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.
My research into the Actresses' Franchise League and suffrage theatre began in 2007. I couldn't get enough - having books sent to the Novello Theatre where I was working and inviting friends to come and read through short plays, sketches and scenes in my dressing room during the day. This developed into group readings at weekends and eventually into a full public reading on the Novello stage in early 2008 with some of my favourite actresses - a special day. I wanted to be able to answer the questions people were asking me, wanted to know more. A second reading a few months later, at the Prince of Wales Theatre, had a great response and fuelled the fire. I was then asked to work with Rebecca Mordan of Scary Little Girls on developing performances for the launch of Susan Croft's Votes for Women and other plays at the Orange Tree Theatre later that year, the beginning of a firm friendship and working relationship that has been very precious. At each stage it's been like I've been following a trail into and through the research, rather than forcing anything.
As far as the PhD goes I remember first thinking of it and feeling a little guilty for even dreaming that it might be possible to study at this level, afraid that the dream was totally ridiculous. However the idea of contributing to the field spurred me on. For most of 2009 I was in the UK tour of Vagina Monologues. We were at the Lowry in Manchester for a few shows and I remember very nervously calling Professor Viv Gardner from the University of Manchester, who I'd met at the Orange Tree event in 2008, to ask if I could speak with her about the possibility of further study. She was supportive - and we decided to go ahead. Because I wasn't coming straight from an MA and had been out of education for a long time, I wasn't eligible for any of the funded places - but thought would apply to do the PhD and see what happened... that way if they turned me down as least I would have tried and could then stop worrying about it!
They accepted me. It was fantastic! I was due to start in the autumn of 2010 and in the early summer I decided to put on three suffrage plays to check that there was something there... that became Knickerbocker Glories. The week after that ended I began a new job in a show that was touring the UK and abroad until Christmas 2010. I hoped to find some sponsorship but didn't and ended up deferring the start of my studies, to my great frustration. I eventually started in January 2011 with no funding and part time. Fortunately a successful application to Equity Charitable Trust meant that a substantial portion of my fees was covered and I was able to go full time after the first year. It hasn't been easy, juggling work and study. I've been used to times of feast or famine as a performer but such a long period of sustained low income has been a constant worry and it's only been with the help of my partner and family that it's been possible to push on through. However, through working and studying I got a lot of practice at being able to engage others in my research and to learn how to talk about it to a range of people connected to the theatre industry. When Professor Viv Gardner retired after my first year, I switched to having Professor Maggie B. Gale - author of the fantastic West End Women, amongst many other books - as my main supervisor. She has been, and is, a brilliant supervisor and mentor.
One of the most precious things has been the opportunity to undertake detailed archival research - and particular favourites include Westminster Reference Library, the British Library Manuscripts reading room, Bristol Theatre Collection and the Women's Library before it moved to LSE. I've met and been in touch with fantastic researchers from institutions across the UK, US and Australia, finding a network of passionate and curious people eager to explore connections and material new to the field. My initial research questions have multiplied and extended into many different potential areas of interest and shown repeatedly how relevant the work and ambitions of the Actresses' Franchise League still are to feminist theatre makers and producers today.
If you're interested in doing a PhD I would recommend it whole heartedly. From reading lots of blogs and sites, I realise that although there have been financial stresses I've been incredibly lucky to have a brilliant supervisor and to remain engaged and driven about my area of research. It may have at times been challenging, but there's no way anything but money would have stopped me continuing... and I'm envious of the PhD students I've met with full funding who have that worry taken away from them.
So - if you are interested, here are my personal pros and cons about the journey:
The privilege of undertaking a sustained period of research
My fantastic supervisors Professor Viv Gardner and Professor Maggie B. Gale, my panel and examiners
Online access to databases, newspapers and journals
The sheer joy of archival research
Meeting so many brilliant and helpful archivists and librarians
Learning, learning, learning
A new found confidence in my ability to articulate my thoughts
Meeting other researchers
Teaching and speaking opportunities
Developing a fantastic library of elderly books
Getting involved in many more feminist campaigns and events
Making my Mum proud
Having a 16-25 railcard!
Sitting down for what feels like most of the time
RSI from typing. Tedious and painful
Developing an unhealthy addiction to Percy Pigs
Seeing direct parallels between sexism and discrimination in the theatre industry then and now
Realising how women's theatre history has been and continues to be sidelined, diminished and ignored
That last con comes with a caveat - I've also realised how many people do speak out about the issues still facing women in the theatre industry and how much is being done to redress the balance and keep the conversation going. I feel like my research findings can be part of that conversation - often whilst talking about the Actresses' Franchise League people draw their own conclusions about the similarities between the situation a century ago and now which naturally leads on to further discussion. The saddest thing about the loss of their story in mainstream theatre histories is that feminist theatre makers, performers, playwrights and producers don't know that there are strong shoulders to stand on and wise, witty, passionate voices from that past that echo their own. I really want to make them more visible, more audible and give confidence and a sense of continuity to the current and future generations that can so benefit from an awareness of their work. The history of women's work, activism and agency in 20th Century theatre should not be marginalised or seen as niche, because it wasn't and isn't. There is an interesting and rich back catalogue of plays to be explored, revived and celebrated - plays and productions that challenge the entrenched and narrow idea of the 'canon' of 20th Century theatre in exciting and important ways. No concessions need to be made for the work of playwrights like Cicely Hamilton, Gertrude Jennings and Susan Glaspell - they were contemporaries of Shaw, Barrie, Pinero and the many other male supporters of the League whose work is seen as entirely representative of the Edwardian period and deserve to be reinserted, both practically and theoretically, into the pool of great writers that current directors and producers regularly draw from. The work of the Actresses' Franchise League also informs a new reading of suffrage histories, so many of which have been dominated by a focus on the militant WSPU. As a neutral organisation, the League supported all the suffrage societies and their work and plays show a nuanced understanding and representation of many different suffragist women and issues in the campaign that challenge the accepted and negative stereotypes that remain about 'suffragettes.'
The past four years have given me so many diverse, interesting and high profile performance opportunities - including speaking at the National Theatre, Hay Festival, Latitude Festival, on BBC Radio 3 and 4 and on post-show panels with some heroines of mine. Methuen have published a book of suffrage plays that I edited - still remember that seeming a crazy ambition on the train back from speaking at my first ever conference in Hull - and I'm truly honoured to have met and chatted with so many wonderful academics and suffrage enthusiasts, both at home and abroad.
So what's next? Well, I'm currently a post doc Research Associate for the Poor Theatres project at the University of Manchester which is fascinating and invigorating work. I've been fortunate enough to have teaching work on on the Drama undergrad course there for the past three years and will be teaching again this coming academic year. In fact, that was an unexpectedly lovely thing about graduation - mine coincided with that of the students I'd taught in their first and second years and they looked brilliant in their smart clothes and gowns!
I'd love to do some more research - it feels like the surface has just been scratched - and want to keep sharing the information I find about fantastic feminist theatrical women and men and the work they did in the first half of the 20th Century. At the moment I'm not sure quite how that's going to come about... all advice gratefully received... but that's the dream. Onwards and upwards!
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Thoughts, reflections, bits of research