The production was both entertaining and thought-provoking. One moment the audience would be laughing over a hilarious new character and the next second they’d be stunted into silence as they remember that the actress in front of them is describing her loneliness, her depression, and is talking about her own personal experience.
After the sterling preview performance upstairs at The Hen and Chicken Theatre Pub we spoke to Rebecca Crookshanks – writer/performer – and director Jessica Beck about the creative process, the reality behind the theatricality and being the first penguin.
Rebecca, why did you choose to explore your story in a one-woman play? Why not a novel or even a more ‘traditional’ naturalistic drama?
Rebecca: My work as an actor has at times been limited. I think performing and writing a one-woman play is a huge challenge and I wanted to explore that for myself. Watching other writer performers, like Charlotte Josephine’s Bitch Boxer and Cush Jumbo’s Josephine and I, gave me courage and inspired me to go for it. By writing a variety of roles, I am able to playfully experiment with characters I wouldn’t necessarily be cast as. The fusion of the military world and the theatricality of it all is interesting. I also love the way humour is used in the military in inappropriate situations, and I wanted to share this. Offering my true story to a live audience stirs a mix of fear and excitement which as a performer I find exhilarating. It’s been a challenge to keep it all to just 60mins, there’s a lot more material and I would like to develop it for other formats in future.
What was it like writing the script?
Rebecca: The ideas have been bubbling away inside for years. I think at first I just needed to free write everything. I was in my element but it felt quite overwhelming. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to condense it into an hour and be able to maintain a theatrical momentum. My lounge was chaos, covered in paper, words and military imagery. Working together with director Jessica Beck I was in safe hands and the journey has been surprising, discovering and rediscovering my story. Sharing the first scratch with an audience in February moved the play to a new territory. I think that process was integral to the development of the script.
How much is factual and how much is fictionalised?
Rebecca: There are a few embellishments but for the most part its fact. The initial RnD began in June 2014 supported by Arts Council England. I was able to spend time archiving original letters and correspondence I received from friends and families. A lot of the correspondence between Crookshank and Wingwoman is taken from our original letters and ‘blueys’. Wingwoman did have a blushing problem but thankfully she’s over it now! The footage from the Falkland Islands is all original as is the pass out parade.
Are there any anecdotes from your time in the RAF which didn’t make it into the play?
Rebecca: There are many, I’m saving them for the novel. I think Wingwoman and Crookshank have so many more adventures to share.
Jessica Beck (director), how do you begin to direct something which is so personal to the actress/writer?
Jessica: When working with autobiographical material, it’s important to have compassion and patience. The stakes are very high for the writer/performer in this situation. Performing a one-person show is a great feat for any actor. Add to that the vulnerability of also being the playwright, increased further by using personal material. The result is a complex emotional journey, which the director must navigate in a supportive, empathetic manner. My most recent project – Normal/Madness by Fiona Geddes – was also an autobiographical play about Fiona’s experience growing up caring for a relative with schizoaffective disorder. With both Fiona and Rebecca, I worked with them in a professional capacity before becoming good friends. And while professionalism is always important, with this intense personal exploration and exposure, friendship is vital.
Should audiences approach this play as a biography or as an original narrative? Do you think it will change people’s perspectives of the play if they know it is based on real life events?
Jessica: Do they have to choose? The play is simultaneously biography and an original narrative. The act of staging the narrative in the first place makes it original. We blend archival material from Rebecca’s life (pictures, film, and radio recordings), with theatricality, visual metaphor and colourful characters. While all the events did occur, many of the characters are composites of more than one individual from Rebecca’s life. Rebecca plays nine characters throughout the show, ranging from a regiment corporal to Air Commodore Joan Hopkins to a Falkland Islander penguin tour guide (Sandy is actually based on my experience as a tourist in the Falklands – we’ve both been there, can you believe it?). Without giving too much away, there’s a point towards the end of the play when the archival material becomes more present, and I believe that’s when the reality of the story really hits home.
Rebecca, do you feel like you’re re-living the past every time you perform?
Rebecca: There were a lot of reflective conversations and discoveries during the process. Working with a trusted team is key when making autobiographical work. I’ve been very supported and encouraged by the director Jessica Beck. This play explores the light and shade of growing up in a military environment and I had to be honest with myself before I could be honest with an audience. My job is to invite the audience into my story and connect them with the journey.
