Tag Archives: women playwrights

Female playwrights, Female parts and casting into deep waters


I’ve spent the past two days holed up at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, holding auditions for my Unlimited Commission ‘Cosy’. Joined by stalwart companion director Phillip Zarrilli, our most consistent subject of conversation has been the wealth of talent parading in through the door: Women actors, female performers, actresses, whatever it is they may prefer to be called, the diverse array of skill, facility and emotional intelligence has been glittering and humbling, leaving us with the impossible next task of selecting the cast for the r&d process.

‘Cosy’ is a dark comedy with six characters, all women, disabled and non-disabled, playing ages 16 to 76 years. This fact alone elicited a few cheers and several full body hugs, female actors embracing the female playwright who for many years has made a commitment to writing roles right across the age range. This was a decision I made in my early twenties, when as a jobbing actor I started writing my own audition pieces as I was fed-up of the limited fayre. The theatrical landscape before me looked thin and uninspiring. It seemed after being the ingenue and playing Juliet, there might be Lady M in the Scottish play (I’m Irish, I’m superstitious, I can’t help it), and then the oasis of nothingness until sexless old haughty Lady Bracknell. I decided then to write meaty parts for women of all ages, and ‘Cosy’ is the latest manifestation of this commitment.

I think this is a serious subject – the representation of gender (and impairment) in plays and also the corresponding dearth of women playwrights being produced. We are still underrepresented – still considered either domestic or ‘risky’ (see this article about Hytner and The National Theatre in London and why women playwrights are still marginalised). This is another reason why I celebrate Unlimited and the funding bodies, venues, and organisations supporting this initiative. If women actors have a limited spread of roles and opportunities (hence the penchant for all female Shakespeare productions recently), and female playwrights still are marginalised (see this Guardian  blog about gender inequality in the theatre) what hope then for disabled or Deaf playwrights, makers, dancers, choreographers, and practitioners?

I’m sure this is a subject I will return to.

In a previous post, Casting Haiku on my parallel http://www.cosytheplay.co.uk blog, I wrote of the process of creating pithy character descriptions for agents and performers to get a glimmer of the role they were being considered for. Little did I know in that innocence of a few days ago how my interpretation of these characters would be changed – and for the better.

As a playwright, I have lived with the voices of my characters in my head for quite some time. These voices all speak with different syntax, rhythm, vocabulary and world views from each other, but the ‘acting’ is one and the same – my own inner ‘voice’. Imagine then the delight, the absolute GIFT of sitting as a steady stream of engaged, passionate, talented actors passed through, revealing a spectrum of surprising and different interpretations of these characters I thought I knew so well… These talented women showed me perspectives and possibilities I had never imagined and  I am extremely thankful to all who brought those characters off the page, out of my head, and into life.

Phillip and I now have the slow and difficult deliberation of making a credible ‘family’ cast  from the actors we saw…. Mother, siblings, niece/grand-daughter, plus the matriarch’s quirky friend. There are so many different permeations – all could work – they just lead to very different styles and takes on the script. We are currently locked in this delicious but frustrating wrestle. We may be some time.

Agent 160 and Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palaces….

October 2014 marks the centenary of the birth of legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood. In celebration of her vision, and in defiance of the austerity climate and cuts in the arts, Stella Duffy and Sarah Jane Rawlings are encouraging pop-up fun palaces across the UK.

Littlewood’s Fun Palace was an unrealised dream of a venue housing culture and science, inviting  participation and engagement.

“Choose what you want to do … dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.”

2014’s pop-up Fun Palaces are happening all across the UK, using venues and buildings already in existence, but asking for a new attitude and mentality. You can read more of Stella Duffy’s approach here 

Agent 160 Theatre Company is creating the Fun Palace in Wales, and as one of the patrons of the organisation alongside Sharon Morgan and Timberlake Wertenbaker, I’m honoured to be involved. Agent 160 is a company of women playwrights, initiated to address the massive gender imbalance in professional theatre, where only 17% of all plays produced are by women playwrights. It takes its name from the Restoration playwright and spy, Aphra Behn (1640-1689), whose code name was Agent 160.

Agent 160 is commissioning 16 women playwrights to write short monologues, to be performed by women and directed by women, at The Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff over the weekend of October 4th and 5th 2014.The playwrights are: Sandra Bendelow, Sam Burns, Vittoria Cafolla, Poppy Corbett, Branwen Davies, Abigail Docherty, Clare Duffy, Samantha Ellis, Sarah Grochala, Katie McCullough, Sharon Morgan, Kaite O’Reilly, Lisa Parry, Marged Parry, Lindsay Rodden and Shannon Yee.

On her plans for the Welsh Agent 160 Fun Palace, designer Anna Bliss Scully says:

“I will create a space where members of the public can chance upon a new world; a secret story; a slip in time; a fresh perspective. It might be a car, a shed, a boat, or an area of a building they know well, but within it, the audience will find a new dimension: a space that responds to them, to its surrounding environment, and to the story we tell within it.” 

 Agent 160 have a Kickstarter campaign to ensure this dream project happens, and you can support the initiative or just find out more at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/agent160/you-can-help-make-agent-160s-fun-palace-in-wales-h

Austerity is not a time for imaginations to become small, or the arts to be crushed. If you can support this initiative – either Agent 160’s Kickstarter campaign or whatever one may be local to you (or create your own!), please do so.


