The intergenerational Three Generations of Women: Broken Leg’s play and archive

photo of rehearsed reading: Amy Griffin

photo: Amy Griffin

There are two sides to every story, and history, as we know all too well, has tended to lean heavily on the one. Three Generations of Women, a new play that dramatises differing experiences of grandmother, mother and daughter, and currently being produced by Broken Leg Theatre, seeks to retune our attention to the (often hidden) perspectives of women living and working, spanning approximately the last 100 years in Britain.

Co-directors of the company Anna Jefferson and Alice Trueman have developed and written the play based on stories collated from women of different ages across the country, and from this groundwork have created a piece about growing up, and what it means to exist as a woman today. How has this experience changed? Despite the increasing push for gender equality, are the social pressures on women felt any less now than they were at the beginning of the twentieth century? For the play’s development its creators have held interactive workshops with groups in Brighton (where the company is based), Leeds and London. They have also appealed to women nationwide to share experiences, individual and social memories, through submitting answers to questions on their blog website.

Questions include ‘When did you first become aware of your gender?’ and ‘What kinds of women inspire you the most and why?’ as well as asking for the best kept secrets kept by a woman of any generation in a family. Another question invites women to share the best advice given to them by their mother or grandmother, from spiritual motivation to practical tips: ‘Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise. Shake them firmly by the hand and look them in the eye’ is an example of on-the-nose advice from a woman who has clearly dealt with the problem of how to present yourself to the world. Another simply reads ‘Like yourself and be honest.’ Many of these snippets explore female identity through intergenerational relationships – how we understand the other women in our families, and what embodied knowledge is consciously (or unconsciously) passed on between mothers and daughters.

What began as research for the play, of diverse oral histories, has taken on a life of its own and has now become an incredibly rich digital archive that documents the lived experiences of women from a wide demographic, (it can be viewed and added to here.) More significantly, it is the first record of its kind. Since January 2014 the open online survey has gathered over 2,000 submissions, and received support from Arts Council England and promotion from other activists such as EverydaySexism, NoMorePage3, Caroline Criado-Perez, the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World festival, and Caroline Lucas MP, as well as a feature in the Independent on Sunday. James Haddrell, Artistic Director of the Greenwich Theatre – a co-producer of Three Generations and which hosted a rehearsed reading last September – has said that the project ‘has the potential to become a lasting record of the social experience of three generations of women, the transformation of personal oral history into written record. [It] will bring together women’s experiences and perceptions from the last few generations and allow public comparison’ in a way that has not be seen before.

In turn, Alice and Anna have described the way that the play, and project as a whole, has come about at a time when there is a growing consciousness of issues surrounding female identity in the 21st century: it obtains even greater relevance given the repeatedly called-out lack of visibility for women working in arts. This subject matter delves in to a contemporary urge for social excavation: making the personal public, the individual shared. Perhaps the most defining feature of Three Generations is that the writers are questioning how female experience today has been shaped by such intersection of personal and social histories.

Established in 2008, Broken Leg Theatre are an award-winning company, whose previous productions include My Second Life, which received the Argus Angel for Artistic Excellence. For Three Generations of Women they boast an all-female company, led by director Kirsty Housley, associate director of Complicite (which recently produced another participatory piece on women’s experiences, Like Mother, Like Daughter at Battersea Arts Centre). The play will be produced by Beccy Smith of Touched Theatre, who has a strong background in dramaturgy and of developing new work for other companies Karavan Ensemble and Petras Pulse. There is currently one week left to go for Broken Leg Theatre’s crowd-funding campaign. The producers are raising money to continue development of the archive, and finish production of the play, with a national tour of venues including the Greenwich Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse and The Old Market in Brighton later this year. Alongside its tour, Alice and Anna intend to run forums and creative writing workshops, in order to encourage more women to share their stories. They describe themselves and Three Generations as a crowd-sourced, as well as crowd-funded initiative, and the production to date has relied on the desire and willingness of women to share their experiences with others. Read more and support Broken Leg here.

(c) Joanna Lally.

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Silva Semerciyan interview: ‘The Magic Hour’

Silva Semerciyan photo

Silva Semerciyan

Ahead of new play I and The Village opening at Theatre503 on 9 June, Hannah Roe met up with playwright Silva Semerciyan during a break in rehearsals at the LOST Theatre. They talked plays, patience and even discovered they’d studied the same postgraduate course at the same university!

H: Tell us a bit about your background – what inspired you to pursue playwriting?

