As the 'Calm Down Dear' Festival Returns, who are British theatre's feminist heroes?

With women still under-represented across the industry, leading names nominate their feminist icons

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The Independent Culture

Feminism has a long history of reclaiming words and phrases – and surely none in recent years was more ripe for re-tooling than David Cameron’s patronising instruction to MP Angela Eagle to “Calm down, dear.”

Those three little words now also title a festival of feminist theatre, about to return for the second year at the Camden People’s Theatre in London. A jamboree that reflects – and reflects on – the resurgence of  debate over what feminism means, it’s a concentrated example of how our contemporary arts scene is happy to tackle the topic head-on.

But it’s worth noting that within the theatre scene itself, there is still much to be done when it comes to gender equality. Consider a 2012 study of the top 10 subsidised theatres, which found that a 2:1, male-to-female ratio remained within numerous fields, from playwriting to management.

No one making theatre wants to have their gender appended to their name: “female playwright” or “woman director” sound outmoded. Yet it is clear that women remain under-represented across the industry and as long as that is the case, we need to celebrate the work of those who, quite literally, run the show. With that in mind, we asked some of the leading women in British theatre to name their own feminist inspiration.

Josie Rourke Artistic director at the  Donmar Warehouse, nominates: Phyllida Lloyd (below)

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During 2001 I trained as the resident assistant director at the theatre I now run, the Donmar Warehouse. Towards the end of that year, I assisted Phyllida Lloyd. She was the first professional woman director I had ever seen at work, and one of a handful of women working at that level. The experiences of that year of assisting make up the mental reference book that I take into every rehearsal room. To access daring, experiment, calmness, deep-thinking, openness, generosity, Phyllida’s name is the index. In a working world where women are taught to prepare, prepare, prepare and fulfil expectation, Phyllida is the virtuoso of harnessing the moment, pursuing the unexpected and framing a story so that it – at long last – reflects women’s lives as they are actually lived.

Rourke directs ‘City of Angels’ at the Donmar Warehouse, 5 Dec to 7 Feb; donmarwarehouse.com

Erica Whyman , Deputy artistic director, RSC, Dame Maggie Smith (below)

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When I was about 17 I saw her in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series  in A Bed Among the Lentils, which was an astonishing piece of acting. She seems to be playing a woman who has surrendered her spirit to a pretty ghastly life married to a vicar who isn’t at all concerned about her. But what moved me is that amazing transformation she goes through and the way, in finding out who she is in the course of a love affair, she speaks absolutely directly to camera about how appallingly she’s been treated. It was so inspiring that I then performed in my own version of A Bed Among the Lentils in my first term of university. There’s something emblematic [in that role] about the way she is as an actress – which is that she’s unafraid of difficult subjects and has no unnecessary vanity: there’s a preparedness to tell the story of ordinary people. These days we’re so obsessed telling stories about youth and success and a kind of glamorous romance; she is an icon, because she reminds me that we should tell stories about all sorts of women.

Whyman is directing ‘The Christmas Truce’ at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre 19 Nov to 31 Jan; rsc.org.uk

Zinnie Harris Playwright, Caryl Churchill (below)

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As a playwright she is extraordinary. If you think over the body of her work, no two Caryl Churchill plays are the same. Not even similar. As a feminist she is unflinching and bold, using her theatrical inventiveness to uncover and expose truths – often painful ones. And as a woman, a mother and grandmother, who has risen to the very top of British theatre, she is an inspiration. She is like a great banner waving to the rest of us, saying don’t be lazy, keep pushing, never allow yourself to be sidelined, and let theatre take us to places we haven’t dreamed of yet.

Harris’s ‘How to Hold Your Breath’ is at the Royal Court, 4 Feb to 21 Mar; royalcourttheatre.com

Blanche McIntyre, Director, Katie Mitchell (below)

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Most young directors reach for her book these days but I went to see her Henry VI when I was 13 and it blew me away. It was incredibly immediate and exciting and intense – and in a small theatre,  which made its impact even more powerful. At that time, as one of four sisters, I didn’t see her gender as something important. I think there’s something inspiring about broad-ranging, brilliant work by women – it allows men and women to think outside gender boxes. But for that to happen you need women doing high-profile work that they’re passionate about, and Katie Mitchell did and still does exactly that.

McIntyre directs ‘Accolade’ at the St James Theatre, 12 Nov to 13 Dec; stjamestheatre.co.uk

Zinnie Harris, playwright, Caryl Churchill

As a playwright she is extraordinary. If you think over the body of her work, no two Caryl Churchill plays are the same. Not even similar. As a feminist she is unflinching and bold, using her theatrical inventiveness to uncover and expose truths – often painful ones. And as a woman, a mother and grandmother, who has risen to the very top of British theatre, she is an inspiration. She is like a great banner waving to the rest of us, saying don’t be lazy, keep pushing, never allow yourself to be sidelined, and let theatre take us to places we haven’t dreamed of yet.

