Theatre / Women in theatre

Preview: Everyone is Dead, Bristol Old Vic

By steve wright, Sunday Oct 13, 2019

Pic above by Ann Stiddard

Bristol’s Theatre West have commissioned their first all-female production in response to the large disparity between the sexes within their industry. The company’s new production, Everyone is Dead by south-west Charlotte Turner-McMullan, features a cast and crew made up entirely of women.

The play came to fruition as a result of a competition that Theatre West held earlier this year, calling for female writers to submit their work. Artistic directors Ann Stiddard and Alison Comley received 30 entries from across the region. They then asked each entrant to complete a survey about their experiences within theatre.

“The picture nationally is that fewer women playwrights get their work produced and we wanted to do something directly to challenge that,” Ann Stiddard explains. “The women that we surveyed said that they felt under-represented in the theatre, and that the male-dominated spaces were uncomfortable places to be. It is an issue that the industry is talking about and we hope our research can help provide some practical ideas as to what we all need to do to make a change.”

As a result of this research Ann and Alison Comley decided to create an opportunity exclusively for not only women writers, but for the whole crew.

“The opportunity has been really well received by women writers in the region, but it has been an interesting challenge to put together an all-female production team,” Alison Comley reveals. “Women lighting and sound designers are harder to find, so we hope that through our production we will inspire a new generation of young women to take up these roles in the future. ”

The winning script, Charlotte Turner-McMullan’s Everyone is Dead, tells of a not-too-distant dystopian future in which two ordinary women find themselves in a world driven by extreme violence, the kind of violence that usually surrounds male-led stories.

“Theatre West’s call out for female writers felt like an exciting, and rare, chance to write something that puts women and female relationships at its centre,” Charlotte explains. “Women in the industry are slowly reaching the position where we can empower each other. The amazing response Theatre West have had to this project shows how they are doing just that, not just occupying space, but helping open it for other women as well.”

We chatted with Charlotte and director Alison Comley about the play, the idea behind the all-female cast and crew, and where gender balance in theatre could get to within the next few years.

Tell us why this project – a production with an all-female cast and creative team –  was important.
AC: As a female-run theatre company we have always been conscious of some of the inequalities that exist, from fewer meaty roles for women through to the rarity of finding a female lighting designer.  The research that we undertook with female writers as part of this project indicated that women can feel marginalised for a number of reasons, often because they wear a variety of hats, including caring responsibilities, which means that opportunities are sometimes difficult to take, even when offered. We wanted to use  this project to directly address this, and to bring together a group of female creatives around a script to celebrate  that contribution.

Rehearsals for ‘Everyone is Dead’ (Bristol Old Vic, Oct 16-19). Pic: rehearsal Pete Hall

What was it about Charlotte’s script that put it on top of the pile?
AC: We had over 30 great scripts submitted by women across the south-west. They were a treat to read and gave us some hard decisions!

We loved the world that Charlotte created, set in the near future where society has broken down through a global war. The two female characters are complex and complicated, and it was unusual to see a female response to a violent world. Charlotte’s writing also leaves lots of spaces which will hopefully make a audience think about how they might behave, and what red lines they might need to cross in order to survive. Having principles is easy when you are not being put to the test.

How would you hope the situation for women in theatre might change within… five years? Ten years?
AC: It would be great to see the playing field levelling for women across all aspects of theatre over the next five years. The fact that we are now talking about gender is really positive and means that the industry is starting to think and question how things could be different and what we need to do to get there. This project has already sparked a conversation locally where venues and companies have shared their best practice.

It would be great if, in ten years’ time, we didn’t need to talk about women in theatre because we could see a much greater parity in gender balance in terms of writers being produced, roles being offered and industry gatekeepers. That shouldn’t be  too difficult given that we are over 50% of the population!

Tell us about the play. What kind of a world is it set in?
CTM: The play is set in a future that, on some days, feels very possible in our own world. Since rehearsals began we’ve had discussions about how the word ‘apocalypse’ doesn’t quite encompass what has happened to the world Kelly and Ashley are living in. The devastation that their world has gone through is man-made and totally avoidable, although how exactly events unfolded I think is up to the audience’s imaginations. In my mind, Ashley and Kelly’s world is fuelled by conflict and misplaced anger, which sadly isn’t that different to some parts of our own world.

What inspired you to write this particular storyline?
CTM: Women are often shut out of conversations about conflict, rarely drivers of the narrative and almost always victims. I started with the idea of two women trapped in a basement while a war went on above their heads. I wanted to explore whether, in a world where violence seemed like an easy option, they would choose to follow that path, or if they would reject it.

It became obvious that the question was not that simple, and that there are many forms of violence people can employ against each other, whether they are female or not.

What impact do you hope the show might have on audiences?
CTM: I hope the show will leave audiences asking what they would do if they found themselves in the same situation as the characters. I think the play asks a lot of scary questions about what it means to be human, and to be complicit in the building of a violent world. Maybe it’s a question of survival and what more important things can be lost in the fight to survive?

Everyone is Dead at Bristol Old Vic from Wednesday, October 16 to Saturday, October 19. For more info and to book tickets, visit bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/everyone-is-dead

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