Normal: Lisa chats with Katie Pollock. (Theatre Interview)


The Uncertainty Principle and The Old 505 Theatre

29 May – 15 June. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: James Balian

It was enormously interesting reading into The Town that Caught Tourettes in order to interview writer Katie Pollock about her forthcoming play Normal. Mass psychogenic illness is a baffling condition that has presented as remarkably contagious. Prior to 1900, reports are dominated by episodes of motor symptoms typified by dissociation, histrionics and psychomotor agitation incubated in an environment of preexisting tension were quantified as “hysteria”. Twentieth-century reports feature anxiety symptoms that are triggered by sudden exposure to an anxiety-generating agent, most commonly an innocuous odour or food poisoning rumours. Several recent outbreaks illustrate the main features, including explosive onset usually triggered by a physicochemical stimulus with a disproportionate involvement of relatively uneducated, low-paid women who perform highly routine tasks. As more and more is discovered about this facinating illness, the more absorbed we (those of us engaging with the media related or scientific information) become.

For writer Katie Pollock, a pressing need to examine the women suffering from these symptoms, from their point of view, developed into an imperative. The illness starts to become the subject of debate – as if we have anything cogent, noteworthy or valuable to say on the matter. Opinion, getting a good look at the women, and giving our ‘feedback’ becomes not only unimaginative and destructuve, it can act as a conduit to further outbreaks.  Complex questions about how we relate to young women, how they are reported about in the media and how they relate to each other become health issues. For Katie Pollock, an examination of some of these questions, was an elegant and effective place to work on a fictional story. And so now we have Normal coming to the Old 505 Theatre in a few weeks. The Old 505 Theatre has this to say about Normal:

Poppy has developed a tick. A twitch. A spasm. It spreads through her body, then her group of school friends and before long, the whole town. Nobody can explain it, but as the disease spreads, the community begins to fracture along lines that turn into deep fissures. Who or what is to blame? And how are they going to fix it?

Inspired by the true story of ‘the town that caught tourettes’, this play is dark, provocative and theatrically inventive. An cast of four play eight roles in this award-winning new play.

I was fortunate enough to ask some complex questions of Katie Pollockand her writing process for this most interesting play. The result is below.

Alexandra Morgan in Normal.

LT: Besides the fact that this has to be the best premise for a play ever, what about ‘The Town that Caught Tourette’s’ inspired you to write a play based on this phenomenon?

KP: Eighteen teenage girls all come down with a mysterious illness similar to Tourette’s. The story is absolutely fascinating. It just makes you want to know more. So yes, it’s a good premise. But after that I was drawn to the femaleness of the subject matter. Men control the media so they controlled the story. I wanted to turn it around and look at it from the girls’ point of view. The girls were objectified – something to be gawked at – and I wanted to try and see them from the inside.  

LT: What is the most interesting discovery you made about mass psychogenic illness when you researched this play?

KP: That it almost doesn’t matter what the source of the problem is. It’s more about panic, fear and blame. That it cuts across race, class and, surprisingly, gender. And that the mind is an extraordinarily powerful thing.

LT: What did your play tell you about how the media affect mass psychogenic illness?

KP: The mainstream media and social media are now so interlinked that it’s difficult to separate their effects. If it’s a great story, it’s a great story everywhere, instantly. In the play, as in the original case, social media acts as a kind of vector for the condition, and an accelerator for it. That’s because of the times we live in. The smartphone is the portal through which many of us receive and filter the world, so of course it has a huge influence on us. Try and unglue a teenager from their phone and you’ll know what I mean. But, like a magnifying glass, it still has to be pointed in a certain direction by a human being.

LT: Is mass psychogenic illness specific to a nationality? Where did you set your play? Why did you choose that location?

KP: No, it happens all over the world. Once you start researching it and talking about it you realize how widespread it is. People told me stories of how one year at their school there was a weird fainting epidemic, or suddenly everyone started vomiting. The point is that the condition usually arises in small or close-knit communities where the opinions of those around you are vital to survival and acceptance – small towns and villages, religious communities, schools, extended families – places where the social membrane is very tightly drawn. The play is set in ‘a small town’. For us it’s in Australia because that’s who we are. 

LT: Why did you call this play Normal?

KP: Because it’s so ordinary, yet it’s also restrictive and repressive. Life is very hard at the best of times. It’s especially difficult when you’re young and working out who the hell you are, more so when you don’t have role models for difference. We don’t handle difference very well as a society. So many of us try and squeeze ourselves into the wrong shape. Even when we self-declare as freaks, geeks and weirdos, we’re still defining ourselves in opposition to this mythical force of normality. Also it’s short and takes up less space on the poster!

LT: I have been critical of The Crucible for a long time because of its treatment of the Abigail Williams character which was based on an eleven-year-old child who was in a sexual relationship with man decades her senior. Arthur Miller willfully distorts that girls’ story to make her a villain. When I read about The Town that Caught Tourette’s, I got a sense there were similarities. Did you see the same? How did you treat the subject of “girls” and “mass hysteria” inside the complexities of the literary stereotypes? As a writer, how did you tackle narrative trajectories that might present themselves as a ‘truth’ that distort the girls’ real story?

KP: What you say about the Abigail Williams character absolutely fits the convention. The literary critic Elaine Showalter talks of hysteria as a ‘protolanguage’, a body language for people who otherwise might not be able to speak or otherwise express what they feel.

I think the literary stereotypes are embedded in the historical use of the diagnosis of hysteria as a way to silence ‘troublesome’ women – those who upset the social order – through its negative connotations. It’s a diagnosis that has been used by men against women, young women in particular, for a very long time. Because after you’ve called them hysteric you don’t have to delve any deeper into what’s actually going on in their lives – especially if they are not able to verbalise it themselves. Normal differs from The Crucible in that Poppy is our protagonist and it’s from her female point of view. I’ve tried to work against some of the literary stereotypes by showing her not as either/or, villain or victim, but something more human, more in-between.

In terms of ‘truth’, this is drama, not journalism. You do the research then you file it away and let the imagination get to work. There may be people who say I shouldn’t write this story because it didn’t happen to me. And I’m as guilty as any writer who has taken a real story as their inspiration. We’re thieves, the lot of us. But I have been a teenage girl, and I now have a teenage girl, and that’s the emotional truth I’m interested in.

Alexandra Morgan and Cecilia Morrow

Alexandra Morgan and Cecilia Morrow in Normal