Interview: Imogen Frances, ‘’I’m curious to see what we all learn from one another’

Following a successful run at King’s Head Theatre as part of their Queer Season last year, Paul Bradshaw’s Offie nominated tell me straight is returning – this time to Chiswick Playhouse. The production reunites the original cast members and director Imogen Frances.

Frances, an Associate member of the ensemble The Quarter Too and Associate Director of Chaskis Theatre, previous directed Eight at White Bear Theatre. As they geared up for opening night we spoke with Frances about the play, working with a queer and working-class creative team and how it has helped them to embrace their own sexual and gender identity.

The Understudy Q&A for Imogen Frances

Hi Imogen, thanks for speaking with us about your upcoming production of tell me straight. How does it feel to be opening Chiswick Playhouse?

We’re just so pleased to be back doing the show again! I’m excited to reach a new audience. I think theatre is a constant collaboration and that a show continues to develop as it learns from its audiences, and its audiences learn from the story. I’m curious to see what we all learn from one another. I look forward to bringing the production to a theatre which seeks to create joyful, provocative and entertaining experiences, because that’s exactly what tell me straight is.

What can you tell us about the production and the themes that Paul Bradshaw’s play explores?

One of my favourite things about tell me straight is the way in which multiple stories are weaved into one – the dancing between characters, scenarios and storylines creates this intoxicating sense of… what next? The passionate relentlessness of London life. Each scene leaves you just a little more interested in the world Him inhabits and as the listener you find yourself becoming the amused best friend. I like to think we have created a production which makes the audience feel as though they are a part of the story, instead of witnesses to it. In doing this, I hope some of the questions the story poses about what it means to explore our sexuality, or how we define friendship, or how we seek connection, become conversation starters. Paul is a quick-witted and sharp writer and performer. His voice is unique, and yet his story is one that I’m sure many queer people will find themselves knowingly nodding along to with a wry smile. It’s a vibrant exploration of what it means to be gay and learning how to love.

How has it been working with the cast and crew?

It has been a pleasure! Paul Bradshaw is a real inspirer and motivator to me as a creative – he consistently shows up for his craft and is an example of what it means to work for what you believe in. It’s an honour to work alongside him. George Greenland lifts a room with his generosity, playfulness, and curiosity. Steph and Hiba are both exuberant women with infectious and delightful energies. As for the team behind the scenes, Ed, Chloe and Roly are such hard workers, and their contribution to this production has been invaluable. I come home from a day of rehearsals, and I feel extremely fortunate to be working with this team.

The play’s queer and working-class characters are reflected in the make-up of the company. How important is that when telling a story like this?

The creative team is made up entirely of working-class or queer creatives and I think this has been incredibly important for Paul to have the story supported and championed by people who can identify with and have the lived-in experiences of the character of Him. The characters within the story vary in class and sexual expression, and this is reflected in the cast. I think it is important to have diverse experience in every room and an opportunity for the story to be enriched by the varying points of view of the ensemble. For this particular story I think it has been vital to have a collection of people who have a shared socio-political point of view and having this sense of unity has emboldened us to create unapologetically.

tell me straight during its original Kings Head Theatre run

you directed tell me straight last year with the same cast under a different professional name…

I am the same director. I’m currently in the process of changing my creative / professional name from Hudson-Clayton to Frances. Frances being my middle name. Upon graduating from drama school I wanted Imogen Frances to become my creative name as I felt it held all of my family names within it, but I was advised to stick with what is on my birth certificate. I come from a big and beautifully complex family and the name Frances, or masculine spelling Francis, sits in several threads of my family constellation. It holds my family within it, and it holds my fluidity within it. Over the last year or so I have been accepting the fluidity of my sexuality and gender identity. Working on tell me straight alongside other queer creatives has helped me on the journey of freely embracing that fluidity. The names Frances, Francis, Frankie, have Latin origin and meanings of ‘free one’ or ‘truthful’. On the one hand, it is just a professional name change. On the other, it is a process of owning my masculine and my feminine, of moving into what feels more truthful for me.

Has your vision for the production changed since beginning rehearsals?

I don’t think my vision for the production has changed, but it has grown. Both Paul and I have new idea’s we want to try, and ways of playing with space and time we want to explore. I’m most excited to find new ways to create with the actors and hack into character’s motivations and needs – particularly the ‘straight’ characters.

How did you get into directing and do you have any advice for anyone out there who is considering a career in theatre direction?

I was consistently told whilst training as an actor at drama school that I had a directors eye. So, I started shadowing directors, attending rehearsals of shows I was interested in or directors whose process I was intrigued by, and just exploring what it meant to be a story- teller. I was fortunate to be taken under the wings of Glenn Tillin (Artistic Director of Quarter Too Ensemble), David Zoob and Annabel Morley, who become directing mentors and fellow collaborators. Anna Ledwich also offered me advice and guidance along the way. I became an Associate Director of Chaskis Theatre and in doing so have become acutely aware of what stories I feel passionate about telling and how to trust my creative instincts, which I think is essential for the role of a Director. Chaskis Theatre have also developed our own training methodology and are now resident facilitators and lecturers at Rose Bruford College. The way I got into directing was by staying curious and proactive, and by making work with my friends and building an artist community. My advice to anyone considering a career in theatre direction is ask questions. Read. Dial direct to the people who inspire you. And, most importantly make work. Apply for funding. Find free spaces and just start creating!

Finally, how would you describe tell me straight to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

Imagine Fleabag, meets Chewing Gum, meets Sex in The City. The show is brazen, and ridiculous, whilst also being heart-felt and tender. It’s a great night out!

tell me straight is at Chiswick Playhouse from 15th to 26th February