If you were asked to name an industry that had pretty solid progressive credentials, chances are you’d venture theatre/the arts as a safe bet.
It may surprise you then to learn that, in London especially, contemporary theatre is still a male-dominated arena.
Well, in true SOAS style, an award winning production currently crowdfunding in order to visit the next Edinburgh Fringe features an all-female cast and is written and helmed by two women. SOAS Blogs met up with the writers Abigail Moselle and Jordana Belaiche to find out more.
So this play, what’s it about?
J: Millennial anxieties about appearance, authenticity, Instagram, dystopia and the impact of constructing identities, outside of the ones we already inhabit, on friendships. There’s also a whole load of theatre criticism about the way we perform theatre chucked in there. If anything we wanted to represent current dilemmas relevant to our age group while framing it within a context that spoke directly to the theatre industry. We knew we’d be performing the show for a specific audience – student performers with a keen interest in London and fringe or student theatre – and the show was written accordingly to suit those watching.
Where have you performed it so far?
A: We first performed it at the London Student Drama Festival semi-finals and then finals – we ended up winning three out of four prizes, Best New Writing and both Outstanding Performances for our two actors!
J: And at SOAS in our JCR, of course. We plan to showcase the hour long show at SOAS, but in the meantime we’re planning to take part in the SOAS Festival and Continuum Festival in June. Lots of festivals.
How did it feel to win those awards?
J: It was ridiculous. We didn’t expect to win – apart from SOAS Drama being the most underfunded society and smallest cast with the least amount of set, props, costumes or tech at the festival, we knew our piece was slightly off-the-wall. Frankly, it was a marvel we even made it to the Finals given the tongue-in-cheek jabs to student theatre (as well as respected directors) in the show. Needless to say, we were all delighted and astounded to win. Those laurel leaves will look great on the Edinburgh flyers.
How did you go about casting the roles?
J: We held open castings through SOAS Drama Society and cast Miranda as Kathy/Kay from the initial round of auditions. Once we had a fair idea about where we wanted the show to go to and the dynamic we were after, we approached Mel, who we’d both already worked with on a production of Love’s Labour’s Lost last year who suited the role(s) of Anna/Em perfectly.
As we were writing and working to a deadline we needed to know we could rely on the cast to not only work together but work quickly, efficiently and professionally. I couldn’t be more proud of the work they achieved in such a limited space of time.
How do you two write together? What’s your process?
A: Initially we brainstormed and planned together, but then we went away and wrote the scenes ourselves and then edited the play as a whole. Knowledge is Power is supposed to be fragmented, to represent the disconnect people can feel due to technology, and I think part of what helps is our different writing styles.
J: There was not much of a process per se, I don’t think it would be particularly SOAS of us to stick to linear configurations of time. We knew we wanted dystopia somewhere, but other than that we didn’t have a concrete starting point. We started with some simple concepts and thought about the kind of theatre we’d enjoyed, or rather not enjoyed, seeing and took it from there.
Abi would send me a few pages of dialogue and I’d edit them, acting as a sort of slap-dash dramaturg and write some more of my own. We wrote Scene Four together in the SOAS Library in about 15 minutes, which comprised a lot of giggling and me interjecting on how many ‘melons’ should be on each line.
Abi and I are both very critical and analytical and we see theatre together regularly, so I knew we’d be on the same page creatively. We’ve also worked together on productions before and that confidence in each other’s ability to produce work probably helped. Theatre is a collaborative process and, like Velma Kelly, one can’t do it alone.
Abigail, you study English at SOAS – were there any modules or elements of the programme in general that were beneficial for the writing?
A: I did a Global Shakespeare module last year in which we explored ways that people have ‘written back’ to his works. These texts were both critical of cultural hierarchy and imperialism that Shakespeare participates in whilst also being works of art on their own. This was what we wanted to achieve with Knowledge is Power: satire, criticism but also something that could be enjoyed and consumed without background knowledge.
