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Writing Women, as a Woman

A blog by guest writer and musical theatre maker Freya Catrin Smith

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Freya Catrin Smith is the Norwich based, founder of Bottle Cap Theatre, a company whose work is largely women led and focuses on stories about women. We met Freya in September when she was our first official artist working within our new artist development structure – using Stage Two to R&D a new piece of musical theatre. It felt only right that we should ask her to be the first contributor to our Women in Theatre blog series by joining us as a guest writer and sharing her views.

In September 2021 I was lucky to spend a week at Norwich Theatre Royal as part of their Women in Theatre season, developing a new musical I am writing called ECHOES, which is about a romantic relationship between two women.

I am a musical theatre writer, and along with my writing partner Jack Williams, I create new musicals, working out the initial concept and idea and then drafting and refining the book (script), music and lyrics. Our company – Bottle Cap Theatre – prioritises telling female stories, and our two most recent shows RIDE and THE LIMIT, have each focused on an extraordinary and forgotten woman from history.

I am obsessive about musical theatre – and never tire of talking about it, which those near and dear to me are well aware of! – but over the years I have noticed a lack of complex and flawed female characters in musicals. Of course there are exceptions, but more often than not I leave shows feeling disappointed with the way women are represented on stage. Did you know, for instance, that Hamilton only passes the Bechdel test due to one line? One line! Turns out Eliza, Angelica (and Peggy!) really do just sing about men for the majority of the show.

I can’t help but see a correlation between the way these women are written and who’s doing the writing. Historically, musical theatre creative teams have been dominated by men (like everything else, then), and while over the last decade we have seen some beautiful shows emerge from female teams (Fun Home for instance), female writers remain a minority. So, by being a woman and writing complex, layered female protagonists, I can try to kill two birds with one stone.

In 2019 I co-wrote THE LIMIT, a musical about self-taught mathematician and forgotten genius Sophie Germain, who disguised herself as a man to attend the local university (being a woman in revolutionary France, she was not allowed to pursue education). We combined Sophie’s story with a purposely anachronistic pop/rock score. One advantage of there being so little documented history of women like Sophie is that we have creative freedom to fill in the blanks when it comes to character. So we made our Sophie inquisitive (which she no doubt was!), funny, bold and reckless. This rashness, though, was really her only flaw. And it’s not exactly that bad a flaw – it’s actually kind of enviable in some respects. I had whet my appetite with one – minor – character flaw. And I wanted more. I wanted to find a female character dripping with flaws.

Enter Annie Londonderry, a Latvian Jewish American immigrant who in 1894 abandoned her husband and children to try and become the first woman to cycle around the world. I often refer to Annie as “cyclist and fantasist” as while she did do a lot of cycling on her trip, she was also rather partial to trains and boats. She also lied about who she was at every opportunity, coming up with more outlandish stories as she went: she was a Harvard graduate, a doctor, a lawyer. She was charismatic as hell, and – in our show RIDE, in which she is the protagonist – she is mean. She reels people in and then pushes them away. But at 24, she had already faced unthinkable tragedies, and as a Jewish immigrant living in Boston’s slums, she was denied opportunities that her skills and intelligence warranted. This was exactly the kind of woman I wanted to see portrayed on stage: funny, erratic, layered, lovable, charming, cruel. Hopefully, in RIDE, which is now in development with West End producers Deus Ex Machina, we did her justice.

While we have worked on historical female protagonists previously, with ECHOES we are turning our attention to the present day and creating characters from scratch, with no source material to work with. This will definitely pose some new challenges! Over the course of my residency at Norwich Theatre Royal I worked on the show’s structure (something that, for me, needs to feel strong and sturdy before I dive into writing) and sowed the seeds for two songs, which have since been completed and performed at The Garrick in London’s West End as part of Adam Lenson Productions’ and Aria Entertainment’s Chamber Musical Sessions.

I hope that by writing women as a woman, I can contribute to the creation and breadth of complex, diverse and relatable female characters in musicals, and inspire other girls and women in the process.

I’d like to say a massive thank you to Norwich Theatre Royal for their support over the course of this residency.

– Freya Catrin Smith

 

Click here to view our Women in Theatre season.

Photo: RIDE, Bronté Barbé and Gemma Sutton. Photo by The Other Richard.