Listen to this podcast by Talking Heads volunteer Kirsty Ann-Watters, as she spoke to koi collective members Sally MacAlister, Grace Baker, Zara Louise Kennedy, and Evie Mortimer about their new play Hysterical.
Commissioned by Live Borders for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, Hysterical is a free fall through a categorically inaccurate history of mad women, based on real women in real times.
It premiered at Melrose Corn Exchange in October and is showing again at Heart of Hawick on the evening of Saturday 9 December. Find out more and book tickets here.
Interview with koi collective about their new play Hysterical
Kirsty Ann Watters
Kirsty Anne Watters is a writer, mental health volunteer and policy assistant from Glasgow. She has bipolar disorder and often uses her writing to help cope with her condition. You can find more of Kirsty’s work on Instagram.
[00:00:00] Kirsty Ann Watters: Hello, my name is Kirsty Ann Waters and I am a Talking Heads volunteer for the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2023. Welcome to the podcast.
[00:00:10] As part of this year’s festival, I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to two members of the koi collective, as well as writer Sally McAllister and director Grace Baker on their new play, Hysterical.
[00:00:24] Hysterical sees five clinically mad women meet in a small town hall to perform a play for a seemingly sane audience. But is it a play? Or is it a warning? Or still, is it an intervention? Based on real women in real times, Hysterical is a free fall through a categorically inaccurate history of mad women.
[00:00:45] This interview covered an array of topics, from women and madness, to the patriarchy, to even the Barbie movie. So without further ado, here is the amazing team behind Hysterical. Enjoy!
[00:00:59] Would you like to introduce yourselves?
[00:01:00] Sally MacAlister: I’m Sally, I am the writer of Hysterical!.
[00:01:04] Grace Baker: My name is Grace Baker and I am the director of Hysterical.
[00:01:09] Zara Louise Kennedy: My name is Zara Louise Kennedy and I am an actor and part of koi collective.
[00:01:14] Evie Mortimer: And I’m Evie Mortimer, I’m an actor and I’m also one of the founding members of koi.
[00:01:20] Kirsty Ann Watters: Great, thank you guys.
[00:01:21] Sally MacAlister: We’ve penned Hysterical as a feminist freefall through the history of the medical industry. It’s an interesting one. Essentially, it’s about five dead women who unite in a church hall. And at first, you just think that they’re there to have a good time, and then it slowly sinks in that perhaps they’re there as a warning for what’s happened in the past to women in the medical system.
[00:01:50] Kirsty Ann Watters: Can I ask you about the writing process? You mentioned how it was funded by the arts festival. So do you want to talk about that and the writing process?
[00:01:59] Sally MacAlister: Of course, yeah. So we have worked with Jason and Heart of Hawick before. And we brought a show there about grief and young people around this time last year. And it really worked. I think we really bonded with the venue and the ethos of the place, which is why we got invited back.
[00:02:17] I am a really big research based writer. I get hooked on topics and ideas and big books, and I read and I read.
[00:02:25] So this was an ideal topic for me because a lot of the women that we reference in the play They are based on truth, on true stories that I’ve picked out. And I think it’s really interesting because they are, like, obscenely funny stories. Ridiculous stories, or stories that you would feel were, like, fantastical. But they did happen.
[00:02:45] Which is just such an interesting thing about women’s health in general, is that some of these stories are so either inspiring or… entertaining, and yet they still haven’t been heard. So that was a really big part of it for me, was just reading up on everything.
[00:02:59] And then of course the way that the koi collective works is very collaborative. And I’m a very open writer, so it’s great to have that feedback as well. We had like a drafting process where I’d give it to them, they’d have a play with it. We’d see what works, we’d see what didn’t. We added song halfway through, which was really cool.
[00:03:16] They aren’t exclusive to Scotland. There is one character who is a real character called Celia who was brought up, she grew up, abroad, but she is from Morningside originally. Other than that, they are scattered around the globe. And I think basically, I read a lot. Like I read a lot, and I read a lot that was just like general stories at the time that were historically interesting to me.
[00:03:42] And then also I read a lot of heavy, very sad books about hysteria and picked from them. They all have the similar, they’re always like mad women, sad women, hurt women.
[00:03:56] Kirsty Ann Watters: That’s such a valid point. The language we use around them. I’m sure you’ve thought about this a lot as a writer. How did you land on the title?
