Exploring the birth and legacy of feminist theatre
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A new form of theatre began to emerge during the 1970s and ‘80s, largely fuelled by both second wave feminism and the wider political theatre popular at the time.
Feminist theatre worked (and still works) to depict the lived experience of women. It strives to tell the stories of real women and works to destabilise the male gaze; the idea that the world is predominantly seen through the lens of the male and that women are therefore often depicted as objects to be viewed or desired. Feminist theatre challenges that assumption and the form of traditional theatre.
Some of the themes of feminist theatre have examined sex and gender roles, telling the often under represented histories of women as well as the stories of oppressed women, and critiquing existing patriarchal systems of power. At its best, feminist theatre allows the voices of intersectional feminism to speak and be heard, rejecting hierarchical authority, and working collaboratively to celebrate female voices, placing women at the centre of the narrative.
But feminist theatre also often defied definition due to its nature of experimentation and breaking boundaries of traditional storytelling.
Many of the feminist theatre companies had ironic or playful names such as Cunning Stunts, Beryl and the Perils, Monstrous Regiment, and Gay Sweatshop. They utilised the theatre to challenge patriarchal power structures and reclaim the writing of female playwrights, or alternatively worked as a female collective to produce their plays. They wrote large roles for women and allowed them to tell women-centred stories based in personal experience. Some also used mockery and satire to examine previously held notions of femininity.
Of importance to these women-led companies were that the women be paid as actors and workers in the same way that men within the industry were, as well as ensuring that the working conditions were good. The women involved in the first companies took on all the roles a man within the same industry did.
Companies like Spare Tyre deliberately chose to put on productions in poorer areas in the north of England in order to reach more women, and were often invited to perform by women’s political groups, as well as youth groups, in order to foster ideas for new role models to young people. They also reached out to women (and men) in the areas they naturally inhabited via the Women’s Movement, such as mother and baby groups, and importantly, plays were available at a low cost.
Some of the trained women actors claimed that their drama school experiences had been classes full of white, middle-class people who had often attended public schools, and claimed that it was still an acknowledged fact that to be a successful actor you needed to discard a regional accent and speak well. It was therefore seen as important for the feminist theatre companies to support more working-class female actors and playwrights.
Companies also began to emerge to support and represent the experience of Black and POC voices who were often marginalised within the second-wave feminist movement. Imani-Faith, founded in 1983 by Jacqueline Rudet by and for Black women, was just one example. Rudet also wrote Money to Live for the Black Theatre Co-operative, a play representing the experience of prostitution.
Other companies tackled lesbian feminist issues, such as Gay Sweatshop, attending events like the 1977 Women’s Festival at The Drill Hall, a venue that was to become a leading proponent of lesbian and gay artistic expression. Influenced by the Women’s Movement and magazines like Spare Rib, the festival attracted large crowds of lesbian women coming together from all over Europe.
The theatre companies were not without their problems, but what made these women’s collectives important to the feminist discourse was the focus on women and a way to raise relevant issues affecting them within this new phase of women’s liberation. They were a way to rock the boat; to question the established power structures and to do so within an artistic forum.
Though contemporary theatre has a wider representation of issues affecting all genders, some feminist companies do still exist, such as WP Theatre and The Dirty Blondes Theatre Company, which continue to build on the representation of women’s voices within theatre.
More recently, playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s angry, feminist play Maryland, written in the wake of the violent murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa in 2021, is a 30 minute, visceral ‘howl of a play’ originally performed at The Royal Court, London in 2021. When Kirkwood waived performance rights for November of that year, however, the play went on to be performed all over the UK, with its startling messages around male violence reverberating in an angry and troubled climate.
Such a play fits well within the radical thinking of traditional feminist theatre. Kirkwood claimed the play took her only two days to write, so angry was she at the political landscape around violence to women and the well-publicised murders, as well as other police investigations.
Importantly, the play - which wasn’t commissioned but merely written by Kirkwood as a response to recent events - contained some lines specifically to be spoken by women of colour. It was written to encourage audiences to go out and tackle unacceptable behaviour and language around women within the wider community.
This is particularly relevant in that everything within Kirkwood’s play is based on real-life people and events.
With more plays set to be performed tackling women’s experiences, it looks like the legacy of feminist theatre will continue to be not only a performative experience, but an essential part of the conversation around women’s lives.