Visible Women

How Vicky Featherstone’s new TV series spotlights women’s stories

Posted by
Moya Crockett
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Snatches, a series of all-female monologues, starts on BBC Four on 18 June. talks to the acclaimed feminist theatre and artistic director about #MeToo, double entendres and the importance of conscious hiring. 

A black British woman celebrates her 100th birthday and reflects on her radical past. A 21-year-old Bengali freedom fighter rebels against colonial rule in Thirties India. A young secretary helps her friend find herself in early Sixties England, as the sexual revolution gathers pace. An actress reckons with her place in the #MeToo movement. Women take to the streets in 1977 for the first Reclaim the Night protest.

These disparate characters are just some of those that appear in Snatches, a new series of monologues set to air across four nights on BBC Four from Monday 18 June. Curated by Vicky Featherstone, the series is part of the BBC’s Hear Her season, marking 100 years of partial women’s suffrage. 

Each monologue has been written by an acclaimed female playwright, including Abi Morgan, Theresa Ikoko and Tanika Gupta, and each is performed by a different actress – from Romola Garai to Jodie Comer and Black Mirror’s Kiran Sonia Sawar. The series aims to shine a spotlight on a broad range of female experiences in the century since the first British women got the vote, and to look forward at the challenges yet to come.

As a project, it’s a perfect fit for Featherstone, who – as the first ever female artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theatre – has long championed women’s voices and stories. In 2016, she ensured that most of the works staged at the Royal Court were by women playwrights, and she is outspoken about her desire to make theatre a more inclusive and diverse place. Last autumn, as the world reeled in the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Featherstone hopped onto Twitter and warned the theatre world to pay attention.

“Hollywood can speak out, British theatre must too,” she wrote. “I have a responsibility as do many of you to end the abuses of power in our industry.” Less than a month later, she organised a day of events for theatre professionals at the Royal Court, hoping to create a space for discussions about sexual misconduct. Some 150 testimonies of sexual harassment were read aloud over the course of the day, and Featherstone and her team used the ensuing conversations to create a code of conduct for people working in theatre.

Stylist caught up with Featherstone just before she boarded a plane to New York, where her play Cyprus Avenue is currently on at Manhattan’s Public Theater, to talk Snatches, #MeToo and the challenges of hiring an all-female team. 

Vicky Featherstone

You’ve said you were surprised the BBC allowed you to use the title Snatches for these monologues. Did you have any back-up ideas if they turned it down?

My other ideas were worse, so I can’t say them [laughs]. Well, not worse, because I don’t think Snatches is bad, but they were even more audacious and cheeky. But the BBC were amazing and supportive. They wanted it to be fun and challenging.

Were the writers allowed to choose their own subject matter?

Yes, absolutely. The brief was to do something within 100 years of the Representation of the People Act 1918, and initially I thought it would be great if the monologues were evenly spaced over that century. But once the writers started looking into the history, they found subjects that were much more interesting than the ones I’d been thinking about. So we let them have free rein.

Why did the BBC want to create monologues, as opposed to a more traditional TV series format, to mark the 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage?

They did a brilliant series of monologues last year called Queers [in response to the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised male homosexuality], curated and directed by Mark Gatiss, and they approached me to create a women’s version of that.

The monologue form is exciting because it’s so direct. It’s about individual characters telling you a story, and they can take you anywhere. So it’s a brilliant way for the BBC to take risks with different kinds of writers and stories. I’m very proud of it, and I feel very privileged that they asked me to do it. 

Kiran Sonia Sawar in Snatches

You and producer Debbie Christie challenged yourself to hire a mostly female production team for this series. How did that go?

Well, we couldn’t do it entirely. Some of it did come down to who was available at the right time, so I’d say in the end the team was about 5% male – some of the lighting crew, some of the sound people, some of the set builders were men. But it was largely female.

What was interesting for me was that in theatre, you often do end up working in a mainly female environment. It felt much more unusual for women in TV [to be working mostly with other women]. People talk about the representation of women in television and film, so I wanted to come in from the outside and set a challenge. I think it’s really good for people to see that [female representation] can be achieved if you make an effort. 

Should more producers and directors set themselves that kind of challenge when hiring for TV shows?

It’s an interesting question, because it comes down to the thorny issue of quotas. I always feel uncomfortable about quotas, because I hate the idea of being a sort of nanny state or dictatorial in any way, but sometimes you do need to set yourself a task or a target. Otherwise you just keep doing the same things and hiring the same people again and again.

I think it’s brilliant that we’ve done it, and I hope that in future other people will go, actually, all I need to do is think twice [about who I hire]. It’s about not just automatically going to the first person on your list, who – because of how we’ve always worked – will often be a man. It’s about going, OK, let’s try someone new.

I think that’s an important point, and it applies to racial diversity, too. You often hear people saying things like, ‘Oh, we’d like to hire someone who’s not a white, middle-class man, but there’s no one like that to fill this role’. But actually those people are out there, you just have to look for them.

Exactly. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone, but often it comes down to laziness. You have to work a bit harder to find those people because you don’t know them yet, and you have to trust them, because they won’t have the same CV [as someone more privileged]. But unless somebody like me starts doing that, what hope do we have?

Corinne Skinner-Gardener in Snatches 

What do you hope people will get out of watching Snatches?

I hope people will think they’re bold and entertaining and beautiful and brave. I hope they’ll appreciate the actresses’ incredible performances, and the fact that there are new stories being told here. That’s always exciting.

Last autumn you put on events at the Royal Court to address sexual harassment and abuse in the theatre industry. What was that experience like?

After the Harvey Weinstein thing came out I sent a tweet saying that theatre should start thinking about the skeletons in our own cupboard, and asking what we should do about it. I got about 150 tweets in a day, and I thought, I need to do something about this. I can’t just absorb it.

So we ran this day of action, and it was extraordinary how brave people were about coming forward with their stories and testimonies. I didn’t want it to just be about naming and shaming individuals, although that’s sometimes necessary; I also wanted us to figure out how we could make sure people behave differently in future. And the code of behaviour we came up with has been picked up [by theatres] all around the world, so it’s been incredible.

I just feel very grateful to the people who turned up, because we couldn’t have come up with the code of behaviour if it wasn’t for them.

You’ve been very outspoken about the need for the theatre industry to reckon with its own failings in regard to the #MeToo movement. Do you think things are improving?

I think it’s important to remember that just because you open up a conversation and things start to shift a bit, that doesn’t mean your work is done. Actually, the hard work only begins once you open something up. Those events weren’t the hard work, the hard work is figuring out how we continue to empower people.

But I do think there’s been a definite shift in culture and things aren’t accepted in the same way anymore, because we’ve said things out loud. That has to be a good thing.

Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives starts on Monday 18 June on BBC Four.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve pushed for change and made a difference. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: BBC Four