Harris’s ‘How to Hold Your Breath’ is at the Royal Court, 4 Feb to 21 Mar; royalcourttheatre.com

Bryony Lavery, playwright

Monstrous Regiment

It has to be ‘A Company’….Monstrous Regiment…who initiated me (in no particular order) into women-led work, daring experiments, galvanising rage at the status quo, rewriting,  poorly-paid touring, how to charm barmen into serving drinks late at night in small towns, the use of protective gloves for loading/unloading vans, Jaeger knitwear,  hosting terrifying ghost story sessions in swirling mist in broken down vans, hunting down retro clothing bargains in charity shops, appearing in character in Bunhill Fields, Fortnum and Masons, that restaurant in Islington that nearly threw us out for appearing in character… and fun, friendship and (as a weedy wannabee) creative fearlessness.

Lavery’s ‘Treasure Island’ is at the National Theatre, 3 Dec to 19 Feb; nationaltheatre.org.uk

Indhu Rubasingham , Artistic director, Tricycle Theatre, Clare McIntyre (below)

 The first thing I ever directed, when I was a student at Hull University, was her play Low Level Panic. She was part of a new wave of female playwriting in the Eighties that was really questioning, and this play was about three young women sitting in a bathroom and discussing their complex relationships, their bodies and their sexual fantasies. It was very resonant to me – I had that feeling that someone was writing my voice – and it was what really hooked me into directing, so I feel that I owe a lot to her.

Rubasingham directs ‘The House That Will Not Stand’ at Tricycle, 9 Oct to 22 Dec; tricycle.co.uk

Diana Quick, Actress, Jane Howell, Helen Montagu (below) and Jocelyn Herbert

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I have to name all three of these women, who were instrumental in the Royal Court in the Sixties. I did two plays by Edward Bond there and I got to know the team very well. Jane was a director and a working-class girl who took no hostages but was completely democratic and very friendly to me. Helen was the general manager and she was absolutely unflappable and mother-hennish with a terrific sense of humour. And then Jocelyn was a much more patrician figure, a completely brilliant designer who was extremely chic. To find myself there with these three female figures who had prominent positions and were very inclusive was fantastically inspiring.

Quick stars in ‘Electra’ at the Old Vic, London 22 Sep to 20 Dec; oldvictheatre.com

Sarah Frankcom, artistic director Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Clare Venables

I grew up in Sheffield in the late 70s/early 80s, when Clare Venables was programming and directing in the newly opened Crucible Theatre. She was an exciting and very visible artistic director who believed passionately in creating an inclusive and welcoming building for everyone in the city and took amazing risks in her work. She placed a particular emphasis on engaging young people and enabled them to feel absolute ownership of the building.

It was this vision and practice that inspired me when the Royal Exchange Theatre reinvigorated its artistic aspirations recently. Most importantly, I knew that it was possible for a woman to run a building successfully. That made a massive difference.

Frankcom directs ‘Hamlet’, to 18 Oct; royalexchange.co.uk

Molly Davies , Playwright, Joan Littlewood

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Theatre Director Joan Littlewood

 

I was given a copy of Joan’s Book, her big and colourful autobiography, in my teens. She was a radical visionary, a romantic revolutionary, a formidable, ambitious woman far ahead of her time. I fell in love with the theatre she described. The collaboration. The improvisation. The excitement of last-minute rewrites during rehearsals. The close company of idiosyncratic performers that Joan called “more of an anti-group than a group”. She changed British theatre and her influence can still be felt today. It will be there in the Fun Palaces that celebrate Joan Littlewood’s centenary in October, which will – in Joan’s words – encourage people to “Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

Davies’s play ‘God Bless the Child’ is at the Royal Court,  12 Nov to 20 Dec; royalcourttheatre.com

Kate McGrath, co-director Fuel, Ariana Mnouchkine

The bravery and integrity of Ariane Mnouchkine inspires me. Theatre director extraordinaire, political activist, human rights campaigner and flamboyant founder of the legendary Théatre du Soleil. From 1789 to Le Dérnier Caravansérail, her performances are epic, with a cast of vibrant international performers telling big stories about humanity with vibrancy, urgency and poetry. At her theatre, a munitions factory outside Paris, she welcomes the audience herself every night. In her, I see seriousness and playfulness, endless curiosity about the world, optimism about the future, international perspective, and belief in the power of people and of theatre to change the world.

Fuel present ‘Phenomenal People’ at the Calm Down, Dear festival at Camden’s People Theatre, 11 and 12 Oct; fueltheatre.com; phenomenalpeople.org.uk

Roxana Silbert , Artistic director, Birmingham Rep, Emily Dickinson

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As a teenager, I stumbled across a book of  Dickinson’s poetry in a secondhand bookshop. The moment I started to read the poems I was transfixed. They were passionate, dark, wild, idiosyncratic and utterly uncompromising.  Reading her, I was forced to reassess what “good writing” was and it certainly wasn’t what we were taught at school. Great writing breaks rules. Even now, when I’m reading a new play, the qualities of integrity, compassion, vigour,  depth, humour and defiance that I discovered in her writing are still the qualities that inspire me.

Silbert directs ‘Of Mice and Men’ at Birmingham Rep, 10 Oct to 1 Nov; birmingham-rep.co.uk

‘Calm Down, Dear’ is at Camden People’s Theatre, London 24 Sept to 12 Oct; cptheatre.co.uk

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