In conversation with Caitlin McEwan

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Caitlin McEwan is a playwright and actor. Since graduating from Durham in 2014, she has written and performed numerous times at both the VAULT Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe. Her latest play, Everything Must Go, was one of 35 plays short-listed for the inaugural Women’s Prize for Playwriting, out of 1,169 submissions.

Caitlin McEwan has certainly been keeping busy over lockdown. In the past
month alone, her play Everything Must Go has been nominated for no fewer than three major writing awards: it was short-listed for the Women’s Prize for Playwriting, shortlisted again for the Papatango New Writing Prize, and longlisted for the Soho Theatre’s Verity Bargate award.

“a lot of no’s and a lot of maybe-but-no’s”

The validation has been somewhat vindicating for the Durham graduate. Having received “a lot of no’s and a lot of maybe-but-no’s” on the script, she submitted it to the three awards with an idea that “maybe something will come from one of them”. To be recognised by all three has therefore come as a very welcome surprise.

Growing up in Edinburgh, Caitlin attended the Lyceum Youth Theatre, where she was given her first inclination of pursuing theatre as a career. “I think just knowing people who want to do it gives you a lot of confidence,” she says. “It’s like, if that person wants to do it then it’s okay that I also want to do it, and maybe we all can.”

But instead of going to drama school, Caitlin decided to pursue a degree in English at Durham University. Does she ever regret not going into formal training? “It’s hard to say. There is some sense with people who have trained that they know something I don’t, but I don’t think it’s ever really limited the opportunities I’ve had.”

As with most students involved in theatre, Caitlin admits she spent far more of her time at university acting than focusing on her degree. She immersed herself in Durham’s student theatre scene, performing with companies like DULOG, CTC (taking As You Like It to America), and DIM.

“Because Durham’s so small, you can over-think your place in the pecking order”

Yet interestingly, Caitlin didn’t start writing until after she had finished her
degree. “It was something I wanted to do but I think I had imposter syndrome”, she recalls. The prospect of putting your own work out there seemed daunting – “I’d never written a play before” – and it was only during the dead space between graduation and employment that she wrote her first play. She submitted the script to DDF, where it won Best New Writing, leading to her being invited to that year’s National Student Drama Festival.

She advises against taking things too seriously, however. “My experience with DST was really formative, but I think because Durham’s so small, you can over-think your place in the pecking order. I always wonder if I’d empowered myself more, and told myself, you can do this just because it’s an available option, then maybe I would have written here.”

A year after graduating, Caitlin teamed up with some friends from the year below to put on their first “semi-professional” play, in a fringe venue above pub. None of them had any idea how to get into the industry, so they just decided to go for it. “It was just me in a play with two of my friends from uni – we could’ve done that in the Assembly Rooms!”

Eventually, one project led to another, and while Caitlin is not yet able to live solely off writing (“it’s very, very boring how expensive it is to live in London”), she has been able to reduce her hours at the Royal Court box office to part-time, thanks to some recent commissions and the success of her latest Edinburgh Fringe play, Bible John.

“I’ve done almost every clichéd job you can imagine”, she tells me. One par-
ticularly gruelling stint at a West End box office saw her working 10-hour days, before being told that she would have to use up all her holiday pay in
order to take time off for the Fringe.

“To write through a global crisis certainly takes a lot of hope.”

“I was like, I’m not going on a little jolly, I’m going to Edinburgh to do two shows – and I’m responsible for whether they make any money or not! I came back straight afterwards, and within two weeks I had contracted gastric flu.” She describes this as an apt metaphor for trying to make a living while working as a creative.

What would she say is the most important thing a writer can have at the moment? “I guess it’s just hope, actually. It’s hope that things will return, and that you just have to keep writing because you love it, and eventually the stories you are writing will be able to be seen. To write through a global crisis certainly takes a lot of hope.”

Image: Andrew James

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