Last week I was lucky enough to catch up with playwright & performer Fran Bushe over hot beverages at the Soho Theatre. Her show Ad Libido will be running there from 7th-11th May. As you might guess from the content of the interview, Fran and I already know each other, having both been on the same rather marvelous Arvon play-writing retreat a couple of years ago.
As for her show Ad Libido, I caught it in an early scratch session, so I feel very confident in recommending this to all sexual beings reading this blog. But if you need more persuading, or want to find out if Fran has found out how to fix sex, please read on…
Hello Fran, let’s pretend we don’t know each other. So Ad Libido, obviously I’m familiar with the piece, because I got to see it in its early form, you were still developing it at the time.
You saw a Scratch performance of it after 2 week of R&D at the Pleasance at the end of September the year before last
Where does the time go?
I’ve been doing this show for a long time now
And has it changed a lot since I first saw it?
In its structure not very much. Because I was writing about my own life, the actual structure of the piece hasn’t changed, because I was living the things I was writing about, in a particular order. In some ways, I’d been writing this show in my head before I consciously sat down to write the show. So when it came to making the show, I was expecting at the end of the 2 weeks to present maybe a 15 minute piece where, between the scenes, I’d be like “here there’d be some music and here there would be a montage, and here there would be a dance routine.” But actually, because so much of it was lived experience, so I’d been thinking about it for a while, I actually ended up writing it in those two weeks. What has changed is the production values of it, definitely. It has a glittery set.
So much glitter. It still has the same OHP, it still has a very home-made feel but that home-made feel isn’t me sellotaping bits together. I think when you saw it it was a bed sheet gaffer taped to my parent’s coat rail, and now it is like a frame and a specially stitched sheet. Everything is a little more curated and designed now.
That must be nice
It is really lovely… it makes everything feel like it is from the same world. So the set ends up dramatically reflecting what is going on in the play. Because I guess what I want is … when people come in to see the show they’re not like “oh my god it’s going to be a woman on stage shouting at me about her vagina for 55 minutes”. I mean there is nothing wrong with doing that kind of play. Great plays have come out of that, but to make people feel safe and like it is a fun atmosphere, it’s a party atmosphere. There are balloons, there are party tunes going as people are coming in. It is all dance, hands in the air, type music, so people know what they are getting themselves in for. Setting the scene the minute people walk in the door.
It has been over a year since I saw the initial scratch, how have you found audience response to it so far?
Really, really positive. When I first started thinking about the idea, I never thought I would bring it to stage because I didn’t think anyone would be interested in hearing about my sex life or my vagina. And it turns out they are. It turns out people are really invested in my vagina. And in sex in general, and how we talk about sex, and how we have conversations about pleasure, and all the taboos there are around female pleasure, the pain during sex and different dysfunctions at different stages of life. I think we are not very good at talking about these things at all. Mostly we really want to act like we are sexual gods, you know, like we cum every time, and we last for hours, and we provide a brilliant sexual service to our partners and to ourselves.
The idea of admitting there is something wrong, feels like a really big vulnerability and a really big weakness. So I think audiences have found something in that, particularly male audiences, which I couldn’t have predicted at all. It is about my own particular, very niche experience of finding sex very difficult as a teenager and up to, and including, my thirties, suffering from a low libido and not really fancying sex as a result of the pain. But I think audiences have found or seen their own experiences in that, because I think it’s… while some people have amazing sex all the time…
Well… I think most people will have, or will have been with someone who has some kind of sexual difficulty at some point in their lives. I’m pretty certain it is relatable to everyone on that level. Also, sometimes, what is frightening, brilliant but frightening, is that sometimes my show is the first time someone has seen their sexual experience represented on stage. Which is a lovely thing for me, but it’s actually terrifying because it shouldn’t be me. These things should be talked about much more widely, and I think for me the responsibility of that has changed the show as well. I’m now very conscious as well that if people do come to see the show who have had similar experiences, I have somewhere I can send them afterwards. I have support in place. Different clinics, different websites, different techniques. The amount of people who have changed their lube brand because of coming to see my show is amazing.