S: Well I had a teacher for a class in Jewish drama at university and we had to write journal entries for it every so often. One day he said to me, ‘why don’t you take a playwriting class before you die?’ those were his exact words! And in my head I thought, ‘I’d like nothing better actually’, so I took his introduction class and it’s almost like all the other courses I was taking fell away. I had a little bit of a wobble with my core subjects because I was so focused on playwriting; I thought it was the greatest thing in the world! But then I kept thinking ‘no, no, that’s not a proper job’ so I left it and went off to do some “proper jobs” in my early twenties before realising I was climbing the wrong ladder. So I retrained and did a performance degree which was really useful because I could get an insight into what it’s like to actually be inside a play. It was kind of a drawn-out process before I finally admitted that what I wanted to do was just write plays. I took a masters course called the MPhil (B) at the University of Birmingham (now the MRes) and that just opened so many doors. I met my agent at the final showcase event as well as contacts at the National Theatre who championed my work and gave me all sorts of opportunities at the Studio. It was the best thing I could have done. I remember at the time though people kept saying, ‘well if you’re really a writer, you don’t need to do any training’, but it wasn’t about that. It’s just a great way to meet industry contacts and Steve Waters, who was the course convenor at the time, was an excellent dramaturg for I and The Village, so it was invaluable.

H: What is I and The Village about?

S: It’s about a town trying to come to terms with why a young woman in their midst one day walked into a church she’d attended all her life carrying a gun. It follows the story of investigators trying to get to the bottom of it and finding out through the townspeople why they think it happened.

H: Why do you think it’s important that we explore and engage with topical issues in a theatrical forum?

S: For me, the main thing with the theatrical forum is that it’s much more open to non-natural styles – so I and The Village isn’t naturalistic; moments play naturally, but overall theatre affords a more theatrical realisation of it, so you can synthesise ideas in a way you can’t in other mediums. That’s why I chose theatre and why it’s my favourite. It can be many different styles and modes, and people are really comfortable with that. Things can be used symbolically in a much more potent way than they can in film perhaps because a stage contains so few elements that nothing is accidental. A gun is such a strong symbol so when it’s placed on a stage for a deliberate reason, it has enormous impact.

H: What has your role been in rehearsals?

S: Well the first week was about deciding what I really thought of the script as it stands in terms of the flow of the overall offering; the length of scenes, scrutinising every line of dialogue. And because I was using six actors to tell the story of multiple characters in the town, I had to see if there were any elements of confusion and how we could reallocate those lines. It falls to both my personal judgement and everyone’s collective judgement on what could be a good solution. It was personally about getting the script in the best place it could be for the actors so they could proceed into rehearsals without me. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk to the actors about their characters and to offer my insights from having grown up in the part of America that the play is set in.

H: When you sit down to write a play, do you have any routines or rituals? How do you write?

S: I’ve got this thing called ‘The Magic Hour’; it’s that moment between waking and dreaming when you’re lying in bed. I always let that time solve any kind of problems or puzzles I’m having. I’ll come up with the line of dialogue I can’t get right or the whole idea for a project, anything. It works every time. I tend to be in my most creative state when I’m not fully awake and I do my best writing when I go right to the computer immediately after waking. Having a small child has interrupted that slightly because now she’s the first voice I wake to every morning, so The Magic Hour comes a little earlier now!

H: And is she showing any signs of following a creative path?

S: Yeah we made a puppet theatre out of a cardboard box – she loves sitting behind it but her stories always come to an abrupt end and always involve some kind of fantastical element like an ogre. ‘And then they went into the woods, the end!’

H: You’re an award-winning playwright with some great credits under your belt – what has been your most valued achievement in your career so far?

S: Probably this, actually, because it’s been a long road. The thing about playwriting is it does teach you patience, and I was born impatient! So it’s good to get to a place where things are rounded off with a production. The ultimate prize is seeing it on the stage and knowing it has a life beyond your imagination. This will represent my first four-week run of a play in London too so it’s a milestone for me. It’s taken a lot of believing in the project from the director, my agent and all the people around me. We’ve all carried a torch for it and not forgotten about it just because it was a bit tricky being six cast members – that’s considered a large play and I didn’t realise that as I was writing it at the University of Birmingham. Academia never asks you to be commercially-minded! But I regard each achievement at the time as the number one thing that’s happened.

H: I interviewed Lucy Kerbel of Tonic Theatre last year and she mentioned the Platform initiative which you’re involved in with your play, The Light Burns Blue. What’s it about and what makes it a great play for young female performers? 

S: It’s about a girl called Elsie Wright who took five very famous photographs around the time of the First World War. In my play, Elsie and her cousin have taken photographs of fairies and a journalist comes on the scene and threatens to expose her as a hoax, so Elsie has to prove herself to her. The play was created through a devising process, so each character is very individualised and there are some very strong characters. Elsie certainly has a quiet strength about her and theinvestigative journalist is tenacious with her own sense of self and moral code; they have emotional depth. The feedback has been that the characters are all rounded and what makes a great play for a multi-actor youth theatre group is that no one has a throwaway part. It also explores girlhood but not in a heavy-handed, overt way. In the initial R&D sessions, one of the young men I spoke to said he really wanted to see a play where young women rob a bank. And that made me think that we don’t always have to write about girls pushing against the patriarchy; let them be engaged with something that has nothing to do with being a girl that’s just theatrical and interesting, like a bank robbery.

