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Theatr Pena: Rewriting what it means to be a woman in theatre

08/02/2016 17:13 GMT | Updated 08/02/2017 10:12 GMT

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Holly McCarthy

Theatre is a form of entertainment that continually pushes boundaries. In a quest to break down barriers for actors and audiences, one company is rewriting what it means to be a woman in theatre.

Theatr Pena is committed to creating opportunities for women and giving audiences in Wales a chance to experience bold contemporary productions of classic and modern plays. Founded by a group of friends in 2008, the company has staged several successful and award winning productions that put women at the centre of the action.

I spoke to Eiry Thomas, one of the founding members of the company and cast member in their current production of The Glass Menagerie, about how Theatr Pena is promoting women in the theatre, as well as her current role in Welsh political drama Byw Celwydd.

How long have you been involved with Theatr Pena and why did the project initially interest you?

In 2008 over tapas and wine, a group of us got around a table at Erica Eirian's house to read Federico Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. We all felt that there was a nourishment deficit from the industry, and in particular, very few opportunities for women when you reached a certain age. You'd regularly see actresses of a certain age playing somebody's mother or grandmother, or even an abused wife or a miserable person. We all thought, "Where are the plays?" Soon after, we decided to found Theatr Pena (which translates from the Spanish to a meeting of like-minded artists/people,) focusing on classic texts that have strong roles for women.

At this point I hadn't done any theatre for six years, and I felt it was a good opportunity for me to find my feet after doing lots of television. I used it to reclaim my enthusiasm and mojo!

Television and theatre are both so different. In television, it is easy to portray the intimacy in your eyes, and you don't have to overly show anything. I love the challenge of getting people to connect with you on stage - it's a real joy for me. It's the same feeling when you are captivated by a novel and want to read it cover to cover. You just get to be. Theatr Pena makes beautiful props, like the ones for The Glass Menagerie. They help to take you to a place within your imagination. Television is much more 'focus, focus' then 'stop!' Theatre enables me to fully live and breathe the character that I am playing.

How is Theatr Pena inspiring and empowering Welsh women to become involved in the arts?

Take somebody like my mum. She loves seeing women her own age performing on stage. For people who are not connected to the arts, they love to see 'their kind' being represented on stage, and it's healthy to get them actively involved.

Finding material can be a challenge, particularly as many texts were written by men at a certain time in history when women did not have the freedom to write. A woman would have to be from a certain background with substantial financial backing. These days, women are being represented more and standing up for themselves in the industry. It's a buzzy 'hot topic,' and at Theatr Pena, we're trying to show women over a certain age.

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Simon Gough

How is Theatr Pena transforming audience perceptions of what the theatre is like?

I think that as a company we are nudging audiences to think a bit more. In this version of The Glass Menagerie we've pushed up the ages of the characters. Originally my character is supposed to be ten years younger than me, but the director has decided to increase the age as it makes the story even more desperate. It really works, and it makes the stories of the characters even sadder. With other plays we've staged, we've tried to find texts that put women in the middle rather than on the edges. Moving forward, I think we may need to look towards other types of texts, for example, male roles becoming female roles. I think this would impact the industry and create a shift will make people think twice.

I find it frustrating when I watch TV and see parts cast younger. I love watching the character that you find in an older face as there is more to see. I don't know why we discard people of a certain age in the eternal pursuit of this artificial younger image. You often find that a drama will want an actress in their 40s, but they cast an actress in their 30s. It places a lot of pressure on an actress to make themselves appear younger. I've played parts when I've thought, "I shouldn't be playing this," but it's been pushed towards the younger scale to make it more acceptable for television.

I think other countries are more accepting. I like watching television dramas like The Bridge where you stop and think, "Oh yeah, she's got a few wrinkles!" They portray strong female roles where the character is influential and not somebody's mother or gran. Theatr Pena will always opt for the older!

Tell us about your role in the current performance of The Glass Menagerie.

In Theatr Pena's current production of The Glass Menagerie I play the character of Laura. I'm finding the role challenging as the language is quite difficult to get your head around. It's set in 1937, and there's a certain way people spoke, a way the words are said and of course the accent. The role of Laura is an extraordinary shy one. She has a domineering mother and hasn't found her way in life. I've never played a character this shy before, and I'm conscious that I don't want her to become too childlike. I've had to access different parts of myself, particularly as I've had a run of playing many confident characters.

I'm really enjoying exploring the role and as an actor I love digging deep into the vulnerable side of people. Everyone has vulnerability and I like to discover that.

