writing.
In the end, Scrounger was a two-hander. I know, I know. You can roll your eyes at me. A cast of two isn’t much more revolutionary than a cast of one. However, our extraordinary Leigh Quinn plays nearly thirty characters. A feat that is well beyond any of the talents I have on my CV. I had to have someone to listen to onstage – many people, actually. Writing about systematic discrimination, which is the basis of the storyline for Scrounger, means that you have to show the vastness of the system. A system is created by people who, regardless of whether they mean to or not, are acting to keep the status quo, rather than having the fortitude to demand equality as it should be.