‘I cannot hold my tongue’

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by Mary Paulson-Ellis

One hundred years ago three women barricaded themselves into a box at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.  Two held the doors shut while one began to shout, interrupting a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Candida with cries of “Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot hold my tongue.”

These women were demanding the right to vote and their short demonstration was met with approving comments from the Lyceum audience.  100 years on, to mark the centenary of International Women’s Day, Stellar Quines Theatre Company re-created the event.  Three actresses rose to their feet during a performance of Age of Arousal, a Stellar Quines and Royal Lyceum co-production about the social, political and emotional upheaval of the Suffragette era, and demanded once more that women’s voices be heard.

Stellar Quines is Scotland’s only professional theatre company dedicated to promoting strong roles for women both on and off the stage.  For almost twenty years now it has commissioned, developed and staged theatrical productions with women at their heart. In doing so it persists with the idea that in a successful society it is crucial that women’s experiences and dilemmas, their mistakes and misfortunes, their great joys and great fears be heard as often as those of its men.

The company was started in 1993 by actress, Gerda Stevenson, amongst others.  Stevenson was frustrated by the lack of roles available to women in Scotland at the time.  “One aspect of being female is that, unless you’re careful, you can become invisible.”  The company she helped to found, now run by Artistic Director Muriel Romanes, has had great success.  Over 75% of the writers, directors and actors who have helped to create its eclectic and award-winning productions have been women.  As Mary Barfoot, the ex-militant Suffragette at the heart of Age of Arousal states, “Yes, women may show off too.”

And yet.  After all of these achievements Stellar Quines still feels sometimes as though it is ploughing a lonely furrow.  On reviewing Age of Arousal (and another recent production that put women at its heart, Marilyn by Sue Glover), theatre critic Joyce Macmillan noted, “despite 30 years of talk about equal opportunities the latest wave of feminism has failed to make much of a dent on the traditional gender balance in theatre; plays with all-male casts remain common, those with all-female casts vanishingly rare.”

Despite the increasing presence of female artistic directors, from Vicky Featherstone at NTS to Jackie Wylie at the Arches, it is still normal for Scotland’s big producing and receiving houses – the Citizens, Dundee Rep, the Lyceum, Eden Court – to be run by men while women congregate within the administrative roles and in the smaller, less powerful, more precariously resourced companies.  Stellar Quines’ own investigation into a typical autumn season of Scottish theatre suggest that male artists still dominate as writers, directors and actors.  Only recently young women at St Andrew’s University started up their own company, Domina Productions, specifically to address the lack of female parts available to them through the normal student theatre world.  For a company that has regularly fought off accusations of irrelevance, Stellar Quines’ mission seems prescient still.

In our society making a professional life in the arts can be hard.  It takes talent, dedication, hard-work, luck and contacts, all of which women embody as much as men.  It also requires a high degree of self-interest – not perhaps something particularly encouraged in girls.

Crucially, what also sustains a long-running career is opportunity.  If the average season of plays provides twice as many roles for men as for women, no wonder women’s voices are often not heard.  If limited opportunities for new plays are presided over by men, is it a surprise that at times they commission in their own image.  If to make it as a freelance artist one must work in precarious circumstances while one is young, what happens when one reaches childbearing age and must choose between cementing one’s gains or taking time out from the fray?  And what about when women get older?  As recent cases in the BBC have shown, it is not just in theatre that women’s voices and faces disappear once they hit 50.

But perhaps there is something else going on here too.  At a recent talk on Age of Arousal, one audience member, a man, asked, “What’s in this play for me?”  It seemed that for him a play about women, featuring women, was something about which he needed reassurance; that he needed to be convinced of its relevance.  Perhaps the more interesting question is whether a woman attending a play featuring five men and one woman would even think to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’  Women have lived for years with the idea that men’s experience is universal.  How many years will it take for men to live with the idea that women’s experience is universal too?

Stellar Quines continues to be approached, day after day, by many women artists who believe their voices are not heard as often as they should be, despite the characters in Age of Arousal sincerely believing that true equality would be achieved, “In thirty years”.  One hundred years on these actors, writers and directors are still demanding the right to be heard as part of the mainstream, not just once or twice but again and again and again.  Stellar Quines exists to help them achieve that goal. We do not think that just because these artists are women, they should ever have to hold their tongues.

Mary Paulson-Ellis
General Manager
Stellar Quines Theatre Company{jcomments on}