Notes on 'Frenchy'

(Extract from the 2010 publication I am a Record)

In 1984 our strict Roman Catholic girls convent school merged its 6th form with the local RC boys school. In all its history, since the Sister of Notre Dame de Namur had founded the school in 1898, ‘males’ had never roamed its corridors, until now.  This monumental and life changing event was further heightened by the ambitious and effervescent drama teacher Miss Burnley. The teacher suggested a plan which she believed would smooth the complex transition and help unite the opposing sexes — to stage a musical. The musical she chose was the most famous high school musical of the time: Grease. Her brilliant idea and the events that were to unravel over the next year changed the dynamic of both schools and the pupils that attended them. As fantasy merged with reality the lives of the teenagers became so intertwined with their fictional counterparts that the stories within the ‘drama’ began to mirror those of their real lives. The subjects within the play of underage sex, teen pregnancy, smoking and drinking, and the final triumph of sexual 'liberation' over purity were all particularly alien concepts for many of the young innocents whose only previous dramatic experiences had been singing hymns in the chapel or playing the clarinet. The female stereotypes within the play, and especially those of the five female leads (‘The Pink Ladies’), clashed violently with the teachings of the school which were steeped in religion— faith, chastity and prayer. Onlt 6 months earlier we had stood in the town hall wearing our matching grey uniforms and singing “Notre Dame our alma mater, we are glad to sing your praise….we bow to your gentle rule, we are glad to be enlisted in the ranks of this your school”. Now these same girls were auditioning for roles where they would be blowing smoke rings, French kissing, glugging from wine bottles and discussing ‘going all the way’. As the teenagers in the fiction came of age and began flirting, dating and experimenting with sex, so too did its Catholic teenage cast.  Some strange and almost mystical transformation took place—girls who were once prim and shy came out as bold and sassy, and bi-spectacled boys with nervous twitches, stutters and square haircuts became funny and almost cool as they worked on their dance steps, slicked back hair-styles and sarcastic American accented put-me-downs.

Most girls auditioned for the ‘Pink Lady’ roles. They sang, danced and acted their hearts out to secure a part, which could inevitably lead to spending more time with the boys. Each girl had an idea of which character they identified with and the play duly satisfied us with its five limited stereotypes—the virginal innocent ripe for corruption, the tough risk taking leader with a vulnerable underbelly, the femme fatale, the fun-loving ditzy air head, and the loud overweight clown. At 15 we never thought to question these clichéd labels that would continue to haunt us throughout our adult lives. I was given the role of 'Frenchie'.

Ten years later while writing the script for what would become Hypnodreamdruff I was thinking about a character; a depressed loner who never leaves the confines of her bedroom. I suddenly wanted to see the video of our school musical, which I knew had been recorded by one of the girl’s parents at the time. I wanted to analyse the bedroom scene, the only scene where all five girls are alone together, and see how we played it. It turned out it was impossible to find the old video, but I started to question how I felt about these stereotypes now and wonder what it would be like to try to become all of these female ‘role-models’— one multifaceted character who embodied all their looks, quirks and gestures. So I became this character, a woman stuck in time, constantly re-enacting the same scene over and over while searching for herself within it, and finding out that she could possibly be all of them, and at the same time none of them at all.

I am a Record, publication, 2010