[00:04:04] Sally MacAlister: Hysterical came before we actually had any of the stories. And I think it’s because we all found the idea and the term so interesting, and also just like the ridiculousness of it, the idea of like wombs wandering around bodies and that sort of dictating how women feel.
[00:04:19] So, yeah, that all came quite early on. I also just love the double meaning of it, because it is also a very funny thing. I don’t know if I should be saying so myself. It is, it’s very funny. It’s a hoot. I love watching you guys do it. So yeah, that is where that came from, it was very interesting.
[00:04:37] Kirsty Ann Watters: That’s amazing. We’ll move on to director extraordinaire.
[00:04:40] Grace Baker: Hello.
[00:04:41] Kirsty Ann Watters: Would you like to speak to the same question about the process of getting to, like, how did you come about, how did you get together, and how did you find directing in this type of play?
[00:04:53] Grace Baker: I Started working with koi collective, A year and a half ago? I was studying my masters while these guys were doing their undergrad and we were all on a Zoom call and they were talking about wanting a female director and I was the only female director. So I sent a little message and I was like, look, if you guys do want a director, let me know. And then we worked with the amazing Sally for Crossing the Void, which we took to the Fringe.
[00:05:20] We were all so surprised by how well received it was. The process of crossing the void was just amazing. As Sally said, she’s a very communicative writer. She’ll take feedback, anything, so that was handy. And then, especially with koi, because they are so collaborative, everything was just kinda nice and easy.
[00:05:44] And then this process has actually been similar to Crossing the Void, but also very different. I think we’ve probably had about two or three rehearsals with every single member of the cast in the room. And not on a Zoom call or a hundred miles away. So it’s been a challenge, but it has also been really fun.
[00:06:09] And Sally said, like the play is funny and it’s been so fun to work on. And it’s been lovely, experimenting. It’s a play that obviously has stage directions, but there is so much that you can play around with and figure out as you go. And I think we all really enjoy that side of it.
[00:06:28] We enjoy being imaginative and creative and, yeah, I mean it’s unique, for sure.
[00:06:35] Kirsty Ann Watters: As a person who has lived experience with mental health, I’m really excited to see it, and it just sounds like something that I would be very much into, and I really like the collaborative nature of working hybrid, and really making it, not easy, but accessible to everyone that you meet.
[00:06:52] That’s really great. And you were the only female director. Speak on that.
[00:06:59] Grace Baker: On my course, they accepted three directors. Two males, and then me, and then it was just me and two guys for two years, trying to figure it all out. There were some issues with that but it was just lovely seeing a female led company, and I was like, yeah, I want in on that. Yeah. 100%.
[00:07:22] Kirsty Ann Watters: Next I want to ask you about the idea of sanity and madness, how it relates to how it relates to femininity and women over history and how this relates to the theme of the play.
[00:07:34] Grace Baker: I think there’s a line in the play that kind of encapsulates it perfectly where a character’s asked, oh, so you weren’t mad then?
[00:07:41] And she goes, no, I was just a woman, like a clever, smart, intelligent woman. And I think it’s repeated quite a few times, and every time it’s just as poignant of being like. Yeah, you were a marginalised part of society that was constantly oppressed and put down and you wanted to better yourself and everybody thought you were crazy for it.
[00:08:06] And I feel as women in today’s society, if we still try and break the boundaries, oh she’s crazy, oh she’s a psycho, oh she’s this, no just being a person with feelings and emotions.
[00:08:18] Evie Mortimer: I was just going to say, I think it’s interesting as well that I think all tellings of madness, insanity, and what it means is something you’ve been dubbed as, something you’ve been named as, oh, she was mad.
[00:08:31] There’s no actual scientific in documentation diagnosed with madness it’s a formed idea that has been made and it’s just so intricately woven into the female identity that it’s almost like an easy cop out. And this is what I think Sally’s done really well.
[00:08:48] Sally MacAlister: And it’s still used.
[00:08:48] Evie Mortimer: It’s still used. And I think it is just something that is, as soon as anyone tries to question, or if there’s other alternatives, it’s like, when you strip it down, it’s, for whatever reason, someone is wanting to suppress someone by categorising them as this thing that actually doesn’t exist.
[00:09:05] It’s like an idealised thing. So I think Sally’s done really well in not letting the girls just be archetypes of They’re not put in boxes. They’re not put in boxes. They actively, whenever a character starts slipping into saying, actually, yeah, maybe I was a bit crazy, or I was, the girls love to remind, no that’s a learned behavior, that’s a learned response, actually.
