25/02/2016 13:31 GMT | Updated 25/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Feminist Actors Redress Gender Inequality in Theatre


Wilford (left) and Couture on set of 'Low Level Panic'. Credit: Thomas Scurr

I discussed gender inequality in theatre with actors Jenny Wilford and Charlotte Couture over tea in a draughty south London pub. In spite of our shivering, the conversation was heated. Wilford and Couture could talk for days about sexism and feminism in the acting world.

A few years out of drama school, the actors are disillusioned with the roles they are consistently offered. "It's a saturated market, so it's hard to get in the room to audition, for starters," says Wilford, "but always frustrates us are the parts we see coming up time and time again; we're still seeing recurrent casting calls for the romantic interest, the mother, the sister - always family or romance or sex, in relation to a male lead."

"In the 19th century, Henrik Ibsen wrote really strong, interesting female protagonists," Couture offers. "And then at some point it kind of fell apart..." adds Woods, wryly.

Couture and Wilford are brimming with facts about gender inequality in theatre. "Did you know 2008 was the first time the National Theatre staged a female playwright's original work on the Olivier Stage?"; "The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie - the longest running West End show - is frequently the only play by a woman on in the West End,"; "Only 17% of produced plays are written by women." And men tend to write about men, says Couture, "which means there is a knock on effect for female parts."

Dissatisfied with the state of their industry, Couture and Wilford took matters into their own hands and set up their own theatre company in 2014. Sheer Height - named after Shere Hite, a feminist known for her pioneering work on female sexuality - has since run a sell-out performance of Clare McIntyre's 'Low Level Panic' and an equally well-received project last year, a feminist theatre festival - 'Women Redressed.' This month they're all set for round two of the festival at the Arcola Theatre.

The actors believe that, as women in drama, their work is inevitably politicised - though they believe it shouldn't have to be. "It's a difficult balance," says Wilford, "female playwrights and actors just want to work without labels or having to be political... but also - we want to make some progress here!"

"We have clear guidelines for script submissions," says Wilford; "the idea is to have female characters at the core of the plot, which itself should explore gender issues and challenge perceptions."

"We really think about what we're presenting in terms of having a diverse programme," says Couture. "Last time we had plays about abortion, domestic violence, sex work, the office environment, same-sex relationships... but we also put on plays about female friendship - and, you know, about women just having a good time! I think that in itself is really empowering."

Wilford and Couture have been struck by how much interest they've received - from playwrights, actors, producers and directors. "We're a relatively small company," says Wilford, "still starting out, but the response we've had has been totally overwhelming. And I think that says a lot."

Receiving hundreds of applications, the actors try to get as many people involved as possible. "The last festival had 50 people involved - mostly women, but also some men - and everyone was so great, so engaged," says Wilford. "That's part of our aim: to get people, including men, thinking about gender in all their work."

In light of cuts to the arts industry, Wilford and Couture believe that now is a particularly troubling time for women in theatre. "Lack of funding means theatres are very reluctant to take risks. So, often, they're going with safe options - which usually means commercial productions, established plays and the same revivals over and over again," says Wilford. "With this kind of theatre people want to feel safe... they don't want to be challenged," says Couture.

And this security in established, all too often patriarchal, norms is precisely what the actors aim to redress through Sheer Height's latest festival: Women Redressed, on Sunday 20th March at the Arcola Theatre.