We spoke to theatre director Lucy Kerbel about her brilliant new book 100 Great Plays for Women.
Women buy the majority of theatre tickets, make up half the acting profession, and are often the largest cohort of any youth theatre or drama club – yet they have traditionally been underrepresented on stage. 100 Great Plays for Women seeks to address this gap by celebrating the wealth of drama available for women to perform.
Lucy is the Director of Tonic Theatre – created in 2011 as a way of supporting greater gender equality within the theatre industry. 100 Great Plays for Women is an absolutely fantastic, and sadly necessary, read for anyone interested in theatre and performance. Lucy’s list includes classics such as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler as well as some masterpieces from the likes of Sarah Kane, Tracy Letts and April De Angelis.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what got you into theatre.
I went to the Brit School in Croydon when I was 16, which was a really amazing experience. It meant that I was able to work on theatre productions rather than just studying drama from an academic perspective. I did a vocational course in stage management, technical theatre, and set and costume. I thought I wanted to be a costume designer, but that was because I loved art and drama and that was the only way I could see the two connecting. I didn’t really realise there was such a thing as ‘directing’. I then went to Royal Holloway where I got a degree in Drama and Theatre Studies – I also got a First! I went to university as an opportunity to be close to London I was able to do some directing so when I finished my degree I had some directing experience under my belt.
When did you notice a gender inequality in the theatre industry?
I think I’ve always been a little aware. I remember being back in primary school and I got really cross at the Christmas show because there was only one role for girls and all the other roles were for boys. I remember complaining to the teachers, telling them it wasn’t fair. With the industry, I’d look at who was on stage, who was directing at the big theatres, whose plays were being performed. Coming out of university I was aware of it but I was reconciled to it at the same time. I found it disappointing, but I thought that’s just how it was. I didn’t really think about changing it or whether there was any space to change it. At the time, when I was 21, I just assumed that the problems would be sorted out. But, ten years down the line the problems still exist so there needs to be some sort of intervention. A catalyst. There is progress happening, but it’s happening at an incredibly slow pace.
How did you begin the research for the book?
There wasn’t really any structure. I point out in the introduction of the book that it’s certainly not a definitive work. The plays I’ve included are 100 plays that I really like and they encompass a range of genres and periods. I set myself a task: if I find a play that has more women in it than men then I have to read it. I looked all over the place. I started the research in the National Theatre’s script library, where there are walls and walls of plays! I used libraries in drama schools and universities. I spoke to a load of directors and literary managers and actors and writers, explaining what the project was and they were eager to help. I was based in New York for a while too, so I went to the New York Performing Arts Library, which brought up a few US plays from writers that we don’t really know about here in the UK.
Was there a definitive moment when you realised this book needed to be written?
The idea to make it into a book was made by Purni Morell, who used to run the National Theatre Studios and is now Artistic Director of the Unicorn Theatre – she was head of the NT studio when I approached them about ideas for mainly female casts. I thought we would create an online database or maybe a list that we’d give out to theatres. The idea came about mainly for Youth Theatres and drama teachers in schools. These places tend to be very female heavy in terms of participation and there’s a lack of awareness for suitable plays to perform and study. I like the idea of the permanence of a book and making it accessible for more people. It soon became clear that there’s loads of material out there and a simple list wouldn’t do.
What do you think the issue is in regards to plays with female casts not getting performed?
I think it’s a range of things. The canon of work we currently have is very male-based. It’s very white and middle class. We have a situation at the moment where if you look at what we as a society consider ‘great art’ – the works in our big institutions like the National Gallery, National Theatre or the Royal Opera House – more often than not, the people getting their work displayed are white, able-bodied, middle-class men. The majority of people in this country do not fit that profile yet we have this perception of what ‘greatness’ is. It’s starting to break down, but it’s taking the Arts time to catch up. I think it’s partly about our canon, the plays we study at school, the plays we’re encouraged to see at school or perform at school. Also, there has traditionally been nervousness about putting women’s stories on show. There’s a fear that they won’t sell tickets but I hope this is changing. I think that TV drama is leading the way particularly in the last couple of years. There has been an explosion of high-quality dramas that put female stories centre stage – whether that’s The Killing, The Hour, Homeland, Silk, even Scott & Bailey. These are shows that are very popular with huge ratings. I just hope Theatre can catch up.
Interestingly, we did a platform at the National Theatre last week for the book that completely sold out. So for me, that was important because it shows that there is definitely an audience out there for work about women.
What do you think the next step would be for achieving gender equality, particularly in relation to youth theatre?
I think there’s a real need for there to be an equal level of opportunity. Tonic Theatre did a huge research project on it last year. We found that a lot of boys participating in youth theatre are afraid of bullying – schools aren’t always supportive of boys doing performing arts. This is such a shame, as a lot of talented boys are not feeling able to take part. There’s a real responsibility on behalf on Youth Theatre to ensure that girls are given just as much opportunity and it’s not taken for granted that girls will just cheerfully get on with things. When I was doing the research we did focus groups with sets of boys and sets of girls. I asked the boys what would happen if they wouldn’t get a part they wanted and they were really proactive about it. If they didn’t get the role they would ask the director why they were unsuccessful or even leave the company! It was as if there was a sense of entitlement. I’d ask the girls the same question and what was interesting was that girls would all agree and say, ‘You have to be grateful, even if you’ve only got one line’. There was such a marked difference between expectations of what they deserved and what they’re entitled to. The girls felt entitled to pick the crumbs up on the floor. There’s a real disparity there. It’s a cause for concern for all young people, not just for those who want a career in the Performing Arts. It may play a part in other areas of life, be it in a job interview or in a relationship. If you’re expecting a lot and you feel you deserve a lot then it affects your thought process.
What advice would you give to our young people about getting into the industry?
Try to find your own route through. There will be a lot of people trying to change your mind about the type of work you should be doing. But if there’s work that you want to make then you should make it. If you want to work somewhere, then work there. It’s finding your own structures and pathways. In many respects, like the rest of society, we’re on the cusp of real change. The way we’ve been working perhaps won’t be that way for much longer. There’s real space for pioneers. If you got good ideas about how you want to make your work, go ahead and do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that there’s only one way of doing things.
And finally, what’s your favourite musical?
We want to say a huge thank you to Lucy for talking with us and we wish her the best of luck with her brilliant book!
100 Great Plays for Women is published by Nick Hern Books and available to buy now! For a limited time YMTers can get 25% off their purchase when using the voucher code ‘YMT25%OFFER’ in the checkout box. Offer is valid until 31 December, 2013. Go to www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/100-great-plays-for-women