50 over 50 interviewees – Fiona Coffey – Writer and performer

  1. Tell us more about yourself. What do you do and how long you’ve been working in this industry?

I’ve been writing cabaret shows and performing for the last 4 years, having spent most of my career working in business as an organisation consultant, facilitator and coach.

People talk about me re-inventing myself; I’m not sure I set out to do that, but it’s been quite a transition; my quasi-dormant LinkedIn profile attempts to reflect my corporate and artistic personae but increasingly I see these two worlds as completely different, often contradictory. These days I do bits of corporate work but devote most of my time developing my new writing and performing career.

My route into this industry was unexpected. In the summer of 2014, I had this idea, almost out of nowhere, to write a cabaret show about Mrs Robinson (from The Graduate). I plucked up the courage to ask Harold Sanditen, a cabaret artist if he would be my mentor. He put me in touch with Michael Roulston, a tremendously experienced and well-regarded cabaret MD.  The three of us started working together and Harold organised a date at the Pheasantry with a lead time of 8 months!

The first show sold out with a month to go, we then added a second show that also sold out, mainly because I had a whole network of family and friends who basically went ‘WTF? I’ve got to see this!’. People assumed it was one of those bucket list things you do in late life, like skydiving. I had no illusions; I knew that I had very little performing experience, and in a way, it was an act of total hubris to assume I could progress from one or two jazz songs at a charity gig to a full one-woman show. However, these first shows were carried along with charm and ‘have a go’ energy.  The Mrs Robinson character seemed to strike a chord, particularly with women of my age and I got some amazing feedback. So I decided to carry on.

The past two or three years have been about developing the performing skills I needed to work professionally; I took on intensive singing lessons with Maureen Scott, cabaret classes with Paul L Martin and Jamie Anderson, later a year’s Meisner acting course with Scott Williams, and then stand-up and comedy writing course with Logan Murray. Also in the course of developing my two shows, I have worked with terrific artists like Peta Lily and Sarah-Louise Young, who have taught me a lot.

Since May 2015, “A touch of Mrs Robinson”’ has been performed 42 times, both in London and around the country, culminating a full run at last year’s Edfringe. I then returned to Edfringe this year with a  second show – ‘Honey’s Happening’. It’s completely different – comedy theatre as opposed to musical cabaret. What I’m doing now is what I did when I first went into business consulting – exploring and experimenting, so I can discover what I like and do best.

  1. Who did you want to be when you were a kid?

I remember at the age of 13 wanting to be a social worker. Other than that I don’t remember having any other dreams.  

As I was growing up, certainly in my family, aspirations for women were pretty low. I was the first woman in my family to go to university. I entered the workforce in the early 80s and all I wanted was to be taken seriously in a masculine world, so I went into banking! That was nuts.

  1. What was your ‘punch in the stomach’ or when did you first realise that this is going to become your career?

I think in retrospect, there were a few nudges. After one of my first shows, a female business colleague whom I didn’t know very well, looked me in the eye and said ‘this is good, keep going’.

On stage, at the Pheasantry, after my very first performance I thought ‘I feel really at home here’. 6 months after that, there was a growing realisation that I felt almost sick thinking about going back to my consulting career. Then at last year’s Edfringe, I vowed I’d be back with a new show. Therefore I’d effectively mapped out the year ahead as an artist, writer and performer. I think that’s when the new career became the day job.

  1. What were the 3 biggest obstacles in pursuit of your career?

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I wouldn’t say they were obstacles because I genuinely think nobody is actively putting things in your way, BUT you have to dig very deep to find the resilience to overcome your own defences and self-imposed limitations. You have to accept what you can and can’t realistically do, where you should push yourself forward and where you should spend more time acquiring new skills and thinking strategically about what you’re going to do next.

Because of my previous career, some aspects of showbiz came relatively easy to me. At the same time, I had to deal with the issue of having concepts and ideas and ambitions that I couldn’t realise without better skills. It takes time to become good at core performing skills, like singing or acting, and you only get good with practice. Though to practice, you need real audiences and there’s only a certain degree to which you can build and sustain an audience when you’re still in the early stages of learning.

