In 2014 Sphinx Theatre launched the Women Centre Stage project which sort to redress the ongoing gender disparity on UK stages. To quote the statistics, 52% of the population are women but only around a third of mainstage roles are female characters. Something must be done!
The culmination of this project was a fantastic two day festival consisting of a series of workshops at the Actors Centre on Friday and a jam packed day of performances at the National Theatre’s temporary space on Saturday.
It’s great to see not only the issues being raised but action taken to combat them so leading female roles become the norm across the industry. The project aimed not only to create more roles for women but to improve the quality of the roles available and ensure that female characters are not just defined by their relationships to male characters but complex three dimensional human beings in their own right.
Sphinx Theatre quite rightly believe that in order to find the best stories you must cast your net far and wide and so the festival drew on work from emerging artists as well as established artists such as Timberlake Wertenbaker, April de Angelis and Roy Williams to name but a few. There were performances of existing plays and specially commissioned new works from artists from across the UK including men, as it is not just up to women to address the imbalance.
I was lucky enough to attend The Sphinx Writers Group: Future Voices and was blown away by the quality of the work and the talent on display. Four emerging artists presented a rehearsed reading of new work written specially for the festival. The writers had been asked to respond to the brief “Why aren’t we seeing better roles for women on the stage?” and to create short plays with complex female characters that attempted to subvert stereotypes. The work they produced did just that. All of the plays were politically charged and thoroughly entertaining.
Katie Johnstone by Luke Barnes
Directed by Stef O’Driscoll
Starring Katherine Pearce and Rebecca Ryan
A portrait of an aspirational teenager from a disadvantaged background who wants to avoid following in her mother’s footsteps by working at the local Tesco’s and instead wants to become a millionaire by the time she’s 30. Katie faces her situation with almost unshakable positivity having to retake her exams after being forced to take a job during school and not doing as well as she’d hoped. Katie’s naivety is both hilarious and tragic as she aspires to be a writer “like Anne Frank and live in an attic” whilst writing poems entitled “Boys Stink Throw Rocks at Them.” Katie’s work is full of brilliant quips such as “I don’t want to think about my vagina I’d rather concentrate on my brain stem.”
Welcome Home Lottery by Matilda Ibini
Directed by Helen Barnett
Starring Ronke Adekoluejo, Kevin Hand, Charlotte Josephine and Shuna Snow.
Soho Theatre/BBC Writer in Residence Matilda Ibini is one to watch. Set in Tower Hamlets this ambitious short play concerned two young homeless friends Ruby and Jaz who are given the opportunity of a life time to enter the “Welcome Home Lottery.” If they win, they will be given a new life but also have to renounce any former friends. Former Lottery winner Rosa Powers Green is roped into making a speech for the cause but finds she has objections with the changes being made. The dialogue was hilarious particularly between the two friends played with great chemistry by a stoic Charlotte Josephine and a delightful Ronke Adekoluejo as they gossip about overheard conversations about sex. The piece has darker undertones as Jaz questions Ruby about past abuse in the style of a TV show host. This play also presents an unstereotypical male character – which is testimony to the plays commitment to the Sphinx ideal; equality of roles means equality for all sexes without the need for gender stereotyping.
Roses by Sharmila Chauhan
Directed by Ros Philips
Starring Ronke Adekoluejo, Philip Edgerley, Shanaya Rafaat, and Mark Theodore.
Set between Kenya and London, Roses is a play fraught with sexual tension. Kenya is the biggest supplier of roses to the UK and the flowers are picked and shipped within 48 hours. A young woman gets a new job in a flower plantation in Kenya while her boyfriend, the owner of the plantation, makes advances on a woman in the UK with the very roses she has picked. I was completely engrossed in the story and would love to hear more; this could easily be a full length piece.
Boys Will Be Boys by Charlotte Josephine
Directed by Bryony Shanahan
Starring Nadia Albini, Charlotte Josephine and Shanaya Rafaat
Charlotte Josephine, the writer behind hit play Bitch Boxer, delves into the topical subject of revenge porn in this powerful new short. Jospehine’s signature writing style has a quality like spoken word poetry full of lovely textural rhythms as the three actresses, including Josephine herself, performed overlapping monologues providing three different perspectives on the subject. One of the women is a victim of revenge porn herself, another her younger sister is the victim and for the third Josephine flipped the stereotype on its head showing that with equality of roles women are not just victims but can also be the perpetrators of sex crimes to.
These short plays made for a fantastic evening’s entertainment. If these are the voices of the future then it certainly looks bright! Women Centre Stage was an inspirational and important festival of work and it would be a travesty if it did not become a yearly fixture.