Thursday, 1 November 2012

Agent 160 in Belfast: Panel & Workshop

On October 25th, the day after the shows ended,  Lunchbox & Agent160 held two events:
The first was a workshop exploring how to perform being a female playwright. The aim of the workshop was to unpack what we think, assume, hope and fear being a woman and a playwright is and creatively explore the tricky, fruitful and sometimes paradoxical relationship between the two. Agent160 Writers, Ioanna Anderson & Clare Duffy asked: 'If you are a woman who writes, how do you feel about being a 'female playwright'?

What the participants had to say about the events:
Inspired me to write more
I found both events very encouraging and inspirational as well as being realistic about the challenges that can be met in getting work produced. The workshop was very enjoyable. It didn't provide new methods of writing for those attending but I don't think that was the aim of the workshop. It did promote discussion in an open forum and encouraged sharing of experiences and writing, promoted confidence and networking within the group of female writers.
The panel was incredibly informative. Hanna kept a great focus and I was inspired by each of the speakers
I found the event very informative. Interesting to have heard from those involved in different aspects of theatre across the UK/Ireland.

Clare Duffy (Agent160)

Ioanna Anderson (Agent160)

Workshop participants Playwright Shannon Yee, Director Mary Lindsay, and screenwriters Christine Morrow & Elvina Porter

This was followed by a panel, chaired by Hanna Slattne of Tinderbox, Belfast, with the aim of discussing women in the Irish Theatrical Landscape.

The Panel members were:

Hanna Slattne, (Tinderbox, Belfast), Richard Lavery (Accidental Theatre, Belfast) Suzanne Bell (Royal Exchange, Manchester) Alice Coghlan (Wonderland Productions, Dublin) Andrea Montgomery (TerraNova, Belfast) Louise Stephens Alexander (Agent160) Aislinn Clarke (Wireless Mystery Theatre & Fickle Favours)
1. Does the 17% Figure applies to Northern Ireland: & Suzanne & Alice  how they are doing in their parts of the world?
2. Aislinn and Louise: setting up new companies focussing on female practitioners. What were the main reasons behind it? 
3. Richard and Andrea's experiences, both in setting up their own companies and how they work with women writers. 
4. Has the abundance of female theatre makers contributed to the healthy figure that we have? 
(i.e. Does the gender of the director make an impact? the gender of development teams? And from the writer's p.o.v. - Is there a pressure to write in a certain way, about certain issues, - Is there a female aesthetic? )
5. Winter is coming,( i.e. cuts) - how can we protect that figure? why is it so important to keep the figure up? 
Panel in full swing

Hanna Slattna very kindly offered to chair the panel: and started off by addressing the question of; is Northern Ireland the same as the rest of the UK? Do we only produce 17% of female authored work on our stages?
In fact , NI is doing well- A 50% commission & production rate of women's plays. However of Hanna's incoming scripts only 20% are from women. 
Suzanne told us that in the 1st Bruntwood – which worked on an anonymous submissions policy – the scripts were 80% male authored:. Now after pushing, it has risen to 50/50- The rise in female submissions is now reflected in winners as well.
Alice, working for the Abbey Theatre,in Dublin, stated that 23% of unsolicited scripts were from women and that 31.5 of new commissions in the abbey this year were female authored .However, she describes the abbey's programme jokingly as 'men, men, men and Marina Carr" Using information provided by the Irish Theatre institute, it would seem that of the new plays produced in 2010-211 (Both original & adapted) the figure stands as 29 % (However, this could be slightly inaccurate: no research of this kind has been undertaken to date in the republic.) 

Moving on to the rationale behind setting up Agent 160 , Louise said it had been as result of a combination of  things: the Vamps Vixens & Feminists conference at the Sphinx theatre in 2010 & the fact that Lisa Parry (Agent160 AD) was seeing some good women's work at the time. Just not enough of it.  She had then begun thinking about setting up a company of Female playwrights. Aislinn (Fickle Favours) after chatting to actress colleagues and seeing that in her own productions at Wireless Mystery theatre, there were not enough plays produced with challenging strong roles for women, including in the classical repertoire. She wanted to get away from the tendency for people to think of women's writings as a 'genre'- and to create a platform for just 'good theatre. ' She wanted to be able to include actresses and writers of all ages, using the Agent160 short Nancy as a great example of a strong piece both in writing terms & as a role for an older woman. 

