By SPECIWOMEN Photography HANNAH SOMMER
Who are you?
I’m Natalia Knowlton and I’m a Chilean-Canadian playwright and theatre maker based in London, UK. My work is inherently feminist and I use my life and lived experiences to inform most of my writing. My plays have dealt with female sexuality, millennials’ consumption of internet porn, fetishization of virginity, personal and ancestral experiences of immigration, love and relationships, feminism and gender, the Latin American diaspora experience and gendered-based violence.
How did theatre become a part of your life?
When I was in primary school in Chile, I had a teacher who incorporated a lot of theatre in our classes. We’d read a book in class and the first thing she’d make us do is re-enact a scene and she was always taking us to see plays. I was twelve years old when I moved to Edmonton, Canada and my grandmother really wanted me to enroll in an after-school activity. The only thing I could think of was theatre because it was all I knew and I hated sports. So I took acting classes every year until I was 18 and then I went off to study theatre in university despite everyone telling me not to do that!
What has been the hardest role to mentally prepare yourself for?
My first play in the UK was Cream Pie, I devised it with my theatre partner Kara Chamberlain (we both run our company Crossline Theatre). It was a verbatim play about millennials’ consumption of internet porn. We conducted interviews with several people and we performed the monologues ourselves, we each played about six different characters.
It’s always a challenge to play multiple characters but I had also done that before, so I felt prepared. The hardest part was creating a character that is based on a real person. We never revealed their true identity but we still had to be respectful while creating a character for the stage. One monologue in particular was about a person coming across bestiality online. It’s a really graphic monologue and as an actor I wasn’t really going into too much depth. One day I was rehearsing on my own, just going over the same monologue over and over until I burst into tears. I didn’t even see it coming. But I think it finally sunk in what the monologue was actually about it. Some really disturbing and unthinkable content is online and anyone can watch it. It terrified me.
How has showing your work to an audience made you feel?
As a performer, it’s always scary to get on stage but then you get into it and forget there’s an audience. As a writer, it is ten times scarier! It feels like someone has taken a piece of your heart and thrown it on stage for everyone to see and judge. I know that sounds dramatic but it’s quite nerve wracking, especially the first couple of nights. You’re aware the whole time that it’s your writing, your thoughts and everyone is there watching them unfold. It’s terrifying but also really rewarding.
What is the most important aspect of theatre?
I don’t think you can pick one element because they’re all equally important. Some would say that the story is the foundation and therefore the most important aspect. But a good script falls flat with a bad director and/or actors, the same way that a talented cast can’t do much with a weak script. Of course there’s also the live audience who change everything once they’re in the room, some say you can’t have theatre without them. Now that I really think about it, I think the most important aspect is the message of the show, the “why?” behind the piece. I would rather see a show that lacks craft and polish but has a powerful message and the artists feel passionate about it. That always wins over a polished show with a big budget that lacks substance in its message.
What is in the works?
I wrote a play called Friday Night Love Poem that looks at virginity, female pleasure and the challenges girls face when they come to terms with their sexuality. It was programmed in two London venues and Brighton Fringe in May 2019. We got great reviews and amazing audience feedback. We’re hoping to tour it next year, nationally and hopefully internationally someday.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I see myself writing plays that are getting commissioned, published and produced all over the world. I’m okay with playwriting not paying all my bills so I’d be happy if my day job was still theatre marketing or teaching playwriting at a university. I’d love to have a cat or two, travel and have a proper desk for my writing.
As a woman in the theatre world, what have been your biggest challenges thus far?
That’s such a difficult question to answer because sexism can sometimes be very obvious but often times it’s much more insidious because our society has presented misogyny as the norm for so many centuries.
The biggest obstacle is simply being raised as a woman and how that affects my confidence. I don’t think I’m someone who has terrible confidence but then I encounter a male artist who doesn’t have much experience but is full of arrogance. They go for all the opportunities they’re not even qualified for and they bluff their way through meetings. Whereas I constantly apologize and walk on eggshells when setting up a meeting because I don’t want to take up anyone’s time. I wonder if I’d be further down in my career if I were a man.
In general I rarely work with men. Ever since finishing university, I have made mostly feminist theatre so I’m constantly surrounded by women. I love it and I think I’ll keep working that way. I have experienced a lot of rejection as an artist living in London and that’s not surprising. What is still unknown to me is who reads my work and rejects me. Is it still mostly white men? It’s hard to tell. During my Masters, I’d still get the note from male teachers that my female characters were unlikeable or (and this is my favourite) that I know nothing about female sexuality. Are the men reading my plays still thinking those things?
You mentioned you’re a playwright as well, is there anything you’ve been working on here and can you briefly share it with us?
Friday Night Love Poem has taken most of my time and energy in the last few years but I really want to start working on the next script. It’s still early days but I want to write a coming-of-age story about a Latina girl who lives between two cultures, always in a state of nostalgia through music. I want it to be a karaoke musical. That’s all I can really say for now.
What else do you want to achieve in this passion of your and over all what's your end goal?
At my core, I am an artist and a storyteller. I want to keep expressing myself creatively to show my view of the world. I’ve done it mostly through playwriting and theatre but I would love to expand my horizons and try other art forms. I used to paint in high school, I’d love to start doing that again. It’d be cool to write a book one day, maybe non-fiction or poetry. Maybe write a full-length screenplay or finally take proper singing lessons! Who knows, I’m open to anything.