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BOYBLUE MEETS WRITER AND PERFORMER

KAREN COGAN

 
 

The morning I had on my way to meet writer and performer, Karen Cogan was the emotional equivalent of watching a bowdlerised marathon of Girl Boss with all the literal and figurative profanity edited out. The morning sucked, simply put.

I burst into the Hospital Club, London and I spy Cogan. We do the 'Is it you?' dance, before I go in for a hug and she a handshake. "I never know how professional I'm meant to be in these things," she admits. Wearing a white patterned shirt and her tousled hair up, she orders me a glass of water with a smile that made me forget all about the awful morning. We nest into a group of grab-bag sofas; that afternoon, Cogan would be meeting a friend for drinks in the bar of the member's club. 

For now, the sun shining salon-like, Cogan sips her icy water and we small talk about how we all have days wherein no amount of motivational cat posters can get you through them. With mordant wit and a mercurial personality, the writer and performer is refreshing to chat to. 

A raconteuse, Cogan recounts the events leading up to her acceptance into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Like any great career, it was inspired by television: "I saw Finoa Shaw on TV in Ireland when I was really young. She was on The Late Late Show [...] and she mentioned RADA and I thought, 'That sounds interesting'. So, as this was pre-internet, I sent a pigeon to RADA and waited for a brochure and it arrived. It was a burgundy, glossy paper with the Queen's crest on the front. Like Hogwarts!

"Arrogantly, I thought 'I'd just go there', and it became my focus to attend. It took me a few goes before I got in." Corgan gives me the cheatsheet for scoring a spot at RADA; she now sits on their audition panel. "What really stands out and made the difference for me the year I got in versus those I didn't, is people who are authentically themselves. Who are, at least, on the way to figuring who they are and what they care about. You can always tell when a young person is standing in front of you, being themselves."

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But who are examples of folk who are doing just that? "Michaela Coel and Issa Rae" stay true to themselves, she tells me. As if you're not being your authentic self, what even was the point of Glee?

The big capital R, Reason we're chatting is Drip Feed. No, Mr. Coffee® hasn't dropped a new model. Drip Feed is Cogan's new play set to be staged at Edinburgh Fringe and the Soho Theatre, London. A provocative comedy that centres the messiness of being young-ish, female and queer in 90s Ireland, it's Cogan's second play in production alongside a garrison of other projects in development. "The first play, The Half of It, was about someone who was locked in," she tells me. "She was agoraphobic and hadn't left her house in six years and was really dark and absurd. Drip Feed has got a more open energy, more engaging with its direct address and the audience are allowed in.

"I'm looking forward to how it's going to be different every night and depending on the conversation with the audience, it'll be a different dialogue. Different energies and different people. She's a queer woman in her 30s who never left Cork, who's a bit stuck, and has had her heart really badly broken. We can all on some level relate to that."

Inner-city hay-fever often reduces us to being a teary and bleary mess. It's the go-to excuse for Tracy Beaker whenever she welled-up, but there was no excuse for Cogan when Soho Theatre asked her out for lunch: "I welled-up in person, and it was not hay-fever, it was Winter! [Drip Feed was] shortlisted for the Verity Bargate Awards. Like any artist knows, you're constantly hustling for the next thing, so I was sending out scripts everywhere. 99% of things you apply for you don't get, that's how it works. I got a phone call that it was shortlisted... I had completely forgotten I applied!

"It felt fizzy and exciting to perform Drip Feed [as part of the Awards]. Later, Soho Theatre called me in for and told me they want to produce Drip Feed in London and Edinburgh [...] I was told this, and tried to nod like a human whereas inside I was like," Cogan does a creaky, OMG face not unlike John Mayer singing. "It's tough to get back a single email from a theatre as they simply don't have the time to go through all the submissions. In short, it's the dream! Any young writers keen to get their show on, the Soho Young Writers Company has so much outreach. Keep on applying."

