Interview: Mike Elliston

Mike Elliston’s new play, TRAILER/Trash, is the latest step in a long and varied career. Since winning a Fringe First at the 1983 Edinburgh Festival for his short play Bread ‘n’ Butter Guns, he has written for numerous TV productions (including a brief stint on infamous soap opera Crossroads) and been a freelance and regular script reader for the Royal National Theatre, Yorkshire TV, the King’s Head and Bill Kenwright Ltd.

TRAILER/Trash – which reunites Elliston with David Verrey, the director of Bread ‘n’ Butter Guns –follows the fortunes of Frankie and Dottie, two dreamers who have created fantasy lives based on movies and the fantasies sold on the back of cereal packets. Frankie is a waitress who wants to be the ‘big cheese’, the man in the tux she once saw in a film; Dottie is a stripper who wants to headline in Las Vegas. But can they achieve their ambitions from their trailer-park home?

Frankie and Dottie are acted by Amanda Price and Mary Steadman, who together form Famous & Divine – a performance company who explore the space between dance and theatre. They have toured nationally and internationally, winning ‘Best in Show’ for Fugitive Songs at the 2011 Houston Fringe Festival and ‘Best Show’ for The Red Room in Belarus.

I spoke with Elliston a week before TRAILER/Trash’s opening night on 25 October at the Hen & Chickens Theatre in Highbury. We discussed what inspired the play, why he thinks film is so important to society and how he has used career frustrations to challenge himself creatively.

Where did TRAILER/Trash come from?

I’ve always wanted to work with Famous &Divine, so it’s a collaboration in that respect. Although I’d worked with both of them individually over the years, I hadn’t worked with them as a company. Then, last year, they asked me to write something erotic for them. They’re two very unusual performers and women in their 40s and 50s. Roles for their type of actor are very difficult to come by, especially challenging ones. So we started knocking a few ideas around. Originally, I was going to write about the sex life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, because I think that would be very interesting. Amanda, who is one half of Famous & Divine, likes exploring male impersonation as a genre of performance, so I thought she’d perfect as Albert.

So why did your idea change?

As I was developing concepts, I started talking about maybe making a site-specific piece, and making it portable. Amanda has a long history of academic study in portable theatre and she said, off the top her head, ‘let’s make it a trailer’. And I said, ‘no, let’s make trailer trash!’ It was as simple as that. The whole idea just revealed itself before me – it really was like divine inspiration, if you can be modest in saying that!

What does the play explore?

We’re using the culture of movies as our backdrop. These two women live in a weird fantasy world, as if they’re in a movie – they just don’t know it. There are a lot of subliminal references, but very few direct ones. Culturally, that’s how we absorb the images and themes we receive through cinema and entertainment into our everyday lives. People’s little sayings and mannerisms are bastardised from movies or programmes they’ve seen.

Is TRAILER/Trash intended as social comment?

I wouldn’t say it’s a comment; I would say it’s an observation. Although I’ve been a very political writer in the past, there is no political overview with a capital ‘P’ to this play. It’s really an observation of how culture informs our life, impeding or influencing the way we behave, the way we dress, the things we say – without necessarily coming to any conclusions. What are some of the most misquoted things? ‘I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers.’ It’s so interesting how we bastardise lines from films and then they become part of our general lexicon. Really, the most political aspect of this show is in how the production has been put together.

How so?

In several ways: first, I’m working with two women who are above the usual age group that most companies want to work with or offer opportunities to. The fact that we’ve privately raised the finance means that we’re offering our tickets at a much lower price on the fringe than most other companies. We’ve taken note of what Lyn Gardner has said in her Guardian blogs about fringe theatre overpricing itself and driving punters away. Also, as well as aiming for as broad a reach as possible, we’re focusing on promoting the show around Islington, Highbury and North London, because we feel that there’s a very strong local market.

What role does male impersonation play in TRAILER/Trash?

Amanda’s character, Frankie, actually starts off as her biological self, Phyllis. She’s a waitress in the Sunrise Diner, where she has to conform; she has to wear the diner outfit and be nice to all of the punters. She doesn’t want to be a guy, but she’s got male urges. She wants to dress like a guy and she wants to talk like one. She wants to be accepted as a guy, but she doesn’t want to go through a sex-change. She just doesn’t really know where she is, so it’s about putting a question mark over gender and exploring the power of role-play.

What being male, in the context of Frankie’s world, represents?