H: How does creating a play from a devising process differ to your usual writing process?

S: It’s kind of double-edged because on the one hand, it seems like you’re going to have lots of help with the creative decisions and generating ideas but on the other hand, when you go off on your own and you hit on something that’s perhaps the right tack, you can’t always write it all in a traditional style because it still has to undergo a consensus. On balance, the thing I really enjoyed about the devising process was not writing in seclusion; you’re in the room seeing those ideas and workshopping them a couple of weeks down the line. It’s great to see things in three dimensions at an early stage. And actors are brilliant at protecting their own turf as characters so no one drops off the page!

H: What has your experience been as a women in the theatre?

S: The thing is, when you’re one of the playwrights being supported and produced, it creates kind of a sense that it’s alright for everyone because that’s your perception. But through Lucy and Tonic Theatre I’ve become aware of the bigger picture, so I do have an eye on ensuring that it’s good for everyone across the board and that there’s equal opportunity generally for both genders.

H: What is your favourite play?

S: I just love Long Day’s Journey into Night. I tried to work my way through all Eugene ONeill’s plays one summer when I was younger. You know when you read something and you feel like they understand you and they’re coming from a place you understand yourself. I think Long Day’s Journey into Night is properly heart-breaking and amazingly conceived. To have four characters that are so well-drawn like that is amazing.

H: Finally, do you have any advice for early-career writers?

S: You have to really enjoy what you’re writing yourself – it has to be the kind of play you’d love to see on a stage. 

Silva Semerciyan is an American playwright living in the UK. She won the William Saroyan Prize for Playwriting for her first full-length play Another Man’s Son, which was subsequently developed under commission to the National Theatre. Her other plays include The Light Burns Blue, The Tinderbox (adaptation), Gather Ye Rosebuds (winner of Brighton Fringe Festival Best New Play Award, 2013) and Flashes. Her work has been presented at the Bristol Old Vic, Young Vic, National Theatre Studio, Theatre 503, Yard Theatre, LA Theatre Company, Latitude Festival, Bestival and ReOrient Festival. She has recently completed attachments to the National Theatre Studio and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre where she was BBC Fellow in 2014.

Tickets for I and The Village are available here.

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Some upcoming competitions

Here are some upcoming competitions and opportunities. 

  • The Bruntwood Prize 2015. The Bruntwood Prize is the biggest national competition for playwriting. It is the search for great new plays and great writers. All entries for the Bruntwood Prize are made online through the website. The process is really simple and happens in four steps. You will need: to be aged 16 or over; a pseudonym or a name that’s not your own; a contact email address; an address in the UK or Republic of Ireland or British Overseas Territory or British Forces Post Office; a title for your play and your finished play in a single document (PDF, DOC, or DOCX). The play must be an original, unperformed and unproduced piece of work, an hour long or more in playing time. We do not accept translations, co-authored plays, adaptations, musicals or plays written for younger audiences. The entrant must exclusively own and control all copyright and related rights to the submitted script. The submitted play must be available for production and unattached to any other theatre or company. If you have won a prize in the previous Bruntwood competitions, you may not enter a script. However, you may enter if you have been short/long-listed in the past. The prize fund is £40,000 for the judges to distribute at their discretion. No production is guaranteed, but all winners will have the opportunity to begin a relationship with the Royal Exchange Theatre and all scripts awarded prizes are automatically under option to the Royal Exchange for a period of 18 months. Deadline: 5 June 2015 at 6pm.

  • The Courtyard Award for New Writing 2015. The Courtyard is delighted to announce the 7th King’s Cross Award for New Writing. The Award, open to writers of all levels of experience resident in the UK or Republic of Ireland, seeks imaginative, original work which explores the unique possibilities of writing for the stage. Scripts must be unpublished and currently unperformed. Entries may be sent, marked ‘Courtyard Award 2015’ and accompanied by a £10 entry fee (made payable to CTTC LTD) and a large SAE for return of script to THE COURTYARD THEATRE, BOWLING GREEN WALK, 40 PITFIELD STREET, LONDON, N1 6EU. Please note that telephone calls or enquiries regarding the Award will not be accepted. For enquiries, email thecourtyardaward@thecourtyard.org.uk. Guidelines for entry: up to two full-length plays may be entered per writer (no email entries, radio plays or TV scripts); unpublished and unperformed scripts only (rehearsed readings are allowed but this must be disclosed upon submission); plays must be typed or word-processed and clearly laid out with pages numbered; title page must include writer’s name and full contact details (including email address) but PLEASE DO NOT include any information which could identify the writer on any other page of the script. Please include two SAEs for acknowledgement of entry and return of script. Plays must be received by 30 June 2015.

