The genuinely hilarious Kait Warner is bringing her show, Take it Away, Cheryl to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, and it sounds like a great one. When exploring the differences between the emotional labour for men and women, a carnival kissing booth isn't typically the location you'd first think of. However, when strangers are divulging their stories to Cheryl, she must figure out her limits as to whether she can take it all on.
Speaking with Kait, she has provided an incredible insight into what led her to develop this show, and the way it reflects society today. Read on to find out more.
Please may you give us an overview of what to expect from Take it Away, Cheryl?
Take it Away, Cheryl is a tragicomic trip through a kissing booth at a county fair in Central Pennsylvania. Cheryl is equipped to deal with anything... and a good thing, since folks have stopped coming for kisses and started coming to tell her about some pretty heavy problems. When Cheryl makes an error with catastrophic consequences, she must go to hell and back in order to save those she loves once and for all.
What has the production process been like, and how has your show changed since you started developing it back in 2019?
I wrote the very first draft of this piece back in 2019 at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, in the Experimental Theatre Wing. Back then, it was created almost purely based on my instincts as a performer. We were planning on bringing the show to the Festival in 2020, but with the delay lasting about two years, we had a gift of unexpected time to develop the piece. Much of the task at hand since then has been making sure that those images conjured up out of my subconscious brain that were born during the first draft of the show back in 2019 were being used to effectively and clearly tell the story. We have done a lot of work to identify the logic and world of the show to give it a structure that would make the subconscious world shine.
For example: playing with an exaggeration of gender, which has been an aspect of the show since its conception, felt really important to do with care and intentionality. Both with the male characters of this show, who have both naturalistic and clowning elements to them, and with Cheryl herself, who has been conditioned to become this hyper-sensitive, feminine, codependent being. We wanted to use her gender to reveal that her femininity is a power, but it also has been co-opted by people and external forces who would use that power in their own interest. So we wanted to do that carefully, while preserving moments of her genuine vulnerability and power.
Where did the concept for the show originate from, including the title, and do you think it accurately represents the shift in gender roles in society?
Cheryl was born out of a time in my small, central Pennsylvanian town when young men kept dying, often from untreated mental illness. I myself had been dating someone struggling through a severe anxiety disorder, and as the only person in his support system, I did my best to keep both him and myself together. Later on, as I was trying to put these stories on the page, I encountered plenty of plays about mental health struggles, but I noticed that one story remained largely untold: the one of the caretakers, the (oftentimes) women of all generations who were bending themselves in half trying to hold everyone and everything together. It was my hope that I would write a show that reflected this experience - the journey taken by the emotional laborers.
Although I am writing from a perspective that is close to my own as a white woman, I want to emphasize that there are just as many relationships to caretaking and emotional labor as there are to one's gender - and I am not trying to imply that these teachings and expectations befall people on hard and fast, binary, gendered lines. In fact, the ways that we relate to the expectation of emotional labor is also influenced by race, class, and countless other factors that influence identity and upbringing. It is my experience that although expectations placed on people of different genders are in many ways beginning to lessen, there is still a lot of subconscious conditioning and repetition of gendered patterns that infiltrate the ways we interact with one another. People who are socialized as women may oftentimes be encouraged to develop more empathy and taught to provide emotional care for their peers. I write from the perspective of a woman who has frequently been put in the position to emotionally look after her peers, especially the men. Many people who share a similar intersection of identities to me have shared that they've found themselves in the same situation. Equally as many people of differing identities have shared their stories with me following performances of the ways that they were able to see themselves in Cheryl. Because theatre is a practice of radical empathy, I trust that audience members will be able to find their own personal "in" to relating to this character, who will help them reveal something to themselves about their own personal relationship to caretaking.
So! After all that, I will say that Cheryl is a part of me that I dissected, and blew up to epic proportions. She is engrossed with caring for others, she is flirty, flitty, and feminine, and she uses that femininity both to access her true power and to shrink herself to better serve the people around her. "Take it Away, Cheryl" as a title very purposefully alludes to a very theatrical event. On one level, that reference is playing on Cheryl's performance of femininity, and the expectation of the performance of femininity from others. On a deeper level, the title references the people coming to Cheryl's booth asking her to take away their pain and perform emotional labor for them.
What inspired you to study this division in emotional labour?
Do you know, I've been thinking about this for so long that it's hard to pinpoint an exact moment where this became my focus as a performer and writer. I think it grew like any creative inspiration or obsession: slowly, cumulatively, and subconsciously. It's everywhere, when you start to look. And then of course, it required lots of therapy to be able to actually talk and write about it.
How do you incorporate humour in a way that adds contrast to the dark elements of the piece, creating a 'tragicomedy'?
Humor! (Sorry, I know y'all use the 'u' should I add that?) Humour is everything to me. I could really do a little song and dance about how humour opens people up to connection, and connection opens people up to transformation, so by revealing what is funny about some of the darkest situations of the play, the audience hopefully feels more comfortable coming along for the characters' transformations, etc etc. The real scoop on humour is that I don't want to live without it, so I don't write without it. It's that simple, I just want myself and everyone else to have fun.
What do you hope audiences take away from your show?
When I first put up the show, people of all ages came up to me to express that they saw themselves in Cheryl. Whether they were matriarchs who had been caring for their families for years and years, sex workers who had had so many secrets whispered to them late at night, or young women facing the confusing and daunting reality of the emotional labor expected of them by their partners, they all had a similar gut feeling of recognition, both during her moments of hilarity and moments of pain. Through this process, I have realized that everyone can recognize this character and has their own story about her. I hope that people are reminded of their own stories, and that they can take those stories and share them and heal them alongside others.
Sell your show in one line- why should people see it?
Come for a kiss, stay to figure out why the hell we have a giant ear onstage, and leave having laughed, cried, and feeling ready to meet us for a drink!
Massive thank you to Kait for sharing this utterly fascinating interview- it sounds like a cracking show! It's been amazing to hear all about it, and I wish you all the luck for the run.
Get yourself there if you can: