Creatives in profile: interview with Katie Arnstein

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Katie Arnstein is an actor, writer and musician from the Midlands. Her two solo shows have both won Show of the Week at VAULT Festival, with her most recent show, Sexy Lamp winning The Pick of Pleasance Award.

Sexy Lamp is a show inspired by Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ‘Sexy Lamp Test’, which determines if a female character is relevant to the plot of an artistic work or merely decoration. If a female role could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. In the era of the #MeToo movement, it is in many way a defining show of our times (and, as such, we – along with many others – have been raving about it in our reviews).

Ahead of a summer touring Sexy Lamp, which includes a run through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, it was a genuine pleasure to catch-up with Arnstein and talk about her show and everything else besides (including her constant fear of frogs).

 INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos.

ARNSTEIN

My name is Katie Arnstein, I am a 28 year old actor, writer and musician originally from the Midlands. I am the daughter of  two now-retired teachers, Jane and Tim, and I have two sisters, Grace and Lil. I’m a vegan but am fun in other ways.

INTERVIEWER

In your latest play, Sexy Lamp, you speak about how your love of acting can be traced back to watching Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. Has acting always been your first love, and what have been some of the defining moments that have brought you on your journey so far?

ARNSTEIN

I am told that when I was very young I wanted to be a face painter but after seeing the Wizard of Oz I wanted to be Dorothy. I loved acting but didn’t know how to do it as a job until I met the careers advisor at school who said “You can train to be an actor, you know?” and I was like “AWESOME. How?”. I got in to a regional drama school and moved to London in 2012 to begin my glittering career*

*career decidedly not glittery.

INTERVIEWER

Apart from acting, what else are you particularly passionate about?

ARNSTEIN

Equal rights, large cups of tea and Bruce Springsteen.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ARNSTEIN

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jess Phillips, Morgan Lloyd-Malcolm, my sisters and my oldest friend Laura Higgs.

 INTERVIEWER

What are some of the key challenges facing aspiring artists and actors today?

ARNSTEIN

How hard it is financially. How hard it is getting your foot in the door. The lack of diversity within the arts.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about your journey in putting together your show, Sexy Lamp? Why do you feel it’s been important to put this show on now, and could you have put it on to the same effect when you first arrived in London, in 2012?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp is the second solo show I have written. It follows Bicycles and Fish, which I have been touring on and off since 2017. I wrote Sexy Lamp in December, 2018 up until the day of the first show on the 6th of February 2019. I had surgery at the start of December so spent the month sitting down and trying to write. I wrote the opening song and a number of real life accounts of my experiences and then tried to piece them together. It was like a nightmare jigsaw puzzle.

There is absolutely no way I could have put the show on in 2012, I didn’t believe I could write until 2016. In 2012 I was waiting for the call from the National Theatre or Spielberg. Reader, that call never came.

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The ‘Sexy Lamp Test’: if a female character could be replaced by an item of otherwise alluring lighting without changing the story, it has failed the Sexy Lamp Test. Photography by Simon Jefferis.

INTERVIEWER

In the 1980s, there seemed to be a move within the acting industry towards putting strong, female characters front and centre of stories – think Thelma and Louise, or Alien, for instance. So it’s not unsurprising when many people voice incredulity, really, that we still haven’t moved on much from then, in many ways – and there are still far too many films and theatre productions that don’t pass either the Bechtel Test or the Sexy Lamp test. Why is that, do you think? And what can be done about it?

ARNSTEIN

We need more female voices in every area of the industry; but particularly when it comes to making the decisions of what gets made. We also need to vote with our time and money. We need to seek out and support female and non-binary work. It has been a boys club for the whole time. Thelma and Louise and Alien are exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to films. I hope to see a change and have every film or show pass these incredibly simple tests addressing gender balance.

INTERVIEWER

Writers often speak of having certain habits or processes they follow strictly when writing their first, second and subsequent drafts. Are there any strict rules or rituals you stick to when crafting your shows?