  • The Fifth Word Award for Most Promising Playwright (East Midlands writers only). Fifth Word Theatre Company and Nottingham Playhouse are launching a brand new one-act play competition to uncover new playwriting talent across the East Midlands. We are looking for original, compelling pieces written specifically for the stage that have contemporary relevance. This competition is for early-career writers who have had no more than one play professionally produced. The winner of this competition will receive: a rehearsed reading for their play as part of a celebration event at Nottingham Playhouse in September 2015; a 12-month attachment with Fifth Word based at Nottingham Playhouse; £2000 development money and a mentor to provide dramaturgical support throughout the attachment. Extracts from the runners-up will also be given a rehearsed reading at Nottingham Playhouse. The competition is open to anyone aged 16 and over currently living or studying in the East Midlands region. Scripts must be submitted anonymously online and must show no name, address or identifying marks other than the title. A maximum of one play per entrant is permitted and the entrant must exclusively own and control all copyright. Scripts must be one-act plays (up to approximately 60 minutes) and must be original, unperformed, unproduced and unpublished. Translations, co-authored plays, children’s plays, adaptations, musical theatre, television, film or radio scripts are not eligible. The play must not have previously won or been shortlisted in any other competition. Entries must be in English, typed, single-sided and numbered on every page. Deadline: midnight on 15 July 2015.

  • The Verity Bargate Award. This award is open to writers resident in the UK or Ireland. Writers may submit one unproduced, unpublished full-length play (not shorter than 70 minutes). There is no restriction to subject matter. Musicals and other forms of theatre are welcome but will only be judged on the text submitted. The winner of this year’s award will be expected to attend a ceremony later in the year. The following are not eligible: playwrights with three or more professional productions to their credit (defined as those produced under ITC/TMA/WGGB contracts), plays commissioned by Soho Theatre, previous Verity Bargate Award winners, plays that have already been considered by Soho Theatre’s literary department. Submitted plays must be unencumbered and available. The play must have a title page with the author’s name, address, email address and telephone number. In addition, writers must include a CV including listing of all works written/produced, when and where. Plays will only be accepted by email, in Word or PDF We are not able to consider any other supporting material including music, video, or images. Please email your submission to vba@sohotheatre.com, within the dates stated. The winner will receive £6000 in respect of an exclusive option to produce the winning play at Soho Theatre, directed by Artistic Director, Steve Marmion. Submissions open on 1 July 2015 and close on 31 July 2015 (6pm). Entries submitted outside this window will not be considered.
  • The Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play of the Year (playwrights of African or Caribbean descent only). Open to playwrights of Caribbean or African descent resident in the UK. Plays must be original, full-length stage plays written in English. They do not need to have been professionally produced but if they have, only plays produced since August 2014 will be considered. Each submitted play must be accompanied by a CV with an email address, contact telephone and confirmation of the writer’s Caribbean and/or African heritage and residency in the UK included, along with a brief synopsis of the play. Each entrant can submit only one play. A play may also be nominated by a third party with the writer’s consent (e.g. via an agent). Both new and established writers are encouraged to enter. The winning writer wins £6,000. Two hard copies of your script should be sent to: Pauline Walker, The Alfred Fagon Award, c/o Talawa Theatre Company, 53-55 East Road, London, N1 6AH. An electronic copy of the play should also be sent by email to info@alfredfagonaward.co.uk. Deadline: midday on 3 August 2015.

  • The Yale Drama Series Prize for Emerging Playwrights. The Yale Drama Series is an annual, international competition for emerging playwrights. We are seeking submissions for our 2016 playwriting competition. The winning play will be selected by the series’ current judge, distinguished playwright Nicholas Wright. The winner will be awarded the David Charles Horn Prize of $10,000, publication of his/her manuscript by Yale University Press, and a staged reading at Lincoln Center Theater. There is no application form or entry fee. Please follow these guidelines in preparing your manuscript: this contest is restricted to plays written in the English language by playwrights worldwide. Submissions must be original, unpublished full-length plays. Translations, musicals, and children’s plays are not accepted. Playwrights may win the competition only once and may submit only one manuscript per year. Plays that have been professionally produced or published are not eligible.  Plays that have had a workshop, reading, or non-professional production or that have been published as an actor’s edition will be considered. Plays may not be under option, commissioned, or scheduled for professional production or publication at the time of submission. Plays must be typed/word-processed, page-numbered, and in standard professional play format. The Yale Drama Series Competition strongly urges electronic submission – if you are submitting your play electronically, please omit your name and contact information from your manuscript.  The manuscript must begin with a title page that shows the play’s title, a 2-3 sentence keynote description of the play, a list of characters, and a list of acts and scenes. Please enter the title of your play, your name and contact information (including address, phone number, and email address), and a brief biography (optional) where indicated in the electronic submission form. If you would like to submit an electronic copy of your manuscript please go to: https://yup.submittable.com/submitSubmissions for the 2016 competition must be entered no earlier than 1 June 2015 and no later than 15 August 2015.

