SPOTLIGHT: Millie Wood-Downie on subverting society’s expectations through performance

The theatre-maker shares thoughts on her recent one-woman play There Was A Little Girl and award winning audio piece I Want To Be Good, commissioned by the BBC. 

Illustration: Azélie Bourassa @a.z.e.l.i.e
Original image: Chelsey Cliff @chelseycliff

Reflecting on the experience of growing up is a theme that runs through both the play and the audio piece. What triggered that as a central theme in your work?

I have done a lot of reflecting and work on myself in the last five or so years. I’m one of those people who’s been a completely different person at every different stage of life. I just found that really fascinating and wanted to unpick why that was and where that had come from, and I realised the connection to how society had contributed to why I had presented myself differently in different stages of my life. I think that reflection is hugely important. You know, we are just a bag of memories really. I think a lot of people are always striving forward. And it’s really important, as artists, to look at where we’ve come from as well. It’s also the subject I know best – me.

Often it doesn’t come until later on in life that people make such retrospective work about themselves. I wonder if it’s in any way linked to the current world that we’re in – that young people now are maybe a bit more reflective?

I actually did an exercise with my director right at the beginning of the research and development stage of There Was A Little Girl, which was to write the best review you can ever get, five stars and getting booked all over the world, and then write the worst review. And the worst review was so interesting because a lot of the things I wrote were about my age, and how people wouldn’t respect my understanding or reflections, because of only being 25. A lot of my insecurities have come from that.

I think that we are forced to reflect. Mainly because a lot of young people are not necessarily happy with the state of the world, and the first place that one needs to look is within themselves in order to try to make a difference. Also, in terms of social media these days, everyone’s a journalist, everyone’s a therapist, everyone’s anything they want to be. People are becoming more comfortable with talking about themselves and people are more accepting of other people showing that. I don’t know if I necessarily aimed for it to be so in-depth about myself but I learned so much in the research and development period that it just kind of naturally fell into that.

In character as alter-ego Michael during There Was A Little Girl

Illustration: Azélie Bourassa @a.z.e.l.i.e
Original image: Chelsey Cliff @chelseycliff

Both the pieces touch on the theme of being good and doing what is expected of you. Where did that inspiration come from?

I Want To Be Good starts with the story of how about 10 years ago when I found a book I’d been given as a child. One of those ‘All About Me’ books with questions like ‘what’s your favourite colour’, ‘do you have any siblings’. One question was ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, and I had written as a four year old, ‘I want to be good’. That just sent me on a 10 year adventure as to what the hell was I talking about. 

It’s funny because as artists we make a mountain out of a molehill. We find something, we unpick it, we’re trying to extract it, find all these hidden meanings. At first I thought it was just innocent scribbling, and I’d made something bigger out of it than it was. But what I’ve realised is, we are impacted from such a young age. I think that’s why the play ended up quite a lot heavier than the audio piece, because as I was going on the journey I realised that I probably did write  ‘I want to be good’ because I had been told time and time again, that is what women are meant to be, we’re meant to be good. 

When I was younger, I was really well behaved, I was a really, really “good” child. As a baby, I would go to sleep when I was meant to, and then when I went to school you know I was constantly told I was a teacher’s pet, a goody-two-shoes. Then I went to an all girls school and everything flipped. I was really naughty and had a really bad attitude. It was constantly like “you can’t do this, you can’t do that”. I’d always been so good and because of that it just accelerated me rebelling against it, I guess. There’s a line in the play about how I used to spit in the school corridors and smoke and drink and do all these things that were considered, you know, “bad”.

I realised all of those different stages were a reflection of what I was being told to do, that I was accepting or otherwise rejecting. We’re all a combination of those different things and I just sometimes wish that I could watch a version of my life which didn’t have any of those societal pressures, to discern what I would actually have been like, as a young person. I think I was suffocated by this idea of what girls are meant to be.

At the beginning of the play you mention the words identity crisis and that just stuck in my head. It’s a human experience we can all relate to, that feeling of being confused and lost about who we are and what we’re here for. I guess the identity crisis is actually the start of a solution?

It’s figuring out that it was an identity crisis, I think. There are moments you see throughout the play that I’m clearly quite lost, but I wasn’t able to articulate or realise that that’s what it was. After reflecting it’s quite easy to look back at periods of my life and know I was going through depression, or I was feeling really isolated, but at the time you do constantly just blame your brain, just blame yourself for feeling a certain way. 

