Bands like One Direction – as the The Beatles did before them – command such passionate followings they can fill stadium after stadium with screaming fans. In the age of the Internet such fandom has only become more intense. “People push fans to the side and judge them because they think they’re unrealistic, or that they’re living in a fantasy world, but actually their collective power is huge and they can achieve anything,” Paige Rattray tells me between rehearsals for the new musical she’s directing, called Fangirls. “They’re such a powerful force, and that’s something that we celebrate in this show.”

The show, with book, music and lyrics by Yve Blake, is currently in previews at Queensland Theatre, where it opens later this week, before moving to Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre in October. It tells the story of 14-year-old Edna – played by Blake herself – who is in love with Harry, a singer in the biggest boy band in the world, True Connection. The show evolved out of Blake’s research into fangirls, and – as she outlines in a TEDx talk, Why are Fangirls Scary?, earlier this year – the way we tend to view female enthusiasm very different to male enthusiasm.

“Society tells us it’s very normal for boys to go to a sports match and scream and cry and invest in the game but seeing girls at a concert screaming and crying for their ‘sportsman’, they’re told that they’re hysterical and crazy and stupid and silly,” Rattray says. “And I really cannot understand the difference – both parties, what they’re screaming for are very talented individuals who are very good at their job, and I think it’s just the way that we are being conditioned to think about young women compared with how we’re conditioned to think about young men.”

Paige RattrayDirector Paige Rattray at a rehearsal for Fangirls. Photo © Brett Boardman

Growing up in regional Tasmania, Rattray didn’t have the kind of fangirl experience explored in the show – “Like, we didn’t have the Internet then,” she says. “I was never exposed to those big concerts.”

So one of the revelations from working with Blake, she explains, was the many ways fandom manifests. “One of those is fan fiction,” Rattray says. “Edna, the lead character in Fangirls, is a celebrated fan fiction author, and she writes a series called On the Run, where her protagonist goes on the run with Harry after she saves him from the band because she’s worried he’s depressed and being trapped by his management. And so that fantasy of hers begins to play out – she tries to manifest it in real life.”

Rattray has also learned a lot about the sense of community inherent in being a fan. “There’s a beautiful song, it’s in act one of this piece, and it’s when Edna is at a particular low point, and she kind of goes and hides in her room,” she says. “In the production we have surrounded her by many, many, many teenage girls who have actually recorded themselves in their bedroom singing this song to Harry. And I think quite often as a teenage girl – and this is something that I could relate to – you feel very isolated and very alone, and that there is no one else who is feeling the same feelings as you are.”

“It’s interesting because an online world does both of those things – it isolates you but it can also connect you, and that’s one of the really beautiful things about it,” she says. “And that is one of Edna’s lifelines in this piece – although she feels very alone, that her friends have deserted her, that no one likes her, that she will never be the right version of the person that she wants to be, she has this online community who appreciate her brain and her ideas and her fiction, and that allows her to have a conversation and to express ideas and feelings that she can’t in the real world.”

The cast of Fangirls in rehearsal. Photo © Brett Boardman

There’s an almost congregational or spiritual aspect to fandom – which the show’s Music Director, composer Alice Chance, plays up in her vocal arrangements. “It’s having something, a collective idea, to speak to, or confess to,” Rattray says. “There’s a reason why people love singing together, in church or in a community choir, it gives them a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves, which I think is a really beautiful thing.”

There is, of course, a darker side to fandom, in that it can be exploited. Young women, Rattray says, are told “that they need – to be desired, or to feel like they can be a part of this world, or to live in this world in a way that makes them feel whole – something else to complete them.”

And the realisation that you are being sold to can be a devastating one. “The idea that to have bought into that, that then you are judged as a silly little girl, by the people who have sold it to you, that’s so horrid,” Rattray says. “And we’ve all experienced that – I think everyone experiences that in some way, it’s kind of part of capitalism and consumerism – but that’s explored in a very personal way in this piece.”

The actor playing Harry is none other than Aydan – who appeared in Channel Ten’s Young Talent Time in 2012 but is perhaps best known as a finalist in 2018’s season of The Voice Australia – who no doubt has his own first-hand experiences when it comes to fan worship. “I’m really looking to the nights when some of his fans come, because hopefully they really get into the screams,” Rattray says.

Yve Blake in rehearsal for Fangirls. Photo © Brett Boardman

As Blake suggests in her TEDx talk, the screaming is part of the pleasure, and catharsis, of stadium concerts. “I think for the other audience members who don’t go to those concerts, and don’t experience those things, to be able to experience that joy in that environment, in such a great context, will be thrilling,” Rattray says. “I do think young people will love it, but there’s also a character in there – Caroline, who’s Edna’s mum, played by Sharon Millerchip (who is a goddess) – and it’s interesting to get the two generations.”

For Rattray, it goes right back to The Beatles. “That fandom was amazing,” she says. “When you look back to the Beatles fans, they were just the same. It’s just access to information is so much easier now.”

The show will therefore speak to anyone, of any age, who has known fandom. “If you’ve felt that, you’re going to know this,” Rattray says, saying that plenty of people she has told about the show have reminisced fondly about their own experiences as fans. “I feel like sometimes when other people are talking about fans they judge them, but when they’re remembering being a fan, they don’t, because they remember the feeling – and it was awesome,” she says. “The music’s just so great, as well – I’ve been singing it in the shower almost for two years now.”


Fangirls is at Bille Brown Theatre, Queensland, until October 5

Tickets

It plays at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre, October 12 – November 10

Tickets