From the 18th through the late 20th centuries, women and young girls deemed fallen were forced to atone for their “sins” at labor camps in Ireland known as Magdalene laundries. These women, many of whom were prostitutes, single mothers, rape victims, or simply poor, not only suffered at the hands of the nuns who ran these laundries, but also at the hands of a society that ignored their plight until very recently. In Magdalen, Erin Layton gives voice to women who had no voice in a multi-character, one-woman show that ran successfully at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. We had a chance to interview the playwright and actress as she prepares to bring these characters to the stage as part of the 2015 Fringe Encore series at the Soho Playhouse.
On the Magdalen website, it says that you heard Joni Mitchell's song "The Magdalene Laundries" and it inspired you to learn more about the institutions. Did you not know of them before?
I hadn’t known of the Magdalene laundries prior to hearing Joni’s song. Joni was at the very tip of my research. Once I learned more about these commercial institutions and how they functioned, through the incarceration and slave labor of thousands of women and children, I was both shocked and intrigued. I couldn’t stop thinking about this sore in a nation’s history that so very few people, including me, knew about. I also felt disturbed – with humanity. How do we – as people – live with ourselves when these types of atrocities are kept hidden for so long – like, centuries long? It’s not just Ireland. Women are being trafficked and oppressed all over the world.
Did you visit the actual sites before writing the play?
Yes, I visited Ireland in 2010 before I knew that I wanted to write a full length play. I mean, I knew that I wanted to create something about the laundries – a dance, an installation, spoken word performance. It wasn’t until I met people on the streets of Dublin, heard their stories, engaged with Irish culture and witnessed the abandoned laundry sites that a narrative started coming together in my mind.
What is the collaboration process like between you and Magdalen director Julie Kline? How long have you worked together?
I met Julie through a mutual colleague, Daniel Talbott. He suggested that I reach out to her with my play idea - and I’m so grateful that he did! The process of developing a solo show collaboratively was a first for both of us so, we were in the discovery process together. We’ve been with this project for over four years now. Julie has an incredible eye for narrative structure. My first couple of drafts were skeletal, without form and rather embarrassing. When we first met about the play, we had one month to slap together a workshop performance of the script – an opportunity awarded to me by some generous friends who lent us their theatre in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Julie and I worked together fast – we always have – so our first year of development together was vigorous and intense. She asks great questions and really digs into the meat of the story. We must have ripped through at least ten drafts before we landed on a script that we could stage for our world premiere at the FringeNYC in 2012 – and we continued to make edits along the way, well into 2015 when I brought Magdalen to Edinburgh Fringe. I thrive on a good challenge and our collaboration has challenged me in the best way possible. Working with Julie has made me a better playwright and a stronger artist!
You play various characters in the play. Does your interpretation of each character change with every performance?
My interpretation of the characters do not change but their emotional arc does. The characters are who they are. I’m not interested in reinterpreting them. The audience brings a particular energy to each performance that helps me shift into a different gear – with specific moments. Before I go onstage I’m not conscious that anything will change within the performance. I allow the changes to happen based on what’s happening “out there”.
How do you mentally prepare before going on stage?
It depends. Sometimes, I dance. When I was performing in the UK, the audiences were practically unresponsive. I was pretty anxious after those first couple of week performing for such quiet houses so, five minutes before we opened the house, I’d rock out to gangsta rap to get my nervous energy out. My stage managers loved it! Once I learned to appreciate the silence and felt less intimidated, my pre-show routines shifted to vocal/dialect warm-ups and a tailored “fight call” – quick character transitions to sharpen specific scenes. After 21 shows, Edinburgh taught me how to prepare my mind and body for performance.
The last of the laundries was closed in the 1990s. Have you ever met anyone with a personal connection to them?
I met Mari Steed when I first started researching the laundries. Mari is an adoptee of a Magdalene Laundry worker and she's the US committee director for Justice For The Magdalenes, an advocacy group that seeks justice and equality for the surviving victims of the laundries. Mari is incredible – a true warrior. She lead a post-show discussion on the laundries following a performance of Magdalen in 2012 and she continues to be very supportive of my project.
Has learning about the lives of the women of the Magdalene laundries, and performing the play, changed your life in terms of how you perceive your role in society as a woman and as an artist?
The women of the laundries, their lives and history, have taught me how to perceive my role as a theatre artist and writer. Through learning about their stories and through the time spent investigating and developing and crafting this play, I’ve embraced the kind of theatre that I want to invest my time and energy in. Honestly, this story has taught me how to be a better person – more empathetic, compassionate, selfless. When I hear/see audiences sniffling or clicking their teeth, shaking their heads, that’s when I know this play is far bigger than me. It affects people. I’m up there telling a story that matters and that’s the kind of person and woman and artist that I want to be in the world.
What kind of conversations do you hope women, and audiences in general, will have after watching the play?
My hope is that people (women and men) will reflect upon our own hidden secrets – as a nation, and as a society. Sure the Church was wrong to incarcerate these innocent women and Ireland is a flawed nation but so are we. Especially in light of what's happening today with race and policing, my hope is that people are able to confront the ways that we have failed – individually and collectively – in loving others, in serving the underserved, in not speaking up for injustices. I think the more we talk, the more we acknowledge the wrongs, the more we can be reconciled to each other and to our history. It's a big call but I believe in the power of theatre to challenge how we talk about and see the world.
Magdalen will be performed October 4-11 at the Soho Playhouse.