Women in Theatre by Greenwich Theatre
6 August 2017
With talk of the BBC gender pay gap exploding into the media in the same week as the announcement that Jodie Whittaker is to become the first female Doctor Who, the place – and the value – of women in the arts has hit the front pages again. It is far from a new discussion. In January last year at Greenwich Theatre we programmed a whole season of work celebrating young female arts leaders as a response to a study published by arts analysts Purple Seven, which revealed that whilst the gender gap in theatre may be narrowing slowly, male directors, producers, writers and performers still outnumber their female counterparts by around two to one.
If there is any arts environment in the world that is truly democratic in terms of gender it is the Edinburgh Festial Fringe. Curated by the various venue programmers, there are so many venues that if anyone wants to bring a show, they can find a space to do it. At Assembly Roxy, in the dark, subterranean Snug Bar, the all-female CultureClash Theatre have found the perfect venue for Under My Thumb, a dark political thriller written by emerging playwright Cassiah Joski-Jethi. The play is set in a world where women are imprisoned for speaking out against inequality, anything from limited opportunity in the workplace to the extremes of physical or emotional abuse. Their only chance of freedom is to publicly accept the ‘truth’ – that they were wrong, that a workplace pay gap is actually a meritocracy and women are naturally inferior, that unwanted male attention was encouraged by what they chose to wear, that fathers, husbands and boyfriends should have licence to behave exactly as they see fit.
Produced in partnership with Greenwich Theatre, the show sees a female writer (discovered by CultureClash when she was shortlisted for the RED Women’s Theatre Awards), two female producers and a full female cast coming together with a female stage management team and lighting designer. The show is already attracting a lot of attention, listed by Three Weeks alongside the high profile production of Alan Ayckbourn’s THE DIVIDE as a dystopian Fringe highlight. The show sits in the best thriller tradition – a group of people trapped in a claustrophobic environment, the introduction of a new person, the violence, tenderness, politics and power struggles that emerge in any closed community, but that community is a female one. Like a female Lord Of The Flies meets The Handmaid’s Tale via Orange Is The New Black.
With support from the Arts Council we presented ten test performances of the show at Greenwich Theatre in 2016 and invited a range of audiences to see it – teenagers of both sexes, women living in secret sheltered accommodation who had experienced male persecution, women from different faiths. After every performance we hosted a Q&A with those audiences to see what they made of it. The responses were wildly different – women who had experienced the treatment shown on stage were moved by it, many men shared the political view of the piece but some thought the gender equality battle had been won, teenagers saw high profile individual women as evidence of their own potential but talked about the changes in gender abuse, with public cat-calling on the street evolving into more private but equally unwanted attention online.
The writer and producers were adamant that the stories told on stage had to be sensitive and respectful of women who had gone through these same experiences, but that the show had to retain all of the qualities of a thriller. Cassiah revisited the script after ten nights of Q&As, and now CultureClash present a leaner, tighter, unforgettable show.
This is anything but the only female-led production at Assembly, and that’s what is so exciting about the gender equality at the Fringe. Sian Rowland’s heart-breaking play Gazing at a Distant Star (which I am proud to be directing), Natasha Marshall’s Half Breed produced by Soho Theatre, the Baxter Theatre Season hosting six shows all directed by women, Nearside Productions’ The Revlon Girl, Metta Theatre’s double-bill of female written & directed plays Pixel Dust and WONDR, and Eleanor Bishop’s Jane Doe are just a handful of the shows proving that while a female time lord may be causing a stir across the mainstream cultural universe, the Edinburgh Fringe continues to lead the charge of innovation and equality in the arts.
Under My Thumb joins Assembly Festival at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 3-20 August 2017 at 16:10 @ Assembly Roxy - Snug Bar. See more of Under My Thumb here!