You should be sponsored
Yeah. We worked with a company called Yes Lube and they are organic, so everything that goes into that lubricant is lovely and natural and great for all over your body. I get texts all the time saying “ooh we’ve just ordered some more because we took away the sample and now this is regularly in our bedroom”. I love the fact that people come to see it with their partners, and also with their parents. I love that too, but mostly I love that people come with their partners, and afterwards have conversations that they would not necessarily have had without seeing the show. I feel like I’m saying I’m providing a massive service here, and I don’t particularly think I’m doing anything ground-breaking, but actually looking at the effect of the show, it can have a ground-breaking effect on some peoples’ lives. Couples comes and see it, and they go away and chat about what they enjoy and what isn’t working, and I’ve had a guy call his girlfriend straight after the show and say “is it working for you? Is everything OK for you? Is there anything I could do better?” And then conversations about masturbation, which most people don’t talk about with their friends and don’t see as sex.
I think our sexual well-being is really important. I felt really broken for a long time because I wasn’t having sex the way I thought I was meant to be having sex. So I think anything to make people feel like there is no such thing as normal sex, there is no such thing as a right way to have sex. Sex can be verbal, sex can be kissing, sex can be intimacy. Sex is definitely not just putting something in a hole, I would say.
There are definitely some people who need educating on that.
Definitely. It is terrifying.
One thing I remember after seeing the Scratch version was how funny it is. Obviously it is a very serious subject, a very personal subject, you open up a lot, but there is so much humour in it. I think that makes it even more accessible. Did you keep all those humorous elements? Are dolphins still smug?
Yes, smug fucking dolphins. Yes, the dolphins are still in it. Magic penis is still in it. I mean sex is hilarious, we should only have sex that is fun and funny. I think sometimes people don’t know if they’re allowed to laugh because it is a person being very vulnerable on stage, but I think it is hilarious. I’ve had so many funny sexual experiences. And it is not like a stand up show. I’m not at a microphone going “This one time last night my old man”. Oh wait, is old man your dad or your boyfriend?
I don’t know. I think it’s your other half isn’t it? I don’t know.
“My old man he gave me one” I’m not kind of recounting… the laugh is always at my expense. I’m never laughing at the other people I was with. There is something in owning all of those sexual disasters.
Actually that is another thing I remember, that’s the generosity of the humour, because obviously you do talk about exs in it, and it’s that whole of sense “it’s alright my magic penis can fix you”. That was funny, but it also takes a lot of pressure off the men. So guys seeing the show will realise that it isn’t all about them doing stuff wrong. It’s actually about listening and that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to sex.
Yes, absolutely. I totally agree. I was really conscious to make sure that I wasn’t making it about anyone else. That’s actually been an interesting journey, because I really firmly believed that at the beginning. I really believed that it was on me to learn what I liked and to become more vocal and ask for what I wanted, and get in touch with my body. As the show has gone on, I’ve had more sexual partners, that’s the thing, my sex life didn’t stop after the show was first shown. So I’m learning more, I’m developing more and suddenly I’m coming across things in the show, where I’m like “I don’t believe that anymore. That’s not representative of where I am with sex at the minute.” So actually, and this may change depending on who I’m sleeping with, how I’m doing it, how often it’s happening.
At the minute I have slightly widened responsibility because I’ve realised that you still need to learn what you like, and ask for it, that’s really important, but the responsibility that other person has with your body, and the way they treat it in that experience, I’ve come to realise the importance of that. I was taking all of the pressure on myself, it’s my duty as a sexual woman to learn how everything works and then teach it, give him the blueprint on how to do it. But actually there is a generosity needed on both sides I think, and that is a new feeling. I think a bit of that has come from realising how important it is to be with someone you trust. To feel comfortable to ask for things, and not feel ashamed to suggest things, or feel like you’re going to be shot down for a certain thing.
I dated a guy, this feels slightly off topic, but I dated this guy who’d use his hands on me but would just have this face of disgust the whole time. Like it was a weird service he had to provide me before he could get to the sex. It was a bit like it was a chore, like “ I do this, and then we’ll have the sex.” This was after I’d made the show and this was quite difficult for me because I was like, I know all this stuff, I’m going on stage and I’m saying “own your body, ask for what you want, be loud in bed, be communicative” and then I’m going and I’m sleeping with someone who makes me go very quiet in bed. So that was quite difficult, living up to the mantra that I’d set for myself. Because that was my gold standard. I want to live as sex positively as my show is. I don’t like this feeling. There’s emotions, and life and experience and that kind of complicates it I guess.
Life always complicates everything. It has a very nasty habit of doing that.
Doesn’t it just.
In terms of your journey to Ad Libido, how did you start out? What made you think you wanted to write this story? What was your journey that led to Ad Libido? Outside of writing retreats in Devon.
Which was delightful
Oh it was, it was delightful
I drank so much wine.
We all drank so much wine, I’m surprised there’s any wine left in Devon. I hear they’re still restocking.
The amount of writing I actually did on that week was sentences, mere sentences. The amount of wine drunk was disgraceful.
OK.. so before I did Ad Libido I was a teacher and I was performing. I was in a sketch group but teaching isn’t really the kind of job you can switch off at. There were parents evenings, and there were a lot of late nights doing school plays and all of my writing and performing was becoming very very secondary. I had this half term break, I booked myself onto a Byrony Kimmings workshop for a week, because I was like, I’m not feeding my creativity at all and if I don’t put aside some time, then I’m going to lose it. I’m going to always be choosing parents evening, and reports… I would lose time to that, so I spent a week on this workshop and the focus of it was writing personal work. Which wasn’t something I’d ever done before.
Very much what Bryony does
Yes, very much what Bryony does. It starts from a place of asking questions, and the questions that you really want to know. The idea is you come up with some questions, and they need to be ones that resonate with you, but also resonate with other people. So you’re not just writing work for you, you’re writing work that will appeal more widely. And I didn’t think I wanted to write about sex. I think at this point I’d not really told anyone publicly that I found sex painful. Actually I think it maybe wasn’t until the last day of the workshop that I let that bubble to the surface. I’d mentioned it in passing to people, and the reaction had never been positive, it was always like “oh god, oh no, I find sex great, that’s weird”. So I stopped telling people, because their reactions were not positive.
So one of my questions was “why aren’t we all just having sex all the time?” Which wasn’t the real question I wanted to ask but was kind of close enough. As the week got on, and I was in a really supportive group, and it was a really safe space, I kind of got the bravery to actually talk about what I was really experiencing, and I think potentially the idea could have lived or died in that week, because if… I didn’t think people would want to hear about… I didn’t think… as it’s such a unique experience, I thought people would be like “I can’t relate to that, my sex life is great. I can’t relate to that that’s not my experience”. But the reaction was so positive that I kept writing and booked in a ten-minute scratch at the Battersea Arts Centre. That was a lot more stand-uppy just so that I could fill it with material to try out. And that went really well. Every time we did it, I got a little more confidence talking about something so vulnerable. Knowing that people wanted to hear it was life-changing.
I think sometimes, as a writer, it is so important that people tell you that you’re good. You just need one person sometimes to be like “this is good, you should continue with this”. Obviously it is really good to get constructive feedback, and help polishing your work but sometimes you just need someone to be like “yeah you’re on to something”. I love praise.
I think all writers need praise. I think any writer worth their salt has a very very loud inner critic, who otherwise would run rampant. We need a counterbalance.
Yes, oh my goodness yes. I have people in my life that I know I can go to if I need them to be positive. And then I have people in my life I can go to and I know like “you’re the really brutal person, and you’ll tear my play apart. Possibly over tear it apart” But at least I’ll know how I feel about it. And then I have the people that I know are somewhere in the middle, who can give me a balanced, quite technical analysis. So I think having that is really helpful to deal with the inner critic.
Obviously you used to teach. Have you given up the teaching now? Are you focusing on the show? Are you doing other things?
I still teach workshops. I teach drama workshops, sometimes in this very building. I teach comedy, and writing. But I think it is so hard to balance it all, and teaching takes up so much of your energy, because you’re giving all the time, that just like slowly, gradually, I’m retreating from teaching into writing… People say a lot of things about this. Some people say you just have to jump. That’s how things will happen. But number 1 I think it is healthy to have something else as a writer. I have been in positions where I’ve been lucky enough to write without other work. But you do go a bit mad, and actually now, where I do need other things to support me, I feel a lot saner. Otherwise it can be like, when did I last speak to a person? It’s just me and my laptop.
And the pyjamas. Pyjamas are dangerously comfortable, that’s my experience. And then you can’t leave the house because you’re still in your pyjamas. Although confession, I did once go to Asda wearing pyjamas. There was a coat over the top. I think I carried it off.
Oh my god, I think we’ve all done it. I’m not even wearing… I put a jumper on but I haven’t got a t-shirt on.
Plus we are matching yellow
And I believe you are working on something new. Can you tell me about it?
