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.