Like so many other walks of life, there is a profound gender imbalance in theatre, whether that’s in the commissioning of female playwrights, female directors, or the amount of parts available to women, which in turn results in gender imbalance in casting too.
But Tonic Theatre has stepped forward with a fascinating, and hopefully incredibly effective, way of addressing some of these issues right at the start.
Tonic Theatre was created in 2011 with an aim to support theatre in achieving greater gender equality in its workforces and repertoires and now they have created Platform, a new initiative that seeks to tackle the same issue from the grassroots level of youth drama.
Platform’s specific objective is to increase opportunities for girls and young women on the stage, and this came about as a response to Tonic’s own nationwide research into opportunities for girls in youth drama.
This research found that though the majority of those interested in drama at a young age were girls, the majority of roles in the scripts available to them were mostly male. Sound familiar? Ladies, how many times were you playing male characters during play readings at school? Exactly.
And it’s not just the lack of numbers of female parts either. As Lucy Kerbel, director of Tonic Theatre herself observed, quality and variety is also an issue. “Speaking to young women across the country who take part in drama, the overwhelming consensus was that they found that existing writing for female characters was frustratingly narrow and often displayed outdated stereotypes of femininity. Girls overwhelmingly felt they had little opportunity to drive the action on stage, rather than being at the periphery. Some felt the only way to access complex, well-written, and demanding roles was by playing male characters.”
That Tonic’s own research evidenced a clear lack of provision for girls and young women taking part in drama at school, college, and youth theatre level is worrying enough. But the research suggested that this then sows the seeds for persistent gender imbalances in the theatre profession because young people enter the industry already anticipating that female characters will have less to say and less to do on stage.
So Tonic said, enough!
And in the first stage of their new initiative, they commissioned three playwrights – Jemma Kennedy, Joel Horwood and Silva Semerciyan – to write high-quality, big-cast plays for performance by school, college and youth theatre groups, which have all-female or mainly female casts.
Playwright Jemma Kennedy loved the challenge the project brought. “Drama is powerful. It’s a place you go to to interrogate experience but these girls too often found that the plays they read didn’t relate to who they are.”
And this work rewards the writer too as the girls and young women using these plays will be from across the country, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and hopefully they will now find something in these texts that relates to them, that speaks to them. As Jemma said, “To create a piece of drama to entertain is great but to create one with an emotional, social use and purpose is just fantastic.”
Lucy wants the plays to make a change. “The hope is that this changes expectations [for the young girls]. By working with plays that reflect your feelings and life, it validates you, that your experience is important enough to be the subject of a play.”
Creating plays with a variety of roles and, importantly, placing female characters as the propelling force in the narrative, is an important subliminal message for girls and young women, especially when the material is of a subject that they can relate to.
And the response from the girls and young women who’ve workshopped these plays has been terrific. Lucy quoted one young woman from the read-through of Jemma’s play, Second Person Narrative, which looks at the various stages of a woman’s life and the challenge in finding her own identity along the way, who said “If I’d have had this play when I was at school, it would have blown my mind.”
Platform was only announced last week but already Tonic has been flooded with orders for these three plays. To get these plays as distributed as widely as possible, Tonic has partnered up with leading theatre publishers Nick Hern Books who are selling these plays to youth theatres and education institutions at reduced rates.
“It was very important for us to work with Nick Hern Books to publish these books professionally”, said Lucy “as we wanted these plays to be of equal weight as any other play, though these have not yet had a run in a single venue.”
And Tonic is not stopping here. Their aim is to keep commissioning more, so that over time they will creating a whole new canon of youth theatre plays, plays that give the girls masses to get their teeth into and in the meantime, change the way they think about theatre.
Tonic though does not receive any core funding and, instead, relies on fund-raising. Nevertheless Lucy says “the hope is to publish another three plays in a year’s time, then another three the year after that, then another three. And so on.”
High five to Tonic. And good luck to them too for what is a great initiative.
To learn more, visit www.tonictheatre-platform.co.uk and www.nickhernbooks.co.uk
The first three plays in the series penned by award-winning writers: This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan are published in single editions by Nick Hern Books and are available to youth theatres and education institutions via a dedicated website at £3 per copy for a limited period (rrp £8.99)
1. Photo of first wave of play texts from Tonic Theatre’s Platform initiative (c) Victoria Sadler
2, 3, 4. Photos of Tonic Theatre (c) Nick Flintoff