  • StageWrite 2016. StageWrite is Bedford’s annual New Writing Festival.  Running since 2013, StageWrite brings you a variety of brand new plays over 1 week.  All the plays are ‘in development’ and are followed by a Q&A with the writer, director and actors. StageWrite is designed as a platform for emerging and published writers to see their work up on its feet, in front of an audience and performed ‘script-in-hand’ by professional actors. Submitted scripts must follow industry standard in terms of font size, layout, page numbering etc. Scripts must be between 30 and 40 minutes in length – either a complete piece, or part of a longer piece that is able to stand alone. A maximum of 6 actors is allowed – if there are more than 6 roles, it should be feasible for the actors to play multiple roles. Keeps stage directions to a minimum where possible and include three questions for feedback after performance. Please be aware that if your entry does not follow the above brief, it will not be accepted. Note that the deadline for submissions is 30 September 2015. Email submission@stagewrite.org.uk.

Compiled by Hannah Roe. 

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Plays to see by women from May – roundup

Here we have a roundup of some of the current and forthcoming plays to see by women in the UK. Some aren’t on for much longer, so you’ll have to be quick!

MAY:

JUNE:

JULY/AUGUST:

SEPTEMBER:

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Klippies by Jessica Sian – review

Klippies photo: Richard Lakos

Photo: Richard Lakos

Klippies –an extraordinary new play about friendship, identity and freedom in present-day South Africa. Review by Joanna Lally. 

There is a palpable heat to Klippies, the debut play by Jessica Siân. Set during Summer 2014 in Johannesburg, where Siân was born, it examines the adolescence of South Africa’s democracy through the eyes of Yolandi (Sam Colley) and Thandi (Adelayo Adedayo), two teenage girls who forge an unlikely friendship outside the school gates one Thursday evening. Siân has developed the play with director Chelsea Walker from a rehearsed reading at the HighTide Festival in 2013 through to its first full production at Southwark Playhouse, which is led by Walker and features a largely female creative team.

Despite the differences in their background and status, both Thandi and Yolandi come from families shadowed by violence, and they share troubled relationships with their parents. To pass the time they ‘swing’ cigarettes and swig Klippies (slang for Klipdrift brandy) with coke by the poolside at Thandi’s house, skipping across the hot tiles to avoid burning their feet. It’s not hard to imagine the stifling conditions conjured bythe glaring bright lights and Holly Pigott’s dehydrated set. This gives way to a sense of a remote, empty landscape, where new secrets and territories begin to unfold.

Siân’s script lends itself to the bodied intonation of the dialect, which is delivered brilliantly by both actors. Their words are weighted, yet the language also carries a quick, rough edge to it. Colley measures her character’s assured ferociousness with vulnerability, while Adedayo instils Thandi’s shy curiosity with a sense of defiance. As the heat rises and they wait for the rains to come, the friends sweat out tensions of race, money, and sexuality, and their language becomes increasingly potent. At one point Thandi incites her companion to use a racial slur, and, refusing, Yolandi tells her: ‘It holds everything in it, all the guilt and shame and anger and violence. It’s our parents and their parents and everything and all the ugliness they left for us.’ When the drought eventually breaks, it brings about the promise of escape, and the freedom to refashion identity from the dirt left behind by previous generations. As a whole, this is an astoundingly vibrant piece of storytelling. Sizzling.

Klippies runs until 6 June 2015 in the Little at Southwark Playhouse. Book tickets here

There will also be a post-show discussion on Women in Theatre on Tuesday 26 May, with Janet Suzman and Sphinx Theatre’s Sue Parrish, alongside members of the cast and creative team.

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Sphinx put women Centre Stage in March

Women Centre Stage logoWomen Centre Stage: Heroines was much-anticipated since Sphinx Theatre launched the event back in October. Aimed at getting more female voices onto our stages, Women Centre Stage was a varied and vibrant festival of “prompts and provocations”, garnering contributions from some of our most impressive emerging and established artists. This two-day festival began on Friday 27 March 2015 with a day of workshops and panels at the Actors Centre before reaching a raucous conclusion on Saturday 28 March at the National Theatre with a marathon of exciting new writing and live performance.