Lack of experience means that sometimes you have to learn in public and be scrutinised before you’re ready. So the second obstacle was, and still is, largely in my head. It felt pretty humiliating to read a disappointing first review, you imagine that everyone is thinking you’re a complete fool. Not letting that get to you and carrying on is an important lesson every artist needs to learn. Having said that, now that I’m starting to reap the rewards of hard work, I’m definitely noticing a change in my confidence. You just have to go through the burn!

I’m also aware that the network of contacts I have in the theatre world is minimal (compared to what I have in business) and all the time I’m learning things that are completely unfamiliar to me – auditions, casting, doing a showreel, a lighting plot, Twitter – all of which seem second nature to the people I now work with.

  1. Where do you find inspiration?

If I knew that, I’d bottle it! I feel the process of creating something is quite mysterious. You never know what alchemy of pictures, memories, people you’ve met, random conversations or experiences will coalesce into an idea and when it will pop out.

I do try and feed my inspiration by seeing a lot of other people’s shows; on average 3 times a week. I also follow my interests and impulses wherever they go, even if I can’t quite see the point. For example, over the last month, I’ve started learning the Tarot. I’ve no idea why this interests me but I’m just trusting that this is doing some kind of internal restructuring… and eventually it will all make sense.

Prior to ‘Honey’, I was fascinated by hostess trolleys and the hideously ornate aspic jelly buffet centrepieces that were fashionable in the Fanny Cradock era; I also remember my grandmother being obsessed by the space race – all this found its way into that show.

  1. What challenges do you face in this industry as a ‘50+ artist’?

I don’t have a point of comparison with being a 50-something artist to any other age. The ‘declining parts for older women’ argument isn’t something I think about too much, as I’m focused on creating my own work.

If I wanted to do more acting in other people’s shows, there probably wouldn’t be a deluge of roles, but one or two would be fine, and I’m sure there will be some out there.

Every age has pluses and minuses. I feel in relation to some of my younger colleagues; it’s much easier for me to achieve clarity of purpose as impending mortality, family life and childbearing issues are all settled by now, and I’ve already achieved success in my first career. All of that gives an immense sense of being able to roll with the punches and not worry about anything too much.

  1. What advice would you give someone who is about to start their career but is being told that it’s ‘too late’?

All of the above really. My personal inspiration is Lynn Ruth Miller, who started out in cabaret aged 71, and is now in her mid-80s still creating shows. When I was at my desk writing my thesis aged 53, I thought to myself ‘that means I’ve got 18 extra years to play with’. Hot damn! There’s a helluva lot of career building you can do in 18 years!  

I’d say, don’t let yourself or anyone else tell you it’s too late. Listen to your impulses and follow them. It’s always going to be about small incremental steps. Don’t distract yourself with what could or might have been. You weren’t ready to commit before, otherwise, you would have done it. If you feel you are ready now, get on with it.

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Also, don’t get hung up on whether it’s leading you anywhere. The most important thing is that you should enjoy and commit to the process. If you’re not fully absorbed or enjoying it, then find something else to do. The process may be the only reward you’ll get.

The fascinating thing about art is that no one is asking you to do it, and no one will shed tears if you don’t. It’s all about overcoming your self-imposed limitations. Be nice to others and you will draw the right people in to help you, don’t get too self-involved, and remain sufficiently open to learning and changing course if necessary.

  1. Do you have any idols and if so, who and why?

No one person, but I always take mental notes when I see people who do things extraordinarily.

  1. What’s your life motto?

Be purposeful and kind.

  1. You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?

Yellow! It’s sunny and joyful. We all need plenty of that.

 

Intrigued to see Fiona performing? Catch her at one of her upcoming shows!

13th November: Honey’s Happening, Canal Cafe Theatre, London

29th November: A touch of Mrs Robinson, Live at Zedel, London

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