10 Questions with Beth Westbrook

News 12 May 2023

Traverse Breakthrough Writer, Beth Westbrook, gives us insight into her writing practice and a taste of what's to come from the reading of her piece Awareness as part of our 10 Questions interview.

1. What compels you as a writer?

Growing up as an autistic and undiagnosed adhd kid, I never saw myself in media or stories. Now I’m older, and have worked a lot specifically looking at the impact of representation, I now realise how much that messed with my self esteem. When the only scraps of autistic representation in the world were dodgy stereotypes that presented autism as something bad, you do internalise that. I’m so grateful that now we are hearing more autistic and disabled stories now, but representation is nowhere near where it needs to be. I will always tell stories in disabled worlds because disabled worlds are our world.

Without sounding like a mindfulness instructor, I am more interested in the present, and having my stories be moments in time. TikTok and Twitter might not even exist this time next year but I still need to tell this story. I’m also drawn to female led stories with a sense of humour, even in the darkest moments, because I believe life is funny. I’m excited for the stories in the future that will come as I grow older and the world grows too.

And I need to write an episode of Doctor Who before I die.

2. What made you write Awareness and what are the themes of the play?

Awareness’ themes are Growth, Perception, and Validation (God that sounded very writerly).

Awareness came from a mishmash of things, but the common denominator was how social media can affect someone’s real life.

Awareness is my second play. Because my first play, Sunny Girl, was ‘the anti Rain Man’ where autism was central to the story, I wanted to write a story which could be told on its own without any autistic references, but the autistic world enhances the story, and creates another perspective.

And Sia’s movie was about to come out and it was awful.

3. What was your starting point for writing the play and what sort of references and research did you draw upon?

I grew up with YouTubers, including family vloggers, and the YouTube babies are now no longer babies. It was interesting to me how those kids would feel about their whole lives being online (Literally from birth) and how that would impact them in the real world.

It has gotten better now I think, but 3 years ago it felt like whenever autism was discussed within mainstream media, it was always from a neurotypical perspective. Autistic people were never allowed to tell their own stories unless they had a neurotypical sidekick. I was also interested in how there are different forms of ableism, especially when someone is ableist but they had good intentions. There is also an online divide between the autistic community and parents/family of autistic people, so I spent a lot of time on social media exploring both sides.

But I think the thing that clicked everything together was a viral video of a child with dwarfism crying in the car because of ableist bullying. The child is in extreme distress, sharing suicidal ideation, whilst the mum was filming. There isn’t a black and white answer on whether the mum should have posted the video or not. There is also the disability aspect, where it feels disabled people are only acknowledged by non disabled people when they are either ‘inspirational’ or in crisis.

What is the cost to raising awareness?

4. How do you want audiences to feel having watched the show?

Messy. I want them to continue to question the character’s actions, and continue to question themselves too.

5. What has the development process for Awarenessbeen like?

I’ve been working on Awareness since 2020, so it’s almost been 3 years now, but it feels like we’ve been growing up, rather than it being a long time. It’s been interesting to see how internet culture has grown and changed as well, and I’ve also learnt and grown a lot too. There are perspectives I had within the play 3 years ago that I wouldn’t put in now, and there are perspectives I wouldn’t have considered 3 years ago. So much has changed within 3 years, so it’s been fun exploring the character’s perspectives and having more toys in the toy box to play with.

I never wanted Awareness to offer a black and white answer of who’s right and wrong, but when I started writing I definitely was writing in favour of one perspective at the detriment of the other. Emma in particular has been a balancing act of making sure it’s clear she’s not a monster, but not excusing some of her actions either. These characters do make mistakes, but all of their different experiences are valid.

6. How have you found your experience within the Traverse Breakthrough Writers programme?

It’s been really lovely. I’m from the Wirral, and I’ve only been to Edinburgh once for the Fringe during my first year of uni, and it was one of my first experiences as an artist, so it has been lovely to come back now I’m 5 years older and have more experience.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Traverse ever since the 2019 Fringe, and been admiring and reading their work from afar, so it has been amazing to meet and work with everyone! It’s been great working on the nitty gritty of writing to develop Awareness, but it’s also been brilliant working with Neurodivergent artists as part of the development, because we’ve been able to share our experiences and perspectives with each other, and help enrich the world of Awareness.

7. What are you looking forward to most about seeing Awarenesson stage at The Traverse?

I’m looking forward to a Scottish audience!

I’m excited to see how online discourse plays in real life, and just experiencing Awareness away from the page.

8. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?

There’s so much advice I’ve been given it’s really hard to pick the best.

I have 3 things I was given and quote most to others;

  1. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, firstly, take a walk, and then deliberately write the worst possible version of what you want to write and usually that will unlock the block. Sometimes you just need to stop overthinking and just write
  2. Failure is data acquisition (thanks how to fail with elizabeth day)
  3. Make sure you look after yourself and your body, because if you don’t have yourself, you don’t have anything, and especially if you’re a people pleaser, if you don’t have yourself, you won’t be able to help anyone either (for better or worse).

9. You open Awareness with production notes emphasising the importance of accessibility within the play. Can you reflect on why this is such an important factor when creating theatre?

Because everyone should be able to access theatre. I believe in the social model of disability where disabled people are disabled by society’s physical and social barriers.

In regards to theatre, access is our responsibility, and people shouldn’t have to fit into theatre. In this same vein, access shouldn’t fit into a show and be tagged on at the end, good access should be embedded into a show from the very start of the process. I’m not a professional access consultant at all and have no experience of access consultancy, so when writing access into a script, I am just using my experiences and what I have learnt from other people.

We also need more accessible performances, to cater to specific access needs, because theatres programming one relaxed performance a year is ridiculous to me, especially when often the only accessible performances are for children’s theatre. Bluey is great, but we want to see Hamlet. (I prefer Much Ado About Nothing to be fair).

You can be so creative with access as well. You don’t just have to have a caption box in plain font at the top of the stage, you can embed creative access into the design and staging of a production which looks and feels incredible. You can make every performance an accessible and theatrical experience.

Theatre is one of the oldest art forms, and throughout history has been adapted to suit society at that time, sometimes for the better, or sometimes to suit the people with power. I do get frustrated with some of theatre’s social conventions at times. Theatre Workers need to be safe and able to do their jobs, but someone bringing a bag of sweets isn’t going to ruin a performance. We need to make theatre more comfortable for everyone.

(Please don’t sing along during awareness though. There isn’t anything to sing along to.)

10. What are your hopes for the future of your play Awareness, beyond its development within Traverse Breakthrough Writers?

I want to see a full production on stage, and I’m really keen to work with an all autistic creative team. I’d love to see the 3 worlds become alive on stage. I think a lot of fun can be had with the design. I’d love to work with an access consultant and explore ways of using creative access.

I’d also love to get this story to as many autistic and neurodivergent people as possible, especially young people because hopefully they can see themselves in Awareness. I believe all aspects of the story are extremely relevant for now, so I would love to see it have another audience.