Helen Benedict’s play about women in war gets first UK outing

Helen Benedict photo

Helen Benedict

“Getting anywhere with writing takes 10% talent and 90% persistence. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen!”

Helen Benedict wrote The Lonely Soldier Monologues entirely in the words of women veterans she interviewed for her books The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq and Sand Queen (a novel). 

When Hannah Roe caught up with Helen, she was informed of a rather interesting coincidence: “[17%] is also the percentage of women in the US military exactly.” Don’t you just love a bit of serendipity? They talked more about the plight of female soldiers and about Helen’s verbatim play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues, which is being presented at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, 6th – 31st May by PMJ Productions. Tickets are available here

HR: Tell us about The Lonely Soldier Monologues – what motivated you to tell these stories about women in the military?

HB: Well, I’ll go back to 2004, a year after America and the UK invaded Iraq. I was so appalled that I just had to do something about it as a writer but I didn’t know what yet. So I began poking around and one of the first things I did was go to a talk in New York that was being given by veterans freshly back from Iraq; this was a year into the war. There were only about twelve people in the audience – that’s how little interest there was at the time. The veterans were all men talking about their experiences in the war, telling us things we never saw in the headlines. Things about not having enough armour, sometimes not even enough food and drink on some of the bases… But at the back of the room, I saw two young women standing there; I could tell from their postures that they were military. I went up to one of them and I said: “Are you a veteran?” I can quote her reply verbatim, and it’s in the play. She said:  “Oh yeah, I was in Iraq for eleven months. I was a gunner, I was shot at every night but when I talk about it, nobody listens and nobody believes me – and you know why? Because I’m a female”. So I said: “Well I’ll listen: what was it like being a woman in combat?” She said: “Well the first thing you’ve got to understand is that if you’re a girl in the military, the men only let you be one of three things – a bitch, a ho’ or a dyke. You’re a bitch if you won’t sleep with them, you’re a ho’ if you’ve got one boyfriend and you’re a dyke if they don’t like you, so you can’t win.” And the young woman next to her said: “That’s exactly what it was like for me.”

I was, of course, shocked, and meanwhile I had read that more women were being deployed, wounded and killed in the Iraq War alone than in all American wars put together since WWII.Women were sacrificing their lives, limbs and mental health for wars just like men, and if on top of that they were being treated like this, then something was very, very wrong. But I had to find out whether this was just the experiences of two women, so I began interviewing female veterans. That first soldier I spoke to is one of the main characters in the play. I interviewed her and she put me onto her friends. Then I found out about Veterans for Peace, a huge national group of veterans in the States, and they were thrilled to find that someone was at last paying attention to women in the military. They spread the word and over the next three years, I interviewed some forty women who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan – women from all walks of life; all ages, different ranks, different branches. Then I started to dig around in the databases and I found that the Department of Veterans Affairs had been studying sexual assault in the military and harassment since the Vietnam War. They had all these statistically-sound surveys with shocking figures: 1 in 3 women sexually assaulted, 99% harassed. So that backed up what I was finding anecdotally in my interviews.

Out of those forty interviews, I picked five main characters and wrote my book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, which came out in 2009. I had reams and reams of interviews, more than I could use for the book, and a playwright friend of mine said I should make a play out of it. So I did. But I didn’t know what to do with it because I had no connections in the theatre. Then I fell into conversation with a director at a party and when I told him about my play, he said he wanted to read it. Afterwards, he called me up and said he’d got a theatre where his own play was on in New York. He said he’d ask them to kick his play out and do mine instead, which was very kind of him.That was its first performance in 2010. Since then, it’s been done more than twelve times in different states by various campuses and also professional theatres such as the History Theatre in St Paul, Minneapolis. Originally the play used the soldiers’ real names, as did the book. This was at their request because it was their way of fighting back against the injustices they were talking about. The real veterans came to one of the first performances and sat in the audience, then came up on the stage to talk afterwards – everybody was crying.

Having done the non-fiction book and the verbatim play, I found it still wasn’t enough. That’s when I decided to write the novel, Sand Queen, because I found that when I interviewed these woman, so many of them had been deeply traumatised, not only by being in combat and seeing horrible things but by the treatment they received from their male comrades, that they would sometimes hit a wall and not be able to talk anymore. One of them started having panic attacks that made her unable to breathe because the memories were so horrible. Sometimes the women would deflect certain questions with jokes, or just fall silent. I came to feel that it was in those silences that the true story of how one experiences war inside in one’s heart lies. That’s the field of fiction, what is beyond what a real person can tell you. It’s also a way of delving deep into an experience without exploiting anyone or re-traumatising them by digging too much, which I was very careful of as I was interviewing. I had to pick women who were ready to talk about it. They all had PTSD one way or the other, but the thing about PTSD is that it goes in waves – sometimes you need to talk about it, other times you can’t. Even since the play, a lot of those women have withdrawn from me because I trigger their memories, having been the only person they told their stories to, not even their families or therapists.

Throughout history, war has traditionally been a man’s story. Told by men, for men – but that’s different now. There are so many female soldiers in the world and yet they are almost entirely ignored by male writers. So it takes a woman playwright, a woman novelist and a woman author to pay attention to those women. There are very, very few women who write about war outside of journalism; I know almost all of them in the States, so that’s how few of us there are. Just as the military is a boy’s club, war writing is a boy’s club. Often there are panels about war writing without a single woman speaking, which has been interesting and infuriating because it echoes what the women soldiers told me about how they were treated by their male comrades: constant exclusion and being treated as the ‘other’. The military is like a cross between high school and prison. Most people in the military are adolescents, so the in-crowd/out-crowd thing is very strong and it’s encouraged by training. People close ranks around their buddies and choose the weak ones to exclude. Those will almost always be the women and also the men they label as weak – because they’re gay, intellectual, because they wear glasses, whatever. The exclusion and the abuse is very cruel because soldiers are trained to see their platoon as family.

