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Agent 160 - Feminism By Stealth


Margaret Thatcher might not approve of Agent 160, the new theatre 
company set up by playwright Lisa Parry and dramaturg Louise Stephens 
Alexander, even if this UK-wide venture is named after one of the nom 
de plumes (Astrea was another) of a government spy in the employ of 
Charles 11. The fact that Agent 160, aka Astrea, was in fact Aphra 
Behn, who was not only one of the earliest recorded female playwrights 
in history, but was also savvy enough to make money from it, might 
suggest a kind of feminist separatism by stealth to the once iron lady.

As those behind Agent 160 are keen to stress, however, their idea of 
promoting work solely by female playwrights is more about addressing a 
serious imbalance which Parry discovered while attending a conference 
in the National Theatre's Olivier space in 2010. During the day, it was 
revealed that of all the plays produced in the UK, only seventeen per 
cent are written by women.

“If you flip that figure around, you're saying that 83 per cent of 
plays being commissioned are by men,” Parry observes. “Now, I don't 
have a problem with male playwrights, but I saw three David Hare plays 
last year, and I just wonder why it is that I'm not seeing more women 
writers onstage. There are obvious things to do with child care issues, 
but there must be more than that as well.  I'm not sure how I feel 
about having quotas, but we have to ask why women writers are being 
discriminated against in this way, and why gender doesn't seem to be an 
issue anymore.”

With this in mind, Parry and Stephens Alexander approached all of the 
female writers they liked with a view to getting involved with Agent 
160. The first fruits of this new initiative will be Agent 160 
Presents, which will see twelve new plays presented over two nights 
at the Arches in Glasgow following dates in Cardiff and London. With 
writers pulled in from all four nations of the UK, five of the plays 
have been rehearsed in Scotland, five in Wales and four in London. Two 
of the cast are from Scotland, three from Wales and two from London, 
while the four directors will include Kate Nelson of the 
Edinburgh-based Nutshell Theatre.

Scottish writers involved include Ioanna Anderson, whose play Six Acts 
of Love was seen at the Tron a couple of years ago, Abigail Docherty, 
whose Sea and Land and Sky won the inaugural Open Stage  competition, 
also at the Tron, Clare Duffy, co-author of Stellar Quines' forthcoming 
bi-lingual play, ANA, and Morna Pearson, whose play, Distracted, won 
the Meyer-Whitworth playwriting award.

Of the nationwide focus of Agent 160, Stephens Alexander says that “I 
can't imagine how you would have done this twenty, or even ten years 
ago. The internet's changed everything, and even the writers I've not 
met yet, I feel I know fairly well. The lovely thing about writing for 
theatre is that it is a collaborative art, and I think writers just 
find it useful to talk to someone who's actually read their play and 
think seriously about it. Dramaturgically that's really useful to do 
before the writers meet their director who's going to put their work on 
in a couple of weeks.”

Despite Agent 160's motivation, things do seem to be different in 
Scotland. As with David Hare, it's been possible to see three plays by 
Liz Lochhead in the last year, while work by Rona Munro has appeared on 
both Scottish and London stages. Then there is Zinnie Harris, Linda 
McLean, Sue Glover, Nicola McCartney, Sam Holcroft, Molly Taylor and 
others who have all had new work produced in Scotland over the last 
year. On top of this, the female-led Stellar Quines Theatre Company has 
worked with women artists of all disciplines, and over the last decade 
has focused largely on women writers at an international level. There 
is also The MsFits, founded by Rona Munro and actress Fiona Knowles to 
produce a series of monologues performed by Knowles.

Elsewhere, Abi Morgan appears equally prolific, both for the National 
Theatre of Scotland with 27, and with Frantic Assembly's recent tour of 
Lovesong, which stopped off at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. Indeed, 
Morgan's name is especially notable here, as she also penned the 
screenplay for The Iron Lady, lthe BAFTA-winning film largely seen as 
being a sympathetic portrait of Britain's first female Prime Minister. 
Far from championing women's rights, however, Thatcher took on 
all-comers, including the female-led protests at Greenham Common.

The parallel rise of both feminism and Thatcherism in the 1970s also 
gave rise to single issue theatre companies that included the Monstrous 
Regiment company, who took their name from a tract by John Knox, and 
who scored an early success with Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill. 
Churchill's cache rose throughout the 1980s with the likes of Top 
Girls, which looked at the very notion of Thatcherism through imagined 
meetings between strong women throughout history.

If Monstrous Regiment and others had an explicit political agenda, 
Agent 160's is less overt, with the emphasis more on presenting work 
that is both intelligent and entertaining.

“We're presenting a platform for women writers rather than women’s 
rights,” is how Parry sees it, “but we recognise as well that we 
probably only exist off the back of the groundwork that the likes of 
Monstrous Regiment did before us. We obviously exist for a political 
reason, yet neither are we going to be overtly political about it. None 
of us want to become niche. I'm female but I'm also a writer. Being 
female doesn't enter my head, because I just am, whereas being a writer 
enters my head all the time.

“We want people to come along and enjoy the plays for what they are, 
and not care about the gender of the writer, or worry that it's by a 
token female writer. It's like when Rebecca Lenkiewicz had her play, 
Her Naked Skin on in 2008, and everybody made a big deal of the fact 
that she was the first female writer to have something on at the 
Olivier. It shouldn't matter, nut it's taken that long that of course 
it does.”

As Parry observes, there are very obvious practical reasons that might 
prevent women playwrights  sustaining a career, and which Agent 160 
would like to address.

“We've got an ambition in terms of helping with childcare and 
maternity,” she says, “which other companies may or may not do, but we 
also give the playwright the power over the process, which I think 
women find an empowering thing. If there are barriers to women getting 
work on, you can't separate them from the other issues, where people 
might be expected to work for free, or where areas outside the big 
cities might not have venues or any kind of theatrical infra-structure.”

By 2012, of course, the first wave of 1970s feminism should have made 
companies such as Agent 160 unnecessary. While today's reactionary 
climate has given Parry and Stephens Alexander's arguments a 
revitalised currency, things are looking up.

“There are people trying to address things in terms of commissioning,” 
Parry admits, “but if you're commissioned by a big established company, 
it takes a long time for those plays to come through. One of the good 
things about being a smaller company is that you can be slightly more 
responsive and flexible. I'm sure there are a lot of great commissions 
by women sitting in a drawer which I'm sure we'll be seeing soon.”

Agent 160 presents Agent 160, The Arches, Glasgow, February 22-23
www.agent160theatre.co.uk
www.thearches.co.uk

The Herald, February 15th 2012

ends

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