Thoughts from Amie Taylor – the local engagement specialist in Coventry
My past month, spent working as a Local Engagement Specialist on Opera for the Unknown Woman, has led to many interesting conversations with people around the topics it covers. I spent three busy days in the Midlands travelling between Coventry, Birmingham and Warwick. I was particularly thrilled to be working on this show in particular as the feminist element of it ties in with a lot of the other work I do in theatre. I’ve worked with FemaleArts for three years now, an online magazine which seeks to address gender disparity in theatre, but also to celebrate women’s achievements in the arts.
I saw a very early run through of Opera for the Unknown Woman, and found it not only breathtaking and beautiful, but was thrilled to see the show I have been waiting for years to see. To hear a story told through the voices of eleven women on stage is a rare occurrence. I was thrilled to discover in my interview with Melanie Wilson, the creator of this show, that approximately 95% of people on and off stage working on this production are female, that’s an almost unheard of statistic in theatre, and feels like a massive breakthrough in addressing the gender disparity which still exists even in 2016.
Part of my job as an LES was to meet people in the local area that may not have been aware the show was happening and may not normally go to the theatre but would have an interest in climate change, feminism, sci-fi, or opera as this production encompasses all three. I met lots of different groups of people, however one of the things that struck me when I watched this production was that it would be a really positive piece of work for young women about to graduate from drama school, or wanting an arts career to see. I have recently run a lot of workshops with emerging female actors, and know that from conversations it can feel quite disheartening graduating into a world that still seems much easier for men to progress in than women, owing to the roles on offer.
One of my visits was to Playbox Theatre in Warwick, a working theatre built especially for the use of young people. Playbox is known across the Midlands for their dedication to offering a professional training to young actors and creating high quality performances in their 200 seat theatre space. I felt this show would be suitable for many of their staff and members, but specifically young people keen to go in to devised theatre, and young women keen to pursue acting careers. I was fortunate to speak with the artistic director Stewart McGill during my visit, it was good to talk about Fuel’s show – we seemed on a wavelength, as they have just finished their own season in which they created a version of Henry VI in three, hour-long plays (or as they refer to it ‘a triple box set of a show’), and have approached it using gender blind casting. Mcgill says he believes the plays have ‘gained a fresh perspective’, from this decision. As a director, actor and theatre reviewer I’m keen to see gender-blind casting used more frequently when producing the classics, in order to redress the balance. Or, as is in the case of #UnknownWomen, contemporary stories told by a female voice, which sounds like a small deal, but once you become conscious of it you’d be amazed by the percentage of stories in theatre still told by a male voice. McGill was interested in their production of Henry to consider how the power game could be played if the male line was surrounded by female power and political manipulation – conversations like this are important to have, and I believe bring about change. It feels as though we met at a time where shifts and changes are beginning to happen, with Fuel about to tour #UnknownWoman, many companies going against traditional casting and other work being done to address the gender imbalance on Britain’s stages.
McGill spoke how it bothers them hugely at Playbox Theatre that in theatre and in training boys simply have it easier: at auditions, castings, in avoiding exploitation and so on. There is so much [female] talent and often so little opportunity. When leading companies such as Fuel directly address this it means they are laying a new path and possibilities for the arts, as well as open up more employment opportunities to women.
I really do feel like we are at a turning point with theatre and gender disparity and works such as #UnknownWoman really fill me with hope for that. It was exciting to work as and LES on this project, and share news of this piece with feminist networks in the area. I got the sense people are excited by work told through women’s voices, and keen to see things change.
Opera for the Unknown Woman is touring from the 25th May.
8th – 11th June: Festival of Voice, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
16th / 17th June Platform Theatre, Central Saint Martin’s, London
22nd/23rd/24th June Yorkshire Festival, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
Amie Taylor is Director The LGBTQ Arts Review, Interviews Editor for FemaleArts and a freelance writer, actor and workshop facilitator. @AmieAmieTay @lgbtqarts