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These directors have no time for the “women on stage aren't funny” trope

Posted by
Hollie Richardson
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Women in theatre

Women are still expected to validate their space on stage in 2019. Two female co-directors explain why they’ve had enough of not being able to just tell their own funny stories. 

2019 has been a brilliant year for women in theatre. Phoebe Waller-Bridge brought Fleabag back to the West End, causing the internet to crash when tickets went on sale. We also saw Six: The Musical made people lose their heads with the modern retelling of Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and co. And Ali Stoker became the first ever actor in a wheelchair to win a Tony award, thanks to her performance in Oklahoma!. It’s also been an exciting time for new plays and diversity, as Lynette Linton continues her role as artistic director for Bush Theatre

But there’s still a long way to go for women in stage productions. In a 2018 survey, Sphinx Theatre found that just a fifth of English theatres were led by women, who controlled just 13% of the total Arts Council England (ACE) theatre budget. This gender inequality trickled through productions, with only 28% of playwrights being female. 

Fleabag Black Jumpsuit worn by Phoebe Waller Bridge
Fleabag started life as a one-woman show on the stage.

And it’s not just a matter of “getting more women into theatre productions”. It’s important to make sure that they are free to write and perform whatever the hell they want to. This is the message that co-directors and Samia Djilli and Jennifer Cerys are amplifying with their two new all-female shows.

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Samia and Jennifer are co-artistic directors of Lemon House Theatre, which is a collaborative theatre company that provides a space for artists to and try things out and take risks with their work. Different Sand and Willow are the company’s first full-length plays. Different Sand is the first Algerian play staged in London by an all-female, Algerian team, and Willow is staged by an all-female, queer team.

Different Sand follows the life of two British-Algerian sisters, Amira and Linda. When “sensible” Amira decides she wants to get married, her younger, outspoken sister Linda finds it difficult to deal with. Along the way, they struggle with their identities, while trying to maintain their relationship. It’s a modern family drama which discusses what it means to come from two cultures, while beautifully exploring what it means to be sisters. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.

Different Sand is playing at The Bunker Theatre in Southwark.
Different Sand is playing at The Bunker Theatre in Southwark.

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“We’re starting to see more female artists and stories from their perspectives on stage. But I feel like it’s almost like there’s just a diversity tick box of having a female artist involved in a programme or whatever,” shares Jen. “And women are often expected, at least in my personal experience, to only write about ‘women’s stories’ and ‘feminist issues’.

“I’ve seen so many pieces of female led works being promoted with #MeToo in the press release. It’s like they are almost expected to retraumatise themselves, dealing with their experiences on stage. Of course we need these stories but, also, a woman shouldn’t be expected to only write about being a woman and the difficulties of being a woman. I think that’s the same for other marginalised communities: people are only expected to write about their struggle.”

“There’s definitely more space for female artists but there should be an understanding that this space should exist without them having to justify their presence on stage. You should just let them tell the stories that everyone tells.”

Samia adds: “I think things are starting to change. You can see women saying, ‘No, I have this multitude of stories I want to share.’ But there is still plenty of space that needs to be claimed by them, so we still have a long way to go.

“For instance, look at the plays that we’re doing: they’re essentially household stories. But they’re sort of rebelling against that traditional stereotype in the sense that, I know, as a woman, these are the real conversations I’ve had with my sisters and friends in the living room. And they’re the most hilarious, thoughtful and devastating conversations I’ve ever had. Women have more to say than what the outdated stereotype once said they did”.

Willow is an all-female and queer production in London.
Willow is an all-female and queer production in London.

Fleabag, as one example, proves just how powerful modern female storytelling can be on stage. But we perhaps need to note that Waller-Bridge is a privately educated, white woman. These factors certainly don’t take away the fact that she is a genius, but privilege has undoubtedly been on her side throughout her creativity. In the Arts Council England Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case Report 2016-17, it found that BAME employees only made up 11% of the workforce. And, in Arts leadership roles, only 8% of chief executives, 10% of artistic directors and 10% of chairs were BAME.

With this in mind, Samia, who is half Algerian, explains why Different Sand’s being the first all-female Algerian matters so much to her and the Arts community.

“I grew up with two cultural identities: I’m half English, half Algerian. Growing up in England, I’ve seen and heard English stories and enjoyed them in so many ways. But when it comes to my Algerian side, there’s so much that I don’t know and that I don’t get to see, especially on a London stage,” she says.

“So when I started writing and creating stories, I really wanted to express my Algerian side. Because, whenever you did see an Algerian character, it was always in a French film or north African film. And, normally, Algerian characters are stereotyped as being a terrorist or a bad person. I know from my experience that there are 42 million of us and we shouldn’t all be defined by those things.

“Writing this play was not just a therapeutic way to talk about myself but also to explore more about the Algerian identity. And having an all Algerian team has been such a rewarding experience as much as it’s been one of the best creative endeavours that I’ve ever ventured upon.”

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Both plays are running at The Bunker Theatre in Southwark throughout September, and Samia and Jennifer have pointed out the sexism faced in order to get there.

“You’re made to feel, particularly when you’re starting out, that’s it’s elitist, like a really exclusive club that I wasn’t invited to,” Jennifer continues. “I definitely felt patronised during this process. Like people not taking us very seriously when we said ‘Oh, we’re doing this’. Some would even say, “Aw that’s cute.’

“But I think theatres are now saying, ‘We want to attract more people and different audience’s, so they’re starting to realise that they need to look at what they’re staging in order to do that.”

The shows will be running as double bills on 15 and 16 September, with Different Sand starting at 7pm and Willow at 8.30pm (with a break in between). People can either go along to one show for £10 or buy a ticket to both for £15

Images: Lemon House Theatre