Saturday, 26 May 2012

Writing anything we want

Hello everyone, it's Samantha Ellis here again, and this is about an event I did last week about women in theatre.

It was organised by The W Project, set up by Teo Connor and Loren Platt to celebrate and empower women in the creative industries—their wonderful blog is full of inspirational women. It was a post show event for Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Hairy Ape at the Southwark Playhouse, and director Kate Budgen, filmmaker Elisha Smith-Leverock (who made the play’s excellent trailer) and I began by telling our stories of becoming and being women artists.

A couple of themes kept recurring. One was confidence, and whether women might be held back because (generalising wildly here) men tend to be more confident. I definitely have to steel myself to speak in workshops or rehearsals, to ask for what I want, to think of myself unapologetically as an artist, and (worst of all) to pitch. That’s one of the reasons I love being a founder member of Agent 160, where one of our core aims is to be mutually supportive, and where I feel part of a creative community.

We also talked about what women make art about—whether we are encouraged to make work from our own experience while men can write from outside theirs, whether our work is seen as marginal and subjective while men’s is universal and objective. The very first play I (co-)wrote, in a freshers’ festival at university, came about because two men said they needed a woman to “write the girls”. I owe them a massive debt for introducing me to theatre (if they hadn’t, I’d still be trying and failing to be Sylvia Plath) but I also wish I’d said “yes, but let’s all write all the characters".

Since then, my characters have included: a tree-sitter, thenovelist Joseph Roth, a fashion photographer puppet, an East Anglian wolf biologist, Gertrude Bell, a Plaistow boxer, a doubting rabbi, a Moldovan belly dancer, a grasping brothel madam, aninsomniac Shah.... I could go on. I have written about Iraqis, and Jews, and people with seizures, and women, and people who live in north London, and people who fancy the wrong kind of men, yes, so I have drawn on my own experience, but I poured just as much of myself into writing the insomniac Shah because that’s what writing is: an act of creative empathy.

When I told people I was doing an event on women and theatre after The Hairy Ape, they all asked why. The testosterone-fuelled play, with a mainly-male cast, and a key scene where they sweat it out in the hellish stokehole of a transatlantic liner, seemed an odd counterpart to an event about women. But as we sat on the stage and talked, it started to seem a really radical choice. If women can direct plays like this (and with the guts and energy Kate Budgen gave it) we must be getting somewhere.

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