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How Controversial is Buzzy Production?

How Controversial is Buzzy Production?

How Controversial is Buzzy Production?

It’s one of the most talked-about plays in years — and it hasn’t even had its first rehearsal.

That’s because TERF, a new one-act production set to premiere Aug. 2 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, dares to take on one of the most powerful — and controversial — women on the planet.

That would be J.K. Rowling, billionaire creator of the Harry Potter universe, and now the de facto leader of the gender critical movement that seeks to ban transgender women from women-only spaces and services.

The debate, on both sides of the Atlantic but particularly in the United Kingdom, has become one of the most treacherous fronts of the culture wars, already embroiling the country’s new Prime Minister Keir Starmer, who has told reporters he opposes teaching “gender ideology” in schools.

The controversy is no doubt an unwelcome sideshow for Warner Bros. Discovery, where a big-budget Harry Potter series is currently underway at HBO, having recently enlisted showrunner Francesca Gardiner and director Mark Mylod, both alumni of Succession, with Rowling’s blessing.

The play has already been met with a wave of backlash both in the U.K. and in the United States — in the latter particularly from right wing media, with Breitbart, Fox News and other conservative outlets positioning it sight unseen as being highly critical of Rowling. Their readers have in turn flooded the social media pages of production staffers with hateful messages.

TERF was penned by American playwright and screenwriter Joshua Kaplan, who most recently worked on Max’s Tokyo Vice, and the play’s creative team insists the production is not a hit piece and has asked Rowling to attend the show — what Kaplan insists is a genuine invitation and not an attempt at “trolling.”

This despite its controversial title: TERF is a highly loaded acronym. It refers to “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” — a slur hurled by transgender activists at gender critics like Rowling, who in turn has embraced the label. (It pales next to the original title —TERF [C-word] — which proved so controversial the play’s original venue pulled out.)

“There’s some kind of impulse in me to take a word that people are throwing around a derogatory way and throw it back in their face,” says Kaplan, 46, a gay man.

He began toying with the script in late 2020, not long after Rowling had first begun to express transgender-critical views on social media. The author was immediately labeled transphobic and drew heaps of scorn, including from the three stars of the Harry Potter films — Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint — leading Kaplan to “envision a conversation” between them.

“The premise is that Daniel, Emma and Rupert organize an intervention,” Kaplan tells The Hollywood Reporter from Edinburgh, where rehearsals will be underway Monday. (So far there has only been one table read, conducted over Zoom.) There are then “interspersed flashback scenes,” Kaplan explains, that serve to explain how Rowling developed her rigid views about gender.

Based on a copy of the script obtained by The Hollywood Reporter, those scenes depict three moments in which Rowling — portrayed as strong-willed and sharp-tongued but far from a villain — faces off with key male figures from her life: her first book editor, her abusive ex-husband and her father.

The scenes with the actors playing the Potter children depict the foursome as a tight-knit group, prone to teasing but very much loving, torn apart by a mother figure who has veered into potentially dangerous and increasingly extreme oratorical territory. Debate ensues, but ultimately no minds are changed.

In reality, there will be no summits held, no grace given. Rowling has issued social media statements implying she will “never forgive” Radcliffe, Watson and other celebrities for having “cozied up to a movement intent on eroding women’s hard-won rights and who used their platforms to cheer on the transitioning of minors.”

“In a lot of ways, the play is a family play,” says Kaplan. “In my mind, the three of them were 11-year-old siblings and Jo [Rowling] was a parental figure. … We all have this kind of Freudian obsession with her.”

Contrary to media reports, Kaplan says finding an actress to play Rowling was a relatively painless process. Texas-born, London-based actress Laura Kay Bailey beat out 15 callback hopefuls, winning the part on the strength of her Zoom audition.

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Bailey, whose delicate features immediately evoke Rowling’s own, has worked with a dialect coach to get the author’s Gloucestershire accent down pat. “I’m not trying to do an impersonation, but I am trying to give an essence of her — her speech patterns, her mannerisms,” Bailey says.

The 43-year-old actress — who depicts Rowling from 30 to her current age of 58 in the play — admits to being “woefully uniformed” about the debate at the play’s center. “I did a deep dive once I was offered the role,” she says. “It’s an electrically charged topic in the U.K. and people are really divided. … The play tries to be as balanced as possible.”

Predictions that Rowling would unleash her team of lawyers on TERF — something she hasn’t hesitated to do in the past — have not yet come to pass. Rowling has acknowledged awareness of the play, however, while trading barbs with India Willoughby, a transgender TV presenter and one of Rowling’s most frequent social-media sparring partners.

When Willoughby joked that she would play Rowling, Rowling replied, “I’d like to give my personal seal of approval to India Willoughby’s bid to play me on stage and I’ll be investing heavily in popcorn shares the moment the casting’s confirmed.”

With all the advance interest, it’s not surprising that Kaplan and producer Barry Church-Woods already have sights on bigger things for TERF — graduating from the Fringe Fest to a London run, perhaps, and maybe even a Hollywood adaptation.

That’s the same trajectory that turned Baby Reindeer into a global phenomenon. Kaplan has enlisted his Tokyo Vice producer, Cambra Overend, to help guide the project to the screen. But first there are a month of performances to complete in Edinburgh, where TERF will be one of approximately 3,500 titles debuting at this year’s fest. Unlike the Fringe Fest plays depicted in Reindeer, however, it won’t be playing in a dusty pub.

“I envisioned this in a 40-person black box theater,” Kaplan says. “We are now in a 350-person ballroom. So we have a major space. The play has never been seen. It’s been read in full three times in my life. And so this is all just kind of ‘all in.’”

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