Equal Writes: If the revolution won’t be televised, will it be staged?

17 Mar

I was very fortunate to be part of the Equal Writes showcase at the Tristan Bates theatre last week (see: http://equalwrites.co.uk). I say showcase, but I’m not sure whether that is the most appropriate term; perhaps a movement or manifesto launch would be more apt. I wonder what creative director Mandy Fenton has actually unleashed with this initiative.

But first and foremost let’s not lose sight of the issue. From the outset Equal Writes had a clear and simple mission – to put more women on stage. In its call for submissions it outlined the problem with a series of shocking stats, including the ratio of male roles to female in the theatre currently being two to one. Equity vice-president Jean Rogers has been campaigning about this issue for some time and argued cogently in the after show discussion about the outrage of subsidised theatre companies, who receive million of pounds of public money, being allowed to perpetuate the problem. See: http://www.equity.org.uk/news-and-events/equity-news/womens-stories-not-seen-on-stage/.

Equal Writes sought to go some way to addressing this by having an evening of performances featuring female voices. With the focus on equity of stage roles, male writers were allowed to submit pieces. I was one of the twelve authors whose work was accepted (four of us were male) and was thrilled that my short play Flags was part of the showcase.

Yet despite having a clear mission, Equal Writes didn’t stop at addressing inequalities in terms of representation of women. It was an explosion of voices not frequently heard in the theatre. Anyone turning up to last Monday’s performance without prior knowledge of the premise would have had a clear idea from the evening that female oppression both in the theatre and society at large was top of the agenda. But they might also have thought that the evening overtly sought to address inequality in a multitude of guises. The ethnic diversity of the performers was, unfortunately, unusual in contemporary theatre. The age range of actors was also noticeable, with actors in their teens and their eighties, the latter trying to address the pressing issue of the lack of older women on stage. And Mandy Colleran’s brilliant performance of Kaite O’Reilly’s fantastic monologue Walkie Talkies meant that disability was also featured. Finally, class backgrounds of characters were diverse. My own play saw two working class women, which I was fortunate to have played by the outstanding Yvonne Brewster and Joanna Wake, battle it out. The talented director Hannah Price brought out the bond and shared affection between the women without resorting to sentimentality.

Hannah’s discussion afterwards of her involvement in the all female Julius Caesar at the Donmar, and some of the baffling criticism it received, strangely reminded me of the tradition of ‘blacking up’ in the theatre. Surely critics saying women physically can’t play the ‘great roles’ is the same kind of ill-informed prejudice? The important play Red Velvet at the Tricycle recently told the story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who played Othello in the 1830s, although incredibly white actors still dominated in this role for another hundred and seventy years. The stories of similar landmark female performances need to be told.

Equal Writes was noticeably diverse thematically too. There has been much discussion about theatres only wanting to put on plays about a narrow range of subjects and listing restrictions in submission guidelines. This stretches to form as well, with many theatres specifying they are not interested in monologues. In this climate some people have simply opted to form their theatrical company. Suzette Coon’s excellent Little Pieces of Gold has presented productions of dozens of new writers over the last few years, putting many new writing theatres to shame (see: http://www.littlepiecesofgold.com/index.htm). There are some fringe theatres that provide opportunities to have short plays by new writers produced, notably Theatre503 and its Rapid Write Response evenings. Yet the history of fringe is that new initiatives are created due to stagnation in the mainstream. A friend recently cited Doris Lessing’s role in the creation of new London fringe venue Centre 42 in the early 1960s. Lessing later recalled ‘a wildly idealistic plan was being hatched, to take the starch, as we saw it, out of the London theatre.’ In the after show discussion it was mentioned that Joanna Wake was a founder member of the Young Vic and Yvonne Brewster co-founded Jamaica’s first professional theatre the Barn. This is not a new phenomenon then. We must all constantly strive to create new theatre companies if we are dissatisfied with the status quo.

So, with Equal Writes’ mix of forms and themes we not only saw performers we don’t often see but also heard stories we don’t often hear. In one of the most astonishing and moving moments of the night, Mandy Fenton said in the after show discussion that in under a month there had been over 800 submissions for the project from over 600 writers (some submitted more than one piece). At this point Alice Jolly, one of the writers, spoke. Her powerful monologue A Blue Bonnet for Samuel, superbly performed by Catherine Harvey, featured a woman talking about the death of her baby son due to medical malpractice. Alice said she wouldn’t have written this piece ordinarily because, to put it simply, no theatre would be interested in such a subject. For me this encapsulated all that was good about Equal Writes and all that is depressing about contemporary theatre.

But the response itself to this deficiency is interesting. At a time when new writing itself is being be scaled down, starkly outlined in the report In Battalions (see: http://finkennedy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/in-battalions.html), mainstream theatre seems even less inclined to respond to such structural issues as the underrepresentation of females on stage. This makes Equal Writes all the more important. Some would argue it is indicative of what can happen in crises.

When the current government spending cuts, which have hit the arts disproportionately hard, were first mooted there was some talk within the arts sector that one small positive outcome would be that it could unleash creativity or at least a creative response. The idea being that despite official funding sources being restricted theatre creatives won’t stop writing and performing, rather they will have to find more imaginative ways of doing so. This reflects a more general argument about state funding, the ‘crowding out hypothesis’. This argues that if the state provides too many welfare services it will kill off grassroots action and charitable work. The most recent movement espousing this was Phillip Blond’s ResPublica and his book Red Tories. It argued, amongst other things, that the formation of the welfare state in Britain had killed off some valuable mutual aid organisations and grassroots movements. I always find this argument frustrating. Yes, much of the mutual aid and Victorian style philanthropy does not exist in the same form now, but that is because health, education and welfare support are seen these days as a right not something provided by charity. Or rather they are for now, perhaps not much longer. To frame my argument in terms of theatre, Equal Writes was great, but in an ideal world it wouldn’t have been needed in the first place.

But Equal Writes was needed. It did happen. But it raised a lot more questions than it could answer in one evening. Where next for it? Bob Dylan once said he only started writing songs because no one else was writing songs he wanted to hear. So, if no one is staging what we want to see, we have to, I’m afraid, create our own theatre. Unless, that is, anyone sees equality hitting mainstream theatre anytime soon.

2 Responses to “Equal Writes: If the revolution won’t be televised, will it be staged?”

  1. Sue Parrish March 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    Hi Andy, thanks for a full and fascinating account of the Equal Writes event, which very regrettably I couldn’t get to. You might want to alert your friends to Sphinx’s website which has a great deal of information about women’s participation in the performing arts, and the Vamps and Vixens events we have held since 2009, at the National Theatre, the Young Vic, the South Bank and West Yorkshire Playhouse. And just to reinforce your point about this long recognised inequality of women, there were many theatre companies set up in the 70’s to tackle it. Sphinx held annual conferences at the National Theatre in the 90’s called The Glass Ceiling to raise awareness and discuss strategies. Forward!!
    All best wishes,
    Sue Parrish, Artistic Director of Sphinx and Patron of Equal Writes.

    • andy curtis March 18, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

      Thanks Sue, have forwarded. Sounds fantastic!

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