On St Patrick’s Day…

St Patrick’s Day always used to be a big occasion for me in the past, especially the St Patrick’s Day Parade through the centre of Birmingham, where I grew up. For years after the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, the Irish Day parade didn’t occur – there was a sense of shame and an often antagonistic and difficult relationship between the city and its Irish inhabiatants. Once the parades began again, in 2000 I was commissioned to write a play for the Birmingham Rep’ about this most complex of dynamics between the English West Midlands and the immigrants who built it. ‘Belonging’ explored identity politics in a multicultural city, where ‘home’ is invariably elsewhere.

I’m delighted that another play of mine manages to be part of an unofficial celebration of Irishness in Chicago this evening. ‘The Almond and the Seahorse’ will be at Victory Gardens at 7.30pm tonight as part of The International Voices Project, directed by Sandy Shinner, with an after show discussion chaired by John Green.  http://www.ivpchicago.org/

I wish I was there, but the miracles of technology will hopefully enable me to hear the discussion – rather as technology allowed my dear friend Sarah ‘California’ Hill advise the actors on the pronunciation of the Welsh phrases in the play. Sarah is from California (hence the nickname), and lives in Wales in a phenomenally creative bilingual household, which I also call (one of my) ‘home'(s). I loved the fact my American friend based in Cardiff was advising actors in America on how to speak Cymraeg in a play written in Wales by a Birmingham-Irish playwright…

Issues of nationality and division and where we may belong, and where – of perhaps many places – we call ‘home’ has never been so insignificant to me this March 17th…

Women playwrights and theatre: some facts

As Sphinx Theatre company revealed at their Vamps, Vixens and Feminists conference in 2009, 17% of the plays professionally produced in the UK are by women playwrights.

Let’s look at that again.

83% of all plays professionally produced in the UK are by male playwrights, although women constitute 52% of the population and 65% of the theatre-going audience.  http://17percent.co.uk

Such disparities in statistics have always bothered me, ever since I was a student and first became aware of inequality in access and opportunity across gender. There have been various surveys and studies into why this is the case and it emphatically does not come down to male playwrights being ‘better’ than female dramatists. There are a range of reasons why women playwrights are less produced than our male counterparts – from selection process to theatre structures and hierarchies, to predilections and (incorrect) presumptions by producers and directors – to attitudes and approaches by the playwrights themselves.

I recently came across playwright Marsha Norman’s essay, ‘What will it take to achieve equality for women in the theatre?’ which is well worth a read.  http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/nov09/women.cfm

She quotes New York State’s Council on the Arts three-year study of the status of women in the theatre, which concluded “Women are welcome at the front door of the theatre but not at the stage door. This goes for actresses, costume and lighting designers and directors as well as writers.” You can access the report at this link: www.womenarts.org/advocacy/WomenCountNYSCAReport.htm.

Some further statistics:

In the US in the last decade 11% of plays produced on Broadway were by women. (But these plays did 18% better at the box office – the reason being perhaps that 60% of the ticket buyers for Broadway shows are women.)


In Australia 7-ON surveyed the percentage of women writers in the seasons of four major companies in Sydney and discovered 5 of the 41 plays were by women – 12%.      http://sevenon.blogspot.com/

In recent years in Germany, major theatre company the Schaubühne had a stable of 32 playwrights, living and dead. Of these 3 (Helene Cixioux, Sarah Kane, Yael Ronan) were women.  http://www.schaubuehne.de/en_EN/ensemble/authors

These facts can be disheartening and it is clear this subject needs to be addressed.   Further research and campaigning is necessary to counter this bias in theatre and whilst this is happening, I’m also encouraged by women practitioners becoming proactive and challenging this trend directly.

Owing to this, I’m delighted to take my place alongside Timberlake Wertenbaker and Sharon Morgan as one of the patrons of Agent 160 Theatre Company.




Agent 160 is a new female writer-led theatre company that will launch in February, 2012.

We put on work in venues across the UK. We add to the amount of produced work written by women. We don’t campaign: we just write about what we want to write about, refusing to be pigeonholed by our gender, age, class, sexuality or location.

 We are fluid – reflecting the structure of our lives. We have a rolling directorship, with individual members able to steer the company for a period of time that suits them. We build help with childcare and maternity leave into our commissions, and help our writers opt in and out of projects as a part of our ethos, not as our duty.

 Agent 160 is committed to supporting its writers in developing and advancing their careers. We produce full-length and short plays. We pay our writers.

The company take their name from Aphra Behn (1640-1698), the first woman in the UK to earn her living as a playwright. She was also recruited as a political spy in Antwerp by Charles II – code name Agent 160.

Agent 160 Theatre Company will officially launch in the UK in February 2012 with a show part-funded by Creative Scotland, Arts Council England and Arts Council Wales. Agent 160 presents Agent 160 will be two nights of different short plays at the following venues:

CARDIFF: Chapter Arts Centre, February 17 and 18 at 7.30pm.

LONDON: Theatre503, February 19 and 20 at 7.45pm.

GLASGOW: The Arches, February 22 and 23 at 7.30pm.

Following the second show at each venue, there will be a question and answer session about the work and the current landscape of British theatre with regards to female writers.

Please support this initiative if you can, and for further information go to: