ED2019 Caro Meets ED2019 Interviews ED2019 Theatre

Madeleine Skipsey: She Sells Sea Shells

By | Published on Friday 16 August 2019

I first heard of Mary Anning only a few years ago, and I suspect I’d still be ignorant of her existence if it weren’t that my then fairly young daughter went through a period of dinosaur obsession. When I found out about her work, and that it had – fairly predictably, to be fair – been used by men to further their own interests and careers, I felt pretty cross.

So, needless to say, I was excited to find out about ‘She Sells Sea Shells’, a play by Helen Eastman that takes a look at Anning’s life and recognises the importance of her endeavours. To find out more about that play and the company behind it, I spoke to director Madeleine Skipsey.

CM: To start, for anyone reading that isn’t aware of her, can you tell us a bit about Mary Anning, who she was, and what she was known for?
MS: Mary Anning was the daughter of a cabinet maker from Lyme Regis. She was introduced to fossil-hunting by her father who – sometimes accompanied by his children – would hunt for ‘curios’ along Lyme’s beaches in order to sell them to tourists. The Napoleonic Wars sent the price of bread through the roof during Mary’s childhood and this gave the family a much-needed second source of income.

Mary made a string of vital discoveries that played a huge role in the early development of palaeontology, our understanding of the prehistoric world and the consequent scientific challenge to the Genesis creation myth.

Mary and her brother, Joseph, discovered an Ichthyosaur in 1811 – when she was twelve, the same year her father died – which they sold to a local collector and which by 1819 found its way into the British Museum where it caused a great stir.

Her big break, so to speak, was her discovery of a complete Plesiosaur skeleton in 1823. She discovered creatures that clearly didn’t exist any more, meaning that they weren’t created perfectly by God in seven days, and meaning that the earth was potentially much older than the Christian church had always insisted it was. It’s difficult to overstate how earth-shattering that suggestion was; it implied humanity was not the perfect protagonist of a divine plan, but instead the most successful product of a much longer process of natural trial and error.

Mary’s name was sufficiently well known that scientists and collectors regularly made trips to Lyme Regis to meet with her and discuss her findings. It’s absolutely clear from her diary and letters about her that Mary was more than just a fossil hunter, she was a scientist in her own right.

Mary’s tragedy was not just that she was never credited on the papers written about her finds, but that she could clearly have written those papers herself if she’d only been given the chance. In reality, despite repeated applications, she was never let into the Geological Society because she was a woman and working-class and therefore never granted the position to publish in her own right. Instead, as she wrote to a friend near the end of her life “These men of learning… sucked my brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which I furnished the contents”.

CM: How does the play approach this subject matter? Does it tell a whole life story, or excerpts? Or does it focus on a particular time in her life?
MS: Helen Eastman’s script takes key moments from Mary’s life in order to develop a sense of her story. It would be wrong to say it tells her whole life story in a hour but rather it spans key events in her life from childhood to her death. Rather than attempting to be a biopic, the play attempts to offer the audience a flavour of who she was, what she did and what moments shaped her life. The play uses a multi-rolling chorus who transform around Mary, giving a sense of how her family, the gentlemen collectors, and others impacted her life.

CM: What was the impetus for the writing of a play about her? Is there a desire there to raise awareness of her?
MS: Helen first learnt about Mary Anning a decade ago and was fascinated by the story of this extraordinary working-class woman, whose finds were so important to science, to our under of the world, and who had received so little acclaim.

She wanted to tell her story through theatre – as opposed to an article, or a biopic, or a lecture – because it would allow her to create something as feisty and playful and complex as we suspect Mary Anning was. And to acknowledge that when you dig up – pun intended! – someone’s story, you are continuously making choices of how to tell it, and to interpret what you are finding – just like Mary was digging up fossils and trying to ‘read’ them.

When Scandal And Gallows heard about her from Helen, we were excited to realise Helen’s story through our blend of physical and visual playfulness.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
MS: Helen is an internationally acclaimed writer who writes across a broad range of genres – theatre, musicals, lyrics, opera, poetry… but always try to write something that gives directors and actors an opportunity to play: something which is a springboard for their creative process. She is also very keen to address big questions of inequality, poverty, gender… in ways which are playful, engaging and often funny. We’re incredibly grateful to have this opportunity to work with her.

CM: What do you like about the play? What made you interested in focusing on a play about this subject? How did you approach it as a director?
MS: As a feminist, I’m always interested in plays which bring recognition to impressive women. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of, or been taught about, this incredible woman who made such huge contributions to our understanding of humanity. I liked the feisty nature of Mary, and Helen’s script brought immediate life to a woman who was clever, passionate, witty, brave and resilient.

For me, the starting point was researching Mary and some of the key people she interacted with before then playing around with the script in the rehearsal room. We were fortunate to be able to R&D the play earlier in the year. As a director, the R&D process allowed me to think carefully about the emotional arc of the piece and what theatrical language we might use to convey Mary’s story. Once I’d marked out where the highest points of emotion were, it was about ensuring that the journey the audience is taken on ebbs and flows appropriately so that by the end, they feel the same passion as we did about telling Mary’s story.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the company, Scandal And Gallows Theatre? How did it come together and what is its ethos, and approach to theatre making?
MS: Scandal And Gallows Theatre was founded by myself and actor Guy Clark while we were at university together. Although coming from very different backgrounds, we shared a commitment to intimate and innovative storytelling. We like to make work that interrogates the act of telling a story, asking questions such as who gets to tell a story? Who has ownership over a story? What is being left out?

CM: The company has been to Edinburgh with productions before, hasn’t it? What made you want to come back?
MS: We have indeed! We brought our first show, an adaptation of Conrad’s ‘Heart Of Darkness’, to Edinburgh a few years ago and loved the experience. The Festival is a place to experiment, try new things, play around with conventions and expectations and we were excited to see what the response would be to this new work.

CM: How is the run going? How are you enjoying this year’s Fringe?
MS: The run is going incredibly well. We have had a brilliant response from reviewers and audience members alike and have had a number of sold out shows. We have been overwhelmed with how enthusiastically people have responded to Mary’s story and that audiences have shared our passion for giving her the recognition she deserves. As for the rest of the Fringe, the standard of theatre and comedy is, as always, incredibly high and we’ve thrown ourselves into seeing as much work as possible. It’s truly inspiring.

CM: What’s your favourite thing about the Festival?
MS: I think my favourite thing about the Festival is the huge variety of work on offer. You never quite know what you’re walking into and that’s so exciting artistically! At the Fringe, it’s impossible to only see work which is like your own and that’s such a brilliant opportunity to expand your ideas about art and theatre and reflect on your own practice.

CM: What advice would you have for newcomers to the Festival?
MS: I’d split my advice into three areas: practical, creative and well-being!

Firstly, the practical advice; create a flyering schedule rather than just flyering on the Royal Mile for long periods of time. Think about which shows are similar to yours or are selling well and exit flyer those. Flyering in the hour before your show can also be really helpful to bring in any last minute audiences.

Secondly, the creative advice: not everyone is going to like what you do and that’s okay. If you get some negative feedback, take the time to reflect on whether it’s something you are willing to creatively take on board. If the feedback is within the realms of your creative ideas, great! Think about how to use it to improve. If the feedback isn’t, then you absolutely are allowed not to respond to it.

Thirdly, the well-being advice: look after yourself!! Always think carefully about when you read reviews and how to approach them. The fringe is a marathon not a sprint and even if everyone else seems to be seeing ten shows a day, flyering for hours and going out, you absolutely shouldn’t hold yourself to the same standard.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, when the Fringe is all over?
MS: We’re very keen to share Mary’s story more widely and are exploring a number of possible avenues at the moment. So if you missed seeing ‘She Sells Sea Shells’ at the fringe, then watch this space! The cast and crew also all have lots of exciting things coming up individually so if you want to know why we are up to, please do follow us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook!

‘She Sells Sea Shells’ was performed at Underbelly Cowgate at Edinburgh Festival 2019.

Photo: Violet Mackintosh