HR: Sexual violence in conflict is a very prevalent issue at the moment. Do you think enough is being done to eradicate it?

HB: No; there’s never been a war waged on behalf of women, with the purpose of liberating women. There’s never been enough care about that. Women lack rights everywhere in the world in comparison to men; the problem is worldwide and enormous, but it’s still not taken seriously enough by governments for any real effort to take place. Even President Obama – of whom I’m a fan – I heard him listing his accomplishments and there wasn’t a word about women’s rights. It’s not taken as seriously as a political issue as it was even in the ’70s. So we’ve got a huge problem.

HR: Did you approach any men about their perspective when you were conducting your research?

HB: Yes, I interviewed quite a lot of men to get their view of women and their view of the war. They were often the sergeants, fathers and boyfriends of the women, so I was talking to them to corroborate some of the stories. I talked to male commanders and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) about the difference between working with female soldiers and male soldiers. All the ones I talked to said the women were better; more mature, more reliable. There are male characters in the book but not the play. I didn’t want to put any men in the play because that’s what everyone else does!

The majority of men who see my play, read my books or come to my lectures are as shocked and appalled as I am by the injustice and abuse. The army is the most macho institution there is, but the majority of male soldiers are perfectly decent. There are just too many who aren’t. For a long time, I was the only person out there talking about sexual assault and harassment in the military and no-one wanted to believe me. I was verbally attacked and received quite a lot of hate mail; men saying that women only join the military in the first place because they want to sleep around. At the end of the day, they were just proving my point about there being a problem!

The Oscar-nominated documentary film, The Invisible War, came out of my work – I’m in it briefly. The directors of the film read an early article of mine and called me up explaining that they wanted to do a documentary about it. After the film’s release, everything I was saying about the issue became more acceptable and more people acknowledged the reality of the problem.

 HR: Did you approach anyone for an interview who didn’t want to be involved?

HB: Yes, a few women didn’t want to talk to me or didn’t want me to use their names because they were afraid of retaliation, either from the military or the Department of Veterans Affairs. They were afraid they’d be denied benefits or get into trouble in other ways. Then one of the main women in my book didn’t want to be in the play, so I rewrote it and introduced another character from the book. I wanted a contrast; I didn’t want all the women to have had the same experience. Since the women I interviewed originally signed the releases back in 2009, I’ve changed their names to allow them some privacy. They have all moved on with their lives since I wrote the play so it’s kinder to leave them be, and I always request actors and directors not to get in touch with the real women.

Photo: Mary F Calvert

Photo: Mary F Calvert / Zuma Press

HR: What specifically about this story do you think lends itself to the stage?

HB: The women I spoke to were such good storytellers; they were spellbinding. When I started reading over my transcripts, I realised these were dramatic monologues – they’re saying a lot of things that people before them had never dared say about the military or the Iraq War, especially at the time, 2008-09. The sympathy they show for Iraqis and some of their criticisms of the war are still controversial. One of the things that amazed me when I was doing my research was how many American soldiers were against the Iraq War after they’d been there and saw what we were really doing. A lot of soldiers were very young and straight out of high school; they had no history education about the Middle East and they were just told: “Go get the bad guy!” And they believed it. They were told that they were going to go and bring democracy. These women were giving their accounts and bearing witness in history, but they were doing it with a personal touch and with drama and humour. I just realised that all I had to do was a little bit of editing and arranging, and I had a play.

HR: What were some of the other processes involved in creating a script from your research and interviews?

HB: I would sit there in the interviews for up to six hours sometimes, non-stop. I had state-of-the-art recording equipment lent to me by the Oral History Department at Columbia University – very lucky! They transcribed them for me in exchange for archiving the interviews for future historians, which was wonderful – the women loved that. All I had to do then was read over the transcripts, edit them and tighten them up. I arranged the play in three acts exactly the way I’d done the book – before they went to war, at war, and coming home. I wanted to show the arc of what war does to people and how it changes people. I wanted audiences and readers to see who these women were before they were soldiers to understand why they enlisted – people are very puzzled by that and think, “Why would any woman want to be a soldier?” Those three acts are the arc of the narrative.

HR: Coming from a journalistic and literary background, how does playwriting compare to those styles of writing?

HB: It’s wildly different. Plays depend on dialogue alone, and you don’t have the tools of description as you do in books. In the case of a verbatim play like mine, I could edit that dialogue but I had to be very true to it. I couldn’t put words in their mouths; I was very strict about that. And I couldn’t go further inside than whatever the women were saying to me. Those were constraints I wouldn’t have with a novel. It could hardly be more different! Also, the play came from outside because of the kind of play it is, whereas my novels come from inside. I make up the characters in a novel – although they do seem to take on a life of their own in spite of me! If I were a fictional playwright, my answer might be different.

Usually I write all alone in a very isolated world as novelists do, but with the play I sat in on some rehearsals. When I saw how much an actor can do with just the lift of an eyebrow and a shrug of the shoulder, I started cutting the play like mad! I felt liberated; I rather loved it. Finally the director had to tell me to stop! So that’s sort of unusual; I think most playwrights are more protective. It was good because it made me think about my own fiction and that I maybe don’t need to explain or describe so much.