Jordana, did your studies in Politics inform any aspects of the story?
J: The BA Politics programme completely challenges all perceptions of the world as you know it, which is excellent when analysing political processes, theories – and theatre. If I were to delve deep down into my psyche I’d say it was probably my analytical and critical training that forced me to approach such a wholesome event as the London Student Drama Festival with such cynicism, but that might be stretching it a bit.
The story is political inasmuch as it’s about the construction of identity and a brutally honest look at the ways in which that has an impact on the relationships around us. The whole show is about construction, about how we present both ourselves and theatre and what messages we’re trying to convey through the methods we use. It’s also a lighthearted poke at some accredited male directors (no! I won’t say who!) and their styles, in the industry that we don’t care for very much, so in a broader sense you could probably tease something political out of it.
“This was what we wanted to achieve with Knowledge is Power: satire, criticism but also something that could be enjoyed and consumed without background knowledge.”
What are your thoughts more generally about the representation of women and/or minorities in the arts?
J: I’m so glad you asked! Lately there has been a greater trend for women and people of colour to be cast more prominently in Shakespearean productions in London, I’m thinking of the Donmar Warehouse Trilogy, Emma Rice’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, the Old Vic’s King Lear, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Henry V and the National Theatre’s Twelfth Night.
Obviously it’s excellent that women are getting to play more than the two female roles that generally appear in Shakespeare but it’s not ground-breaking. We need more roles for women and minorities being written, directed and produced by those groups, not just in traditional plays but in modern theatre too.
There are so many stories that need to be told and heard by these groups and while theatre continues to be a predominantly male and white space, the focus is placed on consumerist ‘value’ of art and its unlikely commercial or national platforms will open to them considerably. The example of Emma Rice being ousted as Artistic Director of the Globe by an entirely male board, or of the attack launched by Dominic Cavendish on Tamsen Greig for playing ‘Malvolia’ in the National’s Twelfth Night are just two of a myriad of examples of how, even when women are given a platform within the arts, they still receive so much hostility.
A: In terms of women, I think we’re both sick of seeing male directors putting actresses in slips and then romanticizing their distress/mental illness (cough Hamlet cough). Mainstream London theatre is also overwhelmingly white – Cameron Mackintosh’s Half A Sixpence is a complete example of this, where the writers and producers claimed they needed an all-white cast for ‘historical accuracy’. Julian Fellowes even did an interview where he defended the Print Room for casting white actors as Chinese and said that if there could be a black Henry V then there could be a white Othello. I think all this suggests that there is a lot of misunderstanding about race and diversity in theatre.
J: Greater representation within the arts cannot unfortunately happen without funding and while arts programs and courses continue to be cut and considered additional to other forms of learning and discussion there isn’t much hope for progression. It’s why spaces like the Brighton, Camden and Edinburgh Fringe festivals are so integral for supporting artists working outside commercial arts industries because without them they probably wouldn’t be afforded the same chances to showcase their work. As long as the arts are considered a disposable feature of society and as long as theatre remains the domain of wealthy white men, the chances of catching all white casts with little to no representations of women remain tragically high.
“Theatre continues to be a predominantly male and white space”
You’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to help get you to the Fringe. How can people help?
J: Get ya wallets out and give us that dolla!! Seriously, anything you have to spare goes a long way to helping us get to Fringe, even if it’s a twenty pence piece, we promise we’ll appreciate it. If you can’t donate, as students, we feel the strugs, so you can follow us on Instagram (ironic I know), Twitter and Facebook to help spread the word about our production. We’re also launching some fundraising events in the upcoming weeks, the details of which will be on all our social media platforms, so come to some/all of those!
A: Any donation would be a massive help! We’re about 60% of the way there, but there is only about 6 days until the page gets taken down so time is of the essence! Also, if people could share the page through social media or send it to anyone they think would be interested.
You can also come see our show at Edinburgh Fringe!