“How do you stay true to yourself when everyone is judging you based on your race, your gender, your class?” – Director Kate Wasserberg on Close Quarters
A co-production between Out of Joint and Sheffield Theatres, Close Quarters follows Cormack, Findlay and Davies – three of the first female soldiers to serve in British infantry close-combat roles. Offering a powerful insight into how gender politics could play out in the world’s most dangerous workplace, the premiere of Kate Bowen’s play is showing at the Studio Theatre this month.
Shortly before the opening night, Exposed’s Emily Leonard met up with director Kate Wasserberg to discuss what drew her to the story and the issues behind the action-packed plotline.
Can you tell us a bit about your background when it comes to directing?
I always wanted to be a director. My dad’s an English teacher so I saw him directing school plays as a kid and thought, “Yep, I’ll do that”. I’m from Stoke originally, but went to Exeter to study drama and had an amazing time there. I went to London and worked at the Thimble Theatre, which is a little pub theatre mainly known for rediscovering classics and new writing. I discovered a real joy in new plays, new writing, and that’s sort of been my thing since then. I had a wonderful eight years in Wales where I did a lot of that, so I’ve got a real background with Welsh writers and Welsh writing. I founded a little theatre in Cardiff called The Other Room, which has been going for about five years now, and I run Out of Joint, a writing company working with television writers and promoting new stories. I think of myself as a writer’s director rather than someone who has big fancy ideas; I’m taking their work and putting it on a stage.
What in particular attracted you to take on this play?
Two things: the subject matter, which felt genuinely original, and how it made young women the centre of an action story. There were three amazing roles for three young women to be the architect of their own destiny and not be defined by their relationship with a man in the story. Also, the qualities of the way the squaddies talk with each other felt so rough, so raw and real. I was really excited by that.
What particular questions are raised by the play’s context of women in close-combat infantry roles?
Yeah, so women have been in the army for a really long time, of course, but this idea of women being in the infantry is more of a complicated topic. It is very physically demanding and not an environment that women have traditionally been in. We spoke during rehearsal about how a really useful way of examining women in the workplace was by making that workplace the most dangerous workplace on earth. Basically, all the same questions come up, which are: do you just demand of women that they fit into the system that already exists? Or do you change the system? And is changing the system about making room for women and that not being fair? Or is it actually about making the system better? Is it about making the system reflect humanity, meaning that we have more ways of thinking about problems than we had before? For an institution like the army that requires real imagination and those first women, because this is about the first women, they are going to come up against so many barriers before the system evolves to make room for them.
The performance is very action-heavy. How have the cast prepared?
They’ve been doing circuit training every day since we started rehearsals because it was really important to us that the physicality was represented on the stage. It’s absolutely amazing and the play starts off with this moving sequence that shows all the crazy stuff they’ve learnt to do. People can expect intense scenes with loads of music and some incredibly strong women doing amazing things.
Can you tell us a bit about the characters and what they bring to the story?
The central character is called Sarah Findlay, a mixed-race working class Glaswegian. Sarah and her best mate, Alison Cormack, have signed up to join the army and chosen infantry training. The two of them plus one other woman, Davis, are the only three to make it through. They have been posted out on the border between Estonia and Russia. They are surrounded by men and on their first patrol something happens which means they have to make a series of very quick, very difficult decisions. The rest of the play is about how they navigate their way and how those decisions are judged because they’re females. It’s not just about what happens between them and other people, but it’s about what happens to their relationship with each other. The play looks at the three different ways in which three different women navigate through a dangerous situation. Another part is how they’re viewed by other characters in the play, such as the intelligence officer who thinks it isn’t going to work and the sergeant who believes in them throughout.
What wider questions about gender parity does the play raise?
I think the questions at the centre of it are: How do you stay true to yourself when everyone is judging you based on your race, your gender, your class? What does it mean to be you and how do we move forward as a society? How do we make room for women in institutions where there has not been room before? What does quality mean and what does it mean to create the “very best”? It’s also an adventure story. You know, are they going to make it through?
Close Quarters is showing at Studio Theatre until 10 November. Tickets available here.