[00:09:29] You just were misunderstood. You’ve been misdiagnosed. You weren’t listened to.
[00:09:33] Grace Baker: And it’s, so, women supporting women in the play. Like as Evie says, as soon as a character starts to slip into that, it’s like her girls are like, nuh I’ve got you, and yeah, redefine it in your mind.
[00:09:46] Sally MacAlister: Yeah, I think it’s interesting on that. I think madness is a means of control more than anything else, or dubbing someone mad is a means of control, rather than it is a means of understanding or recovery. I think if you are afraid of something, it’s easier to dismiss it than it is to accept it, or try and explore it.
[00:10:07] And I think it’s really interesting because obviously this play is exploring that within women, but I think madness is a term that is so readily prescribed, just like in everyday conversation to people that people don’t necessarily agree with. I don’t know, I feel like at the moment it’s linked to that narrative that people are ascribing to doctors they don’t like who are going on strikes. Or teachers who are demanding more pay, it’s outrageous, it’s mad, it’s madness. And it’s not, you just don’t like the answer. And I think that’s a big part of the play.
[00:10:37] Kirsty Ann Watters: It’s very stigmatising language, which is a lot about what the festival tries to cover and deconstruct really.
[00:10:44] Zara Louise Kennedy: I was just going to say that I think anyone coming to see our play at any point, there’s a real beauty in how all of these stories are very easily available and relatable even though they go back years and decades. You listen to these women’s stories and they are they are mad, they are insane.
[00:11:08] When you listen to what these women were put through and why, you can compare that to today and what we go through in modern day. And there are so many lines that cross in those stories, even though we have decades of difference. Year, that’s my tip.
[00:11:26] Evie Mortimer: One of our main things as well when we were starting the company was portraying characters that are rooted in authenticity, that aren’t allowing themselves to be so outwith the lines of reality that you see it and you think, I can’t place you, I can’t see you, I can’t see myself in you in that moment.
[00:11:45] So we were like, any time that we could portray a character that are authentic and the fact that, like you said, it transcends time. Like the reality of these women, we can’t relate to being in France in the 1700s. Like we never will be able to. We can understand what it feels like. To be a person that feels that they’ve been pushed to the fringe and can’t see themself anywhere.
[00:12:11] Grace Baker: Yeah. I feel like that’s something that was done so well in Crossing the Void as well. It was just real people on a stage and you could identify parts of yourself in all five of them.
[00:12:24] And again, that’s happened with this one where, yeah, it’s someone from the 1500s. And yet you’re still like I get you and I get where you’re coming from and that’s terrifying. That’s so scary that we can still… Okay, we’re not being burned at the stake, but there are so many similarities and I think that is fucking scary.
[00:12:46] Kirsty Ann Watters: Do either of you two want to speak about your characters and where they’re from in time? Because I’d be interested to hear why those particular women were chosen.
[00:12:56] Evie Mortimer: I play the character of Mercy, who is from the 18th century and she is a young woman who grew up in the care system. Her narrative is basically all about how in the systems of care people sometimes slip through the cracks and are left unrepresented or things that should have been flagged and care that should have been there has been overlooked. So her whole thing is that she is in denial, she really wants to believe that the life she had was actually not as bad as she knows it was to keep her own grasp on reality.
[00:13:32] And she goes through a little arc in the play where she can’t really disillusion herself anymore and she has to face the reality that no, she was let down by the system and more should have been done for her. And I think, again as you said, like the parallels to now and to the way that all our like public services have been stretched so thin under the Tory government that things like this do happen all the time.
[00:13:55] People slip through the cracks. Every day in either the NHS or the care system, which is no fault of the people that are working there, which is what Sally touches on as well, that she feels an affinity to the people that care for her and doesn’t see them as responsible. She sees the institution as responsible.
[00:14:13] But she has a beautiful line where it’s like, people can make mistakes when they’re overworked, but they can also be really good. And it’s the fact that you see this parallel. It’s not as black and white, it’s just, I’ve been failed and this is why. Yeah, she’s a tricky wee gal.
[00:14:28] Zara Louise Kennedy: And I play Celia and she is from the 19th century. Celia has a bit more fun on stage, I think. She doesn’t like to address her trauma, and her way of dealing with that is laughter…
[00:14:45] Sally MacAlister: Embracing her sexuality, well that we can talk about.