Have any of your friends from RAF seen the show?
Rebecca: The character of Wingwoman is based on my best friend who I served with in the RAF. She came to the scratch sharing earlier in the year but hasn’t seen the fully realized show yet. It’s changed a lot, but she’s coming to Edinburgh so we’re looking forward to that. My friend who is based on the character of ‘Shorty’ came to the Hen and Chickens preview; he was very supportive and pleased I was finally making the work I had talked about for so long.
Would you ever allow someone else to perform the show?
Rebecca: Initially I was so scared of doing the show myself I was thinking about writing it for another actor. It would have been a whole different show. When I shared my fear with Jessica, I received a look, similar to the one I received back at basic training from Cpl Bunting! I knew it wasn’t an option and I am so grateful to her as this is my story and I want to tell it.
Now a couple of questions for both of you: The male soldiers’ treatment of Crookshank is portrayed as boisterous bullying and, in the preview performance, the audience laughed quite a bit at their pranks. The media has recently reported on several cases of serious sexual abuse experienced by female soldiers, is this an issue you wanted the play to explore?
Rebecca: We didn’t set out to explore a play about harassment, more about my journey, which happens to be in the RAF. My experience as a woman in the RAF isn’t the only place where I have felt marginalised. Making theatre in a world, which is still bursting with gender inequality I think it was always going to be on radar. I too laughed at the pranks at the time as a survival tactic and then it stopped being funny. Unfortunately these issues continue, not just in the military. There is still a lot of work to be done to address equality, bullying, harassment and abuse. I think it needs to be addressed from a grass roots level. We all have to take responsibility, become empowered that’s why my work with young people is so important to my process.
Jessica: Audiences may laugh at some of the pranks and banter mentioned – that’s fine. What I’m interested in is the moment they stop laughing, and the full weight of the situation becomes clear. That may happen in the theatre, later that evening, or even a week later. I can’t really discuss that in more detail without giving important moments away. We didn’t approach the project as a way to explore sexual abuse of women in the military – that’s not what the story is about. At the core of the play is Rebecca’s awakening to following a creative path (and perhaps also an awakening to feminism), rather than her being a victim of harassment. Like a majority of women today, Rebecca encountered bullying and harassment on account of her gender. It just happened that in this case, it was while she was serving in the RAF. Unfortunately misogyny and bullying are alive and well in many institutions, not just the military. Look at our own industry – women get paid on average a pound less than our male colleagues and artistic directors programme our work in the smaller, ‘less risky’ spaces! Feminism still has a long way to go. I really admire the work that Lucy Kerbel is doing with Tonic Theatre to create greater gender equality in our field.
What should this show say to young people (male and female) thinking about entering into a career in the RAF?
Rebecca: I run an education company and my work is inspired by the young people I work with. I have been sharing some of the material with students through workshops. They are all encouraged by the late Joan Hopkins and her achievements as the first female station commander in the Royal Air Force and some of them still find it hard to believe I was an airwoman! I would say that the military offers a fantastic career path, a sense of camaraderie and opportunities for personal development. I want the show to open up a dialogue about human behaviour and empower young people to make positive choices.
Jessica: Aside from the darker moments on detachment to Mount Alice in the Falklands, Rebecca experienced supportive encouragement from her superiors, learned important skills, and had a unique character-building experience (literally – as you’ll see with the play). It was through RAFTA (the Royal Air Force Theatrical Association) that Rebecca was introduced to acting, making her debut in Half a Sixpence at Theatre101 at RAF Coltishall. Serving as an airwoman gave Rebecca the courage, determination and resilience to pursue a life in the theatre. The play is not about the RAF, but Rebecca’s journey through it.
And finally, Jessica, can you sum up why this play will appeal to audiences at the Fringe?
Jessica: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is very funny, filled with nostalgia from the late nineties (everything from S Club 7 to dial-up internet), and explores the military world from an unusual perspective. We have a fantastic soundtrack, penguins, and original footage from Rebecca’s detachment in the Falklands Islands. Audiences will be entertained by the humour, but also touched by the friendship that emerges with Wingwoman and perhaps shocked by some of Rebecca’s darker experiences. So the full emotional gamut is present. Ultimately, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an uplifting story about friendship, being the “first penguin”, and empowerment.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot will be on at Underbelly Cowgate (White Belly) from 6th August at 4.30pm