Monday, 30 January 2012

"All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me..."

Hello everyone, I'm Samantha Ellis, and I'm very proud to be part of the first Agent 160 show. When I was trying to think of something to write for this blog, I thought I'd write about our inspiration Aphra Behn.

Virginia Woolf said “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn...for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”. And so I went to Westminster Abbey.

But the Abbey information lady had no idea who she was. “Could you spell that please?” she asked. And “Who was he?” But when we found her, she got excited: “She was a spy!” Agent 160 was her spy name, in fact. But she wasn't listed as a writer. Which was odd. And she's not in Poets' Corner (why not?) but in the Cloister. And the inscription on her grave—"Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be / Defence enough againft Mortality"—seems a bit harsh. But her works do live on.

We don’t know much about her. Maybe spying made her secretive; maybe she liked inhabiting other roles, speaking other voices. She called herself a "playwright of many voices" and was evidently an inventive self-fashioner—and a dedicated libertine. Woolf called “shady and amorous”. Born in Kent in 1640, possibly a barber’s daughter, possibly a Catholic, she married at 24, but two years later she was single and spying for Charles II in Europe and in Surinam, where she met the African slave who inspired her great anti-slavery novel Oroonoko. Charles II didn't pay his spies promptly, and after she found herself in jail for debt, she gave up espionage and took up her pen, first as a hack and then in the theatre. Her first play, The Forc’d Marriage, was produced in 1671, when she was 31. Ten years later Nell Gwyn starred in her hit, The Rover. She died in 1689.
In a preface she wrote to The Lucky Chance, she wrote:

Had the Plays I have writ come forth under any Man's Name, and never known to have been mine; I appeal to all unbyast Judges of Sense, if they had not said that Person had made as many good Comedies, as any one Man that has writ in our Age; but a Devil on't the Woman damns the poet.... All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in... If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom...I lay down my Quill.”
That was in 1686. According to Sphinx Theatre Company, three hundred years later, only 17 per cent of plays produced in the UK are by women. Which is why Agent 160’s so necessary.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Why Do We Need Agent 160?

Playwright Vittoria Cafolla writes:
Why do we need Agent 160? I'll tell you why.

A wee while ago I was at a networking event. I'm not very good at networking. The last one I was at, I think I convinced a major producer that the piece of work he'd just directed was a fluke. So I know that I don't always come across as very confident.

But this time, I was armed with my one remaining Agent 160 business card and, I convinced myself, that this wasn't just an opportunity for me, but for the company.

Who to choose?

A scan of the room and I knew I should probably approach a man from one of the best known theatres, the one with an illustrious history. There was a writer talking to him, so I waited behind him. I lent the writer a pen, and he wrote on the copy of the script he was giving the theatre producer. The writer did most of the talking.

Anyhow, a few minutes later, this producer turns to me. I introduce myself, the card concealed in my other hand.

He asks me what I do, and I tell him I write plays. And that I'm interested in sending one to him: and before I can explain that I'd also like to tell him about Agent 160, he tells me that they receive hundreds of plays a year; that if I'm serious about writing, I can't just send in the first draft. It has to be a fifth, sixth, seventh draft.

I wonder if he asked what draft number the man in front was handing him.

He continues and I bite my tongue. I am not an established writer, but I would NEVER ever send a first draft out. Even if asked for a first draft, the work I hand over has been rewritten, read by someone else. Anyhow, he's trying to be helpful, so he tells me to invite some actors round and have them read the play, so I can hear how it sounds. Good advice, but....

Eventually, I tell him thank you, he tells me his email is on the website. What, the email that you just bothered to give to the man before me in the queue?

And then I tell him about Agent 160.

I suddenly feel bad. I think he's uncomfortable, but I don't know why.

I explain that we hopefully will be showing some of the plays in Belfast, and if we get the funding, we are trying to organise a panel discussing women writers in Irish theatre. Would he be interested in taking part?

I swear he's scared. Now I feel really bad, that I'm ambushing him, and that somehow - in the course of five minutes, I've been deceitful.

