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"we’ve been watching and waiting and observing"

Three women playwrights programmed by Sydney Theatre Company in 2018 – Kate Mulvany, Michele Lee and Anna Barnes – share their thoughts on gender balance in theatre and where we are heading.

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Women Stage Takeover at STC

Date: 8 Mar 2018

The numbers are striking.

Of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 15 productions in 2018, eight are written by women.

Of the company’s six new Australian plays, five are by female playwrights.

The season also features a revival of Nakkiah Lui’s 2017 hit Black is the New White and an adaptation of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist co-written by Sarah Giles. There are also two international female playwrights in the season: Caryl Churchill with Top Girls (now playing) and Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children (opening later this month).

It is artistic director Kip Williams’ first fully programmed year of theatre and it marks a noticeable shift in thinking. In season 2017, there were just four female playwrights.

Audrey asked three of 2018’s women playwrights – Kate Mulvany, Michele Lee and Anna Barnes – for their thoughts on where we’re at in terms of gender balance and where we are heading.

“I was talking about this with friends recently, about how glorious it is to be able to go to a show and the writer is a woman but not the token woman,” says Mulvany, whose two-part, six-hour adaptation of Ruth Park’s novel The Harp in the South is the STC’s most ambitious project of the year.

“One of the things I’m really happy about – and this is the actor part of me speaking – is being able to create roles for women that give female actors a really delicious character arc,” she says.

“It’s not something that you always experience as an actor. The roles I used to get offered when I was starting out – aged 19 and 20 – were often very underdeveloped, because they were written by men who didn’t know how to write for women of my age – or any age. For someone who played Waif #3 again and again, it’s nice to be able to offer something substantial to our young women.”

The Harp in the South is a world seen from a woman’s point-of-view, says Mulvany. “Women are really good observers. Park certainly was and so are her women characters. You see it when she talks about the way a bunion falls out of a woman’s shoe, because her husband has never thought to let her buy a new pair and she can’t ask him for some. It’s in the way she describes the local madam’s hair that was lacquered three weeks ago.

“She doesn’t make us pity these women,” Mulvany says. “She makes us stand with them. I think the audience will fall in love with these women. That’s not just a hope I have, it’s going to happen.”

The female experience is “a total driver of my work,” says Michele Lee, whose new play Going Down premieres in Sydney this month.

“I’m completely motivated to write works for women, about female experiences, with interesting female characters,” she says. “I think I would struggle to do anything else. My casts are all female, and I’m looking at things that are uniquely female, especially at that intersection of race and gender.”

Starring Catherine Davies, Going Down draws heavily on Lee’s lived experience. “It is very much celebrating what it means to be a young woman living in the modern urban environment. It’s an exciting place for young women but there is so must frustration, too. There is too much to do … but we still want to do it all.”

The pressures Lee’s character deals with – professional, family, romantic – are not uniquely female, “but I feel the play would have an obvious appeal to women,” Lee says. “It is speaking to the culture, and about how women navigate the environment.”

Prior to writing Going Down, Lee says she imagined the idea of “a non-white Sex and the City”.

“I think I was preoccupied with sex at the time because of my memoir Banana Girl,” Lee says. “I explored sex very overtly in the book but there was a layer of things I felt were unfinished and that led into Going Down.

“What has remained from the Sex and the City idea is a protagonist who is a writer like Carrie Bradshaw, very interested in modern relationships and sex. She is ostensibly me because she is Hmong and she has written a memoir called Banana Girl, which is about a young woman having lots of fun and lots sex through dating websites. It’s quite funny to look back at now because I’m in a contented long-term relationship with a baby.”

Anna Barnes, writer of Lethal Indifference, believes the STC programming is a game-changer for women playwrights. “I can’t ever think of a time when we’ve had this level of representation. Even a few years ago, this would have been unheard of.

“It’s amazing to be part of Kip’s first season. He is such an incredible feminist and to be surrounded by so many other women, and women of colour has been unbelievable.

It’s not just a matter of programming female playwrights, Barnes believes. Just as important is for those writers to be supported by women in the major creative roles of direction and design. Almost all of the plays written by women in the STC season are directed by a woman: Imara Savage, Paige Rattray, Leticia Caceres, Sarah Goodes, Priscilla Jackman and Sarah Giles.

Barnes’ play is directed by Jessica Arthur, who is one of three female resident artists at the STC.

“My play is so much about female experience and I think it was super important for Lethal Indifference to be directed by someone who has that experience of being a women in the world.”

The play, a monologue delivered by actor Emily Barclay, is based on Barnes’ own experience of working in a family violence legal centre and the real-life case of a woman who escaped an abusive relationship only to be hunted down by her ex-husband.

“It’s about women’s experience of violence and the multiple ways it happens in a community,” Barnes says. “A lot of it is autobiographical and a lot of it looks at issues all women are facing. Some of the things the play talks about are quite subtle and Jess was able to do such an amazing job of bringing that out really deftly. I didn’t need to explain anything to her.”

Still, it can be useful to have the male gaze around at times, says Barnes.

“So often with a male creative in a rehearsal room, they say, really? That actually happens? We had a couple of funny moments with [lighting designer] Alexander Berlage during rehearsal. He was the only male on the team. Often you’re talking and you assume everyone knows what you mean, but then Alex would ask a question and you’d realise that it’s something only girls really get.

“It was actually really helpful having Alex there for that extra outside eye sometimes. But it was empowering to be in the rehearsal room with other women because we didn’t have to go over the topic or explain anything to each other. We could just jump in and do it.”

Mulvany has seen a lot change for women playwrights in the decade since she had her first mainstage production as a writer.

“I remember once we had a Q&A after my play The Seed at Belvoir. A man put up his hand – he was a seasoned theatergoer, I’d seen him around a lot– and he said, ‘well done, but who wrote the stuff about the [Vietnam] war? You’re a female playwright and you wouldn’t know about that.’ The idea that, as the daughter of a war veteran, I didn’t have the right or the knowledge to tackle the subject completely knocked me for six. But we can write about anything we want to. We absolutely can and absolutely must.

“Just like those women in The Harp in the South, we’ve been watching and waiting and observing, and now it’s time for us to put what we see and what we know of the world on stage.”

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