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Theatre interview: Naomi Westerman on co-writing, feminist twists and having a play at #VaultFestival

Actress and writer Naomi has two plays at London's Vault Festival, here she talks about Double Infemnity which she co-wrote with Jennifer Cerys and Catherine O'Shea.

Naomi westermanDouble Infemnity is described as a 'feminist interpretation of crime noir’. Given the exposure of inequality and the treatment of women working in the creative and entertainment industries in recent months, how much do you think the landscape has shifted? 

This is a great question. The landscape has massively shifted over the past few months; what counts is making sure this leads to real and lasting change.

Although I have always been aware of the issues surrounding gender inequality and harassment in theatre (that's a large part of why I founded a female theatre company Little but Fierce) the events of the last few months have made me question just how much I took that inequality for granted, and how powerless I felt when confronted by it.

I had some very negative experiences as an actress where I felt I had no recourse other than to walk away. I'm proud of Little but Fierce and all we've achieved, but all-female work is sometimes at risk of being ghettoised within the mainstream theatre industry, and it's a shame mainstream work is still sometimes an unsafe or exploitative place for women.

The responsibility shouldn't be on women to police an industry that marginalises them. I do think society and the entertainment industry are waking up to the potential and commercial and artistic power of female-led stories, and I believe we will reach gender parity.

What part did it play in inspiring the piece and what else inspired you co-writers Jennifer Cerys and Catherine O'Shea?
I came up with the idea for Double Infemnity last summer, when I was working on several wonderful but quite stressful writing commissions. I wanted to create something without those pressures where I could write whatever I wanted, that was fun and bolshy.

Then #MeToo happened, and the play felt much more urgent. I and my co-writers Jennifer Cerys and Catherine O'Shea were writing the play while the Weinstein and Spacey (et al) scandals were happening, and that definitely influenced the play.

Double Infemnity is quite comedic but there's a sharp satire belying the anger that our main character feels. We researched the period and the noir genre, but a lot was inspired by our own experiences: objectification; sexism in the workplace; double standards; period cramps...

Copy of Double Indemnity - Main ImageWhich other genres do you think are particularly ripe for a feminist interpretation?
All of them. Equality has to be fought for on all fronts. Not everyone responds well to something labelled as explicitly feminist, but strong, multi-layered female leads are becoming more the norm now across the industry.

For example I'm currently watching The Night Manager (because I'm ridiculously late to things), and I love how it subverts gender norms in having the suave glamorous man who dodges bad guys in exotic locations be just a guy who works in a hotel, while the real super spy is a pregnant woman in a cardigan.

The Night Manager wasn't sold or labelled as a "feminist interpretation" of the spy genre, but it still challenges perceptions. More of that, and more of overtly feminist stuff. But specifically, I'd love to see a feminist western.

What difference does it make to the writing process when it's a joint project?
Co-writing can be difficult unless you're really on the same page, which fortunately we were. We discussed the plot and characters and created a rough outline, then each wrote a third of the scenes, then combined the scenes into one document and each took it in turns to edit it.

Writing can be lonely, so having other writers to share and bounce ideas around with is invaluable.

Double Infemnity is playing at the Vault Festival, how important are festivals like this for new writers, new writing and theatre-makers?
Vault Festival is an extraordinary thing, and has helped so many emerging artists. Edinburgh is so expensive and commercial, and there are so few places for theatre-makers to showcase and try out new work without a major financial gamble. It's a real privilege to be able to hand a script to a mainstream theatre and know that it's in safe hands, but with festivals like Vault you have a rare level of creative control, and a supportive environment that fosters collaboration.

Any advice for budding playwrights?
Read as many plays as you can. Watch as many plays as you can. Write what you want to write. Be truthful. Don't try to write what you think people want. But mostly just write. And redraft. Anyone can write a first draft; to be a writer you have to be disciplined or passionate or crazy enough to stick with one story through an infinite number of redrafts.

And finally, why should people come and see Double Infemnity?
It's funny, it's pretty cool, it'll ring true for anyone who's ever been a woman in a male-dominated area, it has a woman using a sanitary product as an escape tool, and it has Brad Pitt in it unless he reads this interview and sues us first.

Double Infemnity is at the Vault Festival from 31 January to 4 February and Naomi's second play ZINA runs from 21-25 February.

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