The Party Somewhere Else are a Nottingham-based collective of maverick female creatives who have just launched a festival at Nottingham Playhouse. The group came together in early 2017 and hosted a sell-out scratch night that July, followed by a packed Open House/Open Mic in January 2018. The upcoming festival is set to be a playfully anarchic takeover of Nottingham Playhouse’s smaller upstairs spaces, and will showcase both regional and national artists, all performing work which centres the creative agency of women.
I meet with just over half of The Party Somewhere Else over two separate sessions, a couple of weeks before the festival begins. There are 12 current members of the collective: Beth Shouler, Eleanor Field, Hannah Stone, Kate Webborn, Kath Akers, Minder Athwal, Nikki Disney, Olwen Davies, Rebecca D’Souza, Ria Ashcroft, Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie, and Tilly Branson. They cover a lot of bases, a team of producers, directors, actors, writers, designers, facilitators, and dramatherapists. It’s a group brought together by a shared frustration at the lack of representation for women, onstage and backstage.
“We were having conversations in twos and threes, and had been for about six months,” says Beth Shouler, a director and writer who has recently taken on the role of Artist Development Co-ordinator at Nottingham Playhouse. “And then we were like – you know what, we could just get together and have one conversation.”
Siobhán Cannon-Brownlie, a director and theatre-maker, says, “The Party Somewhere Else has grown out of us saying ‘this is missing’ in the theatre ecology here in Nottingham, let’s do something about that, and we’ll just do it ourselves ‘cause we’re the ones who can.”
This intervention comes during a transitional period for Nottingham Playhouse, with Adam Penford replacing Giles Croft as artistic director. Penford’s choice of Beth Steel’s Wonderland was a hugely successful opener to his first season and was warmly received by local audiences. It also employed a cast of ten men, with men leading key areas of the creative team.
The advice often given to people who voice concerns about representation is that there’s nothing stopping them from self-producing. ‘Do it yourself’ is never suggested without the best intentions, but it comes with the assumption that being seen is a level playing-field if you only work hard enough. Realistically, it often needs the gatekeepers to give way and make room. The Party Somewhere Else members are conscious of the opportunity they have to provide a platform, and they’re prioritising space on that platform for women.
“In a lot of ways it’s easier to advocate for someone else, to say ‘what are you doing about women’s voices? No, we don’t want it to be our specific voices, we want more representation for a whole community’,” says Siobhán.
“I know I’ve benefited from people who have been supportive and given me chances, being very conscious that those decisions and those gatekeepers were often – often, not always – but often men, and often willing to hand out a little bit, but not willing to give up their seat at the table, or pull up another chair at the table and go ‘here, you should be part of this discussion’,” says Tilly Branson, a director, producer, and dramaturg. “And I felt quite strongly that I wanted to be part of something where women were the decision-makers.”
This exasperation at not being invited to the table is where the collective get their distinctive name. At a conference organised by Sphinx Theatre Company, when asked how women should deal with not being included in their own industry, the speaker replied: “If you’re not being invited to the party, go and have the party somewhere else.”
So who’s invited to this party? The callout for performances required artists to demonstrate that at least 50% of the creative agency in their piece was held by women. The definition of ‘creative agency’ was left open for applicants to interpret, but the emphasis was, again, on leadership and decision-making, not necessarily how many women would be onstage.
“I would really struggle to see how a piece that might be about women but written by a man and directed by a man and produced by a man… I would really fail to see how that had 50% female agency,” says Beth.
“If somebody is controlling the space, controlling the narrative, controlling what that woman does on the stage from a male perspective, that’s going to be different than from a female perspective,” says Nikki Disney, a dramatherapist, director, and yoga teacher.
And what about the men? I ask this question in heavy inverted commas, wanting to know if the collective members have ever been confronted with it, directly or indirectly, or if they feel themselves anticipating it.
“The thing that men tend to say is ‘ooh, do you think anyone’s going to want to watch that?’” says Ria. “Which is never a question when there’s stories about men. It’s never ‘who’s going to want to watch that story about a man? Probably not women’.”
“Some of us have been approached individually in contexts where that person could have approached a group of us and didn’t – chose to wait until someone was on their own,” says Tilly. “I never have been, which I’ve found interesting, cause I’ve had stuff ready to say. I am a little frustrated that those conversations have happened informally with individuals, cause it hasn’t given us that opportunity to kind of defend what we’re doing.”
This chimes particularly with me – the desire for challenge and dialogue, for an opportunity to speak your passion. And obviously, it’s a sign of my privilege that I’m a woman who doesn’t (usually) draw slurs, or violence, or outright demands to surrender my space and silence my voice.
When I ask about any personal highlights in the upcoming festival, they’re unanimous about the , which will feature extracts from in-progress pieces by 1623 Theatre, Miranda Porter, BAIT, Michelle Vacciana, and Philippa Mannion. The session is also highly recommended – it’s free, and will be led by guest speakers Jessica Fostekew, Ioney Smallhorne and Michèle Taylor. The rest of the festival boasts an eclectic programme, including Vanessa Kisuule’s poetic performance Sexy, Notnow Collective’s look at motherhood, Wonderwoman and Vertebra Theatre’s exploration of queer female identity, At the Heart of Things – alongside a call to action workshop, a literary cabaret, and a biblical rapper. Do the collective feel any pressure to somehow speak for all women?
“I think that’s a good pressure to feel,” says Eleanor Field, a set and costume designer.
“We did have to think about having as many different voices in the festival as possible, and from the applications that we had we have done our best with that,” says Ria. “But I think we could definitely do better, we could get into more networks, we could try to get the word out to more people. That’s all part of us growing as a collective.”
“I think whatever we do with this festival should be pressure on other arts organisations in the region,” says Siobhán. “So there’s a bigger conversation happening across the whole city.”
“And I think we have to be careful about saying we’re telling stories from everybody – I think it’s a slightly dangerous and slightly arrogant thing to say because I don’t even know who everybody is,” adds Kath Akers, a dramatherapist who specialises in trauma. “If I stand there and say ‘this is for everyone’, I’ve stopped listening.”
There’s certainly an awareness in the collective that there’s more they need to do to widen the scope of their work, and that one of the places this should start is within their own core membership: where the work programmed has a deliberate focus on intersectionality, the collective itself is still working to become more representative.
“We have talked a bit about having a rolling in and out policy,” says Beth. “We’re really aware that we’re all quite a similar age, similar background, and we can be a bit homogenous, and that that’s not great. Something we’ve talked about a lot over the year is the problem of being predominantly white and in our thirties.”
This imbalance framed a large part of the conversation in their January Open House.
“It’s really difficult because it’s so important to be conscious of intersectionality, and how all of these different barriers affect different women differently,” says Tilly. “And it’s wanting to be conscious of those things without making people feel like a statistic or like they have to reveal stuff about themselves so we can go ‘actually, yeah, we do have that represented in this group’.”
And as the collective evolve and expand, are there any plans to work in other cities and other arts scenes?
“I feel really connected to Nottingham as a city and the East Midlands as a region and really flying the flag from here,” says Kath. “To strongly say we’re a Nottingham-based collective feels really important.”
“And I think to affect any kind of change, you can only do it through what’s possible at the time, and at the moment we’re all in Nottingham, we’ve all got connections in Nottingham,” says Siobhán. “Everywhere is in need of better representation, but right now we’re here.”