HR: Did you spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room?

HB: For the first performance in New York I did, yes. I didn’t have a lot of say; I had to choose my battles because the director was very territorial. But I did give some advice; there was a funny time where the actors all turned up in their army t-shirts but they all had these lacy bras underneath. That would never ever happen in the military! I had to say: “Ladies – sports bras!”

HR: So what’s next for you? What’s your next project going to be?

The novel I wrote about this issue, Sand Queen, came out in 2011 and I’m now writing another novel which will form part of an Iraq War series. Sand Queen is half about a female American soldier and half about an Iraqi woman, and they meet in an American prison camp. As far as I know, I’m the only American author writing about Iraqi women, so I’m continuing Naema’s story in this next novel.

HR: Finally, do you have any advice for budding writers?

HB: Getting anywhere with writing takes 10% talent and 90% persistence. If you don’t do it, nothing will happen!

Helen Benedict is an award-winning novelist, journalist and playwright specialising in issues of social justice. In 2014, Benedict, who is British and American, was a finalist for the Trust Women Journalist Award from Reuters in the UK. In 2013, she was awarded the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism and named one of the 21 leaders for the 21st century by Women’s eNews in the US, in addition to other media and book awards. Her writings inspired an ongoing class action suit against the Pentagon on behalf of women and men who were sexually assaulted in the military and also inspired the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, in which she appears. Benedict has been featured in the UK by BBC, Reuters and Marie-Claire, and writes occasional book reviews for The Guardian. Website: http://www.helenbenedict.com / Twitter: @helenbenedict

PMJ Productions is presenting The Lonely Soldier Monologues at the Cockpit Theatre after a successful Kickstarter campaign, from May 6th-31st 2015. The show is supporting human rights organisation Liberty’s  campaign Military Justice which has proposals for a fair and independent Military Justice system in the UK.  You can purchase your tickets here. www.lonelysoldier.co.uk

Posted in Close_up, Interview, plays, Plays for today by women, plays to see, Women playwrights, women writers | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The ID Project’s first class success

Flier for the id Project

The id Project

The first term of The ID Project – Medway-based playwright Sarah Hehir’s writing course for young women and girls – finished last week and was a total success. 17Percent founder, Sam, helped out with the project.  

Here’s what Sarah had to say about the first term…

“I had this vision that I could run a playwriting project for teenage girls and young women that would inspire a new generation of female playwrights from our area. I know it sounds a bit grand but Ideas Test encourages you to think big and be ambitious! After our four workshops, I’d say that writers around the world better watch out, because here comes Medway!

Each week, a group of up to 12 girls arrived with books and pens ready to spend their Sunday afternoon writing together at Sun Pier House. This group, who didn’t know each other before the project, ended up devising, structuring and writing a new play: helping each other, working together and jumping at any opportunity to write a new scene or read out each other’s work. The style of their work varied from stark social realism to abstract dreamscapes and by the final week, scenes were pinging into my inbox faster than I could copy and paste them into the final script

‘It was great to meet new people and discuss ideas and have feedback on my own writing.’ Kimberly Richardson (16)

‘Bringing young women together to write is important because female playwrights are rare.’ Krystal Stevenson (16)

We were really lucky to be joined by Pat from Strood Youth Club (who turns out to be a bit of a writer herself) and Sam Fentiman-Hall from 17% (an organisation that supports female playwrights.) On the final week actor, Cassandra Bond, came in to work with them on the production of their play and perform sections from my new play Child Z (which can be seen at the Brook Studio Theatre, on June 17th.)”

The group are going to perform a reading of their short play called Missing at the open mic arts evening, Sun Pier House Thursday 5 March, at 7.30pm. Entry is £2 and there is a bar and hot drinks.

Posted in 17 percent campaign, 17percenters, course, Medway, Opportunities, plays, Plays for today by women, Women playwrights, women writers, workshop | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brontë Season returns to the West Country

The Bronte SeasonThe Brontë Season is back by popular demand! These three critically-acclaimed, fresh new adaptations of Brontë classics are brought to you by West Country theatre companies Butterfly Psyche Theatre & Livewire Theatre .

Whether you’re a hard-core Brontë fan or if you’ve never had the pleasure, there is something for everyone with three wonderful shows to choose from. Performed in rep, with only one and two actors, there’s a chance to see an old favourite, get to know a new story and the chance to mix-and-match all three shows in the ‘Full Brontë’ showings, (Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham – 28 Feb; Dorchester Arts – 1&13 March; The Rondo Theatre, Bath – 14 March).

We asked Alison Farina – Artistic Director of Butterfly Psyche to tell us more about The Brontë Season

“Right now, my work at Butterfly Psyche Theatre is pretty varied and includes everything from creating and developing work, writing funding bids, meeting and maintaining relationships with other practitioners, collaborators and theatres, Communications and Marketing and crafting and facilitating outreach activity.

As the company grows I look forward to my role becoming more focused on developing work and welcoming other professionals into management. But until then I’m a pretty busy bee.

The Brontë Season has been a hugely exciting project for us. Not only is it a three-show regional tour of new work, we’re getting fantastic feedback from press and audiences members. As a company are gathering more and more momentum and attention, leading to new opportunities and exciting future collaborations. It’s in exciting time for us, so watch this space!”

