In a draughty pub somewhere south of the river I discuss gender inequality in theatre over a cup of tea with actors Jenny Wilford and Charlotte Couture.
The pair are the founders of Sheer Height, a feminist theatre company which this month is holding a one-day festival, Women Redressed, at the Arcola.
Showcasing new writing from UK playwrights, as well as excerpts from established plays, the festival aims presents theatre that plants female characters firmly centre stage, and which probes perceptions and expectations of gender.
Despite our shivering, the conversation was heated. A few years out of drama school, the actors are disillusioned with the roles they are consistently offered.
“It’s a saturated market, so it’s hard to get in the room to audition, for starters,” says Wilford. “But what always frustrates us are the parts we see coming up time and time again; we’re still seeing recurrent casting calls for the romantic interest, the mother, the sister – always family or romance or sex, in relation to a male lead.”
“In the 19th century, Henrik Ibsen wrote really strong, interesting female protagonists,” Couture offers. “And then at some point it kind of fell apart…” adds Wilford, wryly.
Couture and Wilford are brimming with facts about gender inequality in theatre. “Did you know 2008 was the first time the National Theatre staged a female playwright’s original work on the Olivier Stage? Or that The Mousetrap, by Agatha Christie – the longest running West End show – is frequently the only play written by a woman staged in the West End?”
Dissatisfied with the state of their industry, Couture and Wilford took matters into their own hands. In 2014 they set up Sheer Height, naming it after Shere Hite, a feminist known for her pioneering work on female sexuality.
Since forming, the company has staged a sell-out performance of Clare McIntyre’s Low Level Panic and November last year saw the inaugural Women Redressed festival at the Arcola. It was a sell out success, leading Couture and Wilford to bring it back for another outing this month.
The actors believe that, as women in drama, their work is inevitably politicised – though they believe it shouldn’t have to be. “It’s a difficult balance,” says Wilford. “Female playwrights and actors just want to work without labels or having to be political… but also – we want to make some progress here!”
“We have clear guidelines for script submissions,” says Wilford. “The idea is to have female characters at the core of the plot, which itself should explore gender issues and challenge perceptions.”
“We really think about what we’re presenting in terms of having a diverse programme,” says Couture. “Last time we had plays about abortion, domestic violence, sex work, the office environment, same-sex relationships… but we also put on plays about female friendship – and, you know, about women just having a good time! I think that in itself is really empowering.”
In light of cuts to the arts, Wilford and Couture believe now is a particularly troubling time for women in theatre. “Lack of funding means theatres are very reluctant to take risks. So, often, they’re going with safe options – which usually means commercial productions, established plays and the same revivals over and over again,” says Wilford.
Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street,