In the first few months of 2012 I worked as a dresser on South Downs/The Browning Version at the Comedy Theatre in London. I was in the second year of my PhD, and also putting together the manuscript of The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays. Working in wardrobe on West End shows is intense - you're in eight shows a week and often also more for laundry calls, understudy runs, and maintenance sessions. It's also great fun - I've worked in wardrobe on nearly 30 West End shows since 1998 and been fortunate to work with and for some incredibly lovely and talented people on stage and off.
It was on that show that the idea of a suffrage themed 'top trumps' style game first came to me. I thought it would be a great way to introduce some of the amazing campaigners I was finding in my research - and talking about constantly! - to new audiences in an accessible and fun way.
My friend Greg who was then the deputy head of the wardrobe dept and is now a tailor was super encouraging of the idea and I mocked up a set to see if it would work. It did. Since that day I've been going on and on about this idea, keen to make it happen but not knowing how to do so.
But finally - in 2018 it has! It was totally worth the wait. Suffra-Greats! is a reality.
It's been a couple of months now since my job at Parliament finished - and I've been meaning to write about some of the creative outputs of my time as part of the Vote 100 team. I was part of an AHRC funded project called 'What Difference Did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women' run by the University of Lincoln and UK Parliament Vote 100 alongside the University of Plymouth. The project outputs included three panel events in Lincoln, Plymouth and London discussing not only the project topic but the work and legacy of past and present female Members of Parliament, alongside workshops for young people, and an exhibition in Parliament and online. You can see that exhibition here: www.parliament.uk
I'm not going to talk about those outputs in this blog post though. Instead this is a brief introduction to some of the other outputs involving project research that happened over the course of my year there - outputs I'm really excited about and that reached out to different audiences in different spaces. There's music, games, theatre, and sweets!
So - it has been announced that mid noughties show The L Word is coming back, with some of the original cast involved. I have the whole run on DVD, and although I haven't watched it since it ended in 2009, it was a ground breaking series, featuring openly lesbian performers, writers, musicians, and producers. While the portrayal of lesbians on tv hasn't moved forward as much as The L Word's creator Ilene Chaiken hoped it would have done since the show, the increasing number of online communities and online spaces queer women are part of and occupy has meant conversations about visibility, diversity, intersectionality, gender identity, and accountability of the media are much more audible in public space and in activist and campaigning groups. As many bloggers and articles have acknowledged, the portrayal of lesbians in the show will need to be much more representative of the diversity of LBT+ people than it was before in order to speak to audiences today.
The audience is certainly there! For Pride this year, I took part in the parade through London for the first time, and in some style as part of Parliout. It was fantastic fun to be on the bus and on the streets, cheering along with the crowds that lined the route. Issues around the representation of LGBT+ people in the promotional material produced by Pride in London, and concerns about the corporate take-over of Pride had been widely expressed before the march, particularly as some groups were not initially represented in the parade. While I certainly saw some dissent and protest from individuals over the course of the afternoon, seeing so many marchers from different organisations, unions, institutions and campaign groups was an undeniable joy.
Last week, in preparation for the discussion at Above the Arts on Women in Theatre, as part of Verve Festival, I decided to scan back through the last 12 months of reviews on The LGBTQ Arts Review to see how the gender imbalance in plays out in LGBT theatre. Admittedly, it's impossible for us to get to every LGBT show on in London, because there are simply too many (hurrah). However, it was no surprise that we covered 31 shows with male protagonists and / or about male sexuality, and only 9 with females. Trans stories are also incredibly rare.
In groups of ten to fifteen at a time, audiences will set off on a specially prepared route through Covent Garden starting from the historic Theatre Royal Drury Lane. At intervals throughout the route, actors and actresses begin their performances as the groups draw near, engaging audience members in comic and moving moments from the struggle for Votes for Women with pieces both inspired by and directly from the plays and experiences of the Actresses’ Franchise League…
Audiences will discover theatrical Suffragette secrets they never knew Theatre Land had been keeping!
2. Male support for Votes for Women
In the film 'Suffragette' the character of Hugh Ellyn, played by Finbar Lynch, is described by the policemen watching his property as being part of the 'Men's League.' Married to a known militant, he has apparently previously been imprisoned for his role in the suffrage campaign, and we see him in the film helping the WSPU to organise and carry out violent militant actions. Although we never get to hear any of his story, it's good to have acknowledgement of the male support for suffrage in the film - as it's an important part of the history of the campaign.
It's not made clear in the film or production notes, but I reckon, given his militant leanings, Lynch's character is most likely to have been part of the Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement (MPU). The MPU was directly affiliated with the WSPU, the society featured in the film 'Suffragette,' and shared their colours of purple, white and green. As well as their headquarters near Charing Cross Station in London, they had a number of regional branches across the UK, including in Eastbourne, Birmingham and Letchworth and at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. One branch, in East Grinstead, was apparently "actually the outcome of an anti-suffrage meeting there... One gentleman was so struck with the feebleness of the arguments that he proceeded to found a branch of the Men's League."
Seen the Suffragette film and interested in finding out a bit more about the
stories it tells? Well, hello!
1. Police Surveillance Photos
In the Suffragette film, we see police taking and collating surveillance pictures of suspected militant women both out in public and whilst they are in prison. As violent direct action became more frequent, surveillance of militant women and their networks by police increased. The photographs could then be circulated not only to police forces up and down the country but also to potential sites of protest, like galleries, so that known militants could be refused access.
The women in the pictures below include Mary Richardson (no. 11) who slashed the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in 1914 in protest at the treatment of Emmeline Pankhurst in prison, and Kitty Marion (no. 13) a music hall performer and member of the Actresses' Franchise League.
It's curious that Marion's publicity photograph has been used here - there are other pictures of her taken by press and police photographers that could have been used but perhaps this full face image was thought more valuable.
So this month I graduated with a PhD in Drama from the University of Manchester after four years of research and study that has been a total joy. I can't believe how it much it has changed me.
I was just casually reading through Votes for Women from 23rd January 1914 when this leapt out at me and made me giggle:
The final hurrah of the Actresses' Franchise League was in December 1958 at a special Ball held in the Savoy Hotel.
The programme for the event is fantastic - a treasure trove of information and a tantalising glimpse into what sounds like an amazing evening. The great and the good had their dinner at 8pm but there was a later "Actresses' Supper" served at 11pm, presumably so that actresses in shows could come and join the festivities after their performances had come down.
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research