After noticing that her plays were getting programed by female producers, playwright Tamara von Werthern wondered if she could help make opportunities for other underrepresented playwrights. In this guest post, she shares her journey into founding Fizzy Sherbet and creating new opportunities for women writers.
2016 was a bit of a shit year in many respects, but for me, it was surprisingly productive. After concentrating on developing my full-length play almost exclusively for several years, I decided to write and send out some new short plays parallel to my efforts. My youngest child had started nursery in January which gave me three hours each week to write. And somehow, by sending things to every opportunity going, I managed to have five different new short plays performed or staged as readings throughout the year. It was such a joy to turn up at a venue, sit in the audience, and watch my play unfold without having lifted a finger to put it there (apart from clicking ‘send’ of course).
A funny thing I had noticed was that all the producers, programmers and directors, who had picked my plays and decided to include them, were women. I wondered if it had something to do with my subject matters, with the predominantly female casts, or maybe the fact that the female experience, whatever that may be, is quite central to my work. It might have been a coincidence, but I was intrigued.
Being exposed through my work at Nick Hern Books to Tonic Theatre (we publish Lucy Kerbel as well as her excellent Platform series of plays with large female casts), I was also keenly aware of the imbalance of female vs male playwrights in the UK. Just under a third of writers of original work for the stage produced are female (according to the latest British Theatre Repertoire Report), and the gender disparity gets worse the higher up you go, so that in the West End there is the lowest percentage of female writers represented on stage.
But then it dawned on me that while I have been lamenting the fact that I have it harder to get my plays on than my male colleagues (statistically speaking), I was also in a really good position to be part of changing this trend. It’s easier than you might think to take matters into your own hands.
Fizzy Sherbet, a new writing initiative exclusively for women writers was born when I mentioned the idea to the mother of one of my children’s friends, Olivia Trench, over a coffee/playdate. Olivia happens to also be Drama Development Executive at Eleven Film, and her enthusiastic encouragement (as well as her offer to share the reading!) brought the idea a step closer to reality.
Both Olivia and I read a lot of plays in our respective jobs and we felt confident that we would be able to pull it off together. When Lily McLeish, who is a wonderful theatre director and a passionate advocate of gender equality in the theatre came on board, we started to get even more excited. Lily has experience of directing as Katie Mitchell’s associate in large venues (she most recently worked with her on Cleansed at the National Theatre), and as an accomplished director in her own right. Lily and I have been working together for a while now, and I know that she is excellent on text work, so I thought – this is shaping up pretty good! This also gave us a great grounding to begin approaching potential venues.
When we were then offered the Hackney Attic, a lovely cabaret-style venue above the Hackney Picturehouse, where one of my shorts was shown in 2015, as a venue, there was no holding back. We launched Fizzy Sherbet with a Facebook page, and were amazed by the response. Not only did the plays pour in and we received over 200 submissions, but they were also accompanied by messages of gratitude, expressions of delight at the existence of a new initiative supporting this cause and offers of friendship all around.
It was all rather heart-warming and encouraging. And what a treasure trove we had opened!
We read plays on space travel, on scientific discoveries, on the Iranian revolution; plays set in supermarkets, in the sky, under the surface of a lake. We read plays that were heartbreakingly sad and ones that made us laugh out loud. Plays about porn and about dying parents. Political plays, personal plays and plays that were both. The characters included every age, gender definition and even characters from the animal kingdom. It was an enriching and eye-opening experience. Every time we had put the kids to bed, brewed some coffee and opened our laptops, there was a tingle of excitement at what we would discover this time.
When we had first discussed how we wanted to run Fizzy Sherbet, our concern went beyond female playwrights, to the related issue of gender inequality on stage. We wanted to encourage the creation of more interesting, varied and gratifying parts for women to play. When we counted up the characters of the plays we read we found that across the board two thirds of characters were women and one third men.
We were very excited and and hugely encouraged to discover that in this case an exclusively female group of playwrights without any steering in regards of subject matter, delivered a great variety of writing but with a clear natural predominance of female characters. This made us wonder: could the predominance of male characters on our stages might simply be led back to the fact that currently there are more male playwrights being performed in the UK than female?
In our case, simply supporting female writers was indeed part of the solution.
Fizzy Sherbet took place at Hackney Attic on 24th January at 7.30. see: https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Hackney_Picturehouse/film/fizzy-sherbet-plays