In Good Company: Jane the Foole
With women significantly underrepresented in UK theatre, we look at one company who are aiming to redress the balance
It is an indisputable fact that woman are underrepresented in our theatres. A quick browse through the season brochures of many a UK theatre will highlight the startling lack of female names in both the cast list and the creative team. While staff in theatre administration and education departments (and increasingly stage management teams) are female-heavy, their employment fails to mask the immediate problem: when the curtain rises, the production occupying the stage is still significantly less likely to have been written, directed, designed, or performed by women.
Gender equality organisation Tonic Theatre recently embarked upon a six-month exploration of females in theatre, shaping their research into a shocking set of statistics. Monitoring productions staged in the top 20 theatres in receipt of the highest proportion of Arts Council funding, Tonic found that only 8% of the productions were written by women. Only 37% of onstage performers and 38% of directors were female, with ‘women’ filling a mere 17% of sound design and 22% of lighting design posts.
Due to their efforts a number of welcome initiatives have emerged to address the problem: leading venues including the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres and the Young Vic have committed to new measures for improving gender equality in creative and backstage roles, with companies such as Headlong, English Touring Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company agreeing to support female writers in their efforts to break away from the studio and stretch their legs on the main stage. But what is being done in the Northwest?
It is a question that Manchester-based Charlotte Rhodes is keen to answer with Jane the Foole, a young company dedicated to the production of challenging and confrontational work by female playwrights. “I had had the idea for a female company that addressed the lack of parts for women in the theatre for some time,” says Rhodes, artistic director of the company. “There remains a visible shortage of female roles for both aspiring and existing female actors. The demand is there but there are neither the parts, the opportunity, nor the work to embrace it. My vision was to change that.”
The company takes its name from history’s first – and quite likely only – female court jester, Jane the Foole, who occupied the Tudor court and entertained Catherine Parr, Queen Mary and possibly Anne Boleyn. Though there is little evidence of her existence, Rhodes feels a distinct affinity with the forgotten female entertainer: “I wanted the company name to embody its values. Jane the Foole does that for us.”
The company’s opening play, My Baby Girl, runs at Three Minute Theatre this December. Written – as promised – by female playwright Amy McCauley, the piece explores a sinister rape allegation in a darkly comic meditation on power, revenge, class, sex and race.
“My Baby Girl has a strong feminist subtext,” explains Rhodes, “so it is a nice fit with the vision I have for the company. It examines attitudes towards women and also explores how gender relates to race and class.”
Although the play is written, produced and directed by women, Rhodes is firm that men will not be excluded from Jane the Foole’s work: “We already have a guy working for us who is a completely invested in our ethos – I was surprised by the number of men who are. The male actors performing in My Baby Girl are fully supportive of our vision.”
I think I speak on behalf of all females – theatre lovers or not – when I agree with Jane the Foole’s aims.