Stephanie Martin brings her third production, Juniper & Jules, to Theatre503 this March. Theatre journalist Ed Nightingale catches Stephanie to chat about diversity and unheard stories

The last few years have seen an influx in female-led queer theatre across fringe venues, athough it’s Theatre 503 that has led the charge with 2015’s Rotterdam (Jon Brittain) and 2018’s Lobster (Lucy Foster). Juniper & Jules, from playwright Stephanie Martin, is the next production set to appear at the venue this March – the story of a romance between two women that explores themes of bisexuality and polyamory.

That wasn’t always the case, however.

Juniper & Jules Stephanie Martin

Stephanie Martin (image courtesy of Nick James)

“It started off as a non-specific piece – they were A & B and the gender wasn’t specified,” explains Stephanie. It then developed into a piece about polyamory, how “enriching and realistic it can be as a life choice, but also how it can be really damaging” before settling into its final all-female, bisexual form.

“I think I must have thought about bisexual identity, and thought ‘why do we never tell that story?’”

You’re not better than me because you’re gayer

The third of Stephanie’s full-length productions, Juniper & Jules, is certainly an overtly queer play, with a queer cast and production team. That sense of authenticity is important – the mantra ‘nothing about us without us’ being central to its construction:

“If you’re dealing with a group that’s been marginalised, it feels inappropriate not to allow members of that community to be the ones telling the story”.

Workshopping has allowed Stephanie to integrate ideas from the cast, adding to its sense of truth – simply put, it’s a story “about queer women, told by queer women.”

Equally, Juniper & Jules are “so much more than their identity, their label”. As much as the piece explores sexuality, it also examines the universality of sex and love and relationships. As cast member Stella Taylor put it to Stephanie, “gay people have more to talk about than being gay.”

“There’s just as much about them bickering as there is them being happy about being gay,” says Stephanie, whose aim was to balance the two sides of the narrative. Perhaps more importantly however, it was to portray a realistic, queer relationship and the experience of being a queer woman in 2018 in a move away from focussing on the process of coming out or fitting in with society. “We have a duty to present [queer relationships] as a really positive thing,” she says. “Write the characters and the relationships that you want to be the norm, the standard.”

The idea of female queerness is specific. Stephanie is keen to give bisexuality a clear identity, to counter perceptions that it’s only for male attention or as a step to being lesbian. Sexuality isn’t a competition – as one character in the play rightly puts it, “you’re not better than me because you’re gayer.”

Real, interesting people – part of the community

Queer in itself is a carefully chosen word: “Queer has a nice notion of being open ended… as if in the future there might not even be the need to identify who you go to bed with.”

Stephanie’s previous two plays, Bridle and Joy, looked at female sexuality and a female with learning disabilities; she has other plays in the pipeline about British Muslims, consent and sex workers. But she doesn’t see herself as a champion of the outsider – it’s simply about telling worthwhile stories about “real, interesting people.”

Juniper & Jules Stephanie Martin

Bridle; Imogen Roberts & Rachel Bright in Joy (image courtesy of Mathew Foster)

“A lot of people comment on my plays as having social activism, but that’s never been conscious,” she explains. “I’m not conscious of writing something to fill a gap in the canon, I write stories that I think are really interesting – and what interests me are stories I haven’t heard before.”

In that sense, diversity goes hand in hand with a desire for the new. But that’s not necessarily something that the industry or its audiences are totally prepared for:

“It’s completely bizarre that for so long we’ve gotten away with seeing the same story over and over again,” says Stephanie. The response to her previous play, Joy, about a neuro-divergent young girl, received a mixed response. Despite dealing with some heavy issues, many left feeling “inspired and heartened and buoyed by it”, while others criticised its unconventional pacing.

“If it takes an actor with Down’s Syndrome five minutes to say a line, is that not beautiful in itself? Are we not interested in that?”

Juniper & Jules Stephanie Martin

Imogen Roberts & Rachel Bright in Joy

Really it comes down to those in charge of programming – something that is slowly changing, particularly with Theatre 503’s female-centric season. There have been challenges with Stephanie’s plays, as she’s faced cynicism from those who feel diversity is just a passing fad. But for Stephanie it’s much more than that:

“Everybody should be able to walk down the street and feel like the space is theirs, that they’re entitled to be a part of the community. I think we have a problem where some people don’t feel that… I think we need to change that and I think with theatre and film we can.”

What’s perhaps most striking about Stephanie’s work is the scope of her ambition. As much as theatre is a powerful tool in the fight for diversity, her writing thrives on an intrigue, an interest in telling stories that haven’t been told before. Juniper & Jules is as much a play as it is a political statement:

“It’s not there to tick boxes or fill quotas. It’s just a really interesting, fun, funny, sexy, great, real play.”

 

 

Juniper & Jules runs at Theatre503 from 18 – 19 March 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.