Theatre Specialist Dr Susan Croft talks about compiling ’50 Women in Theatre’, published by Supernova Books
An important time within theatre addressing equality and representation, we’re currently witnessing important conversations had and movements formed that are helping to shape our new era of theatre, post pandemic, and the early 21st century. Published by Supernova Books, 50 Women in Theatre shines a light on 25 legends of post war theatre in the English-speaking world and 25 extraordinary women working in theatre today. Playing a significant role in the creation of the book, Theatre Specialist Dr Susan Croft, whose work varies as writer, curator, dramaturg, arts/performance archive consultant and historian, tells us more about the creative process of compiling the book, writing the book’s overview, and what to expect!
Hi Susan, 50 Women in Theatre, a book celebrating the contributions of pioneering women within the arts will become available to purchase from Thursday 7th October. How are you feeling ahead of the release?
I’m excited at the interest it seems to be generating from multiple points of view: from articles focusing on women playing Hamlet and other male Shakespearean roles, on gender fluid and gender-swapped productions – and how long they’ve been around, to the impact of feminist activism over the years which, with the ground-breaking careers of individuals who have acted as role models, challenged policies and championed others to follow them, has brought about real change in terms of representation of gender, race, Dis/ability. When things feel gloomy, such as while the arts struggle to recover from the pandemic, with an unsympathetic government, andwith the class profile of those going into the arts becoming more exclusive, celebrating those achievements allows us to see that our continuing activism can also bear fruit, as it has before. As Rebecca Solnit writes of wanting to offer encouragement through her book Hope in the Dark, of the need to ‘nurture… people’s sense of possibility, and … dissent from a lot of the most familiar narratives in which despair and cynicism… justify non participation’.
The book features interviews with 25 legends of post war theatre in the English-speaking world and interviews with 25 extraordinary women working in theatre today. You’ve played a significant part in the creation of the book, having conducted many of the interviews featured. How did you approach this part of the creative process?
I didn’t myself conduct the interviews though I advised on the questions to ask and most importantly I lobbied for the inclusion of a wide diversity of women in theatre. Given the limitations of selecting only 25 legends/pioneers and 25 contemporary women, I wanted to ensure that our choice gave some inkling of the huge range of areas and kinds of theatre which women have created or where they have forged career paths. I wanted us to celebrate and represent both a diversity of individuals.
As someone who came of age at a moment in the 1980s where the feminist activism in the arts that started in the mid-70s was beginning to bear fruit, with the Arts Council starting to address gender representation and the number of women in positions of power in theatre gradually beginning to increase, I wanted to ensure that we celebrated as many of those ground-breaking women’s stories as possible from Rose De Wend Fenton and Lucy Neal, founders of LIFT to South African playwright and storyteller Gcina Mhlophe, from Jill Greenhalgh, creator of the Magdalena Project network of women in experimental theatre to Kully Thiarai, whose latest position is leading the Leeds City of Culture celebrations for 2023, from Julia Miles whose work at the Women’s Project in NYC developed the work of so many women playwrights to Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, who also co-directed the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics.
The book includes an overview of the history of women in theatre, written by yourself and Naomi Paxton. How did you find this part of the creative process? How did you approach writing the overview?
I think Naomi had the easier task, writing about the impact of suffrage movement, which was the first time women in theatre used their status to address gender wrongs – and in the process opened up new opportunities for women as writers, directors, designers, producers, in that it was bit more contained!
In the post-1945 period that I was looking at inevitably there were so many hundreds more women who could not be included in the main entries of the book but made and continue to make important contributions, where I wanted to at least mention their achievements so as to encourage readers to explore their work further.
Along with the individuals, I also wanted to talk about the campaigns and organisations that brought about change, from organisations like Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators that gathered the data on women’s representation in positions of power and challenged the theatres and funding bodies to change, as well as setting up conferences and seminars for more seniors women to share their experience and encourage others, or Women In Entertainment, that initiated training courses for women to gain the skills and confidence to move into male-dominated areas like technical work and lighting design. I wanted to make the connection with more recent campaigns for change such as Bossy, Mothers Who Make, The Act for Change project and the actions around addressing #MeToo in theatre.
The creative process had two main aspects. Some areas of work: the work of women playwrights and the alternative theatre movements of the 60s, 70s and 80sI was very familiar with. The issues were around choosing the key aspects of those enormous histories to share. In alternative theatre in Britain, my own organisation, Unfinished Histories, lists around 700 theatre companies formed between roughly 1968 and 1988, including at least 80 feminist companies while women were central in pioneering the work of numerous other groups from Black theatre to theatre-in-education to lesbian and gay theatre, as it was then called, to street arts.