The plays:

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall “Beautifully articulated and performed…Do not miss it!” Theatre Bath, 5-Stars (*****)

Jane Eyre “A fantastic piece of theatre and one that I could not recommend strongly enough.” Female Arts, 5-Stars (*****)

Wuthering Heights “Will please even the most avid lovers of the book…A thoroughly enjoyable and captivating piece of theatre.” Female Arts, 4-Stars (****)

Tour dates
25th – 28th February – The Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 01242 572573, everymantheatre.org.uk

1st & 13th March – Dorchester Arts Centre, Dorchester, 01305 266926, dorchesterarts.org.uk

5th March – Trowbridge Town Hall, Trowbridge, 01225 774306 or trowbridgearts.com

6th March – Neroche Village Hall, Nr. Taunton (Take Art Rural touring scheme), 01460 234377, www.takeart.org

7th March – Kilmersdon Village Hall, Radstock (Take Art Rural touring scheme), 01761 437372, www.takeart.org

10th March – The Merlin Theatre, Frome, 01373 465949, merlintheatre.co.uk

14th March – The Rondo Theatre, Bath, 01225 463362, rondotheatre.co.uk

Posted in 17percenters, plays, Plays for today by women, plays to see, Women playwrights, women writers | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Moving the centre – Whoop’n’Wail guest post

Photo of Ali and Debs in discussion

Ali and Debs in discussion

Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents… is a new writing showcase with a difference. With six short pieces by both male and female playwrights, all must pass the Bechdel Test, ensuring the female characters’ contribution is significant to the plot. Inspired by Alison Bechdel’s now famous 1987 comic strip, The Rule, the test has become the benchmark for gauging fair gender representation on stage and screen and is, Whoop ‘n’ Wail believe, the lowest bar.

As guest contributors, Whoop ‘n’ Wail founders Ali Kemp and Deborah Klayman tell 17Percent about the drive behind the showcase and their plans for their next night, Represents… Desire.

We have been writing together as Whoop ‘n’ Wail since 2011, and one of our passions has always been creating exciting, entertaining theatre populated with significant (and interesting) female characters. This may be born out of our mutual frustration as actresses – frequently auditioning for parts called ‘mum’, ‘sister’, ‘girl’, or ‘whore’! In these scenarios there was always a named male character these women revolved around, and it made us wonder where all the real women were in these stories?

It became apparent that this frustration was shared by most of our creative colleagues, and not just by the women. Both male and female actors, writers and directors expressed their frustration at the paucity of significant characters for their female friends, colleagues and loved ones to play, yet found themselves at a loss when it came to changing the status quo. We began to ask ourselves, what could we do to redress the balance?

Discovered in a cultural theory class at university, the concept of the absent centre truly hit home. White, straight men are the norm and do not need to be described as – in the absence of a description to the contrary – those traits are presumed automatically. All characters that do not fit that mould are ‘other’ – therefore women, LGBT, non-white and older characters become secondary to the male role at the centre. This is not just reflected in drama, these are the stories our societies are built on, and that both men and women respond to.

Because of this, we believe it is important that all of us – male and female writers – are part of challenging this concept by addressing our own assumptions. We need to actively work to tell the ‘other’ stories, about significant characters who are not the absent centre. If we look back through history there have been women working in all spheres of society, as there are non-white, LGBT and older figures of import. All women are not the same, and don’t participate in society in a uniform way. They say behind every great man is a great woman – so let’s hear about it! Let’s make theatre that includes and examines these characters, putting them at the centre without excluding the men that they existed and interacted with.

Whoop ‘n’ Wail’s response to this is Represents…: a showcase with an even number of male and female playwrights on the bill, and an even number of male and female directors taking them from page to stage. Each of the pieces passes the Bechdel Test: they have at least two named female characters, who, at some point talk, to each other about something other than a man.

Produced in association with 17Percent, our debut showcase,Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents…The Launch was a sell-out success. This time we took open submissions and, as a jumping off point for writers, set the theme of Desire.  Having received 70 pieces from Canada to New Zealand – as well as home-grown talent – six plays have now been selected and our directors have been busy working with their writers, casting, and getting rehearsals underway. We are delighted to have been invited back to Waterloo East Theatre for our second showcase in February – another fantastic opportunity to bring innovative, entertaining plays to a wonderful central London venue, and with so many talented people involved in its creation. Tickets are on sale now so don’t miss out!

Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents… Desire

Waterloo East Theatre, London, SE1 8TG
Friday 6 – Saturday 7 February 2015, 7.30pm
Tickets on sale now: £10 in advance (£12 on the door)
Box office: 020 7928 0060 / www.waterlooeast.co.uk

 

Posted in 17percenters, event, Launch event, news, Opportunities, plays to see, Women playwrights, women writers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Free playwriting course for Medway-based young women

Tell your stories – get your work performed!

Medway-based playwright Sarah Hehir is running a free drama writing course for young women aged 16-21 in Kent – The id Project. If you are interested or know a young women who might be, please email Sarah. The course starts in February, and will take place in Medway.

Find out more on Facebook – The id Project.

Flier for the id Project

The id Project

Posted in course, Medway | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Lucy Kerbel interview

Lucy Kerbel photo

Lucy Kerbel

Lucy Kerbel is the Director of Tonic Theatre and an award-winning theatre director. She also researched and wrote 100 Great Plays for Women, an inspiring guide to plays with great roles in them for women. Hannah Roe spoke to her.

You have to try to keep hold of what you want to make work about and the way you want to do it. Keep in mind what matters to you and why you are the person to tell this story. It’s very easy to become what other people think you should become.”

