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.