ARNSTEIN

I try and do youtube Yoga with Adriene in the morning. I always start the day with a big cup of tea and breakfast. When the show is coming up I sleep with the script under my pillow and I always have a notebook and pen with me. My friend Dan Goldman will hear the script throughout its many drafts and note it for me. Also, for Sexy Lamp, the wonderful Ellen Havard directed and was key in creating the show as it is now. I always buy a Big Issue on the day of the show. My process also includes huge panic and crying. I am trying to work on this…

INTERVIEWER

Your shows blend performance and almost memoir-like driven narrative with music and song. How do you see the relationship between the various different artistic aspects of your show? Do you prefer writing song lyrics to a script, or vice versa?

ARNSTEIN

I began writing songs when I was 21 and only thought about writing dialog when I entered a scratch night at Redbridge drama centre at the end of 2016. It takes me a while to get a song I like the sound of; but once I get there I can write a song in about an hour, it is just a bit hit and miss until then. The script took longer but I am trying to keep practicing.

INTERVIEWER

Why the ukulele, and what are your biggest musical influences?

ARNSTEIN

My Dad bought me my use for my 21st birthday. I was leaving drama school and wanted to start writing songs and can’t play the piano well enough so the ukulele was a brilliant gift. It’s portable and easy to get started on.

Influences wise, I have my dad’s taste in music. I am particularly interested in great lyricists, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, etc. The Kinks are a very important band to me as they make the everyday appear magic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write or act?

ARNSTEIN

I imagine I’m talking to friends which might sound cringe but I hope not. I try to write in a conversational, accessible and gentle way. I want it to feel like you have sat down with a pal you haven’t seen in a while and you’re just catching up. I also try a write a couple of jokes that my parents will like and a couple that my friends will like, then build it up from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as an actor and writer?

ARNSTEIN

I feel I have a responsibility to be truthful and raise awareness of issues surrounding sexism and the everyday struggles that women are faced with. I hope I contribute to the conversation.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, is the sexiest type of lamp or lighting?

ARNSTEIN

Since showing Sexy Lamp at VAULT festival I have had many images of sexy lamps and lighting sent to me. It is an unexpected perk and it has OPENED MY EYES I can tell you.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your creative projects?

ARNSTEIN

I have a few more shows of Sexy Lamp and my first show Bicycles and Fish before taking Sexy Lamp to the Pleasance this summer for the Edinburgh Festival. I will start writing a third show I think, although every time I begin it is such a scary feeling I am putting it off. I am also looking to collaborate with other people and theatre companies to keep learning and developing.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for aspiring writers and actors?

ARNSTEIN

  1. Write a to do list everyday with clear achievable goals.
  2. Be brave.
  3. Believe you can do it.
  4. Get a small and brilliant team around you to help you.
  5. Keep a notebook with you at all times.
  6. Find your individuality and that will be your strength.
  7. See as much as you can.
  8. Be kind. (It is not necessary but it helps)

Quick fire round!

 INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

ARNSTEIN

I have just had my mind blown by Normal People and Conversations With Friends, both by Sally Rooney.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARNSTEIN

I suppose critically acclaimed? But then I’ve seen The Room about 20 times.. so I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

I have followed a woman called Karima Francis for over 13 years and I think she is wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

ARNSTEIN

 I think R Kelly is still being played and we need to shut that right down.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

ARNSTEIN

Anna Seward, she was a writer, poet, botanist and feminist from my home town of Lichfield and even though we have many statues of men there is nothing that celebrates her.

INTERVIEWER

If the acting industry didn’t exist – what would you do?

ARNSTEIN

I would like to enter pub quizzes for money and see if it could sustain me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARNSTEIN

Me and my brilliant pal Simon just did American Boy at karaoke and it was wicked. I don’t know if that counts.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

ARNSTEIN

When I was at primary school I had my dress tucked into my pants when I was taking the register out to the office and my teacher got the whole class to tell me in unison. It was a harsh move from them.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

ARNSTEIN

Sexy Lamp won the Pleasance Pick of Vault Festival and that is remarkable. I am proud of my sisters, Grace and Lil everyday.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

ARNSTEIN

Don’t worry so much, please. AND DON’T WEAR STILETTOS FOR SCHOOL WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARNSTEIN

She dreamt it then did it.

Check out Sexy Lamp for yourselves

Follow Katie Arnstein on Twitter @KatieArnstein and on Instagram (also @KatieArnstein). Ahead of her run at the Pleasance Baby Grand Theatre in Edinburgh for the whole of the Fringe Festival, you can catch her at one of her upcoming shows (information on which is available through Arnstein’s website).

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