In February next year something very exciting is going to happen. Agent 160 Theatre Company will launch - and not just with one new play, with 12. And not just in one city, but in Cardiff, London and Glasgow. Oh, and some of the plays will be in Welsh. And the writer-led company model is also completely different to anything we currently have in the UK.
There's a real need for Agent 160 in British theatre. For a few years now, I've been thinking "something, something, there must be something we can do" regarding the position of female playwrights. I attended Sphinx's conference Vamps, Vixens and Feminists at the National a few years back and heard the shocking statistic that just 17 per cent of all produced plays in the UK are written by women. This figure stayed with me, as I'm sure it did a lot of women in that theatre. And it kept popping into my head, not just when I was writing, but when I was at the theatre too. I see a lot of plays and I started to get really annoyed.
The first time annoyance turned into absolute fuming was on my way home from seeing the Women, Power and Politics season at the Tricycle. The plays were brilliant - I had an amazing time - but I walked back thinking: "Why have I seen three David Hare plays recently and that's the first Sue Townsend?" I adored the Marie Jones piece - why was that the first piece of hers I'd seen? It's not like I'm a casual theatre goer. I get on trains and travel miles to see work. Of course some writers in that season's mix may be staged more than others, but something didn't quite fit. And then several months later I saw a show that sent me into auto-rant for a good hour and a half.
There was nothing wrong with this show. It was just so - male. The writers were male, the directors were male and I felt I'd seen seven million shows just like it in the months before. I don't have anything against male writers - there are some whose work I absolutely adore - but I was bored and I don't like being bored at the theatre. And I started thinking about that Marie Jones piece and wondering about this statistic again and what the hell was going on. And I did a bit of internet research and became even more irate.
We know about the 17 per cent figure. But we don't know why. Well, we all have our hunches and it's probably down to a mix of things, but there's been no real research in the UK. But there has in the States where statistics are similar. (Incidentally, if anyone wants a bit of anecdotal evidence as to what women playwrights are up against, you could do far worse than read this account from US-playwright Theresa Rebeck. Her comments mirror some of our group's observations in the UK.)
Researcher Emily Sands sent scripts to various theatre companies across the US. She found the same scripts submitted under a male name scored 15 per cent higher in terms of "quality, economic prospects and audience response from (female) literary managers". Does that mean women running literary departments or becoming artistic directors is not automatically a good thing for female writers? Equally staggering, when female-written works were produced they were 18 per cent more profitable. I began to wonder whether this industry was financially insane.
I went to the Miniaturists around this time and saw Samantha Ellis' piece Postfeminism. I loved it and emailed the Minis' curator Stephen Sharkey to nab her email address and see if she'd be interested in doing something. She was and suggested a few more people and eventually a group of us met up and knocked around some ideas. I also contacted dramaturg and researcher Louise Stephens Alexander in Edinburgh for her take and eventually, over a few months, with female playwrights dipping in and out, Agent 160 Theatre Company (our name taken from Aphra Behn's code-name when she was a spy under Charles II) was born.
This is (in brief) our ethos:
- We're not a niche company. We're mainstream. We're not about campaigning, but about our work. We want to close the commission/production gap now. Also, it's the quality of the work that will cause the audience to think: "Why am I not seeing more work by women?" Hopefully, this will also have an impact.
- We're based across the UK and we produce work across the UK. We're not pigeon-holed by our location.
- We empower our writers. We pay them - and not a tiny amount compared to actors or directors either. Our writers should not feel grateful they're being produced but paid appropriately. We also help with childcare costs, build maternity leave into our commissions, and do our best to remove whatever obstacle a female writer faces.
- We're writer-led. We do not filter our voices, demand our writers write about a particular topic or in a particular language. We also have a model whereby any of our writers can come forward with work, steer the company as its artistic director and see that work produced.
- We're also - and trust me, I've read the scripts for the launch show - fun.
Our writers are: Ioanna Anderson, Sam Burns, Vittoria Cafolla, Poppy Corbett, Branwen Davies, Angharad Devonald, Abigail Docherty, Clare Duffy, Samantha Ellis, Sarah Grochala, Lizzie Nunnery, Lisa Parry, Marged Parry, Morna Pearson, Lindsay Rodden.
Our patrons are: Sharon Morgan, Kaite O'Reilly, Timberlake Wertenbaker.
Our dramaturg is Louise Stephens Alexander and our producer is Dan Baker.