It’s about her sense that, if she can attain that identity, she’ll have attained freedom. So in many respects it remains a fantasy or a dream. But as the play progresses we see her change, and we hear the reactions of the outside world to the guise she is in. We hear reported abuse, of people saying, ‘You don’t fit the mould, so I’m going to label you, to give myself power by belittling you.’ Amanda’s character is desperately trying to struggle against that view. She only finds acceptance in her strange and odd companion, Dottie. They have a relationship where anything goes, but Dottie has the power. Although she’s the most stereotypical ‘female’ of the pair, she plays the alpha male role. They’re not a couple – it’s not that kind of relationship – but they have a bond. They’re a bit like Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise or Abbott and Costello – these were very much influences on my characters. They don’t conform to anything, but they work together in their own strange way.

Are audiences supposed to feel sorry for Frankie and Dottie, or cheer them on?

This entire show is about playing without shame. The audience’s reaction is entirely up to them. Some people may feel sorry for Frankie, they may feel sorry for Dottie (and there’s a whole back-story for them that gets alluded to). Some people may want to laugh at them, or with them. All of that is outside of our control. They way we do, in some respects, control the show is through performance. It’s all done without shame, which is really important. Watching Amanda and Mary is quite extraordinary, I have to say.

Does Frankie’s struggle with fitting in reflect the professional frustrations you’ve expressed elsewhere, in any way?

That would be my subconscious drive, I guess. Certainly, the way that we’ve built the production and managed to get it on has been informed by that. I mean, I’m 50 this year and it’s been a long drag. When I won my Fringe First, I guess I could have been one of the next big things. I was feted, I had an agent in London – it was all so glittering. Then I went into TV and I hated it. It was completely wrong for me. I got sacked from Crossroads. How shit must I have been? It was a highlight of my career! And my last production in Edinburgh was a tale in itself. I can’t go into too much detail – because I’d be sued – but it lived up to its name of Dead. There was a real death and a metaphorical one, in front of the critics. That could have actually thrown me off kilter completely, but it didn’t. So while there’s a certain amount of frustration in not being accepted – and I’m not sure I easily fit in anywhere – it’s also a challenge. It’s made me want to overcome my obstacles, and to get better. In many respects, I’ve spent the past two years, during which time I wrote TRAILER/Trash, rediscovering my artistic intent.

Is fringe theatre a liberating environment in that respect?

I love the availability and opportunity of fringe theatre. You’re not confined to what dramaturges and subsidisers want you to do. I started doing a PhD recently, on dramaturgy, and it wound me up so much I had to stop. I hate the idea of someone coming to me and saying, ‘right, your writing is really good but we need to restructure it, because we want X amount of people to read this.’ I know it’s all about commercial viability, but I grew up in the 80s with radical acts like Red Ladder and 7:84, seeing them in the flesh and working with them as a student. The idea back then that theatre could offer unlimited opportunities for self-expression without an overarching commercial imperative is really important to me. I think fringe theatre can still do that.

And when it doesn’t?

Fringe theatre can be unregulated and, basically, crap. But I don’t like going there, because I think everybody deserves opportunities and you’ve got to be allowed to make mistakes in order to find out what you’re good at and how you can better yourself. In fact, the worst thing about fringe theatre isn’t the product, but the perception of it by people in certain segments of the theatre industry.

Why did you decide to stage TRAILER/Trash at the Hen & Chickens Theatre?

The Hen & Chickens has a very dear place in my heart. Twenty-five years ago myself and David Verrey, the director, presented my Edinburgh Fringe First play, Bread n’ Butter Guns, there. And we had such a great experience. We were Time Out’s Critics’ Choice, The Independent’s Critics’ Choice and The Stage loved the show as well. I love the venue, and the new management are just so open and friendly. They’re very accommodating, very willing and they’ve done a great job not only of refurbishing the theatre but revitalising the pub below. It’s a very strong community theatre and a real asset to that little part of North London, next to more well known places like the King’s Head and the Union. It’s lovely, it’s small, it’s cosy and it’s contained, and I just wanted to revive some old memories really. I’ve had a great experience so far.

So, why should audiences come to the play?

Because they’re going to see something they’re not expecting. It’s very funny, I have to say – even as the writer – but its humour is laced with tragedy.

TRAILER/Trash is at the Hen & Chickens Theatre from 25 October to 10 November. For more information, and tickets, go to:

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