Features Published 9 June 2015

Tonic Theatre: Changing the Canon

David Ralf on Tonic Theatre's three new plays for young people.
David Ralf

“In the future there needs to be more plays where there’s big female protagonists, where they’re not stereotypes. You need to write things that aren’t the same as they have been before”.

That’s a quote from 16 year-old Nia, one of the many young people that spoke to Lucy Kerbel and her small team at Tonic Theatre about their experiences in youth theatre and drama at school. The study, which was completed in 2012, was conducted to prove Kerbel’s hunch: that girls comprised the vast majority of these groups, but did not have access to anything like the same proportion of female roles. It’s a double hardship – compared to the boys, girls have to compete far harder to gain parts and there are fewer of them. The data bore this out: where boys might have a chance to play many large speaking roles during their youth theatre careers, girls may wait years for a speaking role, and get only one crack at a large part. And as another student said, those parts are often “the mum, or the sister, they’re basically just an extra thread in the man’s storyline”. While it’s important to examine why boys have such a comparatively low level of engagement with youth theatre, the fact remains that current and future young enthusiasts are not being served by the material available to them.

“As girls in youth theatre you’re told you’re ten a penny, there’s ten more that can do exactly what you can do, who look exactly like you and that can play the part.” Marie, 23

The work that schools and clubs put on is taken largely from existing scripted plays. Less than 10% of drama teachers write new scripts or can commission new work, and just 14% turn to devising. There is a real demand for existing work that is suitable for the make-up of these groups, as Tamara von Werthern, the Performing Rights Manager from Nick Hern Books attests: ‘At the performing rights department at NHB we’re often asked “Are there any plays for young people?’ … ‘Have you got anything for a large cast’ … and ‘Is there anything with strong female roles?’” However, there are not many plays which fulfil all three criteria. Again and again Tonic’s research ‘highlighted a paradox within the youth drama sector – that there is a pronounced gap between who is taking part and who the scripts available are written for.’

So Tonic have commissioned three new plays suitable for young performers, with large, predominantly female casts, now published by Nick Hern Books. It’s taken them since that research in 2012 to manage it – not least because it’s anything but a regular commission. Tonic have had to fundraise for three commissions at proper Writer’s Guild rate, but with no plans for a professional production. And right now, they’re making the playtexts available to education, arts, and youth organisations at £3 each. It’s not NHB’s usual model – it’s no one’s usual model. This is about injecting high quality female roles, and lots of them, right where they are most needed, the large but normally secondary market of amateur and schools theatre.

It’s quite an injection. This Changes Everything by Joel Horwood is about a group of girls who run away from a world that’s failing them and build a new society on a rusting platform out at sea. A kind of all-female Lord of the Flies, it has all-female cast of 20 or more. Second Person Narrative by Jemma Kennedy was developed with National Youth Theatre and charts the life of a female You from birth to death, a life that won’t collapse into a simple tragedy or success story. It’s for an all-female (or mixed) cast of seven or more. The Light Burns Blue by Silva Semerciyan, developed with and first staged by Bristol Old Vic Young Company, retells the story of the Cottingley Fairies and the girl that photographed them, making a case for Elsie Wright’s place in photographic history, as well as the chronicle of great hoaxes. It’s dramatis personae is an entire village, brimming with 28 named characters, 17 of whom are female, and many more unnamed roles.

Tonic’s approach here is unique. Lots of the work of achieving gender parity in theatre is focussed on producing more work from female playwrights and in looking at ways to increase the number of female performers in male-heavy plays through cross- and genderblind casting. For example, NT Connections adds ten short plays to the youth theatre canon each year, five from female writers and five from male writers. Cross-casting is also common in youth drama, but it brings with it its own issues, especially when driven by necessity rather than any artistic investigation, and particularly when it becomes frequent. One young woman reported that she was “not girly enough to play a girl” having been repeatedly cast in male roles.  Tonic Theatre have themselves looked at both of these approaches and others in professional theatre, with their Advance initiative, which helps the biggest UK theatres examine their practices with regard to gender equality, and makes them accountable to each other for those areas in which they can make real change. But Kerbel has been looking specifically at roles that are written to be played by women for many years. Her 2013 book, 100 Great Plays for Women, a Tonic Theatre collaboration with NT Studio, looks at plays with predominantly female casts, where women drive the action.

“If you have a play that has interesting, strong parts for women, it will do well most of the time. … We find across the board with amateur groups and school that plays with strong roles for women sell really well.” – Tamara von Werthern

This highly-targeted and focussed work comes from the desire to make the biggest change with the smallest resources, working with big partners to effect change which is “long-lasting rather than flash-in-the-pan, and meaningful rather than tokenistic”. Kerbel conceives of the massive multi-theatre project Advance as having ‘trickle-down’ effectiveness – changing the practices of leading theatres and their staff will have an effect on smaller theatres and the culture at large. Platform is intended to work in the opposite direction. “I know the physics doesn’t work, but Platform is ‘trickle-up’”. It should create not only a better experience of theatre for girls across the country (and provide two more youth theatre groups with a world premiere, if they act quickly), but it should mean that those girls leave youth theatre with the benefits that boys currently get – the confidence, the empathy, and the variety of expression that comes from performing a meaningful role. Tonic hope that these first three plays are far from the last. If the sales are good, and the licenses come in, the Platform strand of plays could be a source of real change in the canon of plays available to young people. These plays could be a big influence on a future generation of playwrights, and those that commission and programme them.

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David Ralf

David Ralf is a writer and critic in London. He won the Sunday Times Harold Hobson Award for reviewing at the ISDF in 2012, and the Kenneth Tynan Prize for his reviews for the Oxford Theatre Review in 2011. He draws pens and doodles at Pens by Pens.

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