Katya Stylianou with permission for Varsity

“How do you write a show?”. This is the question that actor-turned-scriptwriter Katya Stylianou found herself asking as she attempted to write her first play last summer. Fittingly, they are also the same words that open her upcoming show My Friends Say I Should Act my Age (What’s my Age Again?), as its protagonist Toni sits down to write a script only days before her play is set to be performed. And so, Katya’s final product is very much a play within a play within a play (think those infinite images of images inside other images). In this rather “meta” representation of Katya’s own experiences, I can’t help but wonder if these would be the opening words of Toni’s show too. 

The play itself follows the story of the aforementioned Toni, a young woman who is trying to write a show but can’t figure out how - that is until she meets the charming Niko who “sweeps her off her feet”. Despite the similarity of Toni’s experience with her creator, I never dared ask if Katya’s writing experience came with the same level of heart-shaped swoon. With her aura of effortless cool, Katya is keen to make clear that the play’s seemingly “cringe” premise (her words, not mine) rather seeks to “take the piss out of the romantic comedy genre”. Looking to create an hour of relatable fun amidst the academically intense world of Cambridge, she tells me “I just want it to be a story about humans”. Maybe a somewhat contrived sentiment, but one that she utters with arresting sincerity - and not just because her European accent makes everything she says sound incredibly poignant. 

“That’s what we do as writers and actors; we basically soak up all the shit around us and we make entertainment out of it”

Although her discussions remain determinedly on the nose, I can’t help but take her very seriously, especially when considering how much of herself she has volunteered for her script. While you may recognise the play’s title as a reference to the Blink-182 song, Katya shares its more personal inspiration. As someone who has always tried to act older than her age she says “I never did those things that people did when they were sixteen in highschool like house parties and listening to commercial music.” That is until she was rudely awakened by the realisation she was entering her final year of uni; “I feel so old now” she tells me. I resist the urge to remind her she’s only 21. Over the past summer, she found herself frequently hanging out with her 18 year old brother and his mates. And it was during this season of relived teenage revelry that somebody confronted her with the titular question, “when are you going to act your age?”.

Katya Stylianou with permission for Varsity

Drawing from experiences like this throughout the play, she tells me “I’m the kind of person where everything that happens around me, whether it's happy or sad or cringe or mean or awkward, I just write it down.” After an argument with her family she might feel upset for an hour before realising “oh this would make such good material” and picking up a pen. Although she admits it’s a bit “horrible”, I can’t really judge her. As she so aptly puts it: “that’s what we do as writers and actors; we basically soak up all the shit around us and we make entertainment out of it”. This spongey absorption of experience is just one aspect of herself that she has injected into her show’s protagonist. Katya describes Toni as “very self-centred” and similarly admits that “I’m a bit of an attention freak”. Although she confesses that it’s a bit “awful” (the attention grabbing, not her play), she also hopes that it will feel relatable to other spotlight-seekers in the “massive theatre space here in Cambridge.”

“I think this is the most uncomfortable space I’ve been in in a while”

I’m not quite sure at what point our conversation transforms from interview to therapy session (potentially when we chose to recline on the JCR’s armchairs), but Katya continues to candidly relay more and more of her so-called flaws to me as we chat. She describes herself to me as a bit of a “control freak”. So much so that the show’s directors (Maddy Power and Maia von Malaisé) once had to politely suggest she leave the room during rehearsals as she struggled against correcting the actors when they didn’t utter her words with the exact intonation she imagined. Despite this micro-managerial urge, she is highly complimentary of her team: “they’re so good, they know exactly what I want.” I imagine that her struggle to let go must be particularly difficult for somebody much more familiar with being onstage than off. Although she originally wrote the part of Toni for herself, she tells me that the actress, Olivia Khattar, “is phenomenal for the part [...] bringing something to the role which I didn’t know was there before.” 


Mountain View

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As I ask her about the transition from actor to writer, she admits “I think this is the most uncomfortable space I’ve been in in a while” but recognises that pushing yourself out of your comfort-zone “is how you learn the most”. So why decide to cross the curtain’s boundary in the first place? After having received some compliments at poetry nights, she “thought okay you always hear these stories of people taking a show that they wrote to the Fringe… and they became super famous” so “maybe I could try and do that”. Much like Katya’s protagonist, however, the dream very much came before reality, applying to venues before she actually had the script prepared - although I can confirm to nervous theatregoers that unlike her protagonist, she does in fact have a script ready for opening night. 

So, has Katya figured out the answer to her own question? The script itself has been reshaped and reformed throughout the rehearsal, and for Katya the show is very much a “work in progress”. While Katya might remain unsure whether she’s figured out how to write a show, she’s certainly on her way to. And I’m sure this play will prove she knows more about the craft than she thinks.