Good roles for young female actors are in short supply, so Tonic Theatre set out to change that by commissioning a series of new plays with mainly or entirely female casts for schools and youth theatre groups to perform. As the first three plays in the Platform series are published by Nick Hern Books and made available for performance, Tonic’s Lucy Kerbel explains why things have to change, and how you can get involved…
Commissioning and publishing a range of new plays for young actors which put girls and their stories centre stage is something I have wanted to do for a long time and, since Tonic Theatre was formed in 2011, it is an idea I have been looking to get off the ground. Tonic exists to support UK theatre to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and its repertoires; essentially our mission is to catalyse a culture-shift in how theatre thinks and works, so that talented women are given the same levels of support and opportunity as talented men.
While it has pretty big aspirations, Tonic is a tiny organisation; we have one-and-a-bit members of staff, no core funding, and a very modest financial turnover. Because we have such limited funds and capacity, we have to use these wisely and consequently are extremely strategic about where we target our efforts. I spend much time looking to identify ‘pressure points’ – places where, with a bit of work, a far bigger ripple effect can be achieved. For this reason, much of our work to date has been focused on partnerships with some of the largest organisations in the country, because if they change, others will follow. But youth drama has always been clear to me as one of the greatest pressure points of all. It is the engine room of the theatre industry; tomorrow’s theatre-makers (not to mention audience members) are to be found today in youth-theatre groups, university drama societies and school drama clubs all over the country.
If we can challenge their assumptions about the role of women’s stories, voices, and ideas in drama, then change in the profession – in time – will be immeasurably easier to achieve.
Beyond this strategic interest in youth drama, I was convinced that girls were getting a raw deal and I found that troubling. Having worked previously as a youth-theatre director, I was familiar with the regular challenge of trying to find scripts that had adequate numbers of female roles for all the committed and talented girls that wanted to take part. In nearly all the various youth-drama groups I worked in across a five-year period, there were significantly more girls than boys. However, when it came to finding big-cast, age-appropriate plays for them to work on, I was constantly frustrated by how few there seemed to be that provided enough opportunity for the girls, its most loyal and committed participants. When looking at contemporary new writing for young actors to perform, one could be mistaken for thinking that youth drama was a predominantly male pursuit, rather than the other way round.
Aside from the practicalities of matching the number of roles to the number of girls in any one drama group, the nature of writing for female characters was something I struggled to get excited about. While there were some notable examples, often the writing for female characters seemed somewhat lacklustre. They tended to be characters at the periphery of the action rather than its heart, with far less to say and do than their male counterparts, and with a tendency towards being one‑dimensional, rather than complex or vibrant, funny or surprising. Why was it that in the twenty-first century the quality as well as the quantity of roles being written for girls still seemed to lag behind those for boys so demonstrably?
Keen to check I wasn’t just imagining this imbalance, Tonic conducted a nationwide research study looking into opportunities for girls in youth drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. The research was written up into a report, Swimming in the shallow end, and is published on the Tonic Theatre website. Not only did the research confirm my worst fears – more depressingly, it exceeded them. While many of the research participants were vocal about the social, artistic and emotional benefits that participation in youth-drama productions can have on a young person’s life, so too were they – to quote the report – on ‘the erosion to self-esteem, confidence and aspiration when these opportunities are repeatedly held out of reach… [and] for too many girls, this is the case’.
But despite the doom and gloom of the research findings, there remained an exciting proposition; to write stories that weren’t currently being put on stage, and to foreground – rather than ignore – the experiences, achievements and world-view of young women, perhaps the group above all others in British society whose situation has altered so dramatically and excitingly over the past hundred or so years. Tonic commissioned writers I was most fascinated to see respond to the brief set to them: a large-cast play written specifically for performance by young actors, with mainly or entirely female casts and in which the female characters should be no less complex or challenging than the male characters. I asked them to write in such a way that these plays could be performed by young people anywhere in the country, and that there should be scope for every school, college and youth-theatre group performing the play to make a production their own.
At Tonic our hope is that the first Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – will be just the beginning of a longer trajectory of work for us. Although it entails further fundraising mountains to climb, we plan to commission and publish more plays over future years. Our aspiration is that over time Platform will become a new canon of writing for young actors and one that puts girls and their lives centre stage. I dearly hope that they will be taken up by groups all over the country and performed for many years to come.
‘Drama is an important tool for building confidence and empowering young people. Platform will give girls opportunity to access these benefits as much as their male counterparts.’ – Moira Buffini
A few words from NHB’s Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…
“We’re incredibly proud and excited to be supporting Tonic Theatre’s important work in addressing gender inequality in the theatre. I’m sure these plays will be picked up and performed by youth theatres, schools and drama clubs across the country, as they really do address an urgent need for more good parts for young women. I’ve been asked so many times to recommend plays that offer young women strong roles, and it’s wonderful that now we can start licensing three new plays that fit the bill exactly. I urge everyone who works with youth theatre or teaches drama at a school to pick up these plays and give them a go!”
All three Platform plays – The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy and This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood – are published on 11 June 2015 by Nick Hern Books.
Buying from an educational institution or youth group? You can get all three Platform plays at a special discount price – head to the Platform website for more information.
For more information about Tonic Theatre, visit www.tonictheatre.co.uk.
Lucy Kerbel photograph by Slav Kirichok