RACHAEL'S CAFE - a feature written by playwright Lucy Danser

Growing up in London, seeing theatre shows or making up my own with my sister, I was always on the lookout for my favourite actresses, female-centric shows, and inspiring comediennes. Perhaps because I saw such a broad variety of theatre, and because I gathered my idols so voraciously, it took quite a long time for me to notice any disparity between males and females in the theatre. My theatrical education encompassed every one from Dame Judi Dench and Julie Walter via Liza Minnelli and Joan Littlewood, plays such as ‘Shirley Valentine’, ‘Once a Catholic’ and Spoonface Steinberg. I subsisted on my Grandmother’s tales of her time as a performer. For a long time I had no awareness of how many more roles there were for males out there, how positions in the industry were dominated by men or how few female playwrights’ works had been performed in comparison with their male counterparts. I was just eager to get out there and join those before me. It was really only later on, flicking through plays where the female part was a token, one dimensional character or turning up at auditions where there were double the amount of women present for way less available roles that the idea that there was anything to fight for dawned on me.

Really, I didn’t go into the arts to make a point or prove anything other than that theatre and comedy are awesome and integral to our lives whether we’re talking about serious drama or laugh out loud slapstick comedy. Having said that, it’s always been at the back of my mind that, at some point in the future, I’d like to add in some way to the voices that inspired me by creating interesting, pertinent stories and roles for actresses. But right now I’m just a few years out of university, working out what exactly I want to do in this world and I haven’t quite worked out who I am or what I want to say. When you feel that way you look elsewhere for your inspiration and that’s what happened to me.

I met a woman called Rachael at the café she owns and runs in Bloomington, Indiana while I was studying at Indiana University. The combination of her Midwestern openness, her friendly nature and her response to her unique experiences in life charmed and fascinated me and once I left Indiana, I returned soon after to learn more about her. We conducted informal interviews and ultimately this led me to write a play based on them so that more people would get to ‘meet’ Rachael and hopefully find her as inspiring as I did. It’s called, quite simply and to the point, Rachael’s Café.

What I can’t work out though is, have I finally written that play showcasing a new, important female voice and experience? To all intents and purposes I think so. Rachael is definitely a female role model in my life and the play is all about her life as a woman running a café. But here is my issue. If (and I’m getting ahead of myself now), but if our performer ever received an acting award for this play it wouldn’t be for ‘Best Actress’. The actor playing Rachael is a man.

I’ve done a lot of research whilst writing the play and my general feeling is that Rachael identifies as a woman so this is a women’s story. Rachael, born Eric Wininger, has three children and for their sake, despite now presenting as female, she hasn’t undergone any sort of hormonal or surgical changes which would alter her physical appearance. This way, if they want their Daddy, ‘he’ is still there. A wig gets whipped off, a pair of jeans pulled on and Eric can appear. So, in order to represent every facet of Rachael’s life, we’ve had to cast someone who is physically male. It’s all a tad complicated for us to get our heads around but more so, of course, for Rachael and her family.

Right now I just want to know if ‘Rachael’s Café’ can be regarded as my first foray into writing a strong, female role even if said role is played by a male actor. It certainly doesn’t align with any of my experiences in the theatre growing up, but for those of us who have got to know Rachael either in person or through watching the play I don’t think there’s any question that this is a woman’s story. Perhaps a different kind of woman, and a different kind of story, than we’re used to but one nonetheless.

(c) Lucy Danser 2014

Website: www.rachaelscafeplay.co.uk

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rachaelscafeplay

Twitter: @rachaelscafepla

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRIutdapgbc


(photograph accompanying this feature is of the real Rachael holding the article that's been written about her and the show over in the States.)

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