In December, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Lucy Kerbel. The acclaimed writer of 100 Great Plays for Women and director of Tonic Theatre had an incredible year in 2014, and I caught up with her at the National Theatre Studio to chat to her about her work and her hopes for 2015.

Let’s start off by talking a bit about your creative background in directing and how that progressed into creating Tonic…

I became interested in being a director when I was at college doing a BTEC in Technical Theatre. I started off wanting to be a costume designer because I’d been interested in art and drama at school but I knew I didn’t want to act, so I thought costume-designing would be a logical combination of the two. I was also really interested in stage management; I’d been in the rehearsal room as a stage manager at college, watching the acting students work with their director and that was when I realised that directing was actually what I wanted to do. I went on to do a drama degree and spent the whole of that time trying to get experience working in theatre. I taught myself to direct by doing lot of youth theatre directing, and youth theatre’s brilliant if you want to work out how to direct because you get big casts, quite often you get big stages, and you’re given a bit of a licence to do what you want. When I came out of university, I went to the Young Vic part-time for a year as an administrator and around that, I was directing little pieces for festivals and fringe venues. Then I got a big break when I was 22 and went to the National Theatre Studio for a year as a Resident Director. It was an amazing year and it’s a hugely inspirational building because there’s always different groups of artists coming in and out; you can watch them rehearse, sit in on their workshops and I would be given play readings to direct. I was told to take a rehearsal room and some actors and just play for a week! So I had a whole year of that before going into freelance and doing some staff directing at the NT where I assisted Katie Mitchell for a while.

Then after a few of years as a jobbing director, I became increasingly interested in this question of why women still weren’t as well-represented as men. I’d been working in the industry for a while at this point and was aware of the lack of women onstage and in key creative roles, but I thought that was just how it was. I looked at the places I was working and in certain areas there would be lots of women, such as in the stage management teams. But when I looked at the casts I was working with, they were nearly always predominantly male. I had a bit of an epiphany moment when I went to Sweden because I was about to direct the English language premiere of a Swedish play. I went over there and realised that they were just miles and miles ahead of us here, so around 2010 I decided to set up Tonic because I was aware that there wasn’t anything really that was supporting theatre organisations to move forward in terms of gender equality. I got really interested in who holds the power in the industry and actually who could make a big difference. So I began thinking that if we could get the really influential theatres to recognise the clear creative benefits in making this shift towards having more women in their workplaces, then progress could really be made.

Why do you think there is a gender bias towards men in the theatre industry?

Some people just don’t think women’s stories are as interesting; they don’t think they’re as valuable as men’s. Whilst I haven’t come across many misogynistic monsters in my time, I have come across an awful lot of people, probably myself included, who have just grown up in a culture where we’ve all been brought up to think and act and do in certain ways. And often until someone points out to you that maybe there’s a different, better, more productive way to think or do or make, then actually you just stay in those patterns. So I do think a lot of it comes down to the fact that we have an industry that is structured in a certain way and that structure was created at a time when women weren’t in the workplace in the way that they should be, want to be and can be now. So I think we’re dealing with a lot of shadows of the past and it’s about breaking away from that and doing things differently.

You’ve had a pretty great year in terms of the fallout from your book, 100 Great Plays for Women, and also Tonic’s Advance programme. Starting with the book, what sort of research went into creating your list and how did you choose your 100?

Well it wasn’t particularly scientific in that I basically just read any play I could get my hands on that had more women in the cast than men. There were a couple of conditions I set for myself; the first was that the plays had to be published. The book is intended to be a reference tools for theatres, schools, drama groups and societies so the plays all needed to be accessible. That, in itself, was problematic because what emerged was that there is a huge wealth of writing by women which hasn’t been published. In particular periods, there’s been these bursts of energy of writing by women, and those works made it to the stage but they weren’t always published. The second condition I set myself was that they had to be in English, either originally or in translation. But beyond that, anything was fair game and I just read everything I could. There’s a big script library at the National where the walls are lined with scripts so I worked my way through the vast majority of those. I used the British Library, libraries in drama schools, second-hand bookshops. I was living in New York for a while so I spent a lot of time in their Performing Arts Library, which was good because it introduced me to writers that are not as well-known here but are really top playwrights there.

I knew that the book was going to feature 100 plays and that it was going to be a subjective list; I never claim that it’s a “top 100”. And across the 100, I wanted there to be a real range – plays for big casts and big stages, two-handed plays for small pub theatres, different styles, genres, subject matters, women of different ages, etc. A lot of people asked me if the plays were all set in kitchens – some of them are but there are also plays in there about science, war, religion, love, technology and art. It became clear that in terms of work that’s been published about women, there are key trends that come up again and again. I could have filled the whole book with plays about marriage and childbearing, and there are absolutely plays in there about those things because they’re the two things that have characterised women’s lives for so long. It was by chance that when I drew the list together, it was made up of half male playwrights and half female, which wasn’t really something I was aiming for but really liked because it’s important that men feel they can write about women. We did some interesting research as part of Advance where we looked at every new play that was premiered in twelve London theatres in 2013. Findings showed that female playwrights wrote for roughly half-and-half male and female casts, whereas male playwrights would write two thirds male and one third female which shows there’s work to be done there.

That links us nicely into the Advance programme… For anyone that doesn’t know about it, could you explain the purpose of Advance and what it entailed?

