The Royal Shakespeare Company is always likely to programme work weighted towards men and one male writer in particular, of course. But this year its deputy artistic director Erica Whyman determined to redress that gender imbalance: the Roaring Girls season put strong female characters front and centre in a season of Jacobean plays, and, on the writing front, a festival of new work by female playwrights has just opened, entitled Midsummer Mischief.
This series of short plays reopens the RSC’s studio theatre, The Other Place; established by the late, pioneering female director Buzz Goodbody in the Seventies as a space for experimental theatre, it closed in 2005. Relaunching with an all-women season is a statement of intent, then. But what do the writers involved make of it? We brought Timberlake Wertenbaker, Abi Zakarian, E V Crowe and Alice Birch together to find out ….
Holly Williams: You were given the initial provocation “well-behaved women seldom make history”. What was your reaction to that?
Timberlake Wertenbaker: It wasn’t telling us what kind of plays to write, it was simply something to think about. The idea of “mischief” is very interesting ….
Abi Zakarian: The idea of radical mischief was a provocation for me.
EV Crowe: It’s a shove to write unguardedly about whatever you want.
Alice Birch: The term “well-behaved” felt like a provocation. I was trying to unpick what it would mean for a man to be “well-behaved” – and that idea sounded ridiculous.
EC: And the start was very much about Buzz Goodbody and that she was a not-well-behaved woman, and her being not-well-behaved led to her opening The Other Place, which was this incredible venue. [The new Other Place] has a really weird, epic feel – even though it’s quite small, it feels big; dark and exciting. It’s got a kind of punk spirit.
HW: That comes through in the plays ….
EC: To me, it feels like being at a punk gig: [the plays are] all quite unexpected.
TW: Usually, when you get several writers together, you’re given an agenda, a theme. There was none of that, it was simply “write a play”. The idea was to be rough.
AZ: The fact that they’re short is liberating too – you can just get straight in there.
HW: What was your reaction to being invited to be part of a bill of work by female playwrights?
EC: If you look at the data on new work and programming [in subsidised theatre], statistically it’s not 50/50 [male to female]. Obviously, this season, we’re punching our weight, so hopefully it sets a precedent for The Other Space: not to be all women, all the time, but to be 50/50 at a minimum. In that way, it feels really mischievous. Well, it feels quite normal actually!
HW: What about the phrase “female playwright”? Is the aim to get to the point where that’s irrelevant, or is it important to say we need female voices?
1/5 Making Mischief
I Can Hear You by EV Crowe
2/5 Making Mischief
The Ant and the Cicada by Timberlake Wertenbaker
3/5 Making Mischief
This Is Not an Exit by Abi Zakarian
4/5 Making Mischief
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again by Alice Birch
5/5 Gang of four
British playwrights EV Crowe, Alice Birch, Abi Zakarian and Timberlake Wertenbaker
TW: Writers don’t look in mirrors when they’re writing. As a writer, I don’t think about that. [Although] we have great actresses in this country and they don’t have enough work. If there was a 50/50 [male/female writer ratio], I’m convinced something would change, and the extraordinary and varied actresses we have would be [better] used.
HW: There’s a view that we’re stuck in a structure: white men commissioning plays by white men, that are reviewed by white men … do you think that’s shifting too?
EC: Statistically, we’re not there yet. But this season is a gesture. It feels galvanising to be part of [it].
AZ: I’ve always just thought of myself as a writer. I haven’t thought too much about [those structures].
AB: We’re all aware of who’s running the buildings and who’s writing the plays and who’s writing about the plays. But writing is always about how to make change. That’s why this feels positive.
HW: Could you describe your individual plays?
EC: Something that is categorically impossible happens, and the central character, Ruth, asks the question of herself, “are new things possible in my own life, now that this utterly impossible thing has happened?” It’s a supernatural naturalistic play.
AZ: Mine is [about] the absurdity of modern womanhood. A woman wakes up one day and decides she can’t have it all, because where would she put it?
AB: I had been thinking about language, and how there can’t be a revolution until we dramatically change our language and how we talk about men and women. It [demonstrates] some attempts at revolution.
TW: I went to Greece a couple of years ago, and that was the starting point. It’s also about revolution. Probably a very different kind!
AB: The process was very quick; I wrote the first draft in three days, with not much sleep … it feels immediate and urgent, and that feels quite revolutionary.
EC: [That speed brings] a really un-mediated voice. I feel hungry for that when I go to see plays – that something feels undiluted, unfiltered.
AZ: And that fits completely with The Other Place: Buzz Goodbody’s manifesto was for raw, rough, magical work.
HW: In some of your plays there is a feeling of frustration and anger – did that come from writing about the limitations put on women?
AZ: I was more interested in absurdity: the inspiration came from talking to your friends – male and female – about articles you’ve read or things you’ve seen on TV or a new face cream, and just how ridiculous [the modern world] can seem. I was taken with the idea of one woman going into shut-down because she just can’t [deal with it].
AB: I don’t know if anger is there … Frustration? Definitely. But I wanted it to be funny as well!
HW: Is there a double standard – if a woman writes something, it’s “angry” or “militant”, but with a man it’s “strong” or “political”?
AB: If you’re worrying it’s dismissible … you just have to trust your instinct and hold your nerve a bit, and carry on writing what you want to write.
HW: There’s a lot of talk about it being a good or a bad time for feminism: what do you think about that?
EC: I just feel like it’s totally normal to be a woman and a feminist now. It feels like it’s on the cusp of not being as interesting to differentiate who might be a feminist and who might not be, because you can almost assume everyone is.
TW: The misunderstanding is that if you’re writing about a character who happens to be a woman, then you are “writing about women”. But you’re writing about a human being. It doesn’t mean you set out to write a feminist play. Obviously if you’re writing about a Syrian refugee in a women’s camp, that’s specific to being female, but it’s a human experience.
HW: Let’s go back to mischief. How much fun has this project been?
TW: [Spending time with writers] was, for me, an attraction. I thought we were all going to be together every night, drinking and singing sailor songs …
AZ: We can do that!
‘Midsummer Mischief’ is at The Other Place at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, to 12 July, and at The Royal Court, London, 15-17 JulyReuse content