This is a slightly reworked version of my interview with Lucy Kerbel which was published in Ny Tid (in Swedish) this autumn, translated into English.
MEETING LUCY KERBEL
It’s the beginning of October and I’m sitting in The Cut, The Young Vic’s bar. It’s still fairly quiet, just a couple of people on the ground floor of the building. Some sitting on their own with computers, tablets or newspapers, others caught up in low-voiced conversations surrounded by piles of paper and computers. I’ve chosen a table across from the door and I’m waiting for Lucy Kerbel. Since I don’t know what she looks like I decided to bring her book A 100 Great Plays for Women instead of a flower in my buttonhole to signal my intentions.
The book was published in November 2013 and Lucy tells me that it’s sold well for a theatre book, it’s been one of Nick Hern Book’s best sellers and been on the National Theatre’s bookshop’s Top 10 list. And this for a book that wasn’t even meant to be a book, but a database.
We talk for almost an hour about both her book and about equality in the theatre world in England. She tells me about her work with different youth theatre groups, who most of the time consist mainly of girls, and how she was placed before the question of what to do with these groups. “I just couldn’t believe that there weren’t any plays to do with them.” So that’s one of the reasons for bringing these plays to the forefront, she knows from experience that there is a real demand for plays who feature female actors. She goes on to say that she wants it to be a book that’s easy to read, accessible and that brings these plays into peoples’ consciousness.
She uses the expression “to create a new truth” while we talk. That is to say that we shouldn’t just accept a statement like “there are no good parts or plays for women” as a definitive truth, but rather explore it and see if that is actually the case or not. Lucy points out that a lot of these plays just didn’t have anyone that championed them and that’s why they’ve been forgotten. She says that we shouldn’t forget that our knowledge of plays is connected to what’s been publicly performed and published and in that way has been preserved.
When she talks about working with the book she says that together with her editor she decided what should be covered, and what should, or shouldn’t, be brought up in the presentations. She says that for her one of the things that were important was to not become too descriptive and that way bring too much of her own interpretation into it. She says that in the beginning it was difficult writing confidently about what made the plays good since she wasn’t used to speaking in such definitive terms.
Towards the end we get into a discussion about what the consequences are of a limited number of productions with parts for women, and especially different types of women. In a theatre culture where year-long contracts are an exception and project based work is the norm it becomes more difficult for female actors to make in the business, when they feel more like a visitor than an active part of it. That’s why Lucy in this book wants to focus on stories that place women at the centre of events, plays that offer challenging, difficult, funny parts for women. “It felt like there were already books about female playwrights, anthologies with plays written by women and collections of plays that were mostly already known with one large part for a woman, while the rest of the cast was male.”
The discussion about equality in the theatre, and in this case, which stories and bodies are presented on stage, she sees as something that concerns and should engage both men and women. She also sees these questions as different sides of the same issue, which stories are presented on stage, who writes them and who portrays them.
When we part ways Lucy goes to prepare next evening’s seminar, the first in a series of six at the National Theatre, based on the book. When I take part in the seminar, on the theme “power”, the discussion touches on both the absence of female playwrights in the canon as well as the lack of production that places the female experience at the forefront, even though the majority of theatre audiences are female. I can’t help but notice that these are questions that engage the audience at the seminar, which consists of both women and men.