Women’s Theatre Group

Company Name: Women’s Theatre Group (1973-1990); The Sphinx 1991-present

Founders: Anne Engle, Lynn Ashely, Mica Nava, Clair Chapman, Jean Hart, Julia Meadows.
[Subsequent Leading Members: Libby Mason, Tierl Thompson, Hazel Maycock, Adele Salem, Julie Holledge.
Writers Commissioned: Melissa Murray, Donna Franceschild, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Bryony Lavery, Elizabeth Bond, Deborah Levy, Paulette Randall, Winsome Pinnock, Elaine Feinstein, Jackie Kay.
Directors Employed: Nancy Diuguid, Lou Wakefield, Nona Shepphard, Lily Susan Todd, Anna Furse, Kate Crutchley, Decima Francis, Claire Grove, Gwenda Hughes.
Sphinx Artistic Director: Sue Parrish]

Established: 1973 Women’s Festival at the Almost Free.

Purpose: ‘To provide roles for women in theatre as directors, stage managers and writers and to produce work related to the struggle for equal rights.’ (Kate Dorney’s chapter on Women’s Theatre Group in British Theatre Companies 1980-1994)

Current Status: Renamed in 1991, consistent production seasons tapered off after 2010; Sphinx still hosts conferences, exhibitions, and events about the role of women in theatre and occasionally produces performances.

Area of Work: Women’s Theatre, theatre-in-education, agit-prop, devising, new writing.

Policy: To create and tour consciousness-raising, women centred shows about gender roles, sexuality, socialism, and racial inequality. It practised colour-blind casting starting the early 1980s. With its rebranding as The Sphinx, the company became more new-writing focused, commissioning work with the intention to nurture women writers, address the cultural disenfranchisement of women, and fight for the creative freedom of women artists. Sphinx Theatre’s tagline is ‘women centre stage.’

Policies of Women’s Theatre Group as included in the Appendix of Feminist Theatre Voices: A Collective Oral History, edited by Elaine Aston:
General Policy

  1. To make the name of Women’s Theatre Group synonymous with accessible, entertaining and stimulating theatre, which is by, for and about women.
  2. To encourage new writing by women and to create a canon of women’s plays
  3. To reclaim through our plays women’s history and to record women’s condition now, for the future.
  4. To offer central and positive role models.
  5. To reach as many women as possible, including non-theatregoers.
  6. To offer positive discrimination to all women in our employment practice and in our work.
  7. To positively discriminate in favour of Black women and Lesbians.
  8. To offer women opportunities in all areas of theatre.
  9. To offer an alternative way of working i.e. collectively
  10. To offer women the opportunity to gain, through participation in the running of the company, management skills and confidence.
  11. To provide a resource centre to all women and young women in particular.

Signature work: the group’s major works came in three major types: shows aimed at education around sexuality and gender and the history of women (My Mother Said I Never Should; Dear Girl); agitating shows about labour and social issues (Out! On the Costa del Trico; Christmas Without Herods); and (re)visionary work that addressed the role of women in canonical literature and modes of theatre (Pax; Lear’s Daughters).

Funding: Funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain and Arts Council England, as well as the Greater London Council and regional Arts Boards. The company received revenue funding for small scale touring from 1975-1986. Between 1986 and 2007, the company received a mixture of revenue funding and project grants, as it tried to move to a more finished grade of middle scale touring. Sphinx lost Arts Council Funding in 2007 and curtailed its activities accordingly.

Based: London; during the 1970s and 1980s their long-time offices were at 5 Leonard Street in Islington; current Sphinx offices are at 52 Kennington Oval.

Performance Venues: Oval House, Bush Theatre, Tricycle Theatre, Drill Hall, ICA, Old Bull Arts Centre, Old Red Lion, Jackson’s Lane Community Centre, Battersea Arts Centre, Albany Empire, Young Vic Studio, Warehouse Croydon, Lyric Hammersmith Studio, Palace Theatre Watford; tours of art centres, schools and community centres nationwide.

Audiences: students, community groups; union workers; women’s liberation movement groups; general arts patrons.

For other Women’s Theatre Group images see: Anne Engel, Julie Holledge, Mary Moore, Mica Nava

Company Work and Processes: WTG ran as a collective for its first eleven years, creating shows by devising, but also commissioning writers. Many of its early shows were specifically for Theatre in Education or agit-prop purposes. Middle phase and current productions followed the methods of new writing theatres with a strong intent to encourage women writers and empower actresses. Sphinx also hosts symposiums and cultural encounters like the Glass Ceiling events between 1991 and 2002; the Vamps, Vixens & Feminists Conferences from 2009-2012; the Women Centre Stage Festival in 2015; and its Salons for discussion and debate.

Personal Appraisals and thoughts:
‘I saw the play in an audience of teachers, and it was interesting that the comments covered a fair gamut of responses — too permissive, too mild, identification from both working and middle class girls, fears of backlashes from parents with strong principles, praise for bringing out a taboo subject in the open, etc. etc. What seems certain is that the play has the confidence of a group who have worked out what it is they want to say, and to whom.’ Michelene Wandor reflection on My Mother Said I Never Should in Spare Rib April 1975

‘When the Women’s Theatre Group arrives at a school, a Youth Club, a union meeting, a community centre, or a Women’s Festival, you’ll see women driving the van, lifting the equipment, working the electrics and playing all the parts. But not ruling the roost. We’re an all women collective —we share out all the work and hopefully no one is the boss. WTG publicity flyer from September 1979 ‘Beneath Every Womans Curve Lies a Muscle’

‘In the old days of Women’s Theatre Group there was still quite a lot of concern with the ‘off stage men,’ men implied by the play but not present on stage because we are an all-women’s theatre company. It has gradually become clear that that isn’t quite appropriate — after all, what we are interested in, and should be interested in, are the on-stage women! So, a stronger focus on these women is in order!’ Claire Grove at the moment of WTG’s name change to Sphinx, in interview for Feminist Theatre Voices: A Collective Oral History, reflecting on the company’s future visions

Reviews:
‘The Women’s Theatre Group at the Tricycle in Kilburn are a 10-year-old theatre company who devise and commission plays that ‘question women’s subordinate place in society.’ Judging from their current drama, Love and Dissent, they are also fiercely political.’ (John Barber review of Love and Dissent in the Daily Telegraph, May 1983)

‘The combination of music by Helen Glavin, design by Jennifer Carey, script by Bryony Lavery and performance by the Women’s Theatre Group sounds like a good one. Add to that the theme of the persecution of women as witches and you would be forgiven for expecting some first rate feminist theatre. That the result is a hotch potch that borders on the self-indulgent may be due to lack of rehearsal time, slack script editing, careless direction or any of a number of evils that fringe is vulnerable to.’ (Ros Asquith review of Witchcraze in City Limits 27 September 1985)

‘Quite the best show the company has produced since Pax, Elaine Feinstein’s Lear’s Daughters (Goldsmiths and touring) puts the Women’s Theatre Group back where it belongs — at the forefront of innovative, risk-taking touring companies working with new and experienced writers.’ (Lyn Gardner review of Lear’s Daughters in City Limits 15 October 1987)

‘A raw hot night in Shepherd’s Bush gave a special edge to the London premiere of Bryony Lavery’s dramatisation of Beatrix Campbell’s book about the urban despair that erputed inot rioting during the equally hot summer of 1991. A tapestry of interviews with rioters, the rioted against, and those caught in between, Campbell’s approach is existential rather than sociological, so it makes sense to present these people through their own voices and characters. Remarkably, they are presented through the same person, Nichola McAuliffe, who adapts her voice and body to bring us the bad news from abused sectors of Cardiff, Oxford, North Shields, and Newcastle.’ (Robert Hewison review of Goliath in the Sunday Times 3 August 1997)

Production Table: 

ProductionVenuesDate
Instrument for Love
Writer: Jennifer Phillips
Director: Liane Aukin
Almost Free Women's Season1973
The Amiable Courtship of
Miz Venus and Wild Bill

