“Billy the Girl is about a young woman returning home to her family. To her mother and her sister after being in prison for some time, probably a year. It’s not the first time that she’s been in prison but I think on this occasion something has shifted for her. She genuinely wants to change her life. And she genuinely wants to get to the heart of the things that might be standing in her way.” At the heart of Katie Hims’s description of her new play for Clean Break lies a situation that may have been – or may in the future be – familiar to many of us. Returning home, seeking change and absolution, fearing the past cannot be forgotten: it’s the cross many of us bear. But of course for this particular young woman in Hims’s play, the stakes are particularly high. “I think while she was serving her sentence she’s done some reading, possibly been involved in some kind of short self awareness/mindfulness training. And she’s come out of prison with a plan. A plan that involves running and positive thinking. And the plan isn’t perfect, isn’t perfect at all but that doesn’t automatically mean it will fail.”
Broadly, Clean Break works with women whose lives have been affected by the criminal justice system, giving voice to their stories and finding the natural drama in the grittiness of life. Hims first worked with Clean Break’s Head of Artistic Programme Lucy Morrison at Paines Plough and, given their previous work together, a Clean Break collaboration may have seemed inevitable. On the contrary, Hims admits, “Lucy asked me if I was interested in writing a play for the company and initially I wasn’t sure! The commission involves spending some time leading writing workshops in prisons and I was really nervous about this aspect of the job. I find running writing workshops quite nerve-wracking anyway, and I was also nervous about going into prison and saying or doing the wrong thing. I can’t remember now exactly why I changed my mind and said yes. I think in the end I felt quite strongly that actually I really wanted to do it despite my anxieties. And in fact I completely loved the workshops. In HMP Holloway we wrote a radio play using writing from the whole group which then went on to win a Koestler Gold award.”
This particular achievement seems like a natural progression for Hims, who has carved out a reputation for herself as a prolific radio writer with countless commissions under her belt. When I ask her about the transition between writing for radio and writing for theatre, she points out the positive as a writer – “the actors in radio don’t have to learn the script. You can make changes up until the last moment of recording the last line” – but also the drawbacks. She explains, “Radio is funny because it goes out on the airwaves and sometimes it’s like you dreamed that you ever wrote that piece of work. I mean you don’t sit with an audience and experience the listener experiencing the play like you do when you’re sitting in the theatre. In that sense radio is a lot less exposing. But I think there’s a real downside to that as well. Unless people get in touch with you – which of course they sometimes do – you never know what people made of the work or whether they enjoyed it.” Hims openly admits, “I find writing radio a lot easier than writing theatre and I really don’t know why that is. Except that I’ve had a lot more practice at it.”
But she certainly embraced the challenge by writing Billy the Girl, currently playing at Soho Theatre. It’s not been an easy process for Hims and she openly describes how “Lucy Morrison has been particularly patient with this piece as it was quite slow to evolve and I was slow to nail the story down.” A successful relationship between writer and director is always key to any piece of work, particularly when the material is as potentially difficult and delicate as the stories Clean Break seeks to tell. “It’s always good talking to the director about what you’re writing because most of the time you’re alone talking to yourself! And I think stories improve in the telling. So if I try and tell the story of the play to someone, to the director or anyone else, then I think that story gets better because usually you can hear what might be wrong, either that or the listener will point it out to you.” Communication is at the core of the potency of drama and for Hims, that goes beyond her and Morrison. With its heritage of workshops in prisons, Clean Break’s work is by its nature fundamentally collaborative. “I think being involved in the casting process is crucial and it’s really fantastic to be in rehearsals. To hear what’s working and what’s not. To hear what the actors have to say. What they feel is missing. What they would like to add or to change. [But] at some point there is also a relief in handing the play over and saying to the director – it’s yours now!”
And now it is yours – the audience’s – as well. What does Hims hope people will take from the show? “In some ways all I want is that the audience is sufficiently entertained! I think theatre should be first and foremost entertaining because if it isn’t it hasn’t got a hope of being anything else. Who is going to be educated or inspired by something that is boring them? I do also very much hope that people feel an optimism for Billy, in fact for all the characters in the play.” With such heart at its core, it’s hard to imagine that Billy the Girl could fail to deliver.
Billy the Girl plays at Soho Theatre until 24 November. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/billy-the-girl/.
For more information about Clean Break, visit www.cleanbreak.org.uk.
Image Credit: Helen Maybanks