The performance day began at noon and we were greeted in the auditorium by Sue Parrish, Artistic Director of Sphinx Theatre, who reminded us throughout the day that women still only make up a third of all roles in UK theatre. Collectively riled by this, the audience murmured with expectation as the house lights faded to black. The day’s programme covered Works in Progress: Parents and Politics, showcasing new pieces from Emma Jowett, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Kali Theatre and Karen Featherstone. Works in Progress: Memories and Mass Observation, featured experimental new work by Caroline Moran, Camilla Harding, Heather Uprichard and Inspector Sands.

The next collection of pieces was performed under Works in Progress: Conflict and Courtrooms.This included the poignant Mind the Gap by Hot Tubs and Trampolines, inspired by the origins of those three magic words we hear every day on the Underground; Judith Jones and Beatrix Campbell’s Justice; Timberlake Wertenbaker’s What is the Custom of Your Grief?; and, Oladipo Agboluaje’s Coralina.

The Sphinx Writers Group: Future Voices segment of the day was the most dynamic and the most provocative. Kicking off with Katie Johnstone from Luke Barnes, it was great to be reminded that men can, and must, engage with the issue of female under-representation in theatre if real progress is to be made (further supported by the significant number of men in attendance throughout the day). Welcome Home Lottery by Matilda Ibini; and extracts from Sharmila Chauhan’s sensual new play, Roses, were read next; Charlotte Josephine’s Boys Will Be Boys is a profoundly intelligent piece of work and the opening monologue delivered by Josephine herself is especially raw and powerful.

The Women at War plays began strongly with Catriona Kerridge’s Shoot! I Didn’t Mean That!; Peter Cox’s play-with-music, The Question, set in post-WWI Europe; My Name is Rosa Luxemburg is billed as the ‘lost’ play of Pam Gems, who died in 2011 and translated the play from Marianne Auricoste’s French-language original in the 1970s.

The closing part of the festival attracted the largest and rowdiest audience of the day, drawn in by the mystery of not knowing what they’d come to see. 24 Hour Plays: Heroines presented brand-new and spontaneous work by April de Angelis, Rona Munro, Rachel DeLahay, Barney Norris and Roy Williams, who had all written through the night to create a series of fifteen-minute plays inspired by women in the headlines. From Katie Hopkins to female bishops, the stimuli varied from playwright to playwright and took us on a wild journey of laughter and lament which provided the festival with a very fitting conclusion.

I sincerely hope we get to enjoy the benefits of a Women Centre Stage festival on an annual basis, as its inaugural year has certainly proved that there’s a greater appetite for female-centric theatre than ever been before. Furthermore, Women Centre Stage is not only an important celebration of creative talent but also of diversity, showcasing work by a range of women on both sides of the stage. It is an initiative which is hugely needed and an initiative that needs to continue.

This is an edited version of Hannah Roe’s report on Women Centre Stage, read the full version on Female Arts.

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Fictionalising Fact: developing a play based on real stories

My Mind is Free imageMY MIND IS FREE is a play about human trafficking, currently in development by 17Percent founder, Sam Hall. It is planned to tour in October 2015. In this, the first of a short series of blogs, Sam writes about the writing experience of bringing the play to life. 

The first thing to note is that from first ideas, this play will have taken a while to get onto the stage. I was approached by a charity Merton Against Trafficking (MAT) early in 2014, when they asked me to write them something for an awareness-raising event they were holding in June that year.

After talking to the charity, and finding out some key stories about people they’d encountered, I decided to use two common trafficking experiences and create two monologues inspired by them, and those monologues were performed as part of the event. Prior to my research, I didn’t really know much about modern day slavery, but after my research I was outraged and wanted more people to know about human trafficking in the UK today. After talking to Jude Spooner, of Rah Rah Theatre Company, who had been in the audience for the charity event, we decided that we’d like to work together, she would produce a full-length version of the new trafficking stories I would write, and we would apply for Arts Council England funding to tour the show. After hours completing the application form, we were successful, so long as we raise a certain amount ourselves, which we are still working on (please see our fundraising page, if you can help with any amount, large or small).

As well as MAT, I spoke to two other charities dealing with human trafficking, ECPAT UK (a charity which deals with trafficked children), and Blythswood Care, to find out what were the issues that most concerned them. I also researched online and continue to do so, reading more and more stories about migrants drowning in the sea and the unhelpful to unhumanitarian response of the countries they are heading for. Although many of these migrants have initially paid smugglers to bring them over, many of them find themselves falling victim to traffickers along the way. These stories are heart breaking and there are enough for two plays – but I have focussed in on five characters who will tell their stories, or have their stories told for them, in a series of interlinked short plays.

