Interview with Clare Summerskill

We talk LGBT awareness, verbatim theatre and imaginary friends with the performer turned doctoral student

May 5, 2016
Clare Summerskill
Source: Alison Darren

Clare Summerskill is a stand-up comedian, playwright, actress, singer-songwriter and gay activist. She is also a current PhD student in Royal Holloway, University of London’s department of drama and theatre, researching the role of the contributor to works of verbatim theatre, a means of playwriting where the text is created from interviews. Her new play Rights of Passage, which is about to start a six-week national tour, explores, through this medium, the struggles and triumphs of lesbians and gay men who have fled to the UK from persecution.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Sevenoaks, Kent, quite a while ago now...

You’ve been a professional performer for a considerable while; what led you to enter the academic world again to undertake a PhD?
A few years ago, I realised that I had a deep interest in the role and experience of a contributor in a piece of verbatim theatre, and I looked around for MA courses where I might explore this academically. I subsequently did an MA at Royal Holloway in applied theatre and, during that period, discovered that little had been written about this subject so, when I applied for a PhD programme to research it, I luckily gained a scholarship from RHUL to do so.  

How does doing a PhD compare with your previous work?
There are many connections of course between the different kinds of work that I do (in playwriting and comedy) reflecting the lives of people from different communities in a creative way, but academia and theatre are two very different beasts. For me, writing creatively, whether that’s plays or stand-up, allows for greater personal expression and freedom, whereas writing academically is learning how to express your own personal ideas within the confines of a form of writing that has its own rules and format.

Would you consider moving into an academic life after completing your doctorate?
I would love to continue working within academia. Having come this far and learned so much about this world, there is no way I could happily leave it behind.

We hear a lot in the media about asylum seekers but not necessarily the different groups within them. How important for you was it to bring the experiences of LGBT asylum seekers to the wider public's attention?
When they see the publicity for Rights of Passage, a number of people comment on how topical and relevant the subject matter is but, apart from it being related to seeking asylum, I’m not sure how publicly known the issues are around people having to leave their countries of origin because of homophobic and transphobic persecution. These people are not seeking asylum because of being a particular religion or holding certain political views...they are oppressed and punished by their families, their communities, their governments and their religious leaders, and they then come to the UK for safety and are often locked up in detention centres and forced to somehow “prove” to the authorities there that they are in fact gay.

Do you ever envisage a time when the LGBT community and minority groups in general will be tolerated by all nations?
Looking at the Western world, I can see how much has changed in recent that gives me some hope. But my own view is that those societal and political reforms came about on the back of feminism, and I am not sure that countries where women have not yet achieved equal rights will be able to accept homosexuality because of the misogyny that homophobia is based on.

How effective is verbatim theatre for bringing these stories to life?
In drama that tackles issues of a political or social nature, I believe that there is something about using “real” stories, rather than fictional ones, that can give the piece an extra degree of poignancy and theatrical impact.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
I hear that one argument behind high fees (and student loans) is that you will be able to earn more afterwards. But I have always worked in the arts, albeit now moving towards academia, and in both these areas I would not be able to earn the amount possible to pay off the kind of debts that I would accrue while studying, and I also know that I am the kind of person who would be hindered creatively if I had to live with ongoing debts. I believe that the benefit of an educated society should not be that everyone has the potential to earn more, but that everyone would be educated.

What do you do for fun? 
I am lucky enough to work at what I most enjoy. Admittedly, slogging away at a PhD chapter, although sometimes extremely rewarding, is not always what you might call fun, but gigging up and down the country, and if I’m lucky making people laugh along the way, definitely is.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
Turning up for an important end of year supervision session with my tutor, fully made up and dressed as an 80-year-old woman, because I’d just come from a rehearsal of Edward Albee’s The American Dream and hadn’t had time to change. I was asked if I thought my work was being in any way impacted by my theatre projects…Looking back, I think that mixture of passion for both academia and theatre set the tone for my career.

What keeps you awake at night?
Worrying about everything. But I’ve found that worrying actually works. Ninety per cent of the things I worry about never happen.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
That it’s OK to have imaginary friends. Everyone does now, it’s called Facebook.


Vijaya Nath has been appointed director of leadership development at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. Ms Nath, who currently holds a similar position at the King’s Fund health charity, will take up her position on 1 July. She brings more than 26 years of experience in developing leaders in the private and not-for-profit sector. “Throughout my career I have been committed to developing leadership and personal potential at all levels,” she said. “I am looking forward to working at the Leadership Foundation and with the higher education sector throughout the UK.”

Graham Kendall has been appointed the new provost of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. From August, Professor Kendall will lead the campus, taking over from Christine Ennew, who is moving to the University of Warwick. He currently holds the position of vice-provost (research and knowledge exchange) and is also professor of computer science. During his term of office, the volume and quality of research rose significantly, resulting in a five-star rating in the Malaysian research assessment exercise, MyRA. “This is an incredibly exciting opportunity, and I am looking forward to building on Christine’s hard work and leading the next phase of expansion in both our teaching and research activities,” he said.

St Mary’s University, Twickenham has announced nine appointments to its School of Management and Social Sciences including Mark Hoban, a former government minister; Adrian Pabst, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Kent; and the Rt Rev Christopher Jamison, director of the National Office for Vocation at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. The remaining appointments are visiting senior fellows André Alves, Gherardo Girardi and Edward Hadas, and visiting professors Stephen Copp, Richard Harries and David Paton.

Tracey Chalk has joined the University of the West of England as director of strategic marketing and communications.

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