Interview: Playwright and Screenwriter Joshua Kaplan on Edinburgh Fringe Play, TERF

Interview: Playwright and Screenwriter Joshua Kaplan on Edinburgh Fringe Play, TERF

Ahead of the premier of his new play at the 2024 Edinburgh Fringe, we talk to writer Joshua Kaplan about TERF, Fringe highlights, and Things To Do in London!

To Do List is a proud ally of the trans community #NoLGBwithoutTheT

TERF | Saint Stephen’s Theatre – Ian McKellen Theatre | 2-12, 14-25 August | From £13

Hi Joshua, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Could you start by telling us a bit of about you and your work?

I grew up in Bellmore, New York, a bedroom community of New York City. I come from a family of theatre-lovers. One of my earliest memories is seeing Me and My Girl, I was probably eight years old. The minute the lights went down I was hooked. After a sojourn as an attorney, I returned to my first love – writing – and moved to Los Angeles where I studied Screenwriting at the University of Southern California. After graduation I worked my way up the ranks in a few writers’ rooms, eventually landing on Tokyo Vice, for which I co-wrote an episode in the second season. I love the collaboration of television writing and the independence of playwriting – I’m blessed to have the opportunities to experience both.

TERF – by its very title – clearly intends to make something of a splash at this years Fringe. What’s it all about?

It’s interesting to witness how the story of the play is being backfilled from the present. In reality, I did not write this play to make a splash at Fringe or anywhere else. I know that’s hard to believe in this world where everyone’s trying their darndest to make splashes when they can, but that’s not my personality. I don’t enjoy attention for anything other than my work. So when I started writing the play I had no idea where it would end up. It was during the pandemic, and the controversy had just begun, and I was – and continue to be – fascinated by the dynamic between JK Rowling and the stars of the movies. I write a lot of “family” stories as a playwright and screenwriter, and that’s what this is to me. Of course, I don’t know any of the actual people involved, everything about their relationships in the play exists in my imagination only. But the fact that this rift has played out very publicly made me think about how it would feel if my most intimate relationships were subject to public scrutiny. That’s where this play lives – in the relationships between the characters, and in how each character brings their own story to the conversation, formed by their own experiences. And how those experiences colour our opinions and the method of their expression.

She who shall not be named (by us) has caused a lot of hurt with her comments on transgender rights, at a time when hate crimes against transgender people have been on the rise – how do you hope TERF can positively contribute to the conversation?

The biggest danger of social media, I believe, is that it protects us from experiencing the consequences of our words. When we say something to someone directly, we get an immediate reaction, which then causes our reaction, and so on. Imagine if we said the things to each other in person that we say online. Society wouldn’t be able to function. I don’t think that’s just out of a desire for self-preservation. I think we are hard-wired to get along with one another, that the vast majority of us are programmed with a certain degree of empathy that is triggered during real-life conversations. Social media removes the empathy factor from our interactions. It brings out our basest instincts, our reptilian, eat or be eaten, brains. And it not only causes more suffering – it distracts us from the suffering that already exists. That’s the job of social media. To distract us from the things that truly matter and create a brutal ecosystem on top of it. My hope for the play is to help steer the conversation away from the self-reflexive “hurt people hurt people” dynamic that permeates social media and towards an empathetic model of conversation. I believe that if we can reinsert empathy into our conversation about trans rights we can shift the discussion away from this victim-perpetrator-rescuer triangle and towards the real issues, which include not only transgender rights but also the myriad of other dynamics from which the conflict springs. Empathy is the greatest elixir, not only for the people with whom we agree, but with those with whom we disagree, perhaps even more so. I know that’s a tall order. But it’s something I think we can do.

What pushback have you received so far – and what impact has this had on your work?

The pushback has been both real and overblown, sometimes completely fabricated. For example, the story that ninety actors turned down the role of JK Rowling – that was a fabrication. In fact, it was a straightforward casting process and we had none of the problems reported on by the far-right wing media. On the other hand, we have met resistance from various institutional elements at Fringe. Any exploration of controversial subjects can bring heightened attention, and with that attention comes the need for extra resources. Institutions, particularly in the theatre, are already pressed for resources, and so the concern has arisen that the play may stretch certain resources too thin. I understand that concern. At the same time, it can be disappointing, when all you want to do is put on a good show and these roadblocks are placed on top of all the other roadblocks of putting on a show. In terms of how it’s impacted the work, though, it has not. The play is the play. I have full confidence that when it’s finally presented, it will stand on its own and all the other noise around it will fall away. The work is all I care about. Entertaining and engaging audiences is my one and only goal. That’s my job as a writer.

What other shows are you looking forward to catching at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Oh, so much! Of course the big names – Hannah Gadsby and Lawrence Chaney’s shows are going to be terrific, and definitely Miriam Margolyes’s show. I first saw Miriam Margolyes on stage in Endgame fifteen years ago and have been a huge fan of hers since. I’m also fascinated by the Hamlet being brought by the Peruvian theatre group Teatro La Plaza, and the David Ireland play The Fifth Step is on my must list. I saw his Ulster American when it was at the Riverside Studios and it contained one of my favourite lines from any play I’ve ever seen. I won’t ruin it by repeating it, but it had to do with theatre critics… As a newbie to Fringe I’m also planning to see as many newbie plays as I can – I very much ascribe to the Ratatouille theory of art (the movie, not the food), that greatness can be found anywhere and in any form if you just pay attention.

What are your favourite things to do in London?

Theatre, of course. I try to see 2-3 shows per week at least. I love wandering around London, sometimes I set out in the beginning of the day and see where my feet take me. I love green spaces, Hampstead Heath is probably my go-to on a nice day. I practice yoga several times a week, and write from various coffee shops and in theatres. The staff at the National definitely know my face by now! I just love this town. Some mornings I wake up and say, I wish I were in London. Then I realise, I am in London, and I’m happy.

The excellent Terrence Higgins Trust has put together the following list of UK charities offering support, advice and information for the trans community:

  • The Beaumont Society – help and support from the trans community.
  • The Clare Project – Trans support and social group based in Brighton and Hove but open to anyone wishing to explore issues around gender identity.
  • Gendered Intelligence – Trans-led charity that aims to improve the lives of trans and non-binary people in the UK, specialises in supporting young people.
  • GIRES – Gender identity research & education.
  • LGBT Foundation – National charity based in Manchester with trans services and resources.
  • Mermaids – UK charity supporting trans and gender-diverse children, young people and their families.
  • Mindline trans + – Emotional and mental health support helpline for anyone identifying as trans, non-binary, gender variant, and their families, friends, colleagues and carers. Their phone line is open Mondays and Fridays, 8pm to midnight. Ring 0300 330 5468.
  • Spectra – Peer-led trans services accessible to all trans and gender-diverse people, including 1-2-1 health advocacy support, and counselling, peer mentoring, referral and signposting to relevant partners, talks and workshops and monthly online and in-person social groups. 
  • Stonewall – UK charity campaigning for LGBT equality.
  • Switchboard – LGBT+ helpline.
  • THT Direct – our phone and email service for questions about sexual health or living with HIV.
  • Transbucket –Health care and surgery resource for the online trans community.
  • WPATH – Non-profit organisation devoted to trans health.