So Tonic approached a range of artistic directors of leading theatres around England and asked them if they would like to take part in a six-month programme with us where we would work with them to explore how their organisation could work more effectively for female theatre artists. We brought together a cohort of eleven theatres (Royal Shakespeare Company, the Tricycle, Young Vic, Sheffield Theatres, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Pentabus, Headlong, Almeida Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre, English Touring Theatre and the Gate) and we asked them to each write a question that they wanted to answer over the six months. For instance, Headlong asked ‘does our current commission model suit men better than women and if so, what can we do about it?’ So we worked with each of those eleven theatres; we conducted a whole load of research for them, we worked with them to explore how they think within their organisations, how they communicate, how they make decisions, how they commission and program work – so it was about them reflecting on themselves in addition to looking at the situation for women externally.

Each theatre also had their own line of enquiry they were following depending on their question and we would regularly bring the theatres together so we could keep them connected and ensure they were benefitting from the work being conducted in the other participating theatres. Then we got them to work on an action plan that outlined what they were going to start doing differently. Some of them have already started putting those plans into place and some of them are having different types of internal conversations which will make a real difference, such as them reflecting on the way they commission and their other internal processes. There’s been lots of unexpected outcomes too, like English Touring Theatre were looking at actresses and the experience for actresses touring and how they can improve that, so their action plan was about that part of their company. But then they also got really inspired by the research the Gate were doing into female lighting designers and they’re now running a scheme which supports young female lighting designers, so it’s like the eleven theatres have all rubbed off on one another.

And your hope is that now this will start to filter out into industry-wide change?

Yes, we’ve had a number of theatres who’ve been in touch now that want to know how they can implement similar changes in their organisations. We held a big symposium in September where we shared the findings of the Advance initiative and we invited members of the industry to that. And we’re now having conversations with theatres of all different sizes across the country about how they can augment some of these changes. It feels massively promising and I think it is about trying to achieve that culture shift. For Tonic, it’s now a case of us trying to expand our organisation so that we can work with more theatres and that’s our plan for 2015.

How exciting! And what else is next for you?

I’m in talks with Nick Hern Books who published 100 Great Plays for Women about the possibility of a second book. They approached me about writing something charting the shifts that are happening at the moment in terms of women in theatre because there’s this wave of change occurring. And something I’m really excited about that Tonic are doing in 2015 is Platform. In the summer, we’ll be launching a series of three new scripts which will be published by Nick Hern. They’ll be written specifically for school and youth theatre groups to perform, so they’ll have large and predominantly female casts. We did a big research study a couple of years ago with National Youth Theatre where we looked at what the opportunities are like for girls who participate in youth theatre or any kind of extra-curricular drama. We found that the majority of people who want to be involved are female but when it comes to the scripts they’re working with, most of the parts are male. We also found out that really has an impact on their confidence; instead of a growth in confidence that came from taking part in drama, there was actually a gradual depletion in confidence because, again and again, these young women would audition for the end-of-term play and they wouldn’t be cast or they’d be shoved at the back of a chorus. Meanwhile their male contemporaries were able to climb through the ranks very quickly and were having access to a fantastic range of roles. A lot of the young women we spoke to said they often don’t recognise themselves in the roles that exist in the plays they work on; they feel there’s a lot of outdated stereotypes and they’re very aware that a lot of the time, the female characters aren’t functioning as protagonists. So we’ve got three writers who are just beginning to write those scripts now and they’ll be published in June. Our hope is that two years later, we can then commission another three scripts and another three two years after that and so on.

Tonic is an affiliate company at the National Theatre Studio next year and that’s really brilliant because the studio is a wonderful laboratory space for trying out new ideas. We’ll continue to work with the eleven Advance theatres over the next twelve months to move them forward, turning their action plans into concrete reality. And then hopefully Advance will come back in 2016 with a new cohort of theatres.

Let’s round off with some quick-fire questions…. What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue directing or playwriting?

I think that as much as you should listen to the comments and the feedback of other people, you have to try to keep hold of what you want to make work about and the way you want to do it. Keep in mind what matters to you and why you are the person to tell this story. It’s very easy to become what other people think you should become. Also, it’s so important to understand the system. Get into it in whatever capacity you can because I think when you understand the system, you are more likely to get why people aren’t putting your work on if they’re not. I spend a lot of time talking to people who feel a bit like they’re not being invited to the party and that frustrates them. But you almost need to get to a point where you feel like there is no party and then things become a lot easier and happier.

And finally, can you give me a few examples of lesser-known female playwrights whose work you’d really recommend?

Well there’s a whole generation of female playwrights who were writing around the eighties, some of whom we’ve kept hold of and we know about but others who have got a little lost. It was a real pleasure writing the book and being able to pull out some of those names again; plays like Pax by Deborah Levy which is a phenomenal piece of writing. And Louise Page – her play Salonika is fantastic. Someone who I’m a great champion of is an American playwright called Megan Mostyn-Brown. I was lucky enough to direct a reading of a play of hers in New York a few years ago. Only a couple of her plays have been published in the UK; she writes about really ordinary people who work and have ostensibly very normal lives but she just fantastically captures their interior worlds. And then you have writers whose work has just disappeared, maybe because they were writing at a time when women’s work wasn’t respected. Like Githa Sowerby – I always find her story really fascinating. She’s best known now for a play called Rutherford and Son which was staged at the National in the late nineties. She also wrote a play called The Stepmother which is one of the plays in my book; it is remarkable and only had one performance in 1924 at a private theatre club. Everyone thought the script had disappeared; it sat in a cardboard box in the basement of Samuel French’s bookshop in New York and was discovered fortuitously eighty years later. I think, ‘God there must be so many plays like that’, plays that were taken to publishers or theatres and were forgotten because they were about women or by women. The mind boggles about all the amazing work by women that must have been lost in the past. I just hope we enter a more enlightened phase where we make sure that doesn’t happen.