Writer: Pam Gems
Director: Caroline Eves
Almost Free Women's Season1973
Lovefood
Writer: Dinah Brook
Director: Midge MacKenzie
Almost Free Women's Season1973
Mal de Mere
Writer: Michelene Wandor
Director: Midge MacKenzie
Almost Free Women's Season1973
Parade of Cats
Writer: Jane Wibberly
Director: Lily Susan Todd
Almost Free Women's Season1973
Fantasia
Company devised
Director: Mica Nava
Oval House1974
My Mother Says I Never Should
Company devised
Director: Mica Nava
Oval House1975
Work to Role
Company devised and directed
Bush Theatre1976
Out! on the Costa Del Trico
Company devised
Director: Libby Mason
Bush Theatre1977
Revival of Trico
Company devised
Director: Magda Ryan
Tour1977
Pretty Ugly
Company devised
Director: Caroline Eves
Drill Hall Arts Centre1978
In Our Way
Company devised
Director: Sue Dunderdale
School tour1978
Hot Spot
Writers: Eileen Fairweather
and Melissa Murray

Director: Sue Dunderdale
Oval House1978
Soap Opera
Writer: Donna Franceschild
Director: Julie Holledge
University of London1979
The Wild Bunch
Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director: Julie Holledge
Jackson's Lane1979
My Mkinga
Writer: Kate Phelps
Director: Julie Holledge
ICA1980
Better a Live Pompey Than a Dead Cyril
Writers: Claire McIntyre and
Stephanie Nun
Director: Julie Holledge
Tricycle Theatre1980
Breaking Through
Writer: Timberlake Wertenbaker
Director: Julie Holledge
Oval House1980
New Anatomies
Writer: Timberlake Wertenbaker
Director: Nancy Diuguid
ICA1981
Time Pieces
Lou Wakefield with company
Director: Lou Wakefield
Oval House1982
Double Vision
Writer: Libby Mason
Director: Libby Mason
Old Bull Arts Centre1982
Love and Dissent
Writer: Elisabeth Bond
Director: Nona Shepphard
Tricycle Theatre1983
Dear Girl
Writers: Libby Mason and
Tierl Thompson
Director: Libby Mason
Old Red Lion1983
Trade Secrets
Writer: Jacqui Shapiro
Director: Heather Peace
Albany Theatre1984
Anywhere to Anywhere
Writer: Joyce Halliday
Director: Kate Crutchley
Oval House1985