[00:14:50] Zara Louise Kennedy: She decides that it’s better for her to suppress a lot of the things that are maybe wrong in her life.
[00:14:58] She definitely, through some issues that she goes through, which I won’t spoil, she has some medical anxiety, which again, because of her nature, she really tries to suppress, but I think it’s very, it’s maybe not something that’s spoken about enough, medical anxiety in the modern day, it’s still a massive thing, in lots of different forms, and there’s also the element of, she’s got a lot of internalised misogyny towards her own sex life, and what that means as a woman in the 19th century, her husband is maybe not as loving as he should be, and I think that’s affecting a lot of her own thoughts on herself.
[00:15:45] So many different bubbles are relatable in so many different ways. I think the more that I’ve read about Celia and the more I’ve understood about her, I see a lot of her little intricacies dotted around in people I know, in myself. It’s very interesting hearing, just as what you said, it all goes back everything interweaves with the past and what we experience today.
[00:16:11] But yeah, she’s also a funny one.
[00:16:16] Kirsty Ann Watters: You guys really touched on my next question, which is for everyone. As for us, what structure is still holding us back? In terms of women, in terms of people with lived experience of mental health, in terms of medical, and who is responsible for them?
[00:16:32] Evie Mortimer: I feel like so much of it is derived around the medical industry, to do with practices of care, and being, having agency within yourself, but also relying on other people to aid you in your own personal betterment. And I think a lot of the narrative is about how these women were failed, and how, we can see it now, if you relate it to now, the fact of no one being able to get any kind of help from the doctors, waiting lists getting longer, people just, everything becoming normalised.
[00:17:01] Services are stretched thin and it is everyone we know that is impacted by it the most. I think a lot of it derives down still to the patriarchy and the fact that these pillars haven’t been disassembled in any way yet.
[00:17:15] Grace Baker: We’re still not equal.
[00:17:16] Evie Mortimer: I think that is it exactly. I think progression happens when entire systems are destabilised when it’s a full rethought and a rethinking of things. Yeah.
[00:17:25] Sally MacAlister: I think what’s so frustrating about massive power structures like the patriarchy for marginalised groups across the board is that it is founded on nothing. There are no facts. There is no evidence. There is no reason for it to be there. So when you actually get round to trying to dismantle it It’s extremely difficult because you can’t dismantle anything because there’s nothing there. It’s founded on lies. So how do you actually go back…Is that in Barbie? It’s Barbie, but I’m not going to talk about Barbie.
[00:17:59] Kirsty Ann Watters: I was just thinking about Barbie. I was like, we can’t ask about Barbie.
[00:18:03] Sally MacAlister: Do it!
[00:18:03] Grace Baker: I think something that I found really interesting yesterday was we were trying to solidify what song we were going to open the whole thing on and we decided on Savage Daughter. Savage Daughter. And I was like, because it became very popular on TikTok. And so I looked at it on TikTok and I was like, find some other videos of people doing amazing things with incredible makeup. And she’s basically saying how one of the lines is, I will not lower my voice.
[00:18:32] I am going to be strong. I’m not going to lower my voice. And then this man duetted it. And he was like, yeah, so I really think she should have said, I will not lower my tone. And I was like, you’ve literally just… How have you missed that? It’s an entire song about a woman being like, I’m gonna be me, I’m gonna be loud, I’m gonna be proud about it, and you’re like, but you’ve used the wrong word. Tone, tone rhymes better with stone.
[00:18:56] Kirsty Ann Watters: Wow.
[00:18:58] Grace Baker: Yeah, and that video just sent me a little bit crazy.
[00:19:00] Kirsty Ann Watters: As you were saying, it’s based on nothing, but those things have seeped into our structures in terms of the medical structure, like the medical research is based on, it’s based on men.
[00:19:15] Sally MacAlister: Yeah, honestly it’s absolutely bizarre to me. I work for a mental health charity. I work for an eating disorder charity, and we do a lot of work around BMI, and it’s absolutely maddening – it’s hysterical! – to think just how rigidly that was created around white male bodies. It doesn’t adhere to anything, it’s bullshit from the start. It doesn’t make sense and it is not a means of testing how healthy someone is. But when you think about the fact that even the smallest elements of how we judge those things are entirely based around male bodies. It’s sickening. It’s extremely sickening.
