A Brief History of Feminist Theatre

“If I have to play another tart with a heart of gold in a PVC skirt, I’m going to throw up.”

Who or what are the most important feminist theatre groups in the USA and UK? I did some reading and research, and this is what I came up with. In this post I’ll share some of my own impressions of the contributions that some of these notable groups have made towards feminist theatre. I’ll mention too, what a few academics and critics had to say about these movements. You’ll see that I am mostly in awe of the contributions made by these groups, some of them you may have heard of already. This post is given some meat by showcasing a few examples of plays which have been produced or influenced by leading feminist theatre groups in the USA and UK.

So, who or what are the most important feminist theatre groups in the USA and UK? In the USA they are; At the Foot of The Mountain, Lilith and Split Britches. In the UK, they are; the Women’s Theatre Group, Gay Sweatshop and Monstrous Regiment. I had to ask myself why the Gay Sweatshop was regarded as a feminist theatre group. Certainly, both the Women’s Theatre Group and Monstrous Regiment originated from an era when women’s theatre was suppressed by arcane censorship laws in Great Britain.

Today, it is widely held that feminist theatre has evolved successfully and has established for itself an independent and unrestricted niche within the broader genre of theatre. The Women’s Theatre Group experienced an evolution from a purely feminist theatre movement into a fully-fledged unisexual group. It was renamed as the Sphinx Theatre Company in 1990. According to the Victoria and Alfred Museum, the Women’s Theatre Group’s aim was to allow women to take up roles as directors, stage managers and writers and produce work which was indicative of their struggles for equal rights. This group believed that it had made enough progress by the nineteen nineties to convert from an exclusively feminist representative role into the mainstream of British society.

The Women’s Theatre Group came about because of Ed Berman’s desire to launch an impromtu lunch-time gathering for and about women. It was a success. Many women writers, directors, stage managers and actors responded openly and freely to this initiative. Berman’s idea is close to South African playwright. Athol Fugard’s process of developing and work-shopping theatrical ideas through a series of meetings during which women could “read and discuss scripts.” Berman believed that through this inclusive process, the “hierarchical processes” typical of the male-dominated theatre scene could be avoided.

Michelene Wandor was among the established feminist writers who were included in the earlier Women’s Festival programme (which later evolved into The Women’s Theatre Group).

The Women’s Theatre Group has staged many theatrical productions dealing specifically with women’s issues such as identity, sexuality and abuse. I’ll mention just a couple of pivotal examples. My Mother Says I Never Should, staged in 1975, dealt with teenage sexual experience, while Out On the Costa del Trico (1977) was aligned to the women’s struggle for equal pay at the Trico windscreen wiper factory in London.

I found out from Unfinished Histories that the Monstrous Regiment took its name from the conservative sixteenth century theologian, John Knox’s paper The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Knox’s sexist theory posited that women should not rule men. He propagated his line of thinking by stating that there was enough evidence within the Christian Bible which suggests that “the teaching of scripture alone is sufficient to prove that women should not bear rule over men.”

I believe that the Monstrous Regiment was a far more radical and progressive organisation than The Women’s Theatre Group. Their sense of urgency in seeking freedom and independence for women in theatre was a lot stronger. And one of the Monstrous Regiment’s founding members lamented;

“If I have to play another tart with a heart of gold in a PVC skirt, I’m going to throw up.”

Much like The Women’s Theatre Group, the Monstrous Regiment began life slowly, carefully and informally. It was essentially a gathering of feminist pioneers soon after the abolishment of draconian censorship laws. Unfinished Histories suggests that their motivations were inherently feminist and Marxist. Successful funding campaigns and applications to the Arts Council of Great Britain and Gulbenkian Foundation during 1976 allowed the Monstrous Regiment to stage two original and innovative theatre productions; Scum: Death, Destruction and Dirty Washing and Vinegar Tom. The first play was “set in a laundry and investigated sexual and social politics”. It achieved pay parity and full employment for at least thirteen production workers.

In line with the Regiment’s militant stand against patriarchy and Knox’s controversial paper, Vinegar Tom responded to seventeenth century allegations of witchcraft and the close-minded phobia against women. Michelene Wandor contributed with material to this radical group.

Writing for The Guardian, Michael Billington argues that the “gay theatre movement” is one that embraces both men and women. No doubt. He correctly points out that “theatre always reflects social conditions.” Again, I am reluctant to define The Gay Sweatshop as an inherently feminist theatre movement, however, our lecturer pointed out that because of “differences regarding performance style” this group split in 1977. And the Sweatshop Women’s Company was born.

Taking up similar themes from aforementioned feminist theatre groups, the Sweatshop Women’s Theatre Company, through the process of work-shopping, the play, Care and Control, was produced. But it was never published.

And, so to the American theatre groups. Our lecturer suggested that these groups were uniform in their scripting improvisation. She also mentioned that their common refrain was to “live their feminist politics in the face of hostility or derision.”

The theatre critic, Peter Vaughn, recognises and reveres Martha Boesing as one of the founding members of At the Foot of The Mountain. Her website http://www.marthaboesing.com is well worth a visit. Vaughn is laudatory in his praise for Boesing. He mentions that as an artistic director she was devoted to the cause of “demonstrating the writing, directing and acting talents of women.” Vaughn makes an important point that the just cause of elevating the rights of women through theatre is part of the universal struggle for human rights of all people. Martha Boesing also mentions on her website that the theatre group “created plays on issues such as rape, prostitution, addiction and war”

Further research on this theatre company proved to be difficult. No further information could be collected at the time I first penned an essay on the history of feminist theatre groups in the USA and UK. My research uncovered the positive trends of continued evolution and development in women’s theatre since its earliest struggles during the nineteen-sixties. The company, Looking for Lilith, appears to be an incarnation of those early days, and its manifesto validates the ongoing struggle for the empowerment and equality of women through theatre. When I found their blog, I could not help being reminded of the (now) classic American sit-com, Cheers, in which Frasier, the genial psychiatrist, is continuously challenged by his love interest and equal partner in the field of psychiatry, Lilith. According to their blog, http://lookingforlilith.wordpress.com/, the company is “dedicated to re-examining history from women’s perspectives and creating original performance pieces.” Further, they “seek to empower women who have traditionally been under-represented to voice their experiences, ideas and opinions.”

The motivation for naming a theatre group after a mythical legend seems to be problematic, but may have been a mischievous response to the male-centred Talmud which regards the legend of Lilith in a negative light.

The naming of the theatre group Split Britches may have also been playful, but this theatre group emerges as a more progressive, independent and radical movement. Their website also serves up a tasty plate in tracing their roots and motivations. They also clearly explain their theatrical process.

theatrical drag queen images

Split Britches explains that their work is “collaborative, devised, text centred and theatre-based. They are concerned with issues of gender and gender representation, not necessarily female representation, and are reliant on its “appropriation of and intervention into popular culture.” While their group originates from the alignment of anti-war, feminist, lesbian and gay movements of the nineteen-sixties, they do stress that their work has more to do with the questioning of roles and relationships which is a universal theme in modern twenty-first century theatre and not confined specifically to feminism.

Unashamedly, they source their inspiration to “theatrical drag queens”, but, more importantly, through the questioning of notions of gender, their work remains a cause for aestheticism and “art for art’s sake.”

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