Starting any writing project is always daunting. It doesn’t matter how many plays I’ve written before (a lot!), my writing journey always begins with trepidation. Writing a new play demands a different approach and a different way of engaging with the themes and ideas within the piece, and as such every new project makes me feel like a total novice.
Maiden Speeches is a new play inspired by women in politics. The idea was conceived alongside York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre's co-production of Everything is Possible, which told the story of the York Suffragette branch and their fight for the vote. Barbara Marten, who played the lead role in the piece (Annie Seymour Pearson - the only suffragette from York to be imprisoned), was interested in how women’s presence in political life has progressed over the past 100 years since the Representation of the People Act in 1918, which gave some women the right to vote (women were fully enfranchised in 1928). Barbara and I got together to talk about her interests and we discovered a shared fascination with the lives and experiences of women working in parliament. Now, with the guidance of director Eleanor Rhode, and producer Tara Finney, we are working collaboratively as actor and writer to make a new play that investigates the lives of female MP’s, and their experiences of working in politics.
There are 650 MPs. 208 are women. 52 are BAME. 45 openly identify as LGBTQ. Westminster is still a predominantly white male space, and is still unrepresentative of the diversity of the British people that is serves.
Maiden Speeches was originally conceived before the calling of this year’s snap election. Our first funding bid for the project was unsuccessful, but after a second slightly tweaked application (always pays to be persistent in this game), we were delighted to be awarded an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts to help us work with support from York Theatre Royal to research and develop our ideas into a new stage playscript.
So, we’ve got the idea, we’ve got the team, we’ve got the money. This is where the writer’s fear and trepidation sets in.
Reasons to be Terrified: Part One.
- Straight in at number one: Imposter Syndrome. Who am I to write a play ‘about politics?’ Although I have lots of other qualifications (all in arts subjects), I have no formal degree or education ‘in politics’. All I ever did ‘about politics’ was a GCSE in social science, which taught me something about the first past the post voting system, and for which I knocked out (and largely made up) some extremely dodgy coursework about the British people’s queuing habits (yes really! I have a vague recollection of hanging around bus stops and BHS to gather my dubious data).
- Number two: Imposter Syndrome continued. Part B: the Factual Element. I don’t even know anything about the everyday procedures of ‘proper politics’. At the start of this process Public Members Bills, Three Lines Whips, Third Readings, and even the idea of a political Maiden Speech, were all things that meant nothing much to me.
- Number three: I am not even ‘interested in politics’. All the books ‘about politics’ have pictures of bald men, standing in front of important looking buildings on the front, and the thought of reading them fills me with utter despair, and makes me want to poke my eyes out and run for the hills.
Fortunately I know from experience that the only thing to do in the face of overwhelming feelings of artistic incompetence, is to settle down, live with them and proceed hopefully and decisively through the creative process, and watch them slowly disperse. In actual fact, coming at an idea from a non-expert position is a gift. It means that I can start investigating my subject with freshness, approaching it from a genuine place of curious investigation. Also, it’s not lost on me, that the three points above, are probably the way that most people in this country feel ‘about politics.’ That in itself is also a gift.
It was while waiting for our first funding decision earlier this year, that I had a visceral reminder of the problems that come from being a publicly outspoken woman. In February I spoke as a performance poet at the Women’s March in York, where I delivered an anti-Trump poem. The poem is an outspoken challenge to misogyny and rape culture, and begins with the words ‘Grab my Pussy, I dare you’, a play on the comments made by Trump about his assumed right to grab women by the vagina.
When I came down off the podium, I was immediately approached by a policeman and escorted out of the crowd and threatened with arrest for causing a Public Order Offence. I was shocked by this response, as the language I used in the piece was arguably no worse than what was emblazoned across many of the Women’s March crowd’s banners; it was no worse than some of the heckles the attendees of the march were receiving from passing drunks and stag parties; and most notably it was no worse than the words used by the President of the United States himself.*
As the surrounding crowd members witnessed the police’s intervention they became angry on my behalf, and some began to challenge the lawfulness of their Public Order Offence threats, and I found myself at the centre of a lively disturbance. I became acutely aware that I had very little understanding of what my rights were in this situation (I’ve since swotted up), and for a few moments it looked like I might be carted off to the cells, in which case I better find someone to pick my son up, take him home and give him his tea. As it turned out no arrest was made, and eventually I was free to go, somewhat shaken and with a growing sense of rage that I had been publicly reprimanded for articulately speaking my mind, on a subject which I am passionate about.
I am very aware that my experience at the Women’s March, however unsettling, is comparatively tame when compared to the myriad of other horrific ways in which women are being silenced all over the world, but my experience is important to note as it has rippled through the beginnings of the creative process of writing Maiden Speeches. Although this project is rooted in an interest in the progressions that women have made into the political arena over the past 100 years, Barbara and I are also interested in those occasions where women choose to speak out within informal, frameworks and more grassroots spaces, whether political or not. What are the maiden speeches that ordinary women make every day?
· Why did the government reject all six of the Women's and Equality Committees proposals to bring more women into parliament?
· Why do female MP's have no maternity rights in their workplace?
· Why does our modern democracy still rest on 'robustly expressed opinion... repartee and banter', and where is the line on misogynistic comments within this?
I came away from the Women’s March feeling angry and reflective, but also rather smug. I had written and delivered a poem so powerful I nearly got arrested for it. If being a poet was like being in the Brownies, I’m sure there would be a pretty impressive badge for that.
One of the reasons I had been excited to attend the march was to hear York Central MP, Rachael Maskell speak, and to approach her about our then unfunded Maiden Speeches project, but unfortunately my altercation with the authorities prevented this. So instead I emailed her to introduce myself. Rachael had seen me speak at the march and as part of her emailed response, she made reference to the picture of Theresa May holding Trump’s hand that was everywhere in the press at the time:
Your poem and performance I found very powerful, and when you compare this with the way that the abuse of women is being made permissive, I think the world has to be shocked into understanding the power inequality that Trump believes he has a right to over women. The image of Theresa May holding Trump’s hand, just reinforced this message. It was one of the most powerful images I have seen for a long time, as it showed that although the man is openly misogynistic, that she was willing to acquiesce to this. We live in shocking times.
Maiden Speeches is a play about women who choose not to acquiesce.
We are delighted that Rachael Maskell has come on board as a supporter of our Maiden Speeches project. We are particularly excited that she has helped us to organise a research trip to the Houses of Parliament, where we will be making contact with some of the women who work there as part of our research.
My experience at the Women’s March is an important reminder that politics is everywhere, not just in the debating chamber and offices at Westminster. As such, as part of our research and development we are looking for people (of all genders) to take part in a workshop to explore this subject and help us develop our research. More details below.
In the meantime, I have by-passed the boring pile of pompous looking books about politics and am getting stuck into this pile of absolute gems instead.
We are looking for volunteers for a research workshop, taking place at York Theatre Royal, on Wed 4th Oct from 6.30-9.30pm. Whether you are a woman or a man, young or old, we are looking for people to come and share their stories and explore this subject with us through drama games and discussions - no previous performance experience is required, you just need to be up for having fun and talking about your experiences.
Places are strictly limited so if you would like to volunteer, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the following information:
- your name, age, sex, ethnicity
- 100 words about why you would like to get involved
Deadline for applications is 10am on Wed 27th Sept and we will inform you if you have been selected by Fri 29th Sept.