Richard Lavery From Accidental Theatre said that when he first put a call out for scripts, just 10% were from women- but that in interestingly, he'd found an large increase of expression of interest from female directors, something that is reflected in their productions this year.

Hanna mentioned that to get their figures up, Tinderbox set out to address the gap 8 yrs ago-when she first joined the company- she had to form a strategy, one of which was creating projects to work with women. She said that she could not leave it to random chance: this was something that all companies would have to undertake to avoid.

Aislinn thinks the problem is deeper than that: why are young women not thinking 'I could be a playwright?' She thinks no one in schools/ thinks of playwrighting/directing as a career:  An audience member agreed, saying that there were not enough female dramatists on the school curriculum. Vittoria (Agent160) pointed out that in her research for the panel, she had noticed that Educational theatre companies in the republic of Ireland, only one had a female authored play in their repertoire, and when looking at companies doing classical plays there were none by women- understandably since it's not on the curriculum, but she wondered why someone like Aphra Benn wasn't ever mentioned at school. 

Andrea Montgomery talked about how studies of sociological/psychological analysis of gender and speech have shown a difference in the way that women put themselves and their work forward- that many women had a culture of 'I put me down, you pull me up' – Suzanne agreed, saying that it was perfectly reasonable for a man to come into a meeting saying 'this is a great script, - it's fantastic etc” whereas if a woman did the same, even other women would be taken aback.
Aislinn said she also found this as a female director: one was supposed to act in a certain way. Suzanne pointed out that female linguistic structure and male linguistic structure were distinctly different- something that Andrea backed up. With Terranova, she works with women in many different countries- She spoke about how important is to remember cultural differences affect women's voices also: working with women in Tehran, she found their voices and ideas very different than say somewhere like Hong Kong. 

Suzanne noted that while, 67% of audience are women- they expect male stories, and wanted to pose the question to the panel and audience: Why is there a lack of exploration of female sexuality on stage?
An audience member pointed out - women are punished for being sexual in plays. The panel thought that was no reason not to show it: Both Hanna-& Suzanne- emphasized that you should write what you want to write- Write passionately- not what you think a certain theatre wants, or doesn't want. Hanna mentions that she finds when it comes to sexuality , she sees that female writers censor themselves. Is it Cultural? The conversation came back to schools and kids- and what they see both at school & in society- &  to help change the perceptions we need to make sure that the younger generation don't just watch the same old dramas. Alice and Hanna have both done scriptwriting workshops with children: Alice said that if you get the kids around age 8-10 they are super confient- the seeds could be sown then. 

Andrea bought up what she sees as the main problem in NI: As a member of NITA (NI Theatre Association) she is struggling to communicate to politicians of benefits of theatre -it's seen as a hobby - theatre not regarded as 'professional' An audience member seconded that, recounted countless mentions of others to her work as 'her wee play”
Hanna pointed out that the press were not overly interested in theatre here: that that would have to be addressed to combat that issue.
Alice found that surprising, describing the audiences in Northern Ireland as much more engaged than in Dublin. From the outside it looks like a buzzing scene.
How do we keep the figure up at it's current level? Hanna suggested that it was the bigger funded companies responsibility to do so and set the standard for others to follow.
In conclusion:
Hanna says -stop being polite- do not censor yourself. Claire Duffy (A160) says- just be prepared to be slapped down in the process, but get up & keep going!
To which Hanna added- target the right company when sending your work! Andrea noted the importance of 'allies' in the theatre world- in Northern Ireland, the theatre network is very strong- so use it. Suzanne, agreed, adding that once you do have allies in the theatre industry they are very loyal, and tend to stay that way. 

So proud of our actors and directors, and thrilled with the response we had to the pieces: there's a 4 star review here:
We are also very grateful to have had support from The Belfast Festival at Queens, The Black Box, Belfast Film Festival, The British Council, and Belfast City Council and from the many people who contributed through Fundit as well as everyone who came down to the shows-  Thank You!