Interview: Penelope Skinner tackles male chauvinism in Angry Alan

Angry Alan. Picture: Contributed
Angry Alan. Picture: Contributed
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The rise of men’s rights in the wake of unashamed male chauvinist Donald Trump was an irresistible subject for a feminist playwright to make flesh through her actor partner

The feminist playwright Penelope Skinner has written about women having affairs (The Village Bike), women turning 50 and becoming invisible (Linda), and millennial loneliness (Eigengrau). But she ventures into new territory with Angry Alan, which for the first time has a man as the only performer – and which has just won a Scotsman Fringe First award.

She worked with her partner, Donald Sage Mackay, to create the role. He plays Roger, a man who is angry after losing his job and getting divorced and discovers catharsis in following an evangelist for the men’s rights movement – Angry Alan.

Angry Alan is based, in part, on the real-life men’s activist Angry Harry, who blogged and vlogged about our “gynocentric society” until his death in 2016, and the face of the men’s rights movement, Paul Elam, the founder of the A Voice for Men website, who makes long videos and essays about why marriage and divorce are unfair to men.

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“Roger isn’t the protagonist of the play, he just thinks he is,” says Skinner, who deftly interweaves Roger’s monologue with arguments with his girlfriend and ex-wife about how society is treating men.

“The whole show is done in his voice but my voice behind it is quite present,” she says.

Although on the face of it, a play dealing directly with modern politics and with a male protagonist seems a step away from comfortable territory for Skinner, she didn’t see it that way.

“Because I was looking at the points of empathy,” she says. “Men’s rights are about gender and feminism is about gender, so it’s trying to connect the dots between those things and find the places where they might cross over and have similar things to say.”

There are moments in the play when the parallels between the men’s rights movement and feminism are drawn out. Skinner demonstrates that they are both striving for equality, even if they come at it from very different perspectives.

Sometimes you feel sympathy for Roger’s point of view, especially when he talks about how he wants to see more of his son.“I lose my job and I move away and I’m paying all this alimony but I don’t see Joe except on weekends or holidays. And the older he gets, the more of a stranger he seems to become and then he stops visiting altogether and no-one will tell me why – so of course I blame myself. Right? But then I take the red pill…” he says.

“I feel the story of this guy Roger is an important one and I’m not sure men are telling it,” says Skinner, who became interested in the fringe movement in 2016, around the time of the US presidential election.

The 40-year-old playwright, who made her name with the controversial plays about female sexuality, F**ked and The Village Bike, says she wanted to cover the rise of the men’s rights movement because after the US election she and her partner, who is American, “had all these feelings” and “there was this immediate sense of wanting to respond”.

They were working on a play in New York during the election, and whenever they ventured to upstate New York, they would see election signs on people’s lawns, saying “Trump Pence”.

“I was saying to him, ‘There’s a lot of Trump things here, Trump might win.’ I saw it coming, partly because of the UK [Brexit] referendum. So over here we knew it was possible. It could happen.”

Her reaction was that of many people on the left. “There was a huge part of the population that weren’t horrified or shocked, but I think it was a big deal. If you can be recorded saying ‘grab them by the pussy’ and still be president then it sort of feels like, you know, all bets are off.”

The play is about the misogyny that Trump explicitly endorsed and how groups of men are congregating both online and in real life to blame women for their problems. Trump is a background figure in the play.

“You don’t know whether Roger has voted for Trump but it is on a level where Trump is a poster boy for some of those less woman-friendly politics.”

Skinner and Mackay were also inspired by a documentary they saw about the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel in California’s Death Valley. The cultural centre was founded by the late ballet dancer and actress Marta Becket, who was 43 when she bought the rundown hotel in 1968 and transformed it into her own theatre, performing every night for four decades regardless of whether she had an audience.

“I think, for some reason, this documentary really spoke to us and we thought, ‘Let’s make some work.’”

They created the play together in their living room, with Skinner writing and rewriting and Mackay playing Roger. It has evolved in the fast-response, home-made fashion of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which clearly excites Skinner.

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“That’s the thing about the Fringe, it’s experimental, it’s like when you go on holiday you might try something you wouldn’t normally wear. It frees you up.”

She’s also bringing another show to the Fringe, Meek, directed by Amy Hodge, with the Headlong theatre company. It’s a three-hander about a woman imprisoned in an imagined alternative Scandinavian reality.

“I wrote the play before The Handmaid’s Tale TV series was a massive hit,” she says, adding reluctantly: “There are some similarities but it’s not a dystopia. I wrote it just after the [Brexit] referendum and there is that feeling for both plays, that politics has taken a different turn from what we are used to, so both plays make good companion pieces for that reason.”

Unlike her other work, which often builds to a point of tension, Meek lands in the middle of the drama. It’s also “not funny”, she says. “I wanted to make something political, and usually the humour comes from the people, but in this world it just wouldn’t.”

I suggest that something has changed for Skinner, that she’s turning her attention outward into the world of politics, rather than the microcosms of community dynamics she’s known for. Was there something she wanted to say with these two shows?

“The truth is, there’s never something you want to say,” she says. “It’s more you want to investigate something. It’s about faith and religion. Our theatre climate has changed and I feel like 10 years ago religion wasn’t in the world – as politics has changed. Theatre has now realised religion is a big driving force throughout the world, it’s part of the discourse.”

Angry Alan, Underbelly Cowgate, until 26 August; Meek, Traverse Theatre, until 26 August