Girls Will Be Girls, the sell-out Oxford show written by talented student Ella Langley, headed to the Edinburgh Fringe last month. Sian Bayley caught up with her to find out more about the show, and the challenges of bringing a student show to the Fringe.
Ella confesses that she was first inspired to write something like ‘Girls will be Girls’ while watching the ‘The History Boys’ on TV the day she received her Oxford offer, and re-watched when suffering from writer’s block, firmly establishing a connection with Alan Bennett’s modern masterpiece. She makes it clear, however, that ‘single sex schools are inherently and pervasively different for boys and girls’, and that the plays differ accordingly. She also explains that she deliberately ‘set out to undermine the importance that schools place on Oxbridge from the beginning of the play’ by not showing the girls applying. ‘The audience are given no handle on why it matters so much. So the process feels much more alien and harder to get invested in’. Admiring how Alan Bennet ‘gave these teenage boys a level of respect and their lives a sense of significance’, Ella ‘craved’ to write something that would give the same to teenage girls.
She wanted to change the stereotypical problems of teenage girls centring on ‘skin care and clothes and crushes’ to ‘the more universal pressures of coming of age, striving to find a social position, facing the state of your mental health and feeling pressure to succeed in your sphere’, in this case academic. In Ella’s world, female characters are not defined by their relationships with men, and whilst the play centres on a specific social group of reasonably privileged women, it seeks to be relatable to all audience members. As Ella explains, ‘growing up is possibly the most universal pressure there is’.
‘Girls will be Girls’ doesn’t shy away from exploring topics such as mental health, sexism, and racism, and Ella is careful to emphasise the difficulty of ensuring these issues are explored both sensitively and bravely. She admits she was scared to approach some topics, but was determined as a writer to engage with these issues and ‘move outside of the scope of your own privilege to amplify the voices and stories of others’.
Indeed, this social aspect of the play fed into the Oxford run’s accompanying ‘Dear Me’ project, devised by Daisy Porter, which gave the play a life beyond the stage. Asking audience members to write a personal message to their teenage selves after the performance created a wonderful sense of celebration and accomplishment, as audiences looked back on their formative years, and how they had come since then. This extra-textual moment of reflection was important to Ella’s conception of the play, and was extended during the Edinburgh run, as the production headed to The Mile to talk to passers-by, and engage with an even wider audience.
A key point about ‘Girls will be Girls’ is its accessibility, made evident by the innovative marketing techniques used in the Oxford run. From creating fictional Snapchat stories, to Charlotte Pang’s beautiful cartoon drawings of the girls, the marketing for the play always strove to be fresh and exciting – something that is not always apparent in student drama. As Ella explains, ‘with so many student shows the market is massively saturated so it’s the job of marketing to engage people who aren’t actively looking to go and see theatre for whatever reason. At the moment, I find a lot of marketing for student shows seems unaware that they’re only really directing their content at other self-proclaimed thespians, and might consequently be alienating a large portion of people who aren’t already super pumped about theatre – but of course have the potential to be’.
Ella attended the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time last summer, and watched almost exclusively new writing that is often ignored by festival goers. Describing the energy at the Fringe as a ‘really visceral experience’, where ‘actors and directors, writers and technicians, fearlessly open themselves up to audience after audience’, Ella admires the ‘off-the-cuff and trial-and-error’ atmosphere of the free and amateur Fringe. She confesses that whilst she is ‘probably going to be eaten alive by the reviewers there’, it is also ‘a weirdly exciting’ prospect – ‘a place to grow and learn as a writer and practitioner and person in the world’.
‘Girls will be Girls’ is Ella’s first full play, and it is no coincidence it is the right length for a Fringe show with basic set and tech requirements. She describes the hardest part of bringing her show to the Fringe as ‘applying to venues totally alone with a script that I didn’t feel like I had adequate approval for. Writing is a lonely business and there is no authority in the world that can assure you what you’ve produced is good enough for a theatre or a bookstand – you have to back yourself or give up. In a weird way applying for the Fringe felt like a moment where I was stepping away from the world of the characters. I had to face up to the fact that no one would hand me back my script with full marks or loads of ticks and tell me I’d done a good enough job. I just had to grow up and realise that a bad play would be better than no play at all. You can only learn from doing, and realistically it wouldn’t be either perfect or abysmal, just somewhere in-between.’