Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Lucy J Skilbeck: Joan

By | Published on Thursday 6 April 2017

If you are familiar with the output of theatre company Milk Presents, you’ll possibly have realised that their work has a tendency to explore gender issues. Their latest show is no exception, a telling of the life of Joan Of Arc starring drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson.
I think the show sounds amazing, and was keen to find out more so I put some questions to writer and director Lucy J Skilbeck.

CM: To begin with, can you tell us about the content of the show? Is it a straightforward telling of Joan of Arc’s life, or is there a twist?
LJS: The show plots Joan of Arc’s life, but ultimately I have cherry-picked the aspects of the story and parts of her life that best suit a version whereby all the men are presented as drag characters! Sometimes it is more interesting to explore truth than fact, perhaps. I’ve also edited some of the narrative, for example Joan Of Arc claimed to have been visited by three Saints – St. Michael, St. Catherine and St Margaret – for our story we follow Joan’s relationship with and adoration of St. Catherine. Our Joan is played by drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson, who has a gorgeous Rotherham accent.

CM: What made you want to create a show about Joan?
LJS: I was at a point in my life where I was questioning a lot of things and was looking through history for queer icons, artists, thinkers and key players, maybe to make sense of things. This is an impossible task, but I immediately found Joan and was fascinated by her. She is the child of a tenant farmer, as am I, and came from a tiny rural village. How did this girl end up turning the course of the 100 year war?? It’s insane! She wore male clothing at a time when it was absolutely not okay to do so. It felt like a perfect fit to have her story performed by a drag king.

CM: Did you do a lot of research into her life before writing the script?
LJS: Yes. I read and read, looked at art works of her, listened to songs written about her – she is an icon for many people and causes throughout history. She was perhaps manipulated in both life and after death, to this day.

CM: Why did you make its a one-person show rather than an ensemble piece?
LJS: It’s Joan’s story – I wrote it from her point of view and all the characters are her versions of them – the way she sees them. This makes her more powerful and also more fun. Practically, the show is built to exist in pubs, clubs, schools, community centres – a single performer makes this much more feasible. Mainly however, Joan is a single force to be reckoned with – she’s more than capable of playing everyone in her story!

CM: As you mentioned at the start, Lucy Jane Parkinson, aka Louis Cypher, is performing the show. How did she get involved with the project?
LJS: I regularly hang out at drag king nights, and back in 2015, when I began writing the show, the scene was much smaller than it is now but there were still plenty of exciting clubs, bars and events showcasing amazing drag kings. Finding the right performer for such a specific project took a little while. They needed skill, charisma and almost more importantly, authenticity – they needed to understand the gender-play, the nuances and difficulties in the text first hand. I ended up getting a recommendation from a drag queen friend who told me LoUis CYfer is exactly who you need. We met in She Bar Soho and that was that.

CM: How different does it feel to direct a production of your own script from directing other writers’ work?
LJS: I’ve just finished directing two Chekhov shorts at the Young Vic – this was really rewarding, especially moulding our own take on the plays. Directing your own script is different because you have many heads on during the process – you are facilitating the room as a director, mining and unlocking the text as a director, but also shaping, rewriting and developing the script as you go. I love directing other people’s scripts, but nothing beats the freedom of forging ahead with your own words.

CM: Milk Presents as a company seem to veer towards subjects that explore gender. What is the motivation for that?
LJS: All of our shows have explored gender, although without us making this explicit early on. We make work that explores the questions and uncertainties we have about the world and ourselves – this happens to be about gender. In pubs, clubs and queer spaces there are dialogues, incredible performance and fun conversations to be had – I’d like to explore these with a wide audience. Personally my gender isn’t an easy fit for me, until I understand it I will probably keep making work that tries to.

CM: How did the company come together? Who is involved and what are your aims?
LJS: Milk Presents is named after my family’s milk round business! We are associate artists of Derby Theatre and the Bush Theatre. The company is run by producer Ruby Glaskin, performer/production manager Adam Robertson and myself. We met at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and formed in 2011. There’s this big, messy, wonderful and complicated thing we call gender – our work aims to explore that in a way that is accessible. It’s like a protest and a celebration.

CM: What is coming up next for the company?
LJS: Joan is about to kick off an exciting couple of weeks at Oval House and we’re curating a queer dance party cabaret as part of ‘Macho’ at the Welcome Collection. Currently we are developing a new show named ‘Bullish’ – exploring the minotaur myth – it’s a feisty and fun and will be at Camden People’s Theatre for three weeks Sept 2017.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
LJS: I’m drafting ‘Bullish’ plus making a photography exhibition and three mini films. All will feature Trans, non-binary and queer people, artists and thinkers – I reckon Joan would approve…

‘Joan’ is on at Ovalhouse from 11-22 Apr, see the venue website here for more.

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