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Manchester producer PJ Cunningham talks about play heading to Edinburgh Fringe

We sat down with PJ Cunningham, the brilliant Manchester producer working on the sensational play "Almost Adult."

This captivating production, inspired by playwright and performer Charlotte Anne-Tilley’s own experiences as a young woman in London, fearlessly explores the tumultuous journey of coming-of-age while bravely confronting the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

As a Manchester-based producer, PJ Cunningham has made it her mission to give a powerful voice to the countless women who have been silenced or challenged after speaking out about their experiences.

She is hoping to promote gender equality and empower women through her creative endeavours.

She sheds light on the profound impact that “Almost Adult” has had on audiences, inspiring important conversations and even catalysing tangible change in society.

This big-hearted and honest player returns to Edinburgh to interrogate the ways in which we fail ourselves and each other, as well as the ways in which we draw upon internal strength in the face of hardship

Delving into the delicate balance between comedy and the serious themes of workplace sexual harassment, PJ reveals the careful approach taken to portray this sensitive subject matter while ensuring an entertaining and engaging theatrical experience.

As we look towards the future, PJ shares her vision for the play, including plans for adaptation into a TV show and a thrilling tour.

What inspired you to join Almost Adult production team and take this show to Fringe?
Well, Charlotte Anne-Tilley (Almost Adult Writer & Performer) actually directly approached me to join the Almost Adult production team!

We met through last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and collaborated on FemiFringe. FemiFringe is a community of female and non-binary fringe artists that began online to celebrate female and non-binary work.

This was in response to a male theatre company criticising that there was ‘too much’ female work occurring at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe on Twitter.

Charlotte and I worked together on an in-person event, So La Flair Theatre’s Femi Fringe Fantasia, for creatives to share their work as well as to network and meet like-minded people amidst the madness of fringe.

I then watched Almost Adult and loved the show’s exploration of the hopeful joys and the bizarrely confusing lows of navigating adulthood as a 20-year-old woman.

Alongside this, I was particularly drawn to how through the show’s protagonist, Hope, Charlotte found a way to examine the nuances of sexual harassment in the workplace.

I found the show so relatable, funny, and moving that when Charlotte got in contact with me I was over the moon to join the team.

Can you tell us more about your personal journey and how it influenced your decision to focus on giving a voice to women who have been silenced or challenged?

At the forefront of my creative practice is a commitment to producing work that platforms women’s and people of marginalised genders’ voices, particularly those who have been silenced and challenged.

I aim to practice this commitment in every creative project I do as, ultimately, we are all wonderfully multifaceted beings who have so much to say and one can learn so much from all marginalised genders and their wide range of stories.

Since 2020 I’ve been a Creative Producer of So La Flair, a Manchester-based interdisciplinary theatre company that produces theatre, immersive cabarets and community-focused events, with the intention of platforming women and people of marginalised gender’s voices.

Projects I’ve worked on with SLF have shown me the immense impact this can have on an audience.

The result is both personal and political; they continue to spread important conversations that are often shied away from and also help make those who may have been affected feel seen, heard and, ultimately, empowered.

The way Charlotte’s show hosts the multidimensional and humanly complicated character, Hope, is so clever and hits this wonder of a deeply individual and yet politically important piece of art.

She does this by addressing both the comedic coming-of-age elements of her life by looking into her experience of sexual harassment in the workplace and I think Charlotte continues an important conversation and does not shy away from its nuances.

Personally, I have been exposed to sexual harassment while working in a bar in the Northern Quarter where in the course of four months there were three separate sexual harassment cases that had to be addressed and dealt with.

I think it’s easy for people across various industries to believe this is the ‘norm’. This is why shows like Almost Adult are so important, they challenge this normalisation and champion voices that have been censored and not taken seriously.

Almost Adult is based on Charlotte’s experience at a renowned and large-booming immersive entertainment company.

When I watched Charlotte’s show I was both moved and inspired.

When I found out it was based on her own experience I was genuinely lost for words with disappointment.

We can’t allow these liberal-presenting creative spaces to uphold this facade any longer, so when Charlotte asked me to join, how could I say no?

It’s an important story to be shared, a necessary conversation for so many of us and it gives a voice to those who have been made to feel small.

Have you received any feedback or stories from women who have connected with your work? If so, how has their response impacted you and your dedication to this cause?

Both the stories and feedback Charlotte has received for Almost Adult have been amazing; many audience members after seeing the show in Edinburgh in August 2022 felt so moved that they would come up to Charlotte and share their own stories and thank her for continuing such an important conversation.

I think one of my favourite stories about audience feedback is when an audience member privately messaged Charlotte on social media.

She exclaimed how she and her brother watched the show and entered a lengthy discussion about the exploitation of women in the workplace.

