Bristol, Bristol University, Elf Lyons, Epigram, Epigram Arts, feminism, Hannah-Marie Chidwick, Hecate Theatre Company, Kate Williams, minority representation, The birdcage, The Vagina Monlogues, Theatre
On what now seems like a date so very far in the past, the 26th March, I attended an event run by Hecate Theatre Company at the lovely Birdcage café and bar in Bristol. I deliberately left off writing about it because I left feeling unsure of my own reaction and imagined a little time to reflect would result in a more considered and concise response. The problem, as it always is when you try to force a pattern of thoughts, is that even after a good week and a half has eclipsed, I am still pondering what exactly my conclusions are.
This may well be a fine thing. After all, if a couple of hours in a nice bar with some well-dressed fellow feminists was all it took to sort out the related problems of what theatre for feminists is; why women are under-represented at all levels of the theatre industry and how we move forward from the Vagina Monologues, one would wonder why it hadn’t been done before. As it was, my general low-mood gripe was that the event raised far more questions than it answered or rather, made far more statements than suggestions.
This was, however, the first event of a proposed series and therefore perhaps correctly saved making any conclusions until a later date. It will be very interesting to see what these further events are like and, despite my confusion about this initial one, I will definitely aim to attend the others.
Inspired by a similar discussion held at Bristol University involving The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft on the ownership of public spaces, Curtains intended to ask what happens when the public space of the theatre is filled with female actors and when plays are specifically written for females to perform. The introduction by Hannah-Marie Chidwick, the artistic director and show producer of Hecate, in many ways promised great things for the panel discussion. Chidwick proposed that ‘feminist theatre’ did not have to be about what feminism means or what feminism is. It did not even have to be about situations and experiences unique only to women, for instance Having it All or The Menopause. Whilst actively trying to address the commonly-recited but not commonly-addressed issue of there ‘not being enough good roles for women out there’, feminist theatre did not have to conform to the now-stereotyped mold of the Vagina Monologues. In fact, out of the shows which Hecate had staged, the most successful had been the ones that addressed more universal themes than gender, either with new productions such as The Graveyard Slot which concerns itself more with treasure maps than tampons, or with re-encountering classic works which already incorporate complex and interesting female characters, such as those written by the ancient poet Ovid in Metamorphoses. Chidwick, it appeared, was proposing something very interesting – exploring the possibility of going ‘beyond gender’ as it were – and doing so from the elevated position of someone who has genuinely followed theory with practical measures and is therefore more qualified than most to talk about ‘where do we go from here?’.
Aside from a few interesting comments to the same end from performance poet Kate Williams, who explored how her own experience of performing and the reaction from the audience had been transformed once she stopped concentrating on ‘being a woman’, this type of developed commentary was sorely lacking from much of the rest of the night’s discussion. Too much time was instead given over to, effectively, preaching horror statistics to the converted. I do not want to belittle nasty statistics regarding the amount of females involved at all levels of theatre and performance – be it as actors, producers, comedians or playwrights – as I honestly believe them not only to be true but also to be awful and in need of changing. However, I probably take this view in part because I am the type of person who turns up to a feminist theatre event to not only attend, but also to write about it. Most of the audience, I would guess, would have been of a similar political and theoretical persuasion to myself and therefore did not need to be told – at times quite forcefully – that, essentially, sexism still exists. We know it does. That’s why we went.
Aside from suggesting that what would have been much more interesting was an extension of Chidwick’s introductory ideas, I would also have liked to have seen at least a concession to the idea that it is not just females who are dramatically under-represented across all level of theatre, but also non-white people of both genders, people with disabilities and, perhaps most importantly as a linking factor, people from lower incomes who do not attend the correct institutions which would enable them to do crucial ‘networking’ at an early stage of their careers. Without this more nuanced side to the argument, I felt I could not take seriously the discussion’s points on gender representation. At its heart, feminism is a facet of equality. We cannot fight for the representation of one minority without fighting for all of them.