Theatre, Representation and why it matters

This blog post was written by PGRNS committee member Laura Jones, a first year PhD researcher at the University of Dundee.

I’m currently marking full time undertaking my PhD in Psychology, but long before I had considered going into this field my first love was the theatre. After completing my first degree in Creative Writing I was lucky enough to be selected for the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Young Writer’s Programme. It was here that I began to fully understand what it was I loved about theatre. Good playwrighting is all about power dynamics, and motivations, and having a backstory that is so well developed but might only make it on to the stage with a slight nod of the head at a crucial moment. In short – being a good playwright means understanding people.

I adored my year spent in the theatre learning gems such as ‘the person who speaks the least often has the most power’ and playing with words and language to different effects.

After finishing the programme, the group started putting on our own scratch nights. Sometimes clumsy, often finished at 2am the night before. Short pieces above pubs in Liverpool where the entry ticket included a free glass of wine. Some nights the plays were set in the pub, some nights our stories spanned time and location but good characters were always at the heart. On these nights, crammed into a very sweaty room above a pub, on a weeknight, I learnt something else – you have an audience, the stories you tell matter. Often people would approach one of us afterwards feeling moved, or angry or having been presented a subject in a way they had never considered before. Fictional accounts provide access into the lives of others, and a window for expanding understanding. I was hooked.

Hopefully you are all familiar with the Bechdel Test. It’s named after Alison Bechdel following an exchange in her comic ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’. It’s a brilliant and very simple litmus test for representation of women in theatre:

  • Is there more than one female named character?
  • Do they talk to each other?
  • Do they talk to each other about something other than men?

If you answer yes to all three – brilliant, you have a pass! Should be simple? But once you start looking it is amazing how many plays don’t pass. It’s not just the theatre either, novels, films, television, graphic novels – any media which has characters. There are so many lists I’m not going to compile another here – but suffice to say, the pass rate is not good.

When I first learnt about the Bechdel Test I fell out with theatre. The medium which I saw so much potential for good in was woefully failing to represent half of the population (not to mention the wider failure to represent anyone who isn’t a cis-gendered, middle aged, white . .) Television started to annoy me, and film, and most of the classic novels.

There are people who are able to write about this much more academically than me, but I don’t think that is the full picture. At my core I still believe that theatre is not a lost art, but a powerful medium for social change.  I realised for me that could not be the end of the story. Change needs us all, as consumers of art and as people. I carried on writing plays – plays about real women, the kind of brilliant people who exist in all our lives, and I’ve set up a review site which will only review plays that tell the stories of people who we don’t normally see depicted. When you start looking there is so much wonderful art out there. There are so many people making brilliant performance and fiction and they need to know they are seen and appreciated.

This is my challenge to you – when you see something that tells a story you haven’t heard before, a story that moves you and challenges you to understand another’s perspective – shout about it. Get tickets and write reviews and take to twitter. Tell the writer, encourage them to keep going – write something yourself. It’s the only way we can begin to have more fiction that represents who we are – and you’ll probably have a lot of fun in the process.




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