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Articles on the Heritage Lottery-funded Unfinished Histories Company Links project:
Earlier articles on Unfinished Histories’ work
Cunning Stunts: Women’s Theatre in the 1970s and 80s – Red Chidgey, The F Word, December 2007
Red Chidgey in The F Word
Sister acts – Carole Woddis, originally published in New Statesman and Society, 24 April 2006.
Carole Woddis looks back at the feisty feminist drama groups that time forgot.
‘The theatre world is good at commemorations – we are knee-deep in them this year with the centenary of Samuel Beckett and the 50th Anniversary of the Royal Court. But the ground-breaking theatre produced by a generation of women who are now in their fifties has been quietly forgotten. Women’s theatre groups mushroomed during the 1970s and 1980s, reflecting the socialist and feminist spirits of the age. Issues they tackled ranged from the gender-based, such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, objectivisation, to the cultural-political – mental health, the nuclear threat, equal pay. The watchword was collaboration, the emphasis on devised work. They were determined to demolish the restricting stereotypes of what women should be and behave. Their names said it all: Bag and Baggage, Cunning Stunts, Female Trouble, The Hairy Marys, Hormone Imbalance, Les Oeufs Malades, Re-Sisters, Scarlet Harlets, to name but a few. Now, with a few notable exceptions from that era – Sphinx (formerly the Women’s Theatre Group) and Clean Break – women’s theatre as a genre has all but disappeared, its radical contribution to theatre history rarely acknowledged. One historian determined to stem the tide of amnesia is Susan Croft, theatre historian and formerly curator of contemporary performance at the Theatre Museum. `There are so many unknown heroines whose names deserve to be recorded and written into history,’ she says. She is determined to retrieve and collate achievements which currently lie unrecorded or scattered between various archives. Having already produced ‘…She also wrote plays’, a guide to 400 women playwrights, she is currently at work on an even larger bibliography. This month, she brought some of the leading practitioners from the 1970s and 1980s together for an evening of debate. Participants including the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, the actor/ director Michele Frankel, the National Theatre’s Jenny Harris and Sheryl Crown of the Film Council were asked to discuss the influence of the women’s theatre groups on their lives. The aim was to recall and examine the relevance of that era on the current generation of young female theatre workers, performers and directors. It proved a vivid reminder of the bubbling, devil-may-care energy of those times. But the contrast with today was stark. Crown said that dreams of changing the world are now scarcely relevant in an industry so concerned with money-making. Gillian Hanna, a founder member of the Monstrous Regiment theatre group, argued that the long-term structures needed to consolidate such hard-won freedoms and ideals were never secured. Orbach, whose book Fat is a Feminist Issue was the inspiration behind the Spare Tyre theatre company, was shocked on a recent visit to a drama school to find the female students so preoccupied with their looks that they refuse to take ‘unflattering’ roles. A far cry from their predecessors, who took positive delight in playing the grotesque, the foolish and the ugly. `This is serious’, she declared, `how are we going to find a way to keep artistry but away from celebrity?’. So what happened between then and now? As Hanna pointed out, ‘we came in on a golden age of funding. We were able to pay 13 people at full equity rates.’ That would be unheard of in today’s climate. In between there was also Thatcher. No great lover of the arts or feminism, her particularly corrosive blend of philistinism and individualism – `I made it so can you’ – was antithetical to a movement attempting to reconstruct communal bonds between women. Under Thatcher, subsidies were slashed. Apathy, disillusion and weariness set in. And internal divisions within feminism may also have played their part. As with any popular movement there were many different strands, as many as there were companies, each with their own particular orientation. But the political and strategic splits between liberal and socialist feminism, gradualist and radical approaches and between those who saw theatre as a means to putting across a political message and those who put the aesthetics of theatre first, finally impeded the collective action that would have secured the revolution. If Croft’s meeting provided a much needed generational bridge-building, it should also act as a spur to today’s young drama students to re-discover the joy of anarchy. With the status quo also having been reasserted, public funders also need to be reminded of theatre’s continuing gender disparity and the wealth of talent lying untapped. Croft’s mission, in other words, should be seen not as an indulgent exercise in nostalgia but an imperative signpost for the future.’
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