But how to make a play that is entertaining, and moving, that also gives a lot of information, without seeming overly didactic? After identifying the stories and fictionalising them, that is the next challenge. The story will be continued in another post…

Follow the play on Twitter: @MindFreeThePlay
And on Facebook: MMIFThePlay

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Margins to Mainstream: Black Theatre in Britain

Margins to mainstream coverTalk: Margins to Mainstream (part of Arts and Existence series at the V&A) on Thursday 14th May 2015, in the Clore Study Room. Review by Joanna Lally. 

Tucked away in an obscure corner of the Victoria and Albert Museum, last Thursday the Clore Study Room lent itself to an invigorating, and emotionally charged talk on black theatre history in Britain. Led by writer and director Olusola Oyeleye (check out 17Percent’s interview with Sola), and curator of Unfinished Histories Ltd, Dr Susan Croft, the afternoon included a screening of Nu Century Arts’ film production Margins to Mainstream: The Story of Black Theatre in Britain, which charts black theatre history from the 18th and 19th centuries onwards – hidden or not heard about except by a few – alongside interviews with leading figures in contemporary black theatre such as playwright Don Kinch. The screening was then followed by group discussion on related questions and topics regarding some of the current trends that artists are experiencing now, such as a continued sense of marginalisation, the strive towards greater multiplicity in theatre and other art forms, and an on-going struggle to be heard. One point made in the film was the need to break away from the ‘illusion of inclusion,’ and this statement certainly resonated throughout the room. At the same time it gave way to a shared celebration of the achievements of several individuals present (many of them women), each of whom spoke with passion about experiences of telling their story from the margins, and an encouraging reminder not to sell ourselves short but support one another as we try to dissolve some of the historical and social barriers in place.

An important part of this mission is to retrieve other histories that have escaped cultural consciousness. Dr Croft’s project Unfinished Histories documents ‘Alternative Theatre,’ from 1968-88, and evolved from an oral history project that was then made available online, mediated to new audiences, instead of being lost forever to the archives. It includes material on a number of marginal theatres in Britain during that period, including Black, Asian, lesbian, gay and women’s, and disabled groups. Find out more here.

See a trailer for Margins to Mainstream here.

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Bridging the gap between art and life: The Lonely Soldier Monologues

Photo from The Lonely Soldier Monologues

Photo from The Lonely Soldier Monologues

The Lonely Soldier Monologues by Helen Benedict. Review by Hannah Roe.

Military servicemen and women are celebrated the world over for their bravery and fortitude in the face of mortal danger. We thank them at least once a year for giving their todays for the sake of our tomorrows, and rightly so we should. But The Lonely Soldier Monologues, which dramatises the real words and experiences of seven female Iraq War veterans, encourages us to challenge something rarely included in that discourse: Who are they really fighting? Who is the real enemy?

When I interviewed Helen Benedict for 17Percent back in February, she told me of the atrocities that befall female soldiers during their deployments: 99% of women in the US military are harassed by their male comrades, with 1 in 3 of those cases escalating into sexual assault. The Lonely Soldier Monologues puts those statistics into perspective, turning voiceless numbers on a database into the candid, unembellished testimonies of those who survived such treatment.

This verbatim play was borne out of interviews conducted by Helen Benedict originally as research for her book, The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. It documents seven true-to-life accounts of what being in the military is like when you’re female, and how the men never let you forget it. The seven interweaving monologues (performed by Kathryn Gardner, Stephanie James, Rachel Handshaw, Leonor Lemeé, Jen Painter, Sharlit Deyzac and Tamina Davar) all begin before the women enlisted, explaining how they were each wooed into the military with promises of financial gain and the freedom to travel – a welcome contrast to their largely dysfunctional familial lives.

But then the women arrive in Iraq and their reality is somewhat different. Whether they’re washing someone else’s blood off their hands, or being expected to run over the defenceless children flanking their vehicles or being forced into sex acts by the men in their own team, the women soon start to question their role in this violent war; a war where they don’t wholly understand what they’re fighting for. Their feelings of displacement become all the more raw as they embark on their difficult return to civilian life. Many are haunted by the mistreatment they received and all suffer from some form of PTSD. We are reminded that ‘the war isn’t over when you come home’ and the women must armour-up for a new kind of battle.

The production itself is well-imagined and aesthetically powerful, despite not always being as dynamic as it could be.The use of lighting and sound (designed by Gareth Prentice and James Bell) helps counteract this to an extent by disrupting the pace, but the lapses in action could be remedied further by honing in on delivery. Monologues are incredibly exposing for any actor and the ultimate success of them depends on the actor’s engagement with the audience and their storytelling ability; their challenge is making their character’s stream of consciousness something we want to listen to. Rachel Handshaw as Sergeant Terris Dewault-Johnson does this incredibly well; her performance is strong and full of conviction throughout, and Sharlit Deyzac also deserves a mention for her considered portrayal of Specialist Sylvia Gonzalez. But in comparison, the other actors didn’t quite make that impact.