Lucy is the Director of Tonic Theatre and an award-winning theatre director. Having begun her career as Resident Director at the National Theatre Studio and English Touring Theatre, Lucy went on to direct a range of classics, new writing and productions for younger audiences. It was while directing around the UK that Lucy became interested in the question of gender equality in theatre. She recognised that the industry would need better support if it were to achieve greater balance in its workforces and repertoires and so in 2011, with the support of the National Theatre and Royal Opera House’s Step Change scheme, Lucy founded Tonic Theatre to go some way towards achieving this. Today, Tonic is partnering with some of the leading theatres in the UK including the Royal Shakespeare Company, Young Vic, Sheffield Theatres, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre. Tonic is Affiliate Company at the National Theatre Studio. www.tonictheatre.co.uk

In addition to directing and her work with Tonic, Lucy does consultancy, is a visiting lecturer at Central Saint Martin’s, and works in theatre education. Her first book, 100 Great Plays for Women is published by Nick Hern Books.

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Karis Halsall interview

Photo taken during rehearsals for Karis' show, MEGALOPOLITAN.

Photo taken during rehearsals for Karis’ show, MEGALOPOLITAN.

Karis Halsall is a playwright and performance poet.

She is passionate about creating theatre that pushes boundaries and blends the diametric styles of physical theatre and written word, whilst exploring cross art form collaborations.

Her playwriting credits include: Finelines (Hampstead Theatre Startnight, 2010), The Phantom (Rapid Write Response, Theatre 503, 2010), Terror Tales (Drywrite @ Hampstead Theatre, 2010), Do Us Part (For the Heat and Light Company @ the Hampstead, 2010), Rule Brutannia (Nabokov, Present Tense @ The Southwark Playhouse 2010), The Woman who Stops and Talks to Prostitutes (PLAYList @ Theatre503, 2011) and The Killing Moon (Labfest, Theatre503 2011), Bizarre Bazaar (Brunch Plays – Hightide Festival, 2012), HELP ( REDfest – The Old Red Lion, 2013), Times Up! (Bush Theatre Beano, 2013), Little Stitches (BAREtruth Theatre – The Arcola, The Gate, Theatre 503) 2014.

Karis is currently the Literary Associate at new writing powerhouse, Theatre503. She is also Artistic Director of multidisciplinary Theatre Company, Luminary Theatre.  

We’d be really interested to hear about your professional practice as a playwright, poet and performer and how that fits in with your work as a literary associate…

For a long time I kept my performance poetry separate from my practice as more ‘traditional’ – but recently that all changed. I started developing a project called MEGALOPOLITAN  which won the IdeasTap brief to be performed at the VAULT Festival in February.

It blends the traditions of spoken word and theatre to a live electronic soundscape score. I’ll be performing my own playwriting too – which is a first for me!

I’m interested in work that pushes boundaries – and this is an exploration that runs across all of my creative practice and into my work as a Literary Associate.

So many of our contemporaries are experimenting with binary traditions in intriguing and innovative ways, so I gathered a few of them together to create a play at Theatre503 – 503Fusions. (15th, 16th and 17th Jan, 7.45pm)

Do you think working in a literary department has aided your creativity/playwriting (and vice versa)?

Working in a Literary Department has been absolutely invaluable for my development as a playwright. It’s given me a shot of reality and some important perspective on the new writing ecology.

I discovered there’s a lot of sleepless nights before the ‘overnight success’ and ‘first time writer’ is a great marketing term but not necessarily true. Most ‘first time’ writers have been plugging at it for years and although is their first full length four week run, they have loads of experience under their belt.

I also learnt a rejection letter isn’t always a reflection on the work. The reality of the situation is there is so much brilliant new writing and so little funding and even less theatres that accept unsolicited work. This means more competition for less slots.

I think “grit” is a key attribute for success and you have to be steadfast, resilient, be prepared to fail and to keep on developing your craft.

What do you look for in a script?

For me a good play possesses the qualities of tautness and immediacy and intrigue with an urge to do or say something new.

I relish work that unsettles me and challenges me and acts as a mirror – pushing me to question my own world.

I look for a dynamic dialogue by characters I can feel passionately about.

My personal taste is a tendency towards the surreal and an inclination to experiment with form, but I keep my personal taste separate when I read for an institution.

How do you juggle your day job with your own writing?

With difficulty! A day off to me is an absolute luxury.

I have 2 jobs and run my own Theatre Company, Luminary Theatre – so my working weeks tend to run at 6 or 7 days.

But I love it, so I make it work….. I sort of have to because if I wasn’t writing, I’d probably go mad.

As you’re both a playwright and performance poet, do you see a link in the lyric of language between the two?

Definitely! Let’s not forget arguably the greatest playwright of all time wrote predominantly in verse.

I think the rise of naturalism now means writers can’t entertain that lyricism as much as we’d like to because it draws the audience out of the world you’ve created – people don’t tend to talk lyrically or in beautiful metaphors.

But I try to bring lyricism into the plays I write – whether that’s through a poetic narrator or writing a monologue with a strong rhythmic drive.

Bodies can write poetry too – theatre’s a great medium as it allows you to express the beauty of what it means to be human visually.

What has your experience been as a female playwright, and how do you feel about the issue of gender imbalance in theatre?

