Ashleigh Laurence chats to us about her show Tumours in the lead up to it's Edinburgh run...
What is Tumours all about?
So the show is a one-woman, northern, dark comedy about a young woman called Jay. She’s just about to turn 28 and is convinced she’s going to die and join the 27 Club. She has some rational reasoning for this as her family genepool is cursed with cancer and she lost her mum to it as a teenager, hence why dying of cancer makes sense in her head. But a lot of it is pretty irrational and is about her struggling to make sense of the world that she’s been brought up in.
Where did the inspiration for the play come from?
In the space of three years, I had three smear tests, two colposcopies (a camera’s inserted up your vagina to look at your cervix) and a LLETZ treatment (where pre-cancerous cells are burnt off your cervix). My family line is riddled with female cancers and I had a meeting with a geneticist about the likelihood that myself, my sister and my female cousins will develop breast or a gynaecological cancer. It’s background noise to my life if I’m honest; I think about it a lot and get quite paranoid and sometimes, totally resolute that it’s how I’ll die. So all that developed into writing a character who’s absolutely certain that this is how she’ll go and, because her mum loved the music of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison etc, becomes obsessed by the idea of joining the 27 Club.
What did you find most challenging about writing the show?
The first iteration was written for Maiden Speech festival 2018 and it was a really difficult time for me because, along with general artist/London struggles, I was also going through the whole Smear Test process which was intense. The initial pitch was actually about someone else’s experience with cancer but I found I couldn’t have my head in their experiences with the disease whilst facing the chances I might have it myself. Time became really tight and I was struggling to find any inspiration for the show that fit the remits of the pitch that Maiden Speech had accepted, so I had to look within and go from there. So yeah, I’d say finding inspiration and getting the thing written within the time frame whilst my personal life was turbulent was the most challenging thing!
How has the show evolved since it’s run at Maiden Speech last year? (If at all)
Oh god, it’s so much darker than it was! Myself and Chris Yarnell (director) have done a lot of thinking and talking since I last performed it and we’re really nailing down exactly why Jay, not only believes she’ll join the 27 Club, but really wants to. I think this iteration will be a more sophisticated and tied-together version of what people saw in December. We’re still working on a shoe-string budget but the justification behind Jay’s actions are all making so much more sense and actually, that’s now changing her relationship with the audience which is very exciting!
How are you feeling about taking the show to Edinburgh?
I’m absolutely bricking it! It’s the first time I’ve ever been to the Fringe and I really feel like it’s this mad enigma that I just can’t be prepared for until I’m there. We’ve got a fab venue and they’ve really been so supportive, as have my director and producer who have both been numerous times so that’s brilliant. I am obviously excited too but it’s a very overwhelming thing - especially with the 1000s of people incessantly promoting their shows on social media, you never feel like you’re doing enough - and because I can’t see it in my head, I’m just like, what the hell have I got myself in for?!
What did you set out to achieve when you wrote the piece?
Well one thing I wanted to talk about is how fucked up the female reproductive system is and what it’s like to be a woman who routinely gets their vaginas prodded and, quite frankly, violated. I mean, it’s such a weird area! Sometimes you’re having the most amazing sex and it feels incredible, the next thing you know, you’ve got horrendous period pains (that are as painful as a heart attack) or some dude snipping a bit of your cervix off which leaves you feeling like you’ve been punched for the rest of the week. The stigma and level of ignorance around this stuff is crazy so, if we can start getting people (you know who I’m talking ‘bout) understanding or even women feeling like they can talk about it openly, that would be nice.
Also, the fear that some women feel around smear tests is very real and very understandable so, although Tumours isn’t a direct call to action, if it can serve as a reminder for women to book in for their smears, that would be brilliant. They saved my life, so it feels right to spread the word.
Do you feel as if you have achieved this?
Yes and no. I’m seeing a lot of progress within the fringe level of theatre with people taking shit into their own hands and starting up festivals or theatre companies and that’s amazing. I spend a lot of time at places like the Soho Theatre and it’s really easy to be like, ‘omg yes, things are changing, this is amazing!’ but actually, when you look at the bigger theatres, the writers rooms, the cinema etc, the gender imbalance (and with that, age imbalance) is still there in a huge way and there are unconscious biases that still very much exist. We’ve still got a long way to go.
Do you think the arts industry’s view of women is changing? If so, how?
There needs to be waaaay more education/access to the arts for young people all around the country and more women in more positions of power - and not just cis, able-bodied, white women with money, but disabled women, women of colour, queer women, non-binary people, working class women etc, because the landscape is still incredibly white, cis-, rich and straight (and male obvs).
The recent wave of exciting Artistic Director appointments is brilliant but that’s just a handful of theatres in the grand scheme of things and we need more, more of us everywhere! Yes in theatre but also in TV, Radio, Film, Music. The people hiring need to be way more creative when hiring people and seeking to work with people who can help developthe landscape of the arts so that really, genuinely, everyone feels like it’s for them.
What do you think we can do as a community to promote female stories?
Oh if only I knew! Well, I’ve been developing a play with Soho Theatre on their Writers’ Lab and the final draft (in terms of the course’s milestones) will be done by November, so I’ll be trying to get things moving with it in the winter. As well, there’s a play I co-wrote last year about queer relationships that myself and the co-writer are really keen to get moving again after Edinburgh, along with taking Tumours further I hope! I’m also part of the Efficient Women’s Writersroom - which spawned from an ITV 50:50 meeting - wherein myself and a bunch of incredible female-identifying writers are developing comedy show pitches for TV. I’ll also be spending some time out of London to remember who I am and trying to get someone to buy me a massage. At some point. Could be you, Amy. Or a reader. Who knows?
Tumours runs at Assembly Rooms, Front Room Edinburgh from the 1st- 24th August 2019. Tickets available here.
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