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Interview: Writer Josephine Starte discusses how three generations deal with grief in Killing It

Uncovering the ways in which three generations of women cope with grief is the subject of Josephine Starte's latest play, Killing It. An apposite topic considering much of the population is currently in mourning for the state of the country. The play centres around a young man lost at sea and the impact this has upon his girlfriend, mother and grandmother and their complex and intricate lives. Blending political metaphor with personal trauma, Killing It is a richly layered and timely piece of art. Run-Riot spoke to actress, writer and improv-comic Josephine Starte to learn more.

Kerenza Evans: What was the inspiration for Killing It?
Josephine Starte: I knew I wanted to explore different types of overlapping grief and grief from different perspectives. The initial inspiration, on a very basic level, was feeling extremely sad about my own life at the time - I’d moved countries and left a relationship - and the way in which this interacted with political anxiety. The pronounced shift to the right in the last five years or so has made cruelty and absurdity feel so normal and the vulnerability of grief so terrifying. Then I became interested in people going missing and in deaths at sea; in the liminal space of not knowing, and how torturous that might be. It seemed like a metaphor that could hold these feelings and ideas. Beyond this, I wanted to explore the desire to turn personal grief into artistic material. It’s something I identified with and something I was seeing a lot of in comedy and theatre. Personal experience is a rich place to draw from, and there’s obvious potential catharsis in it… but I started to wonder if trauma was being increasingly commodified in a way that begged questions. Is there increased pressure to sell every emotional experience — to be productive with our sadness?
 
Kerenza: What is the setting for the play?
Josephine: It’s mostly set in a London house but culminates in Greece, via Edinburgh and Aberdeen — so we move around! Time also isn’t totally linear…

Kerenza: How did you research the effects of grief on those left behind? Is any of it based on personal experience?
Josephine: Initially I read articles and I spoke to a couple of people who’d experienced losing loved ones at sea, who had different levels of clarity over what had happened. In terms of personal experience — when I started writing the play I was using my own emotional instincts, but I hadn’t lost anyone in this way. In an awful and surreal twist of fate, when I was developing the script I did lose a friend very suddenly. The play isn’t based on that experience, but undoubtedly it had a huge impact on what the play came to be.

Kerenza: How do your three protagonists find different ways of coping with grief?
Josephine: In brief — a young man is missing and presumed dead at sea. His girlfriend is writing a stand-up comedy show about her experiences of grief, whilst also living with his grandmother as a sort of unofficial carer. His mother has poured herself into her floristry business, her Youtube channel and a new relationship, all the while trying to find money for a private investigation into her son’s death, and attempting to get her own mother on a drug trial for dementia. His grandmother, who has also recently had a mini stroke, is plotting how to assassinate the visiting American president. Everyone is very busy and there’s a lot of secrets.
 
Kerenza: Do you find the process of writing therapeutic?
Josephine: Sort of. But it’s not only therapeutic, it’s also maddening.  

Kerenza: Your play deals with three generations of women. Did you find one particular voice easier to write than the others?
Josephine: Actually no. I don’t know if that’s a benefit of being an actor as well. I like looking out of all of their heads equally. 

Kerenza: In addition to being a writer-performer, you're also an improv comic. Were you able to introduce any elements of improv into the performance?
Josephine: I love improv but to be honest the process for this play hasn’t used it much. Having that improv experience was really useful when writing the stand-up comedy sections, but there’s nothing technically improvised in the show. I do have other shows that use more of a mingling of writing/ improv though (see below…), which I also really like. 

Kerenza: Which topics would you like to tackle next?
Josephine: I have a few other plays on and in development this year — An Independent Film With A Strong Female Lead at Camden People’s Theatre, which explores the vagaries of a relationship between a director and an actress; WITCH WITCH WITCH at Old Red Lion which is about magik, bad relationships and making choices and Mary and Maria at Camden People’s Theatre which is about the politics of childcare and the state. I tend to write comitragedies about relationships, often with a political edge, and usually I focus on female perspectives. Amongst other things, I’ve got something I want to write about Switzerland and something I want to write about sexuality, isolation and ASMR if anyone’s interested…

Killing It runs at the Vault Festival on February 25th/26th 2020. To book tickets, please click here.

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