Fiona Evans - Loving Arthur Scargill!
Peter Lathan talks to an up-and-coming playwright from the North East of England.
"You really should interview Fiona," the publicist told me. "She's going to be very big in the future."
Well, I thought, she would say that, wouldn't she? So I hedged my bets a little and gave a qualified OK, saying it would be much better if I saw her play first. "Fair enough," she replied, and we left it at that. So I saw the play - We Love You, Arthur, about two teenage girls who have a crush on Arthur Scargill during the Miners' Strike - and loved it. It's quite a remarkable first play, a comedy about growing up but with serious political and human overtones, so, after a bit of a delay for various reasons, none of them connected to the play or the author, we eventually got together and discovered that (a) we come from the same town, (b) have friends and acquaintances in common, and (c) she went to school with my niece!
It was at school - St Anthony's Catholic girls's school in Sunderland - that her interest in Drama developed, thanks not to a Drama teacher but to a teacher of History and Religious Studies in her second year.
"She used to get us to act it out and, at the end of the term, usually you had about four or five books worth of information but with Mrs Green we used to have half a book, but we'd retained all the information because we were interested in it."
Her lasting memory is of playing Joan of Ark. "It was wonderful," she says. "I found my vocation in life. Thats same week we went to a friend's house and her mam asked what we would like to do when we were older, so I just piped up 'I want to be an actor!'"
The following year, when choosing options, she told the careers teacher and explained how she had gone into it in detail and wanted to do 'A' Levels and then go to university, for she knew her parents couldn't afford for her to go to drama school, and anyway she knew she would need something to fall back on if acting didn't work out. The teacher made some "very nice" noises and then said, "I think you should put in an early application to Dewhirst's". Dewhirst's was a local factory which made clothes for, among others, Marks and Spencer!
"Then I was determined that I wanted to go to college after that. I thought, 'How dare you?' I couldn't believe it!"
She went on to Northumbria University to do the Creative Arts course because it was the only university course in the country at the time with a political/community theatre slant to a degree. So even at that early stage she had an interested in poltical theatre?
"I'd done 'A' Level and we'd studied Dario Fo and that had an influence, and there was also the practical side - I needed to earn a living!"
She got involved in youth theatres run by lecturers out of hours and suddenly realised that theatre can take place in non-theatre spaces, for they toured to old people's homes, community centres and so on.
After finishing her degree she spent a year at the North East Media Centre because she was very interested in television, after which she got a part-time lecturing job at Newcastle College teaching both drama and media.
"To be honest, I felt a bit of a fraud because I hadn't really worked in the industry. I'd run the Wear Valley Youth Theatre in County Durham for about four years. I'd directed and written things for them, so I suppose that's how I got into writing.
"We had a cast of 22, twenty of whom were girls, so I just had to write for them. There simply weren't any plays for that kind of group. That's how it all started really, out of necessity rather than a burning desire to write, although for years I'd written down ideas for films and so on, but that's as far as it got. It was a way of dealing with your emotions when you're a teenager! 'This boy doesn't like me. I think that would be a really good idea for a play!' It never got any further than that, but I did feel better!"
So how did We Love You, Arthur come about?
"It was through a course which New Writing North and the BBC ran. It was designed to get writers from all different disciplines to write for radio. We had to come up with a five minute piece which we then recorded with some actors in a studio. I can't really remember how the idea came first but it seemed like a good idea. It was quite serious from the start: although it was a bit of fun, I surrounded it with the idea of a woman looking back on her life.
"People seemed to like the idea and I discovered how many of my friends' fathers had been involved in the Strike. I heard all sorts of stories. A friend of mine invited me to meet someone she knew and its turned out that she had living in a Durham pit village and her dad had scabbed, and they literally had to leave the village. Her boyfriend dumped her. That fascinated me, seeing it from the point of view of a young girl having to deal with the consequences of something her father had done. That's what kicked it off.
"After all the research and the stories that came from it, I could spend the rest of my life writing about the Miners' Strike!"
What comes next? She recently had a reading at the Theatre Royal Stratford East of her latest piece The Virgin of Stratford about an Irish family moving to London from belfast in the seventies when all the terrorist attacks were taking place and it's about the prejudice that they face, which is very similar to what Muslim families are facing today.
"But it's a comedy! It has a serious background of policital tension but focusing on a much smaller story, of a family. It's about a little girl who thinks that her uncle could possibly be a terrorist. She thinks she's a miracle worked herself because she parys for people at the local hospice and the teacher tells her they are getting better because she can't tell her they're dying. And she believes that her pregnant teenage sister is the Virgin Mary!"
It was developed as part of the new writing programme at Stratford East.
"There were five of us on the course. It was a brilliant experience! I love the place. I walk around and see these pictures of Joan Littlewood and Gerry Raffles and Brendan Behan and I just can't believe that I'm there! And to have my work read on the same stage where so much important theatre has gone on - it's amazing!
"It needs a good rewrite and more research. I need to go over the Belfast. But I've fallen in love with the play the way I did with Arthur and can't wait to get my teeth into it! I've got a commission for the Youth Theatre at the Theatre Royal, York. I'm also writer-in-residence at Pallion Primary School in Sunderland. It's great working with the kids. Their imaginations run riot and it makes you realise how limited you are as an adult!"
The publicist was right. She has a lot to offer as a playwright. Her first play didn't just have a quirky idea but also real characters, a genuine emotional depth and something very important to say about people and their relationships. She is enthusiastic and bubbling over with ideas. Fiona Evans is definitely a name to watch!