Is it that he's just given me a spiel, and I now have revealed myself to be more accomplished than he assumed?

He hurries to tells me about all the female playwrights that the theatre has produced recently. It's not his thing (!), this panel, but it's a cause very close to the AD's heart. She might be interested in the panel. He takes the business card, shoves it in his top pocket and can't seem to end the conversation fast enough.

I still feel odd about the exchange, and puzzled by his response to the very simple question about women writers in theatre. It felt like I'd thrown a political gauntlet at him. Why on earth should it be a contentious question?

Anyway, I go home, play with the baby, and feel a headache coming on. I go to bed, in bad twist. At 2am, I wake up, raging.

Why would his whole attitude change from professional towards the person in front of me to what seemed like patronage in my case? Admittedly, had I never submitted anything, anywhere, all his advice would have been incredibly useful.  He didn't intend to be patronising. He seemed like an amiable sort. Was it because I was wasn't confident enough? He didn't really give me a chance to explain what I'd done as a playwright before telling me how I should go about submitting a play. Was it because I'm a woman? I don't know. And to get into a whole other can of worms, was it because people (particularly men) think that when I say I've had a play on, I must be an actress?

Stop pigeonholing us. Stop assuming that I would even consider not taking playwriting seriously. Do you ask this of the others who approach you?

I worked out why I thought he felt ambushed. Because by the end of the conversation, he realised he'd read me all wrong. He'd fallen into the trap we are trying to address.

This is why I'm glad to be a part of Agent 160. This is why Agent 160 exists.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Branwen Davies' Radio Interview

Playwright Branwen Davies' radio interview on Stiwdio, Radio Cymru, is now available on BBC iplayer (15 minutes, 13 seconds in):

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Playwright Branwen Davies:
I brofi nad yda ni'n cael ein llethu gan iaith o fewn y cwmni ac bod ganddo ni'r rhwydd hynt i ysgrifennu yn y Gymraeg dyma flog cyntaf Cymraeg y cwmni yr holl ffordd o Aberystwyth!

Rydw i newydd recordio pwt o gyfweliad radio ar gyfer rhaglen BBC Cymru Stiwdio yn son dipyn am gefndir y cwmni a pha mor bwysig ydy hi i greu gwaith a chynhyrchu gwaith.Mae dramau angen cael eu perfformio a'u rhannu nid sefyll yn segur yn hel llwch. Mi fydd yn cael ei ddarlledu nos Iau, Ionawr 26ain rhwng 6.03pm a 6.30pm a bydd modd ailwrando ar y BBC i-player.

Ar ol clywed y stategaeth mai ond 17% o ddramau gan ferched oedd wedi cael eu cynhyrchu ym Mhrydain yn 2010 mi wnes i ddechrau meddwl am y sefyllfa yn y Gymraeg yng Nghymru. Pan mae rhywun yn mynd i enwi dramodwyr mae enwau megis Meic Povey, Aled Jones Williams a Dafydd James yn eithaf amlwg. Rydw i'n hoff o'u gwaith ond hefyd yn hoff o amrywiaeth. Pwy ydy'r merched sydd yn ysgrifennu? Mae nhw'n bodoli ond efallai ddim mor amlwg. Pam? Mae angen clywed a gweld mwy o'u gwaith ac yn gyson.

Rydw i'n edrych ymlaen i weld drama ddiweddaraf Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru ar y cyd a Sherman Cymru a Galeri sef 'Sgint' gan Bethan Marlow. Mae Bethan yn ddramodwraig sydd yn ysgrifennu yn ffraeth a gafaelgar gyda chalon, emosiwn a hiwmor. Mae hi'n gyfnod cyffroes yn fy marn i ym myd drama yng Nghymru hefo Cyfarwyddwr Artistig newydd yn Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru a Chyfarwyddwr Cyswllt newydd yn Sherman Cymru. Mae'n gyfnod newydd ac yn gyfle i greu gwaith amrywiol a heriol a'i rannu a chynulleidfa amgenach na chynulleidfaeodd Cymru yn unig. Mae Agent 160 yn galluogi dramodwyr Cymru i rannu eu gwaith hefo cynulleidfaeodd yn Lloegr ac yr Alban ac mae hyn yn gam positif yn fy marn i er mwyn creu argraff a chodi proffil theatr a dramodwyr Cymru.

