Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Rep 100 Weekender: Women in Theatre Conference

Women Writers, Actors, Directors, Producers

Station Street in Birmingham is home to the Old Rep Theatre and its neighbour, the equally venerable Electric Cinema. On the corner, the Crown pub once had its walls and windows a-shaking to the young Ozzy Osbourne playing his first gigs. The southern side of the street is currently dwarfed by the cranes and concrete of the vast building project that is the station's redevelopment. Nonetheless, the Rep is maintaining its role as an artistic fulcrum some measure beyond its relatively compact size.

This winter has seen a series of events in celebration of the theatre's centenary. In 1903 the company was inaugurated with a production of W B Yeats' “the King's Threshold.” High up backstage the original office is holding an exhibition that traces the timeline of the last hundred years. It is a work of art in itself. In place of the standard panels and graphics of corporate communication, it has all been hand-written by volunteers in chalk on blackboards. It is all portable and hopefully may find a future home. The roll call of names awes; from Shaw, Ffrangcon-Davies, Gielgud, Leighton, and Granger through Christie and Schofield, to Suzman, Callow, Rickman and Gambon. The young Peter Brook started his career here in 1945.

The auditorium is housing a two-day conference event. The first day traces the powerhouse of the artistic heritage. Attendance is depleted due to out-of-season snow and blizzard. For the second day conditions have stabilised with a temperature that sticks at minus two. The title for the day is “Drama Queens”, not entirely appropriate for the engagement, pragmatism, insight and humour from the fifteen women from across theatre, who make up the day’s various panels.

Birmingham is an appropriate host. In 1952 it was the first theatre to appoint a woman to the most senior leadership post. Not untypically Nancy Burman took the unassuming title of Administrator but she was the forerunner of today's Executive Producer. Titles matter. Vikki Heywood recounts that a job she took on had had the title of Managing Director. On her arrival it had changed to Executive Director, a title that conveyed no meaning of any kind to heavy hitters in the private sector who might be the theatre’s potential supporters and sponsors. Likewise she refuses the title of Chair.

Every career has its own unique story. One artistic director was judged at school to be possessed of leadership qualities. To a hippie-tinged seventies mother this was not a good thing at all. Gwenda Hughes scraped into a first job as a stage manager for which she had small qualification or competence. It was an environment where male hands had a habit of roaming without inhibition. She learned later that she had been selected because “the company felt it would be nice to have a pretty girl around the place.” The Chairman takes the later director of his theatre to one side with the words: “If you are going to attend board meetings would you please buy a dress.”

The tone from Kate Organ is that there is much to celebrate, and much still to fight for. Theatre's rehearsing schedules and childcare are inimical. By coincidence, a Sunday newspaper has a double page spread on the leaders of the arts in Britain. It has a smell of cut-and-paste to it. Perhaps Bush to Donmar is not the biggest job in the arts. But a move from a national company to the Royal Court is a role that matters. The Chairman of the National Theatre of Scotland is in; no journalistic appreciation that just maybe Vicky Featherstone has had rather more to do with that company’s rise to pre-eminence. But the mood is upbeat. A voice from the floor, in the form of Birmingham's dramatic eminence grise, says there is strong cause for optimism. The Birmingham Rep, says David Edgar, is not alone in having two women artistic directors in a row.

Claire Cochrane, tirelessly chairing for much of the day, says that the Rep has always presented work from women writers, from Lady Gregory through to Rosemary Anne Sisson and Ann Jellicoe. But over the first seventy years, the number could be counted on less than two hands. It changed dramatically with the opening of the studio in the theatre’s second home in 1972. The Door has a record without rival for giving opportunity to artists from South Asian and Afro-Caribbean.

Gurpreet Bhatti is one such beneficiary from as non-traditional theatre background as might be. Childhood was a three-bedroom home with thirteen residents, with a family of such complicatedness that a birth, marriage or funeral would occur somewhere every week. But even with a track record across television, radio, and theatre in Britain and Europe Bhatti is blunt: “This is a messy business. It's not for everyone. We will experience rejection, humiliation, at any time. It costs when you create something.”

A conference may come to conclusions and resolutions, but their real value is as a seam of enlivening information and knowledge en route. There is a spontaneity in dialogue in a way that makes the conference indispensable. Janet Suzman recalls the circumstances that surrounded the making of “Othello” in South Africa with John Kani in the lead. She also disputes vigorously the issue of the accuracy of Shakespearean scholarship. Lorna Laidlaw recalls some of the many roles she has played. Rita being educated is no surprise but she has also done Macduff in her time.

Kate Horton, now the National Theatre's Deputy Executive Producer, is candid on apparently daunting challenges, like of getting “Jerusalem” onto Broadway. Her recently ended tenure at the Royal Court has been a much-praised period, whose accomplishments included a string of new generation women playwrights. Rachel De-lahay, author of “the West Bridge” and now under commission for Film 4, Radio 4 and a string of others, recalls her time with the Royal Court's development programme. The most important dramaturgical aspect, she says, was the end date and the expectation that a full-length play would be delivered. She is frank on her first work's quality, particularly consistency, but doing it is what matters. Scenelets and one-acters do not make a writer.

Television gets its odd mention or two. Meera Syal says that a work like “My Sister Wife” of 1994 simply would not be made now. No ifs or buts, that time has gone. Press overkill is not particularly good for anyone, nor for theatre as a whole. “So much fuss about the first play” says Gupreet Bhatti “What about the fifth, or the sixth?” A sharp humour is prevalent. Of a director at the very peak of his career a voice dryly adds “Ah, yes, is that the Nick who has yet to direct a play by a woman?”

Elizabeth Freestone, now Pentabus Artistic Director and director of Tim Price's “For Once”, has done some intriguing numbers. Fifteen percent of Shakespeare is written for women, but a good proportion of the parts- doctors, advisers and the rest- is not gender-dependent for the drama to work. Count in those parts that could be boldly cast for women and the percentage rises to forty-four percent.

The panellists cover decades, four or five, in age and experience. Bryony Lavery is author of one of the Rep's most searing commissions of recent times. After “Frozen” came the utterly different “Kursk”. Her account of that production's genesis is fascinating. Approached to fill the rarely titled role of “external stimulus” for the company Sound and Fury, the production started with a week's exploration at John Osborne's former home The Hurst. Elements included the marking out of a submarine's interior with the use of string. As testament to what it takes to create something new the making of “Kursk” took over two years.

The writers are asked how and where it all started and, of course, every story is its own. Bryony Lavery: “I write about what terrifies me. It's better to see things worked out on stage rather than in my head.” For others a parent who is obsessed with education can turn out to be no bad thing, a teacher who inspires helps, even if parting words to a young Bryony Lavery were “you'd better go into theatre because you're hopeless at real life.”

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
25 March 2013

 

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