An Interview with Lucy Porter and Marilyn Imrie: The Fair Intellectual Club

FICThe Fair Intellectual Club is a new play by Lucy Porter which first performed to critical acclaim with a sell out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014. Currently touring around the UK, the play will be performed in Edinburgh on 23rd Feb, 3rd and 4th March. Director, Marilyn Imrie and writer, Lucy Porter, very kindly took the time to answer a few of my questions about The Fair Intellectual Club, women and Edinburgh in the 18th century. 

Based on the true account of a group of teenage girls who started a secret society in 18th century Edinburgh so that “women as well as men might participate in intellectual improvement”, The Fair Intellectual Club is the first play by stand up comedian, Lucy Porter. The story is set in a world where it wasn’t considered necessary to educate women of any class and an Edinburgh where Princes Street Gardens was still a loch.

Lucy Porter has been performing stand up comedy for over a decade. She has performed shows around the world, appeared on popular TV panel shows such as Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You and is a veteran of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Marilyn Imrie is an Edinburgh and London based director; her work has included directing scripts by Annie Caulfield, Diane Atkinson and Liz Lochhead. She has worked with the BBC on radio plays including Rumpole of the Bailey with Benedict Cumberbatch and Secrets & Lattes by Hilary Lyon.

LW: Could you tell us a bit about The Fair Intellectual Club and your role in the production?

LP: I wrote the play after reading Robert Crawford’s book On Glasgow and Edinburgh. In it he made a brief mention of three teenage girls in the early 1700s who thought it was “a great pity that women who excel a great many others in birth and fortune, should not also be more eminent in virtue and good sense, which we might attain unto if we were as industrious to cultivate our minds, as we are to adorn our bodies”. They recruited six other members and met each week to discuss ideas and educate each other. They called themselves The Fair Intellectual Club. I was intrigued by the story, did some more research, and decided it would make a fascinating play. I was lucky enough to be introduced to the director Marilyn Imrie, she loved the idea too, and found our brilliant cast – Samara McLaren, Caroline Deyga and Jessica Hardwick. Together we developed my script into the play we took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

MI: It is based on an absolutely true series of events that happened to a group of real young women in 1717/1718 in Edinburgh, and since I am always drawn to the opportunity to depict real characters in a drama, this was a project which utterly fascinated me from the start. Lucy Porter asked me to direct it and Lucy, myself, the cast and our company stage manager put the show on in just over two weeks from the start of rehearsals.

LW: The play first ran to critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2014. What do you think it is that makes this story so appealing?

LP: I suppose that for me the main question it poses is how much has changed for British women in three hundred years. Some people came out of the play feeling encouraged and grateful that women have so many more opportunities today, others told me that they found it depressing that women are still largely judged on their appearance and desirability to men.

MI: I love the way in which it reveals young women in 1717 as courageous, clever, funny and dedicated to ideas and ideals and to one another; I also enjoyed discovering how some of the ways in which teenage girls have fun, form alliances, fight with one another, and support one another in adversity seems to have changed little in nearly three hundred years.

LW: The play focuses on the three girls who started the club. Of these three do you have a favourite?

LP: There isn’t much information to be found on the real women who formed the club, so I allowed myself a lot of artistic license and played around with three archetypes – the goody two-shoes, the geek and the good-time girl. They all reflect aspects of my own personality so I am equally fond of all of them. The club published a pamphlet detailing their constitution, and this contained speeches made by some of the members. There were lots of interesting things to draw on from these, and I was particularly drawn to one girl who felt herself inferior in social standing to the others. I am quite interested in status anxiety and the class system and I used one of the characters, Poly, to explore these ideas.

MI: As a mother of two daughters, and as a director, I have learned over the years  never to have favourites or give preferential treatment to one family or cast member over another! It’s not hard to do that in this play as they’re all so loveable.

LW: These girls were all well educated and privileged to a certain degree. How much do you think their experiences were influenced by living in the close confines of pre-New Town Edinburgh?

