Truth 2: Why being the only living female playwright in the West End is not a good thing.

As I tour thirteen venues across the UK, I am sharing thirteen truths that I would not usually share. I’m not very good at confronting things that make me uncomfortable. Just yesterday I was out for a walk when a woman ahead of me, who had been feeding crows from a plastic bag of breadcrumbs (am I odd for finding that odd?), dropped the emptied bag on the ground and walked away. As I approached her discarded litter I found myself with a choice. I could use the old ‘Excuse me – I think you dropped something…’ or the more direct ‘I think this is yours?’ plus a raised eyebrow, but instead I just picked the bag up and continued to walk behind her – like a passive aggressive litter-conscious version of the demon in It Follows.

I recently read the brilliant article that Camilla Whitehill wrote in The Stage about the problems faced by female playwrights. She is direct, clear and bang on point. Wandering around with that flaccid freezer bag in my hand, I got to thinking that it encapsulated my relationship with the female playwright question. The question being: ‘Is it harder for female playwrights to build a career?’; the answer being ‘Yes’ and my way of dealing with it being to grumble privately, but never confront the people perpetuating the problem. I have tended instead to wander after them, hoping that they’ll notice my work and want to get involved. Like I was yesterday, with that bloody bag.

At the beginning of this year, Dirty Great Love Story (which I co-wrote with Richard Marsh) had a nine-week run at The Arts Theatre. The PR team worked out early on that, during its run, I was the only living female playwright in the West-End. Yup. Agatha Christie is no longer banging out the hits and J.K.Rowling wrote the story not the book, so that left just me.

We felt very conflicted about using it for PR. Apart from anything else, this was a show written by two people - one of whom is not a woman. Ultimately, it wasn’t included in the PR copy, but close to the end of the run, on International Women’s Day, the information was released. I had hoped that it would open up a wider conversation about the lack of gender parity in theatre.  In reality, I was astounded by the number of people who congratulated me for holding this title. There were some who straight up applauded me with seemingly no recognition of the explicit issue illustrated by the mere existence of the moniker. Others would congratulate me, then acknowledge that yeah – it is a bit shit, but it’s good for me isn’t it? And then, and this was the most baffling to me, there were the ones who seemed to think that ownership of this title meant that I was clearly ‘way ahead of other female playwrights’ and ‘really fucking good’ at what I do.

And so, to honesty.

Firstly, I am good at what I do. It’s my job and I work hard at it. Secondly, holding that title in for nine weeks in no way makes me better than any other female playwright out there. It makes me a sad slip of litmus paper testifying to the inequalities of this industry. I feel slightly sickened to even use the term ‘female playwright’, as Camilla so astutely points out in her Stage article, male playwrights are never referred to as such. Thirdly, can we stop using gender inequality to pit women against each other? As a woman in this industry, I often feel like I am being either set against my peers or mindlessly compared to them. As if we’re a graduating year of debutantes, all with exactly the same thing to offer, hoping to be selected from the pack. I do not believe that I have been to one meeting with television developers over the last few years when my work hasn’t been compared to Lena Dunham or (more recently) Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Don’t get me wrong, both of those writers are incredible, but I am not like either of them. When development people say things like this, they might as well be saying – oh who’s the most famous funny vagina right now? You’re a bit funny, yours must be just like that one.

Camilla writes in her article (as if I haven’t ruined it enough for you already) that the men at the top need to change what they are doing, who they are choosing, how they are programming and she is right. We all need to keep making noise and drawing attention until they are forced to take notice and responsibility. In an effort not to walk behind her with a flaccid plastic bag in my hand, though, I offer this in addition. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of contact from fellow women in theatre citing words of support. Some in response to the article about GSA that I wrote last week, some just to say ‘I think you’re great’ and fuck me if it doesn’t make a difference. The more we can support each other – whether that be unsought emotional support, showing up at each other’s shows, bigging up each other’s work, recommending or sharing awards or bursaries, mentoring young women in theatre etc – the more we support each other’s individuality and worth.

So here is a short (and I am painfully aware of it’s brevity) list of UK women who write for theatre and screen who I think fucking rock. This is the tip of a vast iceberg, but I am sitting in a Waitrose café eating luke warm chickpeas, about to head to a tech and it’s all my strained head can manage right now. Please add, share, support:

Camilla Whitehill

Charlotte Josephine

Annie Siddons

Molly Naylor

Gemma Arrowsmith

Bola Agbaje

Stacey Gregg

Isley Lynn

Elinor Cook

Sara Hirsch

Theresa Ikoko

Sarah Dickenson

Jemima Foxtrot

The Eggs Collective (Sara Cocker, Lowri Evans, Leonie Higgins)

Jessica Swale

Caroline Horton

Clara Brennan

Sabrina Mahfouz

Hannah Jane Walker

Milly Thomas

Rash Dash (Helen Goalen, Becky Wilkie, Abbi Greenland)

Vicky Jones

Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Anna Jordan

Penelope Skinner

Katherine Soper

Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Laura Wade

Sam Holcroft

Alice Birch

Ella Hickson

Lucy Prebble

Lucy Kirkwood