Interview: Laura Turner and Stephen Gillard Talk Fury Theatre’s “Abigail”

Female-led theatre company Fury Theatre are bringing their latest show, “Abigail”, to The Space Theatre from 3-7 May 2022. A modern history play, “Abigail” is billed as “a feminist re-telling of the Salem Witch Trials from the perspective of real-life accuser Abigail Williams.” Here, co-writers Laura Turner and Stephen Gillard (who also directs) chat about the process and driving forces behind this new work looking at shocking history from a new perspective…

First of all, let’s talk Fury Theatre company for a second. Your work is centred on the female experience, the female gaze and the female voice. Can you tell me a little bit about how and why the company came to be?

LT: Fury Theatre emerged out of my growing sense of the work that was important to me and the focus on the female experience that has always led my creative work. As a writer, it’s been a real journey to realise that there are these key themes that hinge your work together and connect it, even when you’re working across different mediums and within very different genres and types of stories. Once I realised that the female voice and the experience of being a woman today and in the past was so important to me, it felt natural to establish Fury Theatre with that central idea at its heart.

I’d always wanted to set up a theatre company, but knew it had to be the right time and have a message that I was passionate about that would be the throughline for the work we made. I’m glad I waited until I found that thread organically through the creative work I was making and admiring elsewhere. An important element to Fury’s work as well is that I want it to be about the collaboration between different people of all genders – I want men to be actively engaged in the work we create, both artistically and in audiences, because I think inclusion in the conversation around female experience is so important.

And you’re bringing a new work to audiences in May – Abigail – a story which puts an accuser at the heart of the Salem Witch Trials front and centre in the story. What drew you to witch trials for this new work?

LT: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of lost stories of women from the past. Fury’s first project, which took place online during the first covid lockdown, was a retelling of the story of Electra from Greek mythology, and exploring the female voice in a male dominated world and the female experience of violence and “negative” emotions such as anger and revenge, to demystify the idea that women feel all emotions just as vividly and sometimes violently as the stereotypical male presentation of emotion.

With ABIGAIL, the dramatic impulse for the play comes from asking what would really happen to a young woman who was caught up in such a tumultuous and overwhelming situation – a situation where she was an accusor, not an innocent victim. Where she was given power – by men – who took it away just as quickly. This became a platform for asking questions about the female experience of the justice system, toxic masculinity and coercive control. Building on that came the parallels with today – the vilification of powerful and/or famous women who put a step wrong and are condemned by the very system that built them up. We only have to look at the treatment of women such as Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus in the media today to see that we are still dealing with a very toxic system of representation.

You’ve co-written this piece, so tell me a little bit about the process – I can imagine it must be quite a nice challenge to navigate?

SG: I really think that co-writing comes down to trust, discussion and sacrifice. You’ve got to trust that the person sitting across from you shares your vision for the play you’re writing. You have to be able to converse, debate, discuss, accept and reject each others ideas without it ever becoming something personal. Effectively you have to abandon any sense of ego at the door and be prepared to “kill your darlings,” with even more frequency than usual. The upshot of that is that you end up with two people bringing two sets of skills to the writing process. Two sets of eyes to spot opportunities for ideas and two ways of looking at every scene. It’s been immensely rewarding when we’ve broken through a block in the scripting and helped each other flesh out ideas that lead to a shared dramatic conclusion. A challenge? Yes. But one that’s resulted in one of the most rewarding writing experiences I’ve had.

Now, Abigail Williams was a real figure – what is known of her and how much of the real person finds its way into your play?

SG: Shockingly little on the first count and I suppose it’s difficult to tell on the second, but this is why we thought it was important to try and tell this story. We know so little about almost any woman in history, who wasn’t a queen or a member of the nobility. There are many and varied accounts of the men, along with biographies, who were a part of this time period but, in actuality we often know more about the poor people who were brought as slaves, simply because receipts and bills exist for them. If you think about that for even a moment you begin to realise just how horrific and unjust that is.

Abigail did exist, we know that and though she was younger in reality than we have made her in the play, she must have been possessed of an ability to read people and situations far beyond her years. We know she ran away from Salem when the lies she was telling began to fall apart and then there is an oblique mention of someone who may have been her, dying in Boston as a prostitute. We wanted to try and fill in the gap between those two points in a way that makes her identifiable to people in the present, not just the past. 

The story takes us to 1692 but promises audiences that “this isn’t the staid, inaccessible story of the history books”. Why is it important to you to remove Abigail and her story from the trappings of its origins?

