BWW Interview: Robyn Grant Talks BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at King's Head Theatre
Robyn Grant is a writer, performer, and the Artistic Director of Fat Rascal Theatre, whose aim is to create feminist musical theatre. Beauty and the Beast, a reimagined and gender-swapped version of the classic tale, plays at King's Head Theatre from 11 December.
Did you go to the theatre when you were young?
It sounds really clichéd, but I've always watched theatre. I started going to all the pantomimes and musicals when I was four or five, I put on shows with my friends, that kind of thing. I was a very annoying and pretentious little child. I always wanted to do it, so I feel very lucky that I am doing it now.
What was the first show you remember seeing?
We used to go see the panto every year, so that's probably the biggest memory of early theatre for me. I used to go to the brilliant pantomimes in Leeds and they'd always have fantastic characters. It was a kind of weird comedy, which I always liked. I remember I saw Wicked in the West End with Idina Menzel - that was my first real musical. So yeah, I used to see a lot of theatre; my mum used to take me because she knew I loved it.
What led you to pursue theatre professionally?
I used to want to be a vet - I love animals, I'm obsessed! But I've never been really good at sitting down and being academic, and obviously being a vet means spending seven years at uni. Theatre was what I really wanted to do, but if I had to do anything else I'd want to work with animals. Anyway, it always seemed like the obvious path to me.
Did you train?
I went to college and then to East 15, where I did acting in contemporary theatre - which was amazing, it focuses on creating theatre-makers. I knew I wanted to act but I wanted to make theatre too. I had my own theatre company when I was back in Yorkshire - even then I knew that I didn't want to wait for the phone to ring, I wanted to create.
The course is really wonderful because you do writing, directing, you create companies and new work. There's a lot of comedy, devising, improvising, which is exactly what I want to do. I got coached on writing by Charlotte Josephine and Leo Butler, which is pretty awesome.
Do you have a writing process? How do you choose what to work on?
I write about what interests me at the time, and it always comes from a place of self. My life is like a British sitcom - every single day something embarrassingly awful happens to me, so I write it down. A lot of my plays and characters come from myself and something that interests me massively.
An example is the history of the vibrator and zombies; I write what I love and I write what I want to watch, and it kind of spirals from there, but I always try to keep it close to myself and my own comedy. I also write about what I'm passionate about, so I will always write strong female characters, I will always write better parts for women, I will always write from a place of Northern humour, because that's where I'm rooted.
You're a performer as well - do you prefer acting or writing?
This is a tough one. I prefer each on different days. I can't imagine just acting or just writing, they're both massive parts of my life. They go hand in hand now for me.
One thing you love about acting? One thing you hate about it?
I absolutely love performing, especially comedy. I love for something I wrote to get laughs. One thing I hate about it would be the constant paranoia about your health. It sounds weird but when I'm doing a show for a month I spend the whole time worrying I'm going to lose my voice or get ill. It's more the panic of that, but generally I love everything about it - the madness of it, that atmosphere is what I get off on.
What about writing?
I love having complete control of the way something goes. I love being able to completely shape a show. I write very much for the stage - I wouldn't give it over to someone else to do it for me, I visualise it all the time. It feels like you become the god of the piece. The thing I dislike about it would be related to the fact that I'm a perfectionist. Nothing is ever done to me, things don't feel complete. I hate that panic, but I also enjoy it.
Do you find it hard to stop writing then?
I think that's where being an actor really helps. Being a performer, I'm always in the rehearsal room, and because I work closely with other actors, if something's not working for them we can talk about it and change it straightaway. We can normally get to a point where I'm generally happy with what's going on, but I do find it hard to stop tweaking.
It comes to a point where you've got to, but I will always have a list of ideas that I want to try the next time we take the show somewhere. I think that's natural and good; anybody who settles for their work isn't a good writer, you've got to keep striving to do and be better, to see how the audience reacts and make it funnier, quicker, sharper. I think that's what I enjoy about it as well: you're always learning. Projects change and that's what I love about contemporary theatre - it allows you to change and move.
Tell us about the genesis of Beauty and the Beast
I wrote it with a great actor called Daniel Elliot - we knew we wanted to write a Christmas show and we came up with loads of ideas. We'd recently seen the new film with Emma Watson and we were having a chat about the fact that there were loads of articles saying what a feminist masterpiece it was.
As far as I could see, she was still a girl between two strong, fit men. Great, lucky her! But was it a feminist masterpiece? I don't think so. Oh, she can read a book and she made a washing machine out of a donkey and a barrel! Oh my goodness, isn't she clever!
We wanted to look at how it would be the other way around - would it work? People are so quick to accept that this beautiful girl would fall in love with, essentially, a big bear. People watch it and think it's romantic, they're not laughing at it, which wouldn't happen the other way around. Women are never allowed to be flawed. The gorgeous man would never fall in love with the flawed woman, especially if she's literally a big, hideous beast.
Was it hard to gender-swap the show?
It's been quite easy, actually. By gender-swapping the whole show, first we realised how few female characters there are, because us girls have so much to do now and the boys don't. But also, it's immediately a comedy because it's so unbelievable. We're not changing much besides the gender-swapping - obviously we tried to make it funnier, but we didn't have to work to make the show interesting.
We're not trying to hit it on the head; I want the audience to take what they want from it. It's immediately shocking and interesting to see these two very strong women and this weak man interact. It's immediately funny.