I also think the play would benefit from losing the interval. The final act contains the play’s strongest moments (‘I participated in a genocide’) and the tension that precedes it would be all the more palpable if our journey towards the climax was uninterrupted. The use of an eighth, voiceless soldier (played by Olivia Onyehara) is an affecting device but I would argue that this role could be fulfilled by one of the other characters, made voiceless by the horrors she’s endured.

Verbatim theatre really does bridge the gap between art and life, which makes it tricky to critique in some ways because we are being shown the lives of real people here; real women who were promised the world but were left with so little. The stakes could not be higher. Ultimately, the production succeeds as a piece of documentary theatre and certainly incites discussion. And with some additional attention to detail, it could pack an even bigger punch.

PMJ Productions is presenting The Lonely Soldier Monologues at the Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone, until May 31st 2015. The show is supporting the Military Justice campaign instigated by human rights organisation, Liberty. You can purchase tickets for the remainder of its run here.

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Miss Julie is the debut production from The Bread and Roses Theatre Company

Miss Julie photo by Tessa Hart

Miss Julie photo by Tessa Hart

Miss Julie, by August Strindberg, adapted by Tessa Hart. Review by Joanna Lally.  

The life of Miss Julie, the play and central character, casts its politics in various places. The sexual relations between Miss Julie and her father’s servant John reflect a class struggle that has refused, over more than a century, to die out.

In the past few years we have seen her in Patrick Marber’s reworking, After Miss Julie (revived at the Young Vic in 2012), set in an English country house amid the landslide Labour election in 1945, and again in Yael Farber’s brilliant adaptation Mies Julie, in which Farber interprets the action through the lens of post-apartheid South Africa. And now, in May 2015, as election fever hits most theatre venues across Britain, it is this modern classic by August Strindberg, redressed for contemporary audiences, which forms the first in-house production of The Bread and Roses Theatre in Clapham. Launched in November 2014, here is a wonderful new venture and addition to London’s pub theatre circuit: led by Artistic Director Tessa Hart, this kind of venue proves what can be accomplished in the city’s smaller performance spaces, and in defiance of contested arts funding. Hart also adapts and directs this production of Miss Julie for The Bread and Roses Theatre Company’s debut.

The timing is apt: Strindberg’s tragedy has always posed difficult questions and ideas about freedom – from class, gender, social convention and even family history – but also nudges audiences to consider the possibility of coalition: who out of these characters can work together in order to create a believable future? Hart’s adaptation, like those of her predecessors, removes the action from its original location – the kitchen of a Swedish Count’s country house in the late-1800s – but it is uncertain exactly where it now lands. It is apparently the present day, as indicated by the travel magazines that John peruses, yet the sparse domestic space of the stage feels dated against other contemporary trappings. The household, however, is still governed by Julie’s aristocratic father and it is still Midsummer’s Eve, as in Strindberg’s play. The visual minimalism, and intimacy of The Bread and Roses, allows for a closer study of the characters of Julie (Rebecca Pryle) and John (Adam Alexander). The risks implicated for them both are strongly conveyed in Pryle and Alexander’s performances. Pryle, in particular, lends feminine authority to Julie; she appears to be in control until perhaps the final moments of the play, where not only John, but also her situation, serves to overtake her. Hart notes in the programme that Miss Julie often invites a problematic approach through its misogynistic outlook. This is not helped by Strindberg’s note in the 1888 preface, in which he describes his heroine as a ‘man-hating half-woman […] a stunted form of human being.’ Nevertheless Strindberg was, as he argued was the purpose of theatre, reflecting the thoughts and ideas of his time. Against a backdrop of prejudice he at least allows Miss Julie to speak out against her poor influences, as he refers to them, and this opportunity for autonomy is worth greater exploration.

One of the key motifs in this production is a clever refrain of the Beatles’ song ‘Blackbird’. The tune is introduced by Christine (Grace Dunne), the kitchen cook, and the third party to her fiancé John’s transgressions with their mistress. Like the blackbird, her song perhaps flies highest of all three, and in this version of the play, it feels as if it is this character of a hard-working woman who suffers most of all as a result of John and Julie’s irresponsibility. Dunne’s performance appropriately soars in response before she exits for church, leaving them to their selfish actions. Whereas Strindberg’s text provides the painfully definite consequences of Miss Julie’s misbehaviour, Hart instead answers with a more ambiguous set of options for Julie and John at the end of the play.

Miss Julie runs until 16th May 2015 at The Bread and Roses Theatre, Manor Street, Clapham. More information and ticket bookings can be found here

Posted in Clapham, female director, female led theatre company, Miss Julie, Review | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment