The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan

This play is part of Tonic Theatre’s Platform project to create more plays for large casts of girls in schools and Youth Theatre contexts. Q&A taken from the Tonic website.

Seventeen-year-old Elsie Wright has never done well at school and though her drawings are extraordinary, a career as an artist isn’t something a girl from a run-of-the-mill village like Cottingley could normally aspire to. Besides, it’s 1917, there’s a war on and the constant news of deaths from the front are affecting every family in her village – including her own – meaning Elsie’s artistic endeavours aren’t top of anyone’s list of priorities to encourage.

When Elsie borrows her father’s camera and fakes photographs of her and her younger cousin Frances talking with fairies at the bottom of the Wright’s garden, the girls don’t expect the public fervour their work will unleash. While Elsie’s father dismisses the pictures as nonsense, her mother passes them on to a local theosophist Madame Blavatsky, who – enjoying an increased profile amid the fascination in spiritualism ignited by the war – announces them as concrete proof that fairies exist. Suddenly, Elsie and Frances are catapulted to the heights of fame, their photographs published around the world, even capturing the attention of celebrated author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A young newspaper reporter called Winifred Douglas is tasked by her editor to expose the now-famous Elsie as a fraud. Desperate to prove herself, Winifred infiltrates Elsie’s group of friends in Cottingley in an effort to uncover how the photographs were faked. But it is when she begins to investigate why Elsie steadfastly maintains the photographs’ veracity that Winifred begins to think there is something more to the girl’s actions than simple attention-grabbing. The play jumps back and forward in time between a charged encounter between Winifred and Elsie at a high-profile London event staged by Conan Doyle to promote Elsie’s photographs, and scenes earlier in  the year leading up to Elsie’s taking of the photographs, and the burgeoning of her ensuing fame.

The Light Burns Blue is inspired by the real story of the Cottingley Fairies. What was your initial connection to it?

I felt a real kinship with Elsie Wright, the older of the two girls who had taken the photographs and I saw something of myself in her when I was younger. I liked the fact she was quite mischievous and fun-loving. The borderline between prank and practical joke and something more deliberate, I really was interested in that.

Elsie reminded me of the kind of things my friends and I would get up to. I can see how when you’re really bored and kind of marginalised within your setting, you try and find ways to have a bit of fun and not take things too seriously. She was a child at a time which was really serious [The play is set during the First World War]. I thought it was interesting that children, regardless of what era they live in, they’ll always find the fun in situations, they’re always looking for joy. And so I thought that was lovely, the joy against the backdrop of this really horrible world event.

You’ve said you felt impressed by Elsie’s skill as a photographer. What in particular grabbed you about the pictures she took of the fairies?

I thought it was remarkable that she managed, with a single exposure, to get something that was of a high enough standard and high enough quality to actually fool everybody. It’s the fact that she got it in a single try, that first photograph. And then the second photograph as well. My husband is a photographer and he takes multiple images as he tries to work towards one that’s usable. Sometimes it’s not a matter of the quality being low, it’s that some aspect of it, the actual image you’re trying to capture, is somehow distorted or perhaps there’s too much movement in the frame. And so the fact that the fairies could be so unbelievably life-like in a single exposure for each of those five [photographs] was really remarkable.

I was interested too in the fact that Elsie’s pictures have been left out of the history of photography, I couldn’t understand why that was. They’re really beautiful and that’s one thing, but also as photographs in and of themselves, they’ve achieved something really huge; they’ve altered and played with people’s perceptions. It’s the interaction with the audience, or the viewer, that’s the crucial thing about them. So for that reason they deserve notice and I think it’s really remarkable that they’ve been slightly excluded from the photographic record.

What’s remarkable about Elsie is that she was a performance artist ahead of her time and that she probably didn’t recognise that. I think her story is one of not recognising her own talent. If you look on some of the websites out there about her, they show her watercolours and they’re really very detailed. I think she was someone who never valued her own talents and abilities but that actually she took a chance and did something remarkable and stood by it for many years, for, like, sixty years; she never admitted to the photos being fakes until a few years before her death.

What did you need to be aware of when reimagining her story as a piece of dramatic writing for the stage?

I knew I needed to bring drama to the story. In a biographic story there isn’t necessarily any urgency or any drama, but I was interested in pursuing an intellectual question via the story to do with what makes art art, and how would you determine whether you’re looking at an artist or a fraudster? Those were the things I thought had some dramatic currency and they were the things that propelled my interest in writing it for the stage.

Her story feels hugely resonant today. Particularly in the respect that instant fame – or notoriety – can alter the course of your life. I think that we are living in an age where celebrity comes with enormous penalties and Elsie was at the dawn of experiencing that. So her life became one of living in hiding, running away from the media, and that feels hugely resonant today.

When you were commissioned to write a play for the Platform series, you were asked for a play that would put the stories of female characters, specifically of girls, centre stage. Did you enjoy that?

Hugely. I thought that the opportunity to present so many female characters who were not just interacting with their ‘femaleness’ – that there was a different type of story being pursued and that they could actually just ‘be’ onstage – that was the exciting thing about it. And so the girls, they’re flawed, they’re interesting and they’re mischievous so hopefully they’ll be really fun to play. There’s a real variety of different personalities. Some of them are based on some of the things I’ve learned through teaching theory: in a group they’ll be a pragmatist, a theorist, a reflector, and so we tried to represent those different types in the cast.

The most fun thing about the process has been writing so many parts for girls and I had to question why I hadn’t previously written more parts for girls. A lot of my plays have had lots of male characters and I think it’s because you have a perception that ‘banter’ between them is going to be more fun. And so what’s been really great has been writing banter for the girl characters and letting them behave in as many varied ways as I would have perceived the male characters I’ve previously written would do. And letting them be flawed – that’s been great.