ED2022 Interviews ED2022 Theatre

Heather Milsted: Period Dramas

By | Published on Friday 5 August 2022

The Fringe is a great place to bring a show that’s a little unusual, especially the sort that’s intent on raising topics that people don’t like to talk about. And, of course, that means you’ll almost inevitably see some incredibly interesting – and conversation changing – work if you spend your August in Edinburgh. 

When I heard about ‘Period Dramas’, a taboo-tackling piece that seeks to destigmatise the topic of menstruation, I was immediately interested, because I know that the fact that we don’t talk about it more leads to misunderstandings and misinformation. 

To find out more about the show, and its creator, I spoke to writer and performer Heather Milsted. 

CM: Firstly, let’s talk about the content of ‘Period Dramas’. Tell us what to expect. Does it have a narrative? Or is it a collection of vignettes, perhaps? 
HM: ‘Period Dramas’ is a genre-mixing, taboo-busting romp through the ages.

Comedy, cabaret and tap – yes, tap! – collide with the past, teaching the BLOODY history audiences never learnt in school, from Ancient Egypt right up until today. It tackles the menstrual taboo head on, challenging the way we think about bleeding and fighting to end period stigma for all who bleed!

It doesn’t have a typical narrative structure, but isn’t quite a collection of vignettes either – it’s more of cabaret-esque act-based structure, guided by the MC character, who is basically a version of myself and weaves in a number of my own period dramas… 

It’s funny and silly, but it’s also asking big questions about what the taboos surrounding periods are, and why they exist. 

CM: What made you decide to do a show about this, and what made you think it would work as a piece of theatre?  
HM: I started my period when I was nine and I genuinely thought that period dramas on TV were going to be about periods and was honestly devastated when I realised they weren’t.

I didn’t get the memo that we actually weren’t really meant to talk about them, and that carried on into my adult life, especially because I suffer quite badly when I’m menstruating – they are heavy, painful and unpredictable, a fantastic combination… 

At drama school I became interested in drag and cabaret and I created a short act based on the rumour that Elizabeth I died when she was ten and was replaced by a boy – the ‘boy of Bisley’ rumour – and it was from this that the rest of the piece grew, with each act developing out of the historical research.

We then had the opportunity to make a twenty minute solo piece for our final project at drama school and ‘Period Dramas’ was born.

I thought it would work as theatre because the history itself is funny, gory and compelling, and audience interaction and engagement was so important to me in trying to break open the menstrual taboo. 

CM: So in tackling this (weirdly still taboo) topic, are you aiming to help inspire conversations about it? Do you want to educate people? Who do you hope to reach? 
HM: Definitely. Even writing it has opened up so many conversations for me – with my friends, my mum, people who work at the venues I’ve performed at. We’re really confident on why this show is so important, and it’s because we just don’t have frank conversations about periods.

We’re hoping it’ll be a formative experience – for younger audiences especially – to see something so open, directly challenging the taboo, and something that can inspire people to question what’s going on.

We also wanted to make it the kind of show that you leave feeling empowered – in the show itself we take time to reclaim the moments that we have felt shame over and turn them into points of celebration.

CM: How does the relationship with your director work when you’re the writer and performer of your own piece? 
HM: I started writing ‘Period Dramas’ in Summer 2019 – long before my director Jessy came along – and having a development period of this length has allowed to me focus in on what I’m using this show to say.

In rehearsals in 2022, Jessy has been like a very vocal audience member, and we’ve been able to work together specifically on what we think the audience experience is, and what we want it to be. 

It’s been brilliant because it’s always been really collaborative and we’ve had a great time experimenting with different bits of the show. We’ve both suggested mad stuff which we’ve had fun trying – and let’s say succeeding! – to pull off.

It’s also been amazing, because Jessy has also been a dramaturg for the piece, and her literary genius has made it so much better! Not least when I get bogged down in certain historical facts and Jessy has to pull me back and say we’ll put it in the next show instead!

CM: It sounds like you’re interested in period dramas as well as the drama of periods? Do you watch a lot of costume drama, and if so, do you have a favourite? 
HM: The 1995 Colin Firth ‘Pride And Prejudice’ of course – with ‘Downton Abbey’ a close second! I absolutely love period dramas, honestly my mum and I cannot get enough of them – we even made it through the other side of those non-parent appropriate scenes in ‘Bridgerton’ together!

CM: Have you performed at the Edinburgh Fringe before? What expectations do you have of it for this year? 
HM: I have performed at Edinburgh Fringe before, but never with my own show! I did Young Pleasance a few years back and then was part of ‘The Improv Musical’ when I was at university, but they were both huge ensemble pieces, so it feels quite strange this time around.

It’ll be so interesting to see what’s changed, as the Fringe is always evolving, but especially in a post/mid-COVID way.

I hope it’s as friendly as it always was, and that I don’t feel like I have to Hive-Till-5, because I’ve done all that before, and let’s face it, I’m a grandma who needs her sleep now – but who knows!

CM: What are you most looking forward to about being at edfringe? 
HM: The food trucks and mac and cheese pies! And all the amazing shows and stumbling into something I might never have otherwise seen!

I mean really, I will be living off packed lunches for the month because I spent all my money on the show, but it’s nice to dream of all the food possibilities!

I also can’t wait for the atmosphere of it all, the Fringe just fizzes with energy and makes me feel alive and I absolutely love it!

CM: What will you be doing when not performing? Do you plan to see other shows? 
HM: I am going to be seeing arguably too many shows – it’s been four years since I was last at the Fringe and I’m trying to remember what’s doable? Three shows a day? Six?

I’m going to potentially use my day off to go to the beach and have some proper time out, so hopefully the weather will remain unseasonably warm, but not so warm that I get burnt every day flyering on the Mile…

I also want to swim as much as I can this year, but let’s face it, if I make it to a pool once, that’s a win!

CM: Can we talk about your career? How did it begin? Did you always want to create this kind of work? 
HM: I studied history at Warwick before heading off to drama school, so this sort of work really is what I love, with all my nerdy passions meshed together.

I also did Soho’s Cabaret And Drag Lab back in 2020, which fully changed the way I make work and I had such a great time. Comedy and cabaret and history and menstrual health and politics? The dream!

CM: What have been the highlights of your working life thus far? 
HM: Oooh tricky one. Fringes past have all been pretty incredible experiences – I’d go so far as to say that working as an eighteen year old at front of house in Edinburgh fully changed my life – one of the best and hardest summers – and made me realise how much I loved the arts.

Having graduated from drama school in March 2020, it’s been an odd couple of years, but I’m going to say that working on ‘Period Dramas’ this year and heading up to The Pleasance – being the stuff of dreams coming true – is my definite highlight!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
HM: I’d love to be able to support myself as an actor and writer – but I think in terms of content, I’d love to write and perform some more history/comedy combos going forwards, but it’s hard to think of any kind of performance I wouldn’t want to do!

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this? 
HM: We’re hoping to R&D for and tour a new version of ‘Period Dramas’ to primary and secondary aged pupils, which will be very fun.

I’m also doing a TIE tour in November and I can’t wait, plus I’ll be running a couple of workshops and working on a new short film in October – very excited for it all!

Period Dramas’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2022.

LINKS: twitter.com/heathermilsted | linktr.ee/hmilsted