LP: This is a great question. Edinburgh was much more like a village in those days – Princes Street gardens was still a loch then, with nothing much to the north, so the city was relatively small. This physical proximity allowed the free exchange of knowledge and ideas between people and almost certainly contributed to the enlightenment. For women it also meant that close scrutiny and gossip proliferated – exposing the members of our club to possible scandal and censure.

MI: I think they had limited opportunities for education and self expression compared to young women now, although they belonged to families where they would be encouraged to develop talents in art, dancing, music and poetry, and to read and learn languages. They were also living in exciting times both politically and artistically; Edinburgh was an international city, trading with Europe and the colonies, and elements of this would be known to them [the girls] and excite them. This is reflected, often to delightful comic effect, in Lucy’s play.

LW: The girls are quoted as writing: ”Oh, how delightful is the pleasure of the mind. No-one knows it but those who value reason and good improvement above fine shapes, beauty and apparel.” Do you think that the spirit of this is still relevant today, particularly in reference to the way women are valued in society?

LP: Of course! I have been inspired by the new feminist movements such as No More Page Three and Everyday Sexism. Every generation of women has to evaluate and challenge the limitations placed on us by men and by ourselves, and there is clearly still much room for debate and improvement.

MI: Absolutely it is! All of us have to seize opportunities to develop all our talents whatever they are, and expect as a matter of course to have these talents and skills recognised and respected.

LW: Do you think it is important from a narrative and social perspective to represent women’s experiences in history?

LP: When I was writing this play I found it really frustrating that so little information was available about the lives, achievements and thoughts of women from this period. It would have made my job a lot easier if the women of the Fair Intellectual Club had gone on to be major figures in the Scottish Enlightenment and as much was known about them as about, say, David Hume or Adam Smith. We really don’t know that much about the originators of the club, it has even been suggested that they didn’t exist. One academic I spoke to suspected that their pamphlet was a spoof, written by men – either to inspire or shame women. I choose not to believe that of course! I am grateful that plays, books, films and television document more about contemporary women’s lives, but I would encourage other women to make sure that their voices are heard. I would hope that future generations will find inspiration from us in the same way that I was inspired by the women of The Fair Intellectual Club.

MI: Yes! Always! We must never stop! There are still so many untold, inspiring stories.

LW: And finally, The Fair Intellectual Club is written, directed and performed by women, which for me makes it particularly interesting. How do you feel about women’s representation in theatre in recent years, both in terms of our participation and the way theatre represents us?

LP: The experience of putting on this play has been an absolute delight for me, because it has involved a group of women getting together to explore issues that we find fascinating. My background is in stand-up comedy, another artform that has been traditionally male-dominated but that is gradually changing. When I started doing comedy people used to moan that ‘all female comics talk about is periods and how much they hate men’, presumably they hoped that we’d shut up altogether. Now Bridget Christie does stand-up about FGM and there are scores of other hilarious women entertaining unwitting, innocent audiences in comedy clubs with their dangerous views. I am new to theatre, and I am in awe of the great current female playwrights – Lucy Kirkwood, Lucy Prebble, and others that don’t share my first name. I loved Liberian Girl by Diana Nneka Atuona, and thought Three Winters by Stena Stivicic was outstanding. I am delighted by theatre that shows me a world completely different from my own, and particularly excited when those new perspectives are provided by other women.

MI: These are exciting times for women in theatre; many more of us year on year are writing, directing, designing and composing work in theatre, as well as producing it and taking charge of the financing and administration too; all vital roles for us to play. There is STILL a lot of work to be done in ensuring that there are good performance roles for women of all ages in theatre; when there are more of these, there will be a more accurate representation of how we really are, how we think, our hopes and dreams, and what truly  makes us laugh and cry.

The Fair Intellectual Club is being presented by Stellar Quines Theatre Company in conjunction with Marilyn Imrie; the company “celebrates the energy, experience and perspective of women”. Follow these links to find out more about Stellar Quines or performance dates for the full run of The Fair Intellectual Club.

Laura Witz