At eighteen, still a young actress, I am lucky enough to say there are a fair few moments in my past experience of theatre where I have felt thoroughly present and inspired.
Many of these moments are unforgettable for me personally as they may be in roles I have dreamt about performing or simply because I feel a truthful connection to the character I am portraying. Standing in the spotlit line for the opening of Act 2 of RENT singing 'Seasons of Love' after years of idolising the production, performing iconic musical theatre ballads such as 'On my Own' and 'Someone like you' and being able to hear a pin drop in the studio space theatre at the Theatre Royal amidst a difficult scene in Blue Stockings where my character Maeve is told by her brother that she has to leave her education behind to care for her orphaned sisters.
But I don't think there has ever been a moment quite as unforgettable as the one in which I, alongside maybe twenty other women in full period dress brandishing signs and banners, emerged through the fog outside the York Minster piazza. It felt truly surreal to be wearing a sash branded 'Votes for Women' and slowly making my way through the modern day crowd. I really meant it when I was shouting at the top of my lungs that we 'demand a voice!' and chanting in unison the key slogan 'Deeds not words!' We were embodying the women of the past who fought for our right to be heard and the memory of this will stay with me because to me, that is what the true essence of theatre is all about.
We make theatre to give people a voice.
To me, thats just it. Theatre is all about voice. And I think it is most powerful when it comes from a voice unheard or oppressed in some way. Prime example of this of course being The Suffragettes; they fought against a before entirely misogynistic society where female subjugation was accepted as the norm and demanded a voice and a vote. They were pioneers for many of the freedoms we women have today and many of their stories have been told superbly across various platforms. But as Barbara Marten says in the production as Annie Pearson commenting on the tragic death of Suffragette martyr Emily Wilding Davidson ; 'People always think its all about London, history does that sometimes', there are still many stories both nation and worldwide that have been overlooked by the sweeping nature of history.
This was in fact the thinking behind the York Theatre Royal's idea for the production 'Everything is Possible, The York Suffragettes', the show which gave me the afore mentioned 'unforgettable moments', my previous blog post being centred around the technical and community aspects of the production, I felt it was necessary to write in more detail about the play's content and the experience of being part of such a thought provoking play.
What is interesting about the origins of the play staged at the York Theatre Royal last month, part of wider project titled 'Of Women Born' taking place this season focusing on work made and led by female artists looking to address the imbalance in women's roles in both theatrical work and the industry on the whole, was how the intention from the offset from directors Juliet Forster and Katie Posner was to 'produce a large scale community production that told a strong female narrative, after years left feeling frustrated by the chosen narratives' of their past community production credits 'tending to rely more on male voices to tell the story.' Lead actress Barbara Marten was also a key influencer early on in the project's development, in fact it was Barbara herself to suggest the Suffragettes as a theme. It was to the production team's delight that, despite the lack of knowledge publicly about the militant suffragette movement in York, Professor Krista Cowman's research revealed a 'true and previously hidden story that was so fit for purpose'.
The spectacular prologue was set outside of the Minster and left audiences stunned in the midst of a modern protest, listening to the passion and talent of the likes of Sophie Walsmsley singing her original song belting out choruses of 'We won't be silenced and we won't be stopped'. The atmosphere was twisted with the conflicting speeches of the brilliant Val Punt and Annabel Lee and then thrown back over a hundred years to 1913 with the entrance of the Suffragettes themselves. Then when chaos erupted, calls of 'Votes for Women' and 'Deeds not Words' were beaten down by the 1913 policemen making their way through the crowd. It was an almight scene and a grand opening for the production and for me successfully carried the most important message of the show.
The sight of around twenty women dressed in 1913 attire and brandishing signs and slogan banners making our way through town early evening, was often met with mostly confused glances, sometimes some inappropriate heckling and more often than that a few cries of encouragement as other citizens joined in with the fun. However one instance sticks in my mind in particular of a gentleman who briefly mentioned in passing 'You've got your vote, you can go home now.' This was in fact met with some laughter in the surrounding cast and members of the public and I honestly don't doubt it was a light hearted joke with no malicious intent however it made me realise the reason why these moments demonstrating rung so true to me.
And I'm afraid it means that despite my entire adoration and respect for both the phenomenal lady I had the pleasure of working with- Jo Smith and her character in the production; Violet Key Jones, I must disagree with the statement she issues as the beginning of Act 2 of the play. Once greeted with the question from Beth Sitek's brilliant Mabel "Where is this going to end', she states 'Where it has to end; with a queue of women standing in line at a ballot box' because the characters in 'Everything is possible' lived over a hundred years ago and women did win their vote several years later in 1918 and then entirely in 1928. It is now almost a century since the first law passed women over the age of 30 to vote and with our staged prologue bearing an intentional striking resemblance to the women's march which dominated the world's news earlier this year, that is evidently not the case.
Now, in 2017, we still have a long way to go for equality. Sophie's song referencing the millions of girls still without access to education, 'they don't have a vote, they don't have a voice', is testament to that.
So we make theatre to give people a voice and I think it is something truly special that, as the directors Juliet and Katie stated, with the Suffragettes 'voices still ringing in our ears a hundred years on', we are able to give a voice not only to the pioneers of our rights over a century ago but also all the women around the world still oppressed today.
I'd like to thank York Theatre Royal for the opportunity to be involved in such a formidable production as I have truly been enriched and inspired by the experience.
My next post is to follow very shortly, with heavy influence from the project and all the fantastic women involved so stay posted! x