Did you have to make any major changes?
With it being a parody, a lot of the songs are quite close to the originals, while others are brand new. We're trying to make it relevant to a contemporary audience, so a lot of the humour is mixed up. Where you'd have "Be Our Guest", now we have "Have a Brunch".
With our beast character, we're exploring how she'd feel about admitting defeat or whether she finds something stronger inside her. We're exploring what it'd be like for a boy to be gentle and sweet. For example, I have a big problem with Belle at the beginning: you live in a poor town, of course the baker is making bread! We point out details that you might not have noticed to show how ridiculous the whole thing is.
What makes it a Christmas show?
Beauty and the Beast always has a christmassy vibe. It's a classic, a romance, and there's a castle in the snow. We didn't want to do something that's on the head of Christmas, I think pantomime is quite tired now - so many people hate it. I personally quite enjoy it, but when we did it last year we had a lot of people moaning. People know what to expect from that, it's cheap laughs.
At the end of the day panto is often quite sexist and the best female part is played by a man, and then there's a princess who's rescued by lots of boys. We're not a Christmas musical, but it does feel like a nice, warm, winter romance. We're basically the antidote to traditional pantomime - we want to appeal to young people and to those who aren't represented in traditional panto.
How does having the boy falling in love with an ugly girl change the dynamic of the show?
In so many films we see beautiful girls cast opposite the less attractive man - everyone's fine with it. It would be so if it happened the other way around too, but it doesn't. The only time it does it's Shallow Hal, which is a quite disgusting film, where Gwyneth Paltrow is in a massive fat suit, or Hairspray, or Ugly Betty. They're all drop-dead gorgeous, and it's like OMG, a boy liking a girl with braces, or who's not a size 8, oh my!
It's such a huge thing and it's so disgusting when you look at it. What kind of message does it give out? It's gross and you see it as well in our society. It's weird when you see an older woman with a younger man - it's the same thing and it's all about vanity.
It's not allowing men to go after women for their personality. The second you swap it, it becomes completely unbelievable and it's a comedy. Also allowing the male character to be weak and gentle and artistic without him being gay, exploring the weaker side of a man and allowing the power swap, becomes a massive exploration of gender.
Doing that with such a traditional fairy tale everybody knows is really interesting. The audience will question how they think about gender because it's something we've always accepted.
You explore looks and power too - how do you think these features play in our society?
There's a certain kind of confidence that comes with being a powerful man, whether it's strength, or upbringing, or money - it makes them feel entitled to beautiful women. It's something that we don't have; we're raised to feel insecure, and as if we have to find a way to be worthy of a man.
We're constantly judging ourselves and each other for our looks. I had people saying "Oh, he's a bit too good-looking for her" while walking along and seeing a couple. You're constantly judging the woman, and there's always so much more in men. You get it from when you're a child: you see a little boy and he's funny, or clever, then you see a little girl and she's beautiful, a princess.
Then at drama school it would be the same thing: when you do something good the men are brave, funny, daring, exploring, with the girls it's always about beauty. This language is engrained in us from when we're babies, the way we're forced into pretty clothes while boys wear things they can climb trees in.
It's a different way of valuing a human. The traits that we deem worthy for a man are his being charismatic, funny, rich, powerful, whereas in a woman it's all about looks. Men don't go for women because they're funny, I get it constantly.
What kinds of conversations did you have with your actors about swapping gender?
It's been quite hard getting them to play the characteristics rather than the gender. For example, when you say to a woman that she needs to play strong, confident, brave, outgoing, ambitious, self-assured, suddenly she takes the features that stand for man, she lowers her voice, she pushes back her shoulders.
You have to remind her that she needs to play that as a woman. When you say to a man that he needs to play soft, artistic, gentle, sweet, romantic, he immediately tosses his hair and skips around speaking in a high voice, doing a pantomime of a woman. We need to find these features as our own gender - it's been really interesting.
So, why should people come to see the show?
I think we're going to be the most different show out there. It will be loads of fun, really silly, but you'll leave feeling empowered, wanting to talk about these issues. It has great music, a great set, costumes, it's a story you know and enjoy, but at the same time it's a whole new spin.
Men are not going to feel jabbed at, women are not going to be angry. It's an exploration of gender that we do together. We want to inspire and empower people while they have a good laugh.
Any future projects?
We have a show called Buzz, which is a musical about the story of the vibrator. We're back in development after two years of taking it places, and we're going on tour with it soon. We're making the show bigger while it's tucked away for a year, but it's massively exciting!
Then we're going on a spring UK tour with Tom and Bunny Save the World, which is a comedy with zombies and folk music. We try to put women in roles that would usually be associated with men in traditional zombie films, so we have a female scientist, a female soldier, and then like a female comedian and sexual instigator.
And we allow our men to be the softer souls, which is really fun. Then I think we're going back to Edinburgh, but I'm not sure with what yet. An exciting year ahead!
Any advice for young writers and performers?
For writers, always write from your own self, write what you know, what you love, what interests you and you can never go wrong. Don't knock yourself down.
For actors who think about starting to write, don't think you need a degree in English, don't think you need an extraordinary vocabulary. You don't. You just need to be interested and interesting - you will create amazing work.
Don't be afraid of making your own stuff. This industry is hard - don't wait to be cast, especially if you're a woman. Go for it, do it! If you love it, other people will too.
Beauty and the Beast at King's Head Theatre 11 December-6 January, 2018