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Sharon Maughan, The Bechdel Test & The Glaring Gender Equality Gap in British Theatre

24/04/2015 17:36 BST | Updated 24/06/2015 10:59 BST

Two female characters. With actual names. Talking to each other about something other than a man.

Not exactly shooting for the moon. Is it?

Yet a staggering amount of Theatre, and even more Films, fail to pass this test. And it is a test. The Bechdel Test to be precise.

In 1987 the cartoonist, Alison Bechdel, created a now infamous comic strip, "The Rule", highlighting this very issue. But more than twenty- five years on from her wry observation the problem persists.

In the majority of cases, Theatre is still failing to meet the Bechdel Test, arguably the lowest bar for representation. And it's making people annoyed enough to confront it.

People like Deborah Klayman and Ali Kemp, the lasses of Whoop 'n' Wail Theatre Company. Who, on the 27th & 28th of April will be curating their third Represents... showcase: six fifteen-minute pieces of theatre which all pass, then surpass The Bechdel Test. In addition to passing the test, all of the shorts have been chosen for one reason - they're damn good plays.

And in one of these short plays is Sharon Maughan.

Yes. Seriously.

I was intrigued to know why an absolute powerhouse of an actress, whose stellar career has so far spanned 4 decades in Theatre, Film and Television and shows no signs of slowing down, would be so interested in exploring Gender Equality in Theatre.

So, I asked her. And she very kindly explained.

Me:I have to ask you Sharon-you can clearly pick and choose your roles-so why pick this project?

Sharon: I feel it's admirable that the producers have taken this on. I myself have not experienced suffering in my profession because of my sex. I have experienced unemployment because people didn't want me! I do think that one of the few things that does exist in reality-and it's more in America than here- and that is ageism. But paradoxically it's in the film industry. You can literally toll a bell when you reach 40 if you have a high profile in the film industry and you do not get the parts that you once got. I do think it's an incredibly complicated situation.

Me:So you've really never felt like your sex was an issue in life? Honestly?

Sharon: I grew up alongside 4 brothers in a council estate in Liverpool. I was brought up by a mother who never said that I was less than them. Or that I could do less than them. I always felt I was equal, and that I had a bigger voice than them. So I've never felt the need to be militant about it. But I will support anybody who has a voice and wants to express themselves in a true and honest way.

Me: I don't want to fixate on your personal life. But. Having achieved so much in your own right professionally...didn't you ever get a bit...annoyed when people refer to you as "the wife of" [Trevor Eve]?

Sharon: I did! I have found that. Not that my husband ever has done that to me. But I grew out of that. Because you have to be very careful, once you have that inside of you, you start to see it everywhere. So I realised that if I felt like that at all, I could feel like that about everybody. Including friends, jealousy of friends, of family. I mean I now have a very successful daughter, [Alice Eve] I would hate to feel anything but euphorically proud of her. I just try to avoid any negatives and only focus on positives.

Me: Where did you find your strong female role models to learn this sort of mentality?

Sharon: I find by-and-large, although I don't want to speak for other cultures, but in a lot of working class cultures, and it goes across caste and creed, that the women are strong because they have to be, to support the family and be the constant that takes care of everyone's needs. They're tough people. And I certainly grew up in a Matriarchal environment. The women were a lot more present than the men. Very strong, and very forceful.

Me: You mentioned your daughter. Do you think she as an actress faces a different sort of pressure than you did as you started out in your profession?

Sharon: Absolutely. Without question. She has faced different pressures, which she explores in some of her own work. She faces pressures now that I will never understand. Which my husband will never understand. Because by the time my children were born, we were already established in our profession. So they've grown up in a world of actors. I grew up in a world of factory workers. My husband grew up in a world of wine traders. My children grew up here and in The States. Always surrounded by actors, so they've always seen success, even when their parents might have been experiencing failure. A much different life to our lives. And I think that has given them different mountains to climb. I came from complete anonymity. They do not, so they have to work harder at making their own mark. And they are aware of that.

Me: Do you believe in the power of words? Is it important that we as women use words to build each other up, rather than tear each other down?

Sharon: I believe in the sisterhood. I very much believe in the sisterhood. Having grown up around boys, it was a belated discovery to me, the power of a female friend. But it's something that I value enormously and, having done a lot of studying of positive language. Positive energy, therapy, Freud, whatever you wish to call it, I understand the power of feeling positive. And it's not always easy to do it. But it is a wonderful goal to have. Because any vitriol we feel or in our words just bounces right back to us...

Whoop 'n' Wail Theatre Company is dedicated to creating innovative, engaging theatre that promotes social justice.

Sharon Maughan is a supporter of The Alzheimers Society and of IMPACT Theatre Company.

Whoop 'n' Wail Represents...Mayday Monday 27th April 2015 at 19:30 Tuesday 28th April 2015 at 19:30 Waterloo East Theatre, Brad Street, SE1 8TN

Tickets: £10 in advance / £12 on the door

Box office: 0207 928 0060

Book online: www.waterlooeast.co.uk

Running time is approximately 2hrs 15 including interval.