Michelle Payne is an award-winning working-class playwright, director and actor from Essex, who is determined to help more under-represented creatives access all areas of the theatre world. A lifelong Dagenham and Redbridge FC fan, Michelle staged her most recent show about a women’s football team, Squad Goals, in the team’s Victoria Road stadium and is now developing it for TV. When she led an Inside Out session with our younger participants this summer, she shared a wide range of writing tools that we’ve all been using ever since.
What was your entry point into theatre?
I had a really good GCSE drama teacher, and she was like, ‘This could actually be a career if you wanted it to be.’ It was just floated in a gentle way, there was no delusions of grandeur. Then I went to a really good sixth-form and did a BTec in Performing Arts, where we worked as a class to create our own shows. But when I started auditioning for drama schools in 2010 / 2011, I was told my accent was jarring and ugly and I didn’t get in anywhere. I ended up getting into a one-year course at PPA in Guildford in 2012, which was amazing. But a voice teacher there told me, ‘We need to fix your voice before your auditions’ so I thought I’d have to get rid of my accent to be a good actor and speak in RP for the rest of my life. And when you’re young and impressionable, you do that, so I played with that for a bit. But when I started writing my first play, I made sure that I could perform it in my own accent. That was Orchid, which I did at the Camden Fringe in 2015. And since then, I’ve had at least one decent job – writing, directing, acting – every year since. At least one! So I think when you are true to yourself, it does actually pay off.
How did you progress after Orchid?
I wrote Orchid with someone else because I wanted to make sure I was doing it properly. And then I went to a writer’s group at The Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, led by Philip Ayckbourn. I did that for 12 weeks and then started making scripts and taking them to scratch nights to get some feedback because all I wanted to do was get better. And then I wrote Full Circle, which is about my journey with mental health. A lot of the mental health plays I’d seen had been all doom and gloom and I wanted to write like a dark comedy.
What was the genesis of Squad Goals?
As I’m making my work, I noticed a severe lack of actors coming through who are like me and like my friends from home. So I started Savi Creative Arts to offer part-time actor training to train up some really good under-represented actors that could then go out and do fringe shows and start building their careers in the same way I had. Between late 2018 and today, I’ve ended up getting about 20 people into drama schools. I’m really good at getting other people into drama schools! I can give people the confidence that I wish had been instilled in me. I used to write them a play at the end of every term and in the third term I was like, ‘I wonder if I could write about a girls’ football team?’ We had 10 people, nine girls and one boy and everyone was kind of 18 to 40 – quite a nice age range. And I thought the one boy could be the comedy role, the boy that had ended up on a girls’ football team. So I wrote Squad Goals for this group originally. And that particular term we had a lot of actor-movers, so I thought, ‘What would this look like as hip-hop commercial style street dance?’ We trialled that at The Other Palace and got a standing ovation and a four-star review and I thought, ‘Oh actually, this is really onto something’. We had plans to take Squad Goals to the Park Theatre but with everything that happened in the pandemic, we were like ‘This is getting less and less realistic’. And I don’t really know how the idea came about, but I’m a big Dagenham and Redbridge fan – my dad’s a season-ticket holder, so we go to a lot of games – and I thought, ‘I wonder what this show would look like in their stadium with the girls in situ?’ So I started drafting it up as an immersive show and Dagenham and Redbridge said ‘Yes’ and it snowballed from there, which was really fun.
Do you think your approach to developing people is rooted in your working-class background?
100 per cent. Before I found theatre, I was massively obsessed with football – obviously it’s not gone away, just got a bit quieter! But my experience of going to working men’s pubs and getting a lager shandy and watching football – that kind of community could exist in theatre if we weren’t so snobby, that shared live experience of like-minded people all rooting for the same thing. I read a really good thing on Instagram – weirdly – this morning that said, ‘It’s lonely at the top. But it wouldn’t be lonely at the top if you brought people with you.’ And I think that’s absolutely key for me. My wins should be a shared experience – if I’m just winning for myself, I’m not doing it right. I’ve got to bring this group of people with me because you can’t do it by yourself. You can’t change this industry, just one person – that’s just lip service. If you’ve got the right community of people, it should be any one of you gets the job is the win.
Which organisations and networks have helped you on your journey?
In May 2019, I found out that I had a three-month placement with the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS) at the Mercury Theatre Colchester. And without the Mercury positioning me for that, I wouldn’t have applied because you need to have like a building behind you. I assistant directed on their panto, end of 2019 into 2020. And from there, they made me a Mercury Creative, so I had a business mentor all funded for me as part of their Mercury Creative programme and then they made me a Mercury Playwright because they’ve seen a lot of my shows and were like, ‘We’ll keep developing you – we don’t want to lose you’. Recently, I did an artist-led programme with the Donmar with a group of 14 other writers to challenge the conventions of writing a play and look at what might it look like as we move forward. And since then, the Donmar are very open to receiving messages from me and we were invited to the Constellations press performance – little things like that make you feel valued as an artist, make you feel part of the building. And I only applied for that because I’m doing a 100 rejections challenge. The idea is that if you get 100 rejections, there’ll be a certain amount of yeses in there as well because of the laws of probability. So far, I think I’ve applied for 63 things, had 34 rejections, nine first rounds and six successes. With the Donmar, I literally filled the application form in thinking it would be one of my rejections because I didn’t think I was qualified enough. And now I’ve got a direct connection to a producer at the Donmar and I’m friends with 14 other amazing writers, some of whose plays I’ve had on my bookshelf since I was about 20!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m redeveloping Squad Goals for television. Then the play that I wrote for the PPA third-year students show in June, The Liberators, is being published – I’m just waiting for a date on that. It’s a play about superheroes because I’m a big Marvel fan! I’m working on a commission that’s just in the very first stages of development. And I’m still applying for lots of things – I want to get another assistant directing credit and more artist residencies. There’s maybe six or seven applications I’m wating to hear back from.
• Inside Out is Inky Cloak’s participation project, delivering weekly digital drama workshops for younger (18–27 years old) and older (55-plus) LGBTQ+ participants with the financial support of Arts Council England.