Although women make up 52 per cent of the population, men write 83 per cent of plays, according to feminist theatre company Sphinx. Now Lisa Parry, artistic director for Agent 160, an exciting new female writer-led company, aims to change all this.
Twelve female playwrights will steal the limelight during the launch of Agent 160, at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, this weekend. With £16,520 worth of funding from art councils in Wales, England and Scotland, Lisa’s new venture will support rising female talent.
A former journalist, Lisa turned to playwriting after freelancing for several national newspapers. She returned to university to study scriptwriting at Birmingham. But as a regular theatre goer, Lisa soon found most plays were written by male authors.
“There was a definite run of them,” said Lisa. “Some writers are absolutely brilliant but it is unequal, you need to hear as many voices as you can. Writing is one of the ways which we express ourselves, we are not getting the full picture if there is no female voice. Frankly it’s not fair for young girls who want to write.”
Two years ago Lisa e-mailed several of her favourite female writers and Agent 160 was born.
“I got an e-mail from Lisa saying I’ve got a project, do you want to be involved?” said Welsh writer Branwen Davies, who is currently studying for a scriptwriting PhD in Aberystwyth. “I was horrified by the statistics when Lisa told me, it wasn’t something that I had thought about before.
“I thought through my favourite writers and a lot of them were men. Then, because I’m a Welsh speaker, I thought about the Welsh speaking playwrights who jump to mind and they were all male. I’m not really sure why this is, but the writers who are breaking through at the moment are all female. I think this will tip the balance.”
After this weekend Agent 160 will perform in London and Glasgow. The team includes artists who live as far as Scotland and Ireland. Lisa, however, whose family is from Merthyr Tydfil, was happy to see the project launched in Cardiff. “I wanted to go there, it feels more like home,” she said.
Without an office, each writer works from home, using computers and secret internet forums to communicate. This keeps company costs down and makes the project all-inclusive. “All the writers are completely different,” said Lisa. “We deliberately gave them an open brief as some of the writers felt they were being pigeon holed.”
Branwen’s play is called Genki? – it means happy in Japanese, and is based on her experiences during a year out in Japan.
The piece uses two female actors, with the second actor playing several different parts. “I wanted to give it a sense of fun, to look at what Japan is like,” said Branwen. “The rehearsals went well yesterday, we had a good giggle.
“I think there is a stigma about female writers, that they write about how bad men are, and how wonderful women are. I wouldn’t say I’m writing in a typical female way. When I write for female characters I want to make them really powerful, I worry if they are too girly.”
Although the scriptwriters are female, other positions in the company are open to men, including London producer Dan Baker. “I think the men love it,” said Lisa. “Everyone has been working separately so I don’t think Dan has been exposed to the full female troop at the moment.”
Agent 160 takes its name from the restoration playwright Aphra Behn. Behn, who was one of the first women to earn a living by both acting and writing, also worked as a spy for Charles II and Agent 160 was her codename.
“I would hope she’d approve,” said Lisa. “From her plays it is obvious she understood power and gender politics.
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