Pax
Writer: Deborah Levy
Directors: Anna Furse and Lily Susan Todd
Oval House1985
Witchcraze
Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director: Nona Shepphard
Battersea Art Centre1985
Fixed Deal
Writers: Paulette Randall and
Tasha Fairbanks
Director: Decima Francis
Oval House1986
Our Lady
Writer: Deborah Levy
Director: Sallie Aprahamian
Drill Hall1986
Holding the Reins
Alison Altman with the company
1987
Lear’s Daughters
Elaine Feinstein with the company
Director: Gwenda Hughes
Battersea Art Centre1987
Picture Palace
Writer: Winsome Pinnock
Director: Gwenda Hughes
Oval House1988
Revival of Lear’s Daughters
Elaine Feinstein with the company
Director: Gwenda Hughes
Young Vic Studio1988
Pinchdice & Co
Writer: Julie Wilkinson
Director: Claire Grove
Hemel Hempstead Arts Centre1989
Zerri’s Choice
Writer: Sandra Yaw
Director: Joan-Ann Maynard
Albany Theatre1989
Mortal
Writers: Maro Green and Caroline Griffin
Director: Claire Grove
Young Vic Studio1990
Her Aching Heart
Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director:. Claire Grove
Oval House1990
Christmas Without Herods
Writer: Lisa Evans
Director: Claire Grove
ICA1990
Revival of Her Aching Heart
Writer: Bryony Lavery
Director: Claire Grove
Tour1991
First Annual Glass Ceiling Event
Chair: Sue Parrish and Jenni Murray. Featuring: Professor Janet Todd, Dr. Juliet Dusinberre, Fiona Shaw, Charlotte Keatley, Jill Tweedie.
ICA1991
Company name changed to Sphynx Theatre Company1992
Roaring Girls Hamlet
Writer: William Shakespeare with a new
setting by Claire Luckham
Director: Sue Parrish
Warehouse Croydon1992
Every Bit of It
Writer: Jackie Kay
Director: Sue Parrish
Tour1992
Glass Ceiling II
Chairs: Sue Parrish and Jenni Murray. Featuring: Hélène Cixous, Sarah Cornell, Janet Suzman, Deborah Warner, Fiona Shaw, Jackie Kay.
ICA1992
Playhouse Creatures
Writer: April De Angelis
Director: Sue Parrish
Lyric Studio1993
Glass Ceiling III
Chairs: Sue Parrish and Jude Kelly. Featuring: Beatrix Campbell, Suzy Orbach, Hélène Cixous, Viv Gardner, Juliet Stevenson, Di Trevis, Rona Munro.
National Theatre1994
Chandralekha
Writer: Amrit Wilson
Director: Sue Parrish
Tour1994
Black Sail, While Sail
Writer: Hélène Cixous
Director: Sue Parrish
Gate Theatre1994
Glass Ceiling IV
Chairs: Helena Kennedy QC and Ruth Mackenzie. Featuring: Taslima Nasrin, Irina Ratushinskaya, Amrit Wilson, Jude Kelly, Beatrix Campbell, Phyllis Nagy, Judith Jacob
National Theatre1994
Hanjo
Adapted by Diane Esguerra
from Yukio Mishima
Director: Sue Parrish
Tour1995
Glass Ceiling V
Chairs: Sarah Dunant and Ruth Mackenzie. Featuring: Della Grace, Professor Susan Bassnett, Claire Armistead, Annie Castledine, Kay Mellor, Toyah Wilcox, Denise Wong
National Theatre1995
Voyage in the Dark
Adapted by Joan Wiles
from Jean Rhys
Director: Sue Parrish
Young Vic Studio1996
Glass Ceiling VI 'Slipshod Sybils: Kicking Against Pricks'
Chair: Jude Kelly. Featuring: Dr. Germaine Greer, Dr. Juliet Mitchell, Annie Casteldine, Pam Gems, Bonnie Greer, Sarah Kane, Mel Kenyon and a reading of Sarah Kane’s Blasted.
National Theatre1996
Goliath
Writer: Bryony Lavery from a
book by Beatrix Campbell
Director: Annie Castledine
Leicester Haymarket1997
Glass Ceiling VII 'Shifting Focus'
Chairs: Joan Bakewell and Genista McIntosh. Featuring: Professor Lisa Jardine, Nicholas de Jongh, Mike Phillips, Desmond Barrit, Burt Caesar, Beatrix Campbell, Kathryn Hunter, Fiona Shaw.
Almeida1997
The Snow Palace
Writer: Pam Gems
Director: Janet Suzman
Tricycle Theatre1998
Vita and Virginia
Writer: Eileen Atkins
Director: Maria Aitken
Palace Theatre Watford1999
Sweet Dreams
Writer: Diane Esguerra
Director: Sue Parrish
Chelsea Arts Centre1999

Interviewee references: Anne Engel, Anna Furse, Gillian Hanna, Jean Hart, Julie Holledge, Bryony Lavery, Libby Mason, Mica Nava, Lily Susan Todd, Adele Salem, Michelene Wandor.

Existing Archive Materials:
Sphinx Theatre Company turned over the WTG/Sphinx files, papers, and records to the V&A Theatre Museum Collection. The ACGB files at the V&A also contain many important records about the company.