What are your hopes for the future of Theatr Pena and its next wave of projects?

I am hoping that the company receives more funding from the Arts Council, but the industry is very competitive. We are really lucky to be in the position we are and we never take it for granted. It's a harsh environment for the arts at the moment, and I know so many talented people who currently don't have any work. What Theatr Pena makes has to be of a standard that people will appreciate and enable us to keep going. I hope that we can continue in the way that we are and find great classic plays that speak to a modern audience.

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You can currently be seen on the S4C political drama, Byw Celwydd. What were the highlights and challenges of your role and what initially attracted you to the part of Catrin Williams?

I was sold when I read that a husband and wife compete for the same job and the wife gets it! The subsequent fallout where the husband is ambitious, self assured and a little sexist in his reaction to his wife's victory also fascinated me. I've always wondered about the people in politics. You see all these people wandering around in their suits knowing what they do, but I've always been interested in what makes them tick. What happens when they go home and shut the door? The merging of the outer and inner worlds fascinates me, and in this role this crossover gives me a lot to play. As my character of Catrin is married to another politician, there are these moments where you can reveal those inner thoughts in the public persona.

What's good about this script is that the writers didn't go for the traditional 'womanizing husband.' There was a hint in one episode that this might happen, but it didn't, and it makes the storyline far more interesting. Catrin's relationship with the First Minister is also intriguing. He is wooing her politically, and it's about their relationship on an intense, political level. Of course there are characters in the show who are having affairs- but not for my character! I'm enjoying that Byw Celwydd is encouraging the audience to think about what will happen next and push the boundaries of expectation.

I found the filming timescale very challenging. We filmed Byw Celwydd last summer over several weekends and one week where the National Assembly wasn't in session. What you see on the screen is no less than a miracle from the amount of time you get to rehearse and film your scenes. It's a tough schedule due to budget and time constraints, and often filming a show quickly can compromise people's standards. This wasn't the case with Byw Celwydd, and you can see that it's a polished and amazing end result. I loved filming in the Senedd and immersing myself in the 'political world.' I had lovely clothes and heels, and that feeling helped to feed my imagination and get me into the right place to play Catrin.

How has your view/perspective of politicians and Welsh politics changed since experiencing the Assembly and filming the drama?

I think my view of Welsh politics has changed. What you see in Byw Celwydd is an imaginary construct as the show portrays a rainbow coalition. This has made me question what happens when one party is in power for a prolonged period of time. Issues might not get properly debated and it may even be unhealthy to have one party in power. It has been interesting to learn more about the role of SPADs and the negotiations that take place, seeing that sometimes individuals have very little power due to the political structure and parties.

Why do you think political dramas are so popular?

Political dramas let audiences into the public and private lives of politicians. Many politicians have this funny, camera veneer persona of "believe what I say." Some are better at it than others. If politicians struggle for the words, they've already lost their audience. If you can't put your audience at ease then they won't trust you. This is what fascinates me as I want to see the workings behind the magic. Although maybe it's not as fun when you see how things really work!

Do you think Byw Celwydd will have any impact on viewers as we head towards the Assembly elections?

Looking at Twitter, I've seen that there has been a bit of reaction to one of the storylines. There are a several upcoming topics that are interesting, and there's always so much for us to find and portray. Fact can often be more extraordinary than fiction!

I think the show might have an impact on the voters, and it's certainly having an effect on political fans. It's been interesting to see the reaction from politicians, journalists and political animals. Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that people should watch Byw Celwydd, and I've been watching the various Twitter conversations between individuals from different parties. One of the political correspondents, David Cornock, tweeted that journalists wouldn't have clapped when a party leader was elected. I was a bit disappointed that we didn't know the protocol, but it's artistic license!

The stakes for this drama are much higher as it's dealing with people's lives on a bigger scale and shows the ins and outs of how it all works. It's a complex world and I don't think my brain could take it!

What future projects are you working on?

I hope they'll be another series of Byw Celwydd! I have a few other projects in the pipeline, and I also do lots of radio, voice work and teaching.

What's your dream role?

I've had my dream role already thanks to Delyth Jones. She wrote a monologue for me called Tic Toc where a woman is remembering her dead relatives and you discover she murdered them all. I got to play a multi faceted person who wasn't in relationship to anybody, and I was able to create a living, breathing whole person. It was a sad, insane and hilarious role. I loved it! I'd love to do a similar role for theatre, as it was one of the toughest but most enjoyable roles to explore. I like playing mad people- it's good to be different!