I think we’re incredibly lucky to be living in a world now that is so much more forward thinking about mental health in general and within young women. Men’s mental health is a whole other kettle of fish, and it’s also incredible that we’re seeing that with such poignance, but for women, how we are viewed and treated and expected to be, the structures of society are not built for young women to express themselves in the way that they want to. We’re told over and over and over again, and everything that we buy is to make ourselves look better, feel better, come across better. The inequality between men and women has a huge part to play, and for me I started projecting my own internalised misogyny onto other women, but also onto myself.

We live in such a fast paced society and I’ve been very lucky to have a six month period where I’ve been able to extensively research myself. I’ve gone through therapy really with it. But people often don’t get that experience, and so we’re kind of stuck in this cycle I think of, perhaps, noticing that something’s not quite right but not really knowing how to change it or how to identify what it is. I suppose that’s why the play is so important to me because if I can grab someone for an hour, who may not have the privilege to go through that extensive research, they can get a bite sized chunk of it. I’ve had quite a lot of feedback from people that it has kind of spurred that on, and it started their own reflection. 

But there’s great resources out there. Florence Given has just written a book called ‘Women Don’t Owe You Pretty‘. I’m reading it and I’m chuffed because I’ve read the first half and I was like, ‘I know all of this!’, which is great – I’ve obviously learned, but I can imagine if I’d read that two or three years ago, phwoar I think my life would have changed a lot. 

And perhaps that’s also part of it. Looking into feminism and equality and diversity and all of this stuff has always been seen as something academic; something that people write essays on and papers on. It’s not that anymore, it’s an Instagram page, or it’s an influencer making a book, it’s stuff that is for young people, and it’s for people who have not thought about it before, to digest in a way that is relevant and resonates with them. That’s how we make real change I think.

Illustration: Azélie Bourassa @a.z.e.l.i.e
Original image: Chelsey Cliff @chelseycliff

There are loads of resources out there but it’s something else when you actually bring your own experience to an audience, it touches you in a different way. It strikes me that it takes quite a lot of inner strength to produce something so real. What has been your experience of producing such vulnerable work?

I think that it’s something that I have built a resilience to. I feel incredibly comfortable putting my own self in a vulnerable place, it feels like something that I was meant to do. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. It challenges me, and for the most part I feel like it’s helpful for other people. 

With the play I’ve had a few comments back saying that the first half is quite satirical – but that was an accurate portrayal, because back then I made everything a joke, I put on a facade. If me shedding that last layer of skin and presenting myself can help someone else do it, then it makes it all worthwhile really. 

Artists get something out of their work because they wanted to make it for a certain reason, but you need to make sure that the audience are equally taking something away from it. It’s all well and good to get up and give an entertaining portrayal of my life, but it’s no good if it doesn’t actually leave the audience with anything that they can take into their own lives.

What is your best advice to young women that want to get into something like theatre or any kind of artistic endeavour?

I think anyone can do it, I really do. I think that number one is passion – if you have a passion for something and you’re not doing it just because you think it’s cool. I am a real advocate for people being honest about the creative arts and not sugarcoating the arts: it’s hard work. But if you have a real passion for it, then anyone can do it. 

Make work about what interests you, because that’s the stuff that does well. I’ve made work before that I thought was engaging and unique, but I didn’t really emotionally resonate with it, and that came across. When you can feel that passion coming out of someone else, that’s when you really relate to the performer – so find out what interests you. Think about multiple different forms. You don’t need all of these conventional routes, and also it can happen at any age. I didn’t go to drama school. I’ve never had an agent, I just went to uni when I was 20, travelled, did all of this stuff that, well, a very privileged person is able to do, but, you know, I didn’t do the  conventional route into acting and I’m so glad I didn’t. Yeah, let your creativity thrive.

What’s next for you and the play?

So the play is not finished, it’s a work in progress. Obviously all of the work in progress parts were everyone’s favourite bits, the bits I need to change! But that’s good because it’s a good springboard. I will go for further funding, probably from the Arts Council, who funded the play. And hopefully I will finish it with a run of shows in a theatre in Bristol. I performed at the station which is a really great space, but there’s a few things missing; you don’t get front of house or any kind of extra support, and I feel like I’m at that level now where I’d quite like not to have to figure out who’s turning the lights off five minutes before the show! So to try and get into a more kind of certified venue, I suppose, and then potentially Edinburgh Fringe 2022. But we’ll see. That seems quite scary, right now, but so did writing an Arts Council application a year ago! Right now I am having a well deserved break. I’ve been on holiday for the last couple of weeks, nowhere special just around and about. But yeah, just taking some time off, I’ve got my fingers in a few pies, as always, so I’m just waiting to see what follows through.