Bibliography:
‘Whoever said that girls need boys?’ Ros Asquith, Observer 5 March 1978
The Cambridge Companion to Modern British. Eds Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt.
Women Playwrights (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000)
Feminist Views on the English Stage: Women Playwrights 1900-2000. Elaine Aston. (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2003)
Feminist Theatre Voices: A Collective Oral History. Six Feminist. Ed Elaine Aston.
Theatre Groups in Interview. (Loughborough. Loughborough Theatre Texts, 2000)
Feminist Theatre Practice: A Handbook. Elaine Aston (London: Routledge, 1999)
An Introduction to Feminism and Theatre. Elaine Aston (London: Routledge, 1995)
‘Finding a Voice: Feminism and Theatre in the 1970s.’ Elaine Aston. The Arts in the 1970s: Cultural Closure? Ed. Bart Moore-Gilbert. (London: Routledge, 1994. 99-128)
‘Struggling with the Past: Women’s Theatre in Search of a History.’ Susan Bassnet (New Theatre Quarterly 5:18 (1989). 107-112)
‘Process and Product: Contemporary British Theatre and its Communities of Women.’ Susan Carlson (Theatre Research International 13:3 (1988). 249-263)
‘Lesbian Performance in the Transnational Arena.’ Sue-Ellen Case. Cambridge  Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights. Ed. Elaine Aston and Janelle Reinelt (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 253-267)
Recording Women: A Documentation of Six Theatre Productions. Geraldine Cousin (Amsterdam, Harwood Academic Press, 2000)
Women in Dramatic Space and Time. Geraldine Cousin (London: Routledge, 1996)
Crutchley, Kate and Nancy Diuguid. Introduction to Care and Control. Strike While the Iron is Hot: Three Plays on Sexual Politics. Ed. Michelene Wandor. London: The Journeyman Press, 1980. 63-64
Lesbian Plays. Jill David (London: Methuen, 1987)
Languages of the Theatre Shaped by Women. Eds Jane DeGay and Lizbeth Goodman (Bristol: Intellect, 2003)
‘Women’s Theatre Group.’ Kate Dorney. British Theatre Companies 1980-1994. Ed.Graham Saunders (London: Bloomsbury Methuen, 2015. 213-236)
Adaptations of Shakespeare: An Anthology of Plays  from the Seventeenth Century to the Present. Eds Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier (London: Routledge, 2000)
Putting Your Daughters on Stage: Lesbian Theatre from the 1970s to the 1990s. Sandra Freeman (London: Cassell, 1997)
Mythic Women/Real Women: Plays and Performance Pieces by Women. Lizbeth Goodman (London: Faber and Faber, 2000)
Contemporary Feminist Theatres: To Each Her Own. Lizbeth Goodman (London: Routledge, 1993)
Feminist Stages: Interviews with Women in Contemporary British Theatre. Eds Lizbeth Goodman and Jane DeGay (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Press, 1996)
Herstory-Plays By Women For Women Volume 1: Lear’s Daughters, Pinchdice & Co, and Witchcraze. Gabrielle Griffin and Elaine Aston (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991)
Herstory- Plays By Women For Women Volume II: Love & Dissent, Dear Girl, and Anywhere to Anywhere. Gabrielle Griffin and Elaine Aston (Sheffield:  Sheffield Academic Press, 1991)
Monstrous Regiment: A Collective Celebration. Gillain Hanna (London: Nick Hern Books)
Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain since 1968. Catherine Itzin (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980)
‘The Dis-Play’s the Thing: Gender and the Public Sphere in Contemporary British Theatre.’ Lauren Kruger.  Feminist Theatre and Theory: Contemporary Critical Essays. Ed. Helene Keyssar (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. 49-77)
Introduction to My Mother Says I Never Should. Strike While the Iron is Hot: Three Plays on Sexual Politics. Mica Nava. Ed. Michelene Wandor (London: The Journeyman Press, 1980.115-117)
Thatcher’s Theatre: British Theatre and Drama in the Eighties. Keith D Peacock. Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies 88 (London: Greenwood Press, 1999)
Fringe First: Pioneers of the Fringe Theatre on Record. Roland Rees (London: Oberon, 1992)
Plays By Women. Volume Six. Ed Mary Remnant (London: Methuen, 1987)
Women and Theatre: Calling the Shots. Ed Lily Susan Todd (London: Faber and Faber, 1984)
‘The Woman Director in the Theatre.’ Claire Venables. (Theatre Quarterly 10:38 (1980)
Look Back in Gender: Sexuality and the Family in Post-War British Drama. Michelene Wandor (London: Methuen, 1987)
Plays By Women. Volume Three. Ed Michelene Wandor (London: Methuen, 1984)
Carry On, Understudies: Theatre and Sexual Politics. Michelene Wandor (London:Routledge, 1981)
Strike While the Iron is Hot: Three Plays on Sexual Politics. Gay Sweatshop, Red Ladder Theatre, Women’s Theatre Group. Ed Michelene Wandor (London: The Journeyman Press, 1980)
Rev. of Out! On the Costa Del Trico by Women’s Theatre Group. Michelene Wandor. Women’s Theatre Group (Spare Rib 56 (March 1977). 41)
Work to Role: A New Play by the Women’s Theatre Group.’ Michelene Wandor (Spare Rib 45 (April 1976). 30-31)
Rev. of My Mother Says I Never Should. Women’s Theatre Group. Michelene Wandor (Spare Rib 34 (April 1975). 41)

Acknowledgements: This page compiled by Sara Freeman.