It is going to be very different to Ad Libido but it is still going to have songs, and it’s going to have music, I think it’ll have live music in it. I’m doing the Soho Writers Lab here, where they support you over the period of a year to write a play, and you’ve got a really great community of writers here as well. And I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write, but I’ve had an idea in the back of my brain for ages, and hadn’t been able to work out what to do with it, or how to make it work. OK, I’m on this course for a year, this is the place to… I need the support a venue can give me, and dramaturgs can give me, to unpick that play and try and make it work.
It’s interesting because it’s so different from Ad Libido, and it’s that feeling of… if people ask to see your work, people who have come to see Ad Libido and then they ask if they can see something else that you’re written, and I’ll show them this and there’s this feeling of “oh that’s very different.” And it feels a little bit as if people want writers to have a certain style.
So you’d be pigeon-holed as the self-confessional…
Yes, maybe because they can brand you, and they can sell you.
Marketing, blame it for everything
Yes. So this is going to be an interesting experience.
And will this new piece be a play, or do you envision it working in different forms? Are you interested in different forms?
Yes, I’ve just started writing for TV at the moment. Which is incredible. I love it. And now I love how watching TV feels like homework as well. I can justify everything. So I’m starting… I don’t know if I’m allowed to say…
[brief off the record chat]
I think when you are writing for TV, you have to be brief. You only put down the words that really matter and that is really good for me, because I overwrite massively. I love writing. I realised that this morning. I mean obviously I’ve always known that, but I realised that I LOVE writing. Just the process of putting words on a page, but so much so that I often don’t stop when I should.
But surely that’s what editing is for?
Yes, but I’m a terrible editor. A lot of my plays get stuck on the first draft, because sometimes the thought of going back into a first draft is too monumental. Like climbing back into an old pair of pants, and you’re not sure if they’re going to fit or if the elastic is going to be good, or if the elastic is separated from the cotton, or if they were ever comfortable at all.
Just to finish off, in terms of anyone who is thinking of going to see Ad Libido, what do you think an audience gets from the show?
A really fun, uninhibited laugh. They get to have a little dance in their seats. They get to hear a really great story. It’s not something that they’d hear about every day. And I think I’m in the minority of people who have gone to a sex camp. I don’t think many people have gone to sex camp.
Before seeing your show, I didn’t even know sex camp was a thing.
It is a thing. I went back. I did. I went to Edinburgh and when I came back… Edinburgh is very difficult, you can burn out, and I think by the end of Edinburgh I did a little bit burn out. I got back and I had this weird feeling that, since I’d been telling this story about sex camp, that I think I need to go back to honour it a little bit. I needed to almost say thank you for giving me such a good story. It was so interesting going back, because I was a totally different person. When I’d gone the first time, I’d realised how much I needed people to fancy me to make me feel like I was valuable. So I spent quite a lot of time at the sex camp the second time a little sad because I didn’t need that anymore. Why do I feel a bit empty? I think before I’d needed people to be interested in me, I guess. So this time I went, and it was just for me, and I wasn’t going to do any of the sex bits unless I really wanted to, and they’re all going to be about me. It was very weird, it was a very different experience.
I said no. I said no to a person and they got very angry. I think, had it been the first time I went, I probably would have gone after them and been like “I’m really sorry, it’s not about you, at the moment I just want to concentrate on me, it’s nothing to do with you.” But I just sat there and let them storm off, because I’d learned, in that time, that it wasn’t my responsibility to look after their reaction. I was allowed to say yes or no, and their reaction was nothing to do with me. I couldn’t control how they reacted and really that was their responsibility.
I’ve become curious about, if I was to write this show again now, how different it would be. But I think at some point this has to stop right? Otherwise it’s never done
It’s the whole creative question of when something is actually finished. Which must be hard when your show is based on your life, and your life has carried on. Sometimes you just have to say it’s done.
Yeah, it’s true. And even if I completely fix sex, if I have the most amazing sex of my life and it’s life-changing, narratively it’s not that interesting. So if I used this branch to stimulate myself, that’s the answer, go and get yourself a branch. It’s a bad example… I ate this peach and peaches are the secret to good sex. That’s not as narratively interesting.
It would also make good sex seasonal
Yes. There’d be a lot of issues about air miles.
And this seems as good a point as any at which to end the interview.
If you want to see Fran Bushe in her ground-breaking, sex-life-changing show Ad Libido, you only have a small window of opportunity. It runs at the Soho Theatre 7-11th May. To find out more or book tickets you can click through here