For Books’ Sake Talks to: Lucy Kerbel

14th Apr 2014

For Books' Sake Talks to: Lucy Kerbel
Award-winning theatre director Lucy Kerbel has authored a much-needed book for women in theatre, detailing one hundred brilliant plays featuring women.

Lucy Kerbel is the Director of Tonic Theatre. The company was created in 2011 and seeks to support the theatre industry in finding ways to achieve greater gender equality in its workforces and repertoires.

Kerbel is also an award-winning theatre director and was Resident Director at the National Theatre Studio and English Touring Theatre, before writing her first book 100 Great Plays for Women which was published by Nick Hern Books late last year.

The book catalogues theatre plays with predominantly female casts and plays in which women are the driving force of the on-stage action.

Kerbel lists works between 415BCE (Euripides’ Women of Troy) and 2013 (George Brant’s Grounded) and she covers a deliberately expansive range of themes – love, sex, war, art and science to name but a few. “It felt essential that the book detailed the breadth of female experience,” Kerbel explains.

She developed the idea for the book whilst on attachment at The National Theatre Studio. Its conception was a response to her curiosity as to why women were so continually under-represented on British stages.

Despite the fact that women comprise more than half the population, buy the majority of theatre tickets and make up half of the acting profession, Kerbel observed that women still weren’t seeing themselves reflected on stage. When she asked why, the answer was always a regretful, ‘There just aren’t any good plays for women.’

So Kerbel investigated. What she found was an abundance of plays exploring the female experience. 100 Great Plays for Women presents by no means an exhaustive list, but goes some way to showcasing the potential for placing women in meaningful roles on our stages. “It’s designed to whet the appetite,” Kerbel says. “There are many, many more and choosing just one hundred wasn’t easy.”

100 Great Plays for Women is closely aligned with Kerbel’s work at Tonic Theatre in that the company aims to open dialogues in women’s under-representation on stage.

Tonic are taking a fresh route into the debate. “We’re very different from the clutch of women’s theatre companies around the UK in that we don’t put on plays. Our focus is on working with the theatre industry to change how it works with women and girls.”

Essentially, Tonic supports theatre companies in re-evaluating their structures. “Thematically, theatre is very good at responding to the world quickly, but if you look behind the scenes at how we function as an industry, you’ll find we are traditional and in certain areas, a little bit archaic,” she explains. “Until we re-assess some of those structures, I think we’ll continue to struggle with all under-represented groups.”

But Kerbel has faith in the future, reporting that there’s a lot of goodwill from Artistic Directors in learning how to do this. “We say to them ‘Look, we know Gender Equality is on your agenda. We know you’re busy so we’re going to help you action that agenda.’ We’re currently working with a fabulous cohort of theatres including the Almeida, the RSC, English Touring Theatre, the Young Vic. It’s an exciting time.”

Kerbel also thinks it’s crucial that we re-visit the way we evaluate theatre. “A number of the plays in the book were dismissed at their première by reviewers who were often all of one background – generally white, middle-class, middle-aged men,” she states.

“It felt really positive when writing the book that I was able to assess these plays afresh. Maybe a piece of theatre isn’t made for a white middle-class man, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t great work that should be seen.”

It’s undeniable that there is a growing social pressure on the theatre industry to embrace new voices and perspectives, but as Kerbel notes, “There’s still a long way to go.”

She acknowledges the book’s bias towards British and American writers, and is open about her challenge to find work that placed women of colour at the heart of the action.

100 Great Plays for Women only catalogues published plays because I wanted to allow readers to access the works,” she states. “As such, it’s limited when you seek narratives for women of colour – it’s to do with what’s being published.”

British Theatre’s gender equality debate is live and kicking, receiving increasing amounts of news coverage and social media attention, and with a paying audience at the ready, the desire for women’s experience to be reflected in an ongoing and meaningful way is clear.

But the conventionally beautiful, young, white, straight, able-bodied, cis woman isn’t the only kind of woman the audiences want to see. This is clearly a debate which has diversity at its heart.

100 Great Plays for Women was published in November 2013 and is available from Nick Hern Books at £8.79. It includes a foreword by Kate Mosse.