From this, he went away and spoke to the company he worked for, a well-known public services union.

Since then, the union has taken steps to prevent workplace sexual harassment and create a system to deal with it when it happens. Almost Adult has the power to start or continue a conversation (the first ripple) which then can develop in itself to change (bigger ripples!).

It’s an important show that has the capacity to bring important change. These kinds of responses are what keep me absolutely dedicated to working on creative projects such as this.

How do you envision the future of your work and its impact on promoting gender equality and empowering women to speak out against harassment?

The future of Almost Adult is to continue to raise awareness and empower its audience.

Charlotte is currently adapting the play into an exciting TV show. The TV show would continue a national conversation about workplace sexual harassment and hopefully bring more energy to the movement.

Following Edinburgh, we’re hoping to tour the show and continue the great impact it has personally and politically.

How do you balance the comedic elements of the play with the serious themes of workplace sexual harassment?

I think Charlotte does this balance quite naturally. Through the way she’s written the script, alongside her stellar performance, Charlotte has found a way for the comedic coming-of-age elements of the show to coexist with the themes of workplace sexual harassment.

The show deliberately begins as this lighthearted coming-of-age ‘moving to the big city’ playful story; as an audience one finds Hope
endearing and funny through Charlotte’s dynamic performance.

Then, as the show continues, the script cleverly pulls the rug from under the audience and suddenly both audience and character are confronted with the sharp reality of workplace sexual harassment.

This comedy-drama approaches the balance smoothly; the way the two ultimately coexist in the show is a clever reflection of human experiences through times of personal hardship where both comedy and tragedy are present.

In what ways does Almost Adult explore the concept of coming-of-age in the face of adversity?

I love the way Charlotte explores the concept in the show, the balance is part of the show’s sparkle.

The narrative brings you on this heartwarming and yet also challenging journey of Hope moving away from a small town up in Cheshire to the ‘big bright lights’ of London.

Hope’s perception changes as this new life brings through various trials and tribulations and the audience is with her throughout,
watching her try, fail and learn.

We see the challenges that this change in the pace of life brings her, the adjustments that are forced upon her and how she deals with them. It’s this epic modern coming-of-age story exploring zero-hour contracts and shitty workplaces, one’s identity conflict of no being a teenager but not feeling like an adult.

It’s a relatable, entertaining and yet simultaneously thought-provoking piece of theatre.

How do you approach the delicate task of portraying workplace sexual harassment on stage? What do you hope the audience will take away from the play in terms of understanding and addressing workplace harassment?

Through the show’s narrative and the depths of Hope’s character, there’s a lot of careful consideration to the exploration of sexual harassment, especially through how Hope talks about what happens at work.

This care transfers from writing into performance and direction, it’s difficult to fully articulate but there’s an art of respect to how Charlotte approaches visually presenting her story.

Even when the show addresses such a delicate task one feels safe in the space due to thought and care running through each theatrical detail of the piece. I hope the audience takes away that the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace is not over, it’s still so present and we must continue these conversations on smaller personal levels such as speaking to one another and then at greater levels through finding ways to ripple this into a national conversation.

Small actions can spark great change. Through the likes of NDAs and power imbalances, big companies are still getting away with this and I hope that Almost Adult helps raise awareness of this.

Are there any specific challenges you faced in bringing this story to life, considering its sensitive subject matter?

I think probably the greatest and bravest challenge in bringing this story to life for Charlotte was the fact that ultimately this story is based on real-life people and her own experience.

I think finding the balance of creating fictional elements for artistic purposes alongside exploring the complexities of these difficult experiences with honesty and specificity must’ve been quite a journey for her.

Reflecting on the emotional impact of sexual harassment is an emotionally complex challenge and journey in itself. To take this experience to inform her art of storytelling is incredibly brave.

And I know I’m biased but she’s really smashed it. Each time she performs the show she raises awareness and receives feedback that’s grateful for her raising her voice and shedding light on such an important topic.

Both herself and others are seen, which makes the challenges worth it.

How do you navigate the balance between presenting a realistic portrayal of sexual harassment and maintaining an entertaining theatrical experience?

At the core of Almost Adult is the story of Hope overcoming her naivety and lack of life experience. The show takes her on a journey where ultimately she gains maturity and begins finding the tools to deal with the flaws and complications of real life.

The balance, I think, is through Hope’s endearing character – the witty dialogues she has with other characters alongside the coming-of-age story arc enables the audience to invest in what’s occurring in her life.

Like I said earlier, the script’s balance of both light-hearted and fun comedy with the more serious tones of sexual harassment enables both to coexist together. As it often does with comedy and drama within one’s own life.

You can catch their show at: Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Snug), 3 Chambers Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1HT Wednesday 2nd–Saturday 27th August 2023b(not 14th), 19:00.

You can get tickets here.

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