[00:19:56] Kirsty Ann Watters: Tell us about koi collective.
[00:19:59] Zara Louise Kennedy: We were founded when we were all still in uni. And there are five of us. Five girls and we went to the Fringe 2022 together. The members include myself, Evie, Zoe Kenabra, Georgia Lee Roberts and Amelia Watson. And we now have an additional member called Robin Riley. She’s joined as of 2023, so she is now a member as well, a founding member too. koi started because we were very keen on making theatre as women, but accessible to everyone, because I think it’s very easy, when you’re creating an idea for a theatre company, to put yourself in a box and that is it, that is what you’re trying to achieve.
[00:20:51] We’d all seen that happen time and time again, and we were like, actually, the most important thing for us is that we want to be able to grow. We are a collective, we want to be able to bring people on to work with us. Have people feel like, okay, I could join their company and I can do a project with them and it can flow quite easily.
[00:21:13] So that was really important, especially going into making the company. In the fringe, obviously Grace and Sally were working with us in our first project that was Crossing the Void. And we did not really expect how well that was going to be received. We had sell out shows pretty much every day of the Fringe.
[00:21:39] And I think a big part of that as well was that, because we’re female led and we’re a Scottish company, when you actually looked at the Fringe programmes, there were very few shows that were small, non funded very low budget, with five creatives there who are also telling it from a Scottish perspective.
[00:21:58] Which is crazy to think about with Fringe and that it’s a Scottish festival and that was also our, like you said, our whole kind of incentive was to have a company that is a collective, that is fluid with who’s involved, who has the microphone for the minute, who is the one that is leading the forefront because we were also very keen to find a writer that was also open for that. Because we were like, okay, we can try and find scripts that are already here. But again trying to find a script for five characters where it was equal weighting and it was giving each person a fair amount of time to play was also really hard to find, never mind a part for five women. Like that just was not really a thing.
[00:22:38] But year, we, as a company, just want to keep growing and expanding and getting more outlooks and keeping the momentum going.
[00:22:49] Evie Mortimer: Yeah, I mean we started off with, going back to Crossing the Void was a very naturalistic piece. It was characters that we had although written by Sally, we almost made them our own. Whereas the women we’re portraying now, we’ve almost gone in the complete other direction. These are real women, and we are telling their stories. I think that was something, when we knew we wanted to do Hysterical, going down that route of, okay, let’s try something different, let’s go down a different avenue and see how that plays out, it’s really worked for us, and we know, as a company, we’re just gonna keep taking more and more opportunities, and it helps that we’re all friends, as well.
[00:23:35] Kirsty Ann Watters: It’s all about that female support and female entertainment.
[00:23:38] Evie Mortimer: Exactly. Exactly.
[00:23:40] Kirsty Ann Watters: That’s great, thank you so much guys. Is there anything else?
[00:23:43] Zara Louise Kennedy: A little plug? A wee plug. Haha. In December, we will be bringing Hysterical! back, but to the Heart of Hawick. And that is 9th December. If anyone didn’t get to come and see the show we’re doing tonight, you’ve got some other things you can look forward to. Because we’re not going to stop, and we’re going to keep working. And
[00:24:06] Evie Mortimer: Also, the main focus is for the Fringe 2024 and that we will be doing a show in Edinburgh. For the locals. The Edinburghians.
[00:24:18] Kirsty Ann Watters: And with that, our discussion came to an end. The koi collective will be performing Hysterical once more on 9th December in the Heart of Hawick. For more information please see liveborders.org.uk. It does not want to be missed.
[00:24:34] Thank you to the koi collective, Sally McAllister and Grace Baker for taking part in this interview. And thank you for listening to the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival podcast.
Saturday 9 December
7:10pm – 8:30pm
Heart of Hawick
£8 / £5
Catherine was burned. Mercy was left. Augustine was used. Celia was unsatisfied. Anne was quiet.
In a small hall, five clinically “mad” women meet to perform a play for a seemingly “sane” audience. But is it a play? Or is it a warning? Worse still- is it an intervention?
Hysterical is a free fall through a categorically inaccurate history of mad women. They just need to make sure they remember their lines and don’t tear each other’s hair out, and we’ll all be fine.
Based on real women in real times, this host of hysterical harpies kick, scream and waltz their way into the modern day. But has much changed? Or are the structures that held them back still in place?