Rydw i'n mwynhau ysgrifennu yn y Gymraeg a'r Saesneg ac yn falch o'r rhyddid o symud o un iaith i'r llall. Roedd gen i ddiddordeb arbrofi gyda ysgrifennu drama ddwy ieuthog gan fy mod i'n ymwybodol fod fy steil o ysgrifennu yn amrywio cymaint yn dibynnu ar pa iaith rydw i'n ei ddefnyddio. Mae fy nramau Saesneg yn tueddu i fod yn afreal, symbolaidd a thywyll a fy nramau Cymraeg llawer mwy blodeuog eu hiaith a'u harddull. Mae fy nrama 'Genki' a fydd yn cael ei berfformio yn 'Agent 160 presents Agent 160' yn ddrama dair ieuthog! Rydw i wedi cyfuno Cymraeg, Saesneg a tipyn o Siapanaeg ynddi. Drama ydy hi wedi ei hysbrydoli o ddychwelyd i Gymru ar ol cyfnod yn byw yn Siapan a ceisio dod o hyd i fy nhraed unwaith yn rhagor ar ol antur a byw bywyd mewn rhyw fath o freuddwyd neu ffantasi lle roedd rhywbeth yn rhyfeddu a synnu rhywun yn ddyddiol.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Q and A with Agent 160 Writer Sam Burns

As Agent 160 Presents Agent 160 draws ever closer, we'll be posting interviews with some of our writers. First up - Sam Burns...

I'm Sam Burns and my piece Amnesty is appearing in Agent 160 Presents Agent 160.

What have you seen recently that's inspired you?

I’m rather rural at the moment, so I read more plays than I see, but I did catch a rather splendid am-dram production of Top Girls towards the end of last year. That’s a play that took me several attempts to read, ‘cause the overlapping dialogue gave me brain-freeze – works a lot better on the stage.

What is your play about?

It’s a monologue: it’s about a girl who’s planning to give up her knife in an amnesty.

Whose work inspires you?

My favourite playwright’s Arthur Miller, probably. Or some Restoration bod. But I’m currently reading my way through various names I’ve never had the chance to see: Jez Butterworth, Lucy Prebble, Mike Bartlett. It’s all very instructive. (I don’t mean to make them sound like theoretical physicists.) I find other media triggers my writing more than the stage though, oddly – a poetry reading by Paul Henry or Catherine Fisher always has me wishing I’d brought a pen and paper. (I don’t mean to make me sound like a plagiarist.)

What are you most looking forward to as part of the process?

It’s all so new to me (this’ll be my second production, after my piece in Sixty-Six Books) that I have really no idea! It’s all an adventure.

How have you found the writing process so far?

Been a while since I tackled a monologue and I did rather enjoy it. It started life as a duologue, which really didn’t work: there was a very clear protagonist and then a character who seemed to be hanging around awkwardly on the fringes, like me at a party. So I excised the second character and things fell together a little more. I hope.

What excites you about Agent 160?

It puts the writer at the forefront of the process, and I don’t think there’s anything very like it knocking about the place at the moment. And I’m excited about anything that endeavours to rectify that ghastly 17 per cent statistic (just 17 per cent of produced work in the UK is written by women).

What do you want an audience to take away having seen your play?

I’m very Barthesian about this – basically I think it’s entirely up to them. I hope I’m not didactic: about the last thing I’d want anyone to come away feeling is ‘Well, that’s taught me a lesson’.

What else are you currently working on?

I’m back to writing plays on spec at the moment - one never-ending redraft, a new full-length play and the odd short piece here and there. Also tentatively looking into finding a new job – preferably one that’ll leave me some time to write, and that doesn’t involve telephones.