Playwright Penelope Skinner: who says nobody's interested in older women?

In her latest play, the writer has put the focus on a middle-aged female – and that’s still all too rare, she says

Penelope Skinner
Sunday 22 November 2015 17:13
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Penelope Skinner, British playwright, came to prominence after her play Fucked was first produced in 2008 at the Old Red Lion Theatre and the Edinburgh Festival
Penelope Skinner, British playwright, came to prominence after her play Fucked was first produced in 2008 at the Old Red Lion Theatre and the Edinburgh Festival

About 10 years ago, during a conversation with a friend, he made the following statement: “The thing is, no one is really interested in women in their fifties”. At the time I didn’t work as a writer, and I can’t remember the exact context, although I think it was something to do with roles on television. But over the years that comment has stayed with me. It played on my mind when I read about the dismissals of Arlene Phillips and Miriam O’Reilly from Strictly Come Dancing and Countryfile. And it has nagged away at me again when hearing actresses like Harriet Walter, Julie Walters and Kristen Scott Thomas speaking out about the lack of roles for older women in drama. It is a situation that, according to Glenda Jackson, doesn’t seem to have improved much over the two decades since she quit acting to pursue a career in politics. Recently, on her comeback to the profession, she lamented to a newspaper: “Why don’t creative people find women interesting?”

In 2012, while I was working on a project at the National Theatre Studio, I overheard a well-known senior actress talking about just this issue. It was then that I decided to write a play focused on a woman over 50, a germ of an idea that would eventually turn into my new play Linda, which opens at the Royal Court next week. However, past that initial spark of inspiration, I initially struggled. I settled on 55 as the age of my protagonist. But how to represent this narrative, I wondered? Could I, now in my thirties, do justice to the concerns of women like those who were speaking out against the ageism and discrimination they had suffered?

Then someone pointed out (reassuringly) that Arthur Miller was only 34 when he wrote Death of a Salesman, while his protagonist Willy Loman is 63. I tried to remember that my character Linda does not have to represent all women, or to be some kind of perfect vessel for the concerns of every single woman in her fifties, or older. I started to allow her to be flawed and imperfect – in other words, human.

Linda works for a fictional beauty company, and is trying to start a campaign to make older women feel more visible; her objective is to expand our culture’s concept of beauty. I felt it might be useful to place the story in a world which is full of potential contradictions, to explore what it’s like for a woman who has a very public agenda, whose private feelings might not always marry up with her “politics”. Linda fiercely believes in making women feel beautiful “despite their flaws”, but her own beauty regime is tireless and extensive. And although this is not an issue piece, her crusade enabled me to articulate some of the questions which had led me to write the play in the first place.

I also wanted the play to incorporate the question of “the market”, since so often under-representation of particular groups, be that according to gender, age, race or sexuality, is excused in those terms. The dropping of Miriam O’Reilly took place when the show moved to a primetime slot; the assumption of BBC executives was that an older woman wasn’t a desirable presence for a wider audience. But decisions like this aren’t based on objective truth; they are based on prejudice. After all, in an ageing population, a significant and growing percentage of the market are those older women.

And this misconceived notion of the market similarly governs the worlds of stage and screen – and who is allowed to be the protagonist of the stories we are offered. Most of us are probably familiar by now with the idea that there is a certain type of character – white, with a penis – who is deemed universal, while others render a story specific to their own audience. Recent research into children’s literature, which found a huge disparity between female and male character representation, suggests that this persistent trend could be down to what children’s author Melvyn Burgess has described as a “truism in publishing that girls will read books that have boy heroes, whereas boys won’t read books that have girl heroes”.

I am interested in what happens to us as humans when we do not see ourselves reflected by the prevailing narrative of our culture. Or when we see ourselves reflected only in certain narrow ways, for example as the young beautiful love interest, or the drug dealer, or the nerd. When I was first writing Linda, I spoke to a market researcher who works in the beauty industry. She told me that one major concern that older women express in focus groups is that they disappear completely from the prevailing narrative; this resonated with what Harriet Walter and the other actresses had been saying. But she also said they spoke of feeling that they had stopped being the protagonist of their own lives, that life is happening around them. I tried to incorporate this idea structurally into Linda. Unlike a more conventional protagonist, who drives the plot, Linda finds things start to happen around her, and the harder she tries to make things happen, the worse things get for her.

We are all the protagonist of our own lives. Who else is there? And perhaps this is why we long to see or read stories which reflect us most accurately: we want to measure our individual struggle in the wider political culture, we want to know we are not alone. But we also all share core concerns: love, relationships, heartbreak, parents, children, so on. Therefore surely we all have the potential to identify with any protagonist? We could stop underestimating the capacity of our own imaginations. And surely, if we accept that any protagonist can be universal, then we also open ourselves up to learning about each other, as well as identifying with each other, all at the same time. I hope that this will come to be appreciated by the people who are taking those big decisions about what we watch or read: the commissioners, the programmers, the book publishers, the film studios. I hope that decision makers are opening their minds to the concept of what or who a protagonist can be, regardless of prejudices about market or audience. And I hope that when people watch Linda, they remember to identify with Linda, first and foremost. Because she is the main part.

‘Linda’ by Penelope Skinner is at the Royal Court Theatre from 26 November – 9 January 2016. www.royalcourttheatre.com

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