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Cogan's enthusiasm is, as cliched as it reads, contagious. Hearing her journey was nothing like those polyblend backstories of iTV talent show winners. Instead, Cogan's is one of passion. As she sketched out to me how Drip Feed was picked up by Soho Theatre, I couldn't help but mime out her fizzy, Berocca-grade physicality. As she tells me her victories, I give a Mary Tyler-smile and fist bump; "It's like a movement piece," she said when describing my reactions to everything. 

While Cogan is bright when describing the journey of Drip Feed, the play itself is darker. Set in Cork, Ireland, the writer tells me why she decided to set it there: "I was 16 going to a club called Sir Henry's in the 90s; it's a nightclub referenced in Drip Feed that was an incredible club that shut down in 2001/2002. It was super inclusive, you had hardcore straight house music fans mixing with a queer crowd. It was amazing.

"Politically, 1998 was after the Divorce Referendum in Ireland and pre-Marriage Equality, so it was an interesting time for the LGBT+ community as there was a lot of healthy, well-attended queer spaces. As much as things were tough, there was an exciting underground scene."

Queer women being actualised as 'messy' and complex is a key theme in Drip Feed. Equally, Cogan described the writing process, much like the story, as “quite frantic”. So, I asked in a rather slurred, scrambled way, why messiness informed Drip Feed so much. "Meta-messy," she rejoinders rosily back. "Life is messy, isn't it? We're all complex, messy people. Anyone who says otherwise is potentially lying. The writing process was messy because I was writing another play at the time. I was over-writing and asking everyone's opinion as I couldn't keep my own counsel. I had this deadline and wrote Drip Feed frantically in three days: so much coffee, tears, self-loathing, imposter syndrome. It basically puked out."

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Sounds like a darker spin-off of the Powerpuff Girls. After two minutes of explaining the Powerpuff Girls intro to her, I ask Cogan what her Chemical X is: "Collaborating with other people. I can't function otherwise. When you get into the room as a writer with the right director and the right design team [...] I get so much energy from other people being so talented."

She also gets a lot of energy when speaking for and on behalf of the women she hopes Drip Feed will better represent. "Women are not written as messy as men often are," she explains. But "that is changing all the time, and I can really count on one hand the female-led stories that I've been that the women are as nuanced, all over the place, flawed, nasty, and grotesque and all the things men get to be. Particularly queer female characters. I wanted to write someone who was real to me."

Cogan cited Annie Baker's "sharp, acerbic, absurdly naturalistic" dialogue as an influence of her writing. "She's not afraid to write a three-and-a-half hour play with lots of pauses and moments. She knows the power of the space between people and let the audience see that." To Cogan, the theatre is where the story of Drip Feed finds its relief "due to the language and the physicality and weirdness of it all. It needs to be a theatre for me as I'm excited by absurdist stuff. Strange, physical, pausey, odd language, messy..." sounds like Cogan's influence is Jeb Bush speeches.

When I ask her, like so many interviewers do, what the rest of 2018 holds for her, she stutters. A few clunky "I, uh,"s are cast out, floating up and forgotten. I quickly make out how easy it would be to trip over this question, for Cogan has an artillery of projects in the pipeline. "Drip Feed's going to go into rehearsals soon... I'm developing two other plays... My first play, The Half of It, might have a future life... And then I've got four TV shows in development as well. It's about eight different projects, so not too much wine and a decent amount of focus will be needed."

Karen Cogan is sugar, spice, everything nice, and a whole lotta messiness in-between. In other words, exactly what theatre needs more of.  

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Drip Feed is running at the Edinburgh Fringe, Wed 1st to Sun 26th August 2018, at 2:30pm. Tickets can be bought here

Its London leg will be at Soho Theatre Upstairs, from Mon 24th September to Sat 20th October, at 7pm (60mins). Tickets can be bought here

AUTHOR: JOSH MILTON