SG: “History,” in inverted commas, allows us a degree of separation from the events we are seeing. It lets us fall back on the excuses of “well they didn’t have our sensibilities, our education, our knowledge of the world, they were in the past.” It lets us off the hook when we know that in many many cases, in many many places around the world, we haven’t really budged an inch. Women are still repressed, under-represented and often the first victims when things go wrong. By allowing some modern aspects and styles to infiltrate our script we can say ‘please try and see if it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which this could occur today.’ If you can’t imagine it, then I would invite you to watch the news for a few minutes. If you still can’t see why this might be relevant today, then you’ve proved precisely why it’s relevant for us.

Abigail’s love for a character named Milly is also a central focus here – would we be wrong to consider this both drama and romance?

LT: There are certainly elements of romance or love in ABIGAIL which are important threads of the narrative, and exploring the female bisexual experience of coming out and self-acceptance are hugely significant story beats. But they feed into the other parts of the drama, which at its heart is always a story about self-fulfilment and Abigail’s journey towards self-worth, knowledge and acceptance. Abigail’s story isn’t defined by her relationship with Milly, in the same way it isn’t defined by any of her interactions with the male characters that populate the story. It is her story first and foremost and the positive and negative connections she experiences impact on that, but never define it.

That said, it is an important part of Abigail’s arc that she learns to feel warmth, comfort and love with Milly, contrasted against the complex and violent interactions she has with other characters. Abigail is also importantly a story about female friendship – her bond with her best friend Mercy is a key dynamic in the play. Perhaps most significantly, Abigail also explores the psychological experience of being haunted by our pasts and our own actions and choices. The character of Tituba – the real life Barbadian slave of the history books who Abigail Williams claimed was a witch – haunts her throughout the play, forcing her to revisit her choices in the past, and to realise the sexual attraction she actually felt for this woman. Her actions in the past were driven by a fear of herself, of her sexuality, and that is the battle Abigail faces to accept herself.

Abigail seeks to cover a lot of ground, looking at exploitation, privilege in terms of race, gender and class, and the female bisexual experience too. What ties those threads together here?

SG: Our society is hierarchical by nature; we place people in different, classes all the time. Upper, middle, working. First world, second, developing. When you do that you are going to establish levels of privilege, some subtle and some gross. After a while you have levels within levels as we seek to divide ourselves further and futher. I’m as guilty as anyone of reacting with a “well not me,” when I hear the phrase white-privilege or male-privilege, but the way around that is to acknowledge the reaction and then try and engage with the topic and broaden your thinking, instead of simply denying it exists. That’s why it’s been so important to look at the breadth of topics within Abigail. She is a white, young, single, effectively middle-class, bi-sexual female in a white, older, straight, upper-class, male dominated world. I think it’s fair to say that the challenges and advantages associated with those characteristics have not disappeared in the 21st century, so we wanted to try and explore as many of those aspects as we could.

Through Abigail, you also hope “to expose how our system still fails to protect vulnerable women today”. With that in mind, would you characterise this play – and perhaps the work of Fury Theatre by extension – as being of quite a distinctly political nature?

LT: Absolutely, the socio-political angle of the work Fury makes is so important. We are passionate about dealing with issues, themes and ideas that are challenging, and going forwards the company is developing its educational focus to help us to broach these complicated stories with secondary school and university students. We believe that creative work should absolutely be an “entertaining” experience – but perhaps moving away from the definition of entertainment that we sometimes think it is. For us, entertainment doesn’t mean something should be an easy or even always an enjoyable watch. True entertainment is work that means something – that has a message and a moral compass and makes you feel. That’s what we want to do with Abigail – craft an emotionally driven experiential story that invites audiences to go on a journey with the character and think deeply about the challenges the characters themselves face, and what that means on a wider social scale for us today.

What are you most looking forward to sharing with audiences?

LT: The play poses complex questions about female experience in the 17th century and today, and that’s what I’m most excited about sharing with audiences. A key part of Fury’s ethos is about offering up themes and stories that might be difficult to watch and don’t have straightforward easy answers, but hopefully give an opportunity to think more about something we take for granted or dismiss on a daily basis. Abigail raises really challenging themes in its presentation of sex work, exploitation and white privilege and we don’t want to shy away from these. We want to fuel debate and self-reflection amongst audiences.

And finally, what would you say to anyone still uhm-ing and ah-ing about booking to see Abigail?

SG: This is the beginning of Abigail’s journey and we want your help. If you love it, that’s amazing. If you hate it, we want to know why. We’re pretty certain that either way you won’t be board. This is a challenging, risk taking play, but we think Abigail deserves to live beyond a few pages in the history books and we are very very open to your feedback. So, if you’re uhm-ing or ah-ing, take a chance and see what we’re building. Thank you.

So there you have it! Remember: Abigail is at The Space Theatre, Isle of Dogs from 3 – 7 May 2022 and you can find your tickets here.

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