I classify myself first and foremost as a playwright – as opposed to a ‘female playwright’, because for me, in an ideal world a playwright’s name wouldn’t be prefaced with their gender – and I think there’s a danger of being defined by it if your name is preceded with it.

At Theatre503 to avoid gender bias or assumptions / stereotypes we chose to do all our award reading blind, because we believe strongly that everyone should be judged on their talent alone.

Anecdotally – if someone asked me who had written “And Then Come the Nightjars” by Bea Roberts (one of the Theatre503 Playwriting Award winners) – and I was coming at it from a stereotypically gender-based point of view – because it beautifully expresses the platonic relationship between two male Devon farmers – I’d have probably said it was a male writer. The same in reverse for the stunning “Valhalla”, written by Paul Murphy. So it just goes to show that gender definitions of writing are meaningless.

However I do however think it’s crucial we don’t ignore the gender imbalance in theatre.

I heard that on being asked the question -“Why do we need more women in theatre?” a director responded …. “Because you’re still asking me that question”.

That sums up how I feel about it. Often the worst thing you can do is choose to do nothing at all. We have to acknowledge it and address it head-on to push for progress.

But there’s a lot of other important imbalances that need addressing in theatre too – like racial diversity – we’ve got along way to go before it’s equal.

Do you have any recommendations for plays to see/read?

503Fusions of course!

Any work by the 503Five – Vinay Patel, Chloe Todd Fordham, Ella Carmen Greenhill, NessahMuthy and Brian Mullin, they are truly brilliant talents and I can’t wait to see how they develop.

I believe you can catch Vinay’s brilliant play “True Brits” headlining the VAULT Festival in February.

Finally, my show MEGALOPOLITAN – have a watch of the video on our crowdfunding page for a little more context – any support is greatly appreciated!

Interviewer: Hannah Roe

Posted in Advice, Close_up, Interview, Plays for today by women, plays to see, theatre company, Women playwrights, women writers | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Represents script call out

Whoop’n’Wail’s new showcase Represents… launched in November at Waterloo East Theatre and sold-out. Consisting of six fifteen-minute shorts, each piece of writing must pass the Bechdel Test – they must include at least two named female characters who, at some stage, talk to each other about something other than a man. Inspired by Alison Bechdel’s 1987 comic strip, The Rule, the Bechdel Test has become a common test for gauging fair representation on stage and screen.

The launch featured work by both established and emerging playwrights and directors invited by the curators to kick off the inaugural event. For future nights, each will have an
overarching theme, with pieces selected via an open submission process. Each submission will be read, six pieces selected, and successful writers paired with a director.

Whoop ‘n’ Wail have committed to achieving gender equality on the UK stage by creating a night of entertaining, engaging theatre with all plays having significant roles for women.

For the next showcase, Whoop’n’Wail are looking for 10-minute plays using the subject of desire as  a stimulus. This opportunity is open to male and female playwrights.

The rules…

* Stage plays – either complete short plays or a self-contained extract from a larger work.
* Plays written by individuals or writing teams.
* Plays that pass the Bechdel Test:
There is no limit to the number of characters your play can have, however at least two must be female. We will accept gender-neutral characters, provided a female-female interaction can be achieved through casting.
The qualifying female characters must have names (not ‘wife’, ‘mum’, ‘woman’, etc.)
Two female characters must interact with each other directly about a subject other than men.
This interaction should be significant and have a bearing on the plot.

(NB: Plays do not need to be all-female to achieve this. It is entirely possible to pass the test and have male characters in the play and we welcome submissions that achieve this.)

Submit scripts in Word Format only via email to submissions@whoopnwail.com by the deadline, 17:00 on Friday 2nd January 2015. Submissions sent after the deadline will not be read or considered.

* Attach a character breakdown, including each character’s gender, and a three-line synopsis.

Any queries, please email Whoop’n’Wail.

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Some London plays you could see by female writers

Some interesting new plays by women writers you could go and see if you are in London, over the next few months.

·         3 Winters by Tena Štivičić at the National Theatre (Lyttleton), playing until 3 February. Info.

·         God Bless the Child by Mollie Davies at the Royal Court, playing until 20 December. Info. 

·         Liberian Girl by Diana Nneka Atuona at the Royal Court, playing 7 – 31 January. Info.

·         Islands by Caroline Horton at the Bush Theatre, playing 15 January – 21 February. Info. 

·         Chimera by Deborah Stein and Suli Holum at the Gate Theatre, playing until 20 December. Info.

·         The Chronicles of Kalki by Aditi Brennan Kapil at the Gate Theatre, playing 8 – 31 January. As part of the female-centred Who does she think she is season. Info.

·         Golem by Suzanna Andrade at the Young Vic Theatre, playing until 17 January. Info.

·         The Heresy of Love by Helen Edmundson at Shakespeare’s Globe, playing 31 July – 5 September, public booking opens 9 February, 10am. Info. 

·         Miss Havisham’s Expectations by Di Sherlock at Trafalgar Studios 2, playing until 3 January. Info.

·         Di and Viv and Rose by Amelia Bullmore at the Vaudeville Theatre, playing 22 January – 23 May. Info.

·         Silent Planet by Eve Leigh at the Finborough Theatre, playing until 20 December. Info.

Listing compiled by Hannah Roe. Please email 17PercentEvents if you have any relevant events you’d like us to review or list. 

Posted in plays, Plays for today by women, plays to see, Women playwrights, women writers | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

December newsletter

The 17Percent newsletter has just been published and you can find it here.

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