Edinburgh Interview: Bryony Byrne on Fan/Girl at Summerhall

Edinburgh Interview: Bryony Byrne on Fan/Girl at Summerhall

Bryony Byrne, the writer and performer behind the acclaimed show Fan/Girl, takes audiences on a tongue-in-cheek journey through British adolescence set against the backdrop of 1990s American football. In this exclusive interview, Byrne shares insights into her exploration of why girls often stop playing football in their teens and how the show recaptures the joy of the game.

With a comedic twist from Fringe First-winning director Ben Target, Fan/Girl playfully uses audience interaction, 90s music, comedy, slapstick and drag to evoke laughter and tears. The show delves into microaggressions, misogyny and the challenges girls face in continuing to play sports.

Don’t miss Fan/Girl at Summerhall (Demonstration Room) from 1 to 26 August 2024 (except 12 and 19 August). Book your tickets now.

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You’re bringing your show, Fan/Girl, to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. What can you tell us about this production?

It’s a one-man show, a sort of hybrid theatre/comedy show with some absurd elements. It’s just me on stage and I wanted to tell this story in a way that meant I would enjoy performing it every day. It’s a layered narrative where I play myself as I am now, myself at 10 and 11, and also Eric Cantona.

I take the audience back to 1998, my last day of primary school, and we travel together from primary school to secondary school to understand why I stopped playing football. It’s full of funny moments and 90s nostalgia, and it’s very funny and quite touching. Ben (Target, my director) and I love games and interacting with the public, so we had a lot of fun developing this together.

The show seems to have a very playful and interactive style, incorporating audience participation, music, comedy and even drag elements. What inspired this multidisciplinary approach to storytelling?

My own background is very multidisciplinary – I’m a comedian with experience in improv, stand-up and clowning, as well as a writer and actor. In my role as production manager, I also work with a lot of dancers and sound artists. I’ve always loved interacting with an audience, but I prefer the interactive style of clowning to the more confrontational style of stand-up. It made sense to me to incorporate all these different elements into a show about childhood, because when we’re very young there are no ‘disciplines’ as such. Children are very good at moving between things and keeping all the possibilities in their minds. It was important to me to make a show that felt like what it’s like to perform when you’re young.

It’s a football show, but it’s also a coming-of-age story, from innocence to experience, and I wanted to bring that playfulness into the living room to remind us of the kids we used to be. I think losing the ability to play is one of the great losses of adulthood. Theatre is one of the places where we can still indulge in that, as is the sports field. But in theatre (unlike football), the audience doesn’t always have the option to engage as much. So I wanted it to be a little less prescriptive in that way.

A central theme examines why many girls stop playing football as teenagers, despite the recent rise of the women’s game. What personal experiences or observations sparked your interest in unraveling this issue?

I played a lot of football as a kid. It was the one thing all my friends did, and we did it all the time, whenever and wherever we could. I kind of forgot it had been such a big part of my life until I went to a football match with my partner. Of course I wondered why I stopped playing, but more than that, I was curious about how something could go from being such a central part of your life to being something you never think about. This was compounded when I interviewed my old teammates from primary school and discovered that they too had no association with football anymore, even though it was still so strongly associated with football in my mind. And the more I talked to people, the more I realized that many of us had had this experience.

You reconnected with childhood friends as part of the creative process. How did revisiting those formative years and relationships shape the narrative of Fan/Girl?

These friends really shaped the person I am today, and I feel like I carry them with me in so many ways. On some level, the show is a tribute to them and that period of my life. Maybe doing the show was an excuse to reconnect with them. Their stories were essential in adding depth and dimension to the story – they remembered so many details that I had forgotten, and it was fascinating to see the things we carry from that time and what we leave behind.

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It was also really validating to realize that I was doing something that spoke to other people. One of my childhood friends joined a grassroots soccer club after watching Fan/Girl and I, so I like to think that it’s come full circle. The show has been really kind to me, and I hope it feels kind to other people too.

Your show has already been performed at venues across the UK and US. What has the audience response been like so far, particularly in engaging with the themes around gender expectations and access to sport?

That’s been one of the greatest joys of doing the show. I’ve had people come up to me after the show and share their personal stories with me. This ranged from two teachers expressing their frustration that their school still wouldn’t let girls do the triple jump until they were 14. if the hymen breaks to men who told me they used to play netball.

The response from women was something I expected, as that’s the perspective I’m writing from, but the response from men was a truly unexpected gift. I love hearing people’s stories and will be collecting them in an audio archive at the Fringe if people are willing to share them.

What would you say to someone thinking about booking tickets to see Fan/Girl at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Do it. Haha. Honestly, it’s a really fun show with an emotional heart and I think you’ll be surprised and delighted by it (I promise it’s a lot funnier than my answers to this interview made it out to be). If you’re worried about the audience participation aspect then please don’t be, I promise I’m kind and I do all the work and we’ll have a great time together. Plus, where else are you going to see Eric Cantona this Fringe?!