Janet Suzman: ‘Why shouldn’t women have more autonomy? We’ve had enough of being backgrounded’

Janet Suzman. Picture: Ruphin Coudyzer

Janet Suzman. Picture: Ruphin Coudyzer - Credit: Archant

For more than 40 years, Sphinx Theatre Company has tackled gender imbalance campaigning tirelessly to promote and inspire women with conferences, events and productions. Women Centre Stage festival runs until Nov 20

Back in 1983 a report by the Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators for Sphinx Theatre Company showed that of 1024 productions surveyed, just 11 percent were written by women – most of

which were penned by Agatha Christie.

But although a more encouraging 2015 report found 39 percent of productions directed by women, it’s still adrift of the 50 percent the company are aiming for in roles on and off stage.

As well as commissioning new work by the likes of April de Angelis, Pam Gems, and Bryony Lavery, Sphinx continues to monitor both who is making theatre and the quality of roles for women.

Their Women Centre Stage Festival, which sold out last year at The National Theatre, is a platform for performance, discussion and kickstarting new female-centred work.

Now in its second year, it runs November 14-20 culminating in a performance day at Hampstead Theatre featuring 24 pieces and 100 performers, writers and directors, including Janet Suzman, Howard Brenton, Cecilia Noble, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Winsome Pinnock and de Angelis, who says: “The festival encourages writers to think women into the centre of their stories, to ascribe them agency and to create significant relationships between female characters.”

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Highlights include a panel discussion with playwright Timberblake Wertenbaker and Octagon Theatre’s Artistic director Elizabeth Newman on how to change the cultural landscape to improve gender equality in theatre.

Brenton, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Charlene James and Vinay Patel. will have 24 Hours to write a new play responding directly to that day’s news headlines which will be rehearsed and presented as the Festival Finale.

And workshops at the Actor’s Centre include an empowerment session for actresses taking on strong roles and tackling gender dynamics in the rehearsal room, and a session for writers exploring female protagonists.

Festival producer Joanna Hedges says it continues Sphinx’s 40-year legacy of creating more and better roles for women: “Since the 1970s they have campaigned to put women centre stage.

“We support the cost of new work with money to write and rehearse. The first festival was a starting point for work like (revenge porn drama) Blush by Charlotte Josephine, and it’s nice to see rough and ready work that was part of the festival last year go on to be a finished show.”

Plays developed from last year include Man- Up by Camilla Harding which deals with “transgender transitioning and people’s perception of themselves within their own bodies”.

GRAEAE Theatre Company will present six new pieces from a female deaf and disabled creative team. Tanika Gupta offers an extract from her play A Perfect Match which deals with arranged marriages. And Rose Lewenstein’s F***ing Feminists considers questions of female identity.

“The Festival directly provokes change by bringing together a diverse array of women characters from the margins into centre stage and commissioning new work,” says Hedges who refers to the Sphinx test developed by Associate Ros Phillips for writers and artists to consider unconscious bias and gender balance when writing for theatre.

“But we are still not seeing enough roles for women on our main stages,” she adds.

Sphinx patron and Hampstead actress Janet Suzman performs in de Angelis’ play which she says is “amazing”.

“I’ve just read it, it’s two characters, a bit off the wall but very interesting. It’s about rebellion. I’m thrilled that this play by a hugely talented writer has been specially commissioned.”

Suzman hopes the “myriads of theatre practitioners who’ll be thronging the coffee spaces in Hampstead Theatre to discuss and argue their way through a lively weekend will discuss the role of women in all walks of life.”

“It’s a forum to keep awareness at the forefront of people’s minds,” she adds.

“This campaign is bearing fruit. There is much more movement on women taking bigger roles in theatre.”

The 77-year-old who has developed a second career directing the likes of Kim Cattrall in Antony and Cleopatra says: “Men don’t think about their point of view they just do what occurs to them.

“When I was directing Othello and Hamlet it dawned on me I was taking more interest than is usual in the female characters because I was interested in their outcome, which is probably inevitable.

“Why shouldn’t women have more autonomy? We’ve had enough of being backgrounded. The world will have to get used to our stronger presence in every walk of life and art.

“I’m happy to be part of that conversation.”