Fascinating for me also was to look abroad and begin to learn more about at least some of the key change makers, key organisations, key figures, in New Zealand, in Ireland, in Canada or in areas of practice with which I was less familiar, such as stage management and theatre design. I researched and talked to friends and colleagues to identify the contributions and the important individuals that ought to be mentioned. The main difficulty overall was trying to encompass a huge amount of information in a relatively small number of pages!
What have you learned/taken away from the overall creative process?
What I’ve taken away has been a renewed awe at the achievements of women in theatre, a sense of how central women have been and continue to be to our creative life, bringing about change, creating platforms for new work, opening new spaces, developing new radical art practices and ideas and creating research projects, publications, resources, events and dialogues addressing racial equity, social change and feminism, including guides documenting and proposing new agendas for live art, theatre and feminism to bring about structural change, as well as writing, directing, performing the art itself. It has further reinforced for me the enormous and fascinating richness and array of work that continues to be written and produced. Also the confident voices of younger women emerging in theatre, in particular young Black and Asian women. When I first started working in this area and said I was writing on women playwrights (for the book that became She Also Wrote Plays) both men and women would often furrow their brows and scratch their heads and then maybe hesitatingly say Aphra Behn, Caryl Churchill… Or if I mentioned women directors: Joan Littlewood… As late as 1992 the Feminist Dictionary which claimed to ‘offer women a lexicon of liberation’ but summed up theatre in the following entry:
“Has always been a sort of exclusive [drama] club”. In England, actresses appeared around 1600… However, they did not manage the companies or write or direct the plays. With few exceptions [e.g., Aphra Behn], that was the reality of the theatre until only a hundred years ago, “Playwriting continues to be primarily a man’s occupation”. (CorinneJacker1981, 25,26,27).
Now it seems like new women writers make up the mainstay of the repertoire at many theatres, and there is a huge urgency in their work and a rich diversity of voices.
You’re a Theatre Specialist, having had a varied career as a writer, curator, dramaturg, arts/performance archive consultant and historian with a special interest in women playwrights, Black and Asian theatre in Britain, live art and new writing. What has your theatre journey entailed so far and is there anything in particular you’re currently working on or would like to explore further?
My theatre journey has and continues to be focused on work that we tend to miss or marginalise, rewriting the history books and building the web sites or creating events and exhibitions to acknowledge and record what else was happening outside mainstream practice. If we narrow our focus to only the tried-and-tested, the work that has been well-documented and produced and written about before we miss so much and impoverish ourselves and the future. When I ran the writers’ organisation New Playwrights Trust (set up 1986) the focus was on encouraging writers from groups who were under-represented in the theatre or were working in new and innovative forms. When I worked in universities I was teaching performance in the context of cross art-form and interdisciplinary collaboration. When I worked at the V&A Theatre Museum I was concerned to make visible material in the collections that people did not know was there, like the host of material on Black and Asian theatre in Britain that was otherwise hidden, through creating a users’ guide to the collections, timelines and web resources, a Black Theatre History trail in the galleries and exhibitions like Let Paul Robeson Sing! I also wanted to ensure that the collecting policy was expanded to include more alternative theatre and that we put on exhibitions that reflected that work such as Architects of Fantasy on contemporary puppetry, animations and automata.
With Unfinished Histories, which I set up with Jessica Higgs in 2006 and which I still run, we wanted to gather the rich oral and archival history of the alternative theatre movement in this country and sharing it with new generations. Hugely significant and influential, it had largely been neglected by mainstream critics and institutions.
Going forward I want to continue this work, in particular doing more on Black and Asian theatre companies and also on the theatre-in-education movement. I also want to republish – and re-stage – some of the lost scripts from the period. Finally I want to return to complete another massive project – a critical bibliography of the huge number of women playwrights writing before 1914. I would love to find collaborators and supporters to work with me on all of these projects!
What can readers expect from 50 Women in Theatre and what are your hopes for the book?
They can expect to discover a fascinating array of stories, vividly illustrated, celebrating a selection of amazing women and their achievements in a huge array of different kinds of theatre. They can expect to have their appetites whetted and to be offered a mass of other names to explore further. I hope.
I hope the book will get into every school and local library so that young women – and men – aspiring to work in the performing arts will be inspired by the host of role models, possible career directions and a sense of what theatre and the arts can do. I hope it will lead to further volume: 50 More Women in Theatre and Yet More Women in Theatre…
I hope it will finally put to bed any suggestion of theatre management, artistic directorship, playwriting as being primarily a male preserve and show how that has not been the case for decades, how change has come about so far and help provide blueprints for future change to create a theatre that more fairly represents our rich and diverse society.
Questions by Lucy Basaba.
50 Women in Theatre will be published by Supernova Books on Thursday 7th October 2021, and costs £24.99 to purchase. To find out more about the book, visit here…