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!
Stage Rights! A Living Literature Walk is a site specific performance devised and produced by myself and Rebecca Mordan, artistic director of the production hub Scary Little Girls.
It was first performed around Covent Garden and the Strand over two weekends in April 2013, with groups of audience members self guiding their way along the route, encountering performers and performances in unexpected places!
When putting together the walk in 2013 I drew on my experience of giving guided Actresses' Franchise League (AFL) walks around the West End. Framing stories about the AFL through walking in their footsteps has shaped and deepened my relationship with the archive and the locations in different ways. From 1998-2014 I worked in over 20 West End theatres in a variety of roles. These theatres feel personal to me – amongst other things I’ve sold tickets in and for them, performed on their stages, been the keeper of their Stage Doors and roamed all over them – through pass doors, into rehearsal rooms, up to fly floors, onto roofs and down to workshops. I love theatres. Because of this, I'm acutely aware that a huge part of what initially made my research into the AFL accessible in 2007-8 was a basic familiarity with the streets and buildings linked to suffragist theatre professionals. It was all real and so tangible - the stories, the names, the places, the passion... and the desire for something more, something better, for women in and out of the theatre industry. When on tour around the UK in 2009 and 2010 in every theatre we performed in that was old enough to have held or that I knew had held suffrage performances, I spoke the final speech of Cicely Hamilton's Pageant of Great Women, not really understanding why it felt important to honour the presence of suffragist performers, but compelled to do so. You can see a video record of some of that here: https://youtu.be/IvgmBFj0pGs
Through the development process of Stage Rights! I wanted to connect with and share the history of existing spaces and sites of past performances, and create a theatrical experience that would allow audiences to discover for themselves just how exciting and important the AFL's creative contribution to both the suffrage movement and the theatre industry was. When walking the routes myself it was a revelation to realise just how visible suffragists and suffragettes were everyday in public space. Members of the AFL were frequently on the streets engaging with the public - for example, Edith Craig sold suffrage papers near the Coliseum, Adeline Bourne wore a sandwich board outside Charing Cross station, the Woman’s Press shop on Charing Cross road was a hub of activity, and the International Suffrage Shop, Little Theatre, AFL and Women's Freedom League were within sight of each other just behind the Strand. Vegetarian restaurants, popular with suffragists and often the site of suffrage theatre performances, bookended the Strand – with the Eustace Miles outside Charing Cross hospital and the Gardenia next to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
There were many sites that I left out of Stage Rights! that I would include in a more traditional guided walk format, partially because of the challenge of contextualising material remotely but also because of the logistics of moving a group around a busy area. It's tempting to put in so much - but important to leave the audience and performers room to engage with each other directly without overeager but overwhelming academic contextual material weighing the interactions down. The physical presence of openly suffragist and feminist women on the streets, then and now, coupled with original material from plays, diaries, newspaper reports and poems is incredibly powerful. We wanted to reinsert female bodies and voices into the city space and to directly engage with the present moment - in writing directions we simultaneously used new buildings to refer to old ones, to ask the audience to make physical, historical and actual connections with people, places, plays and archival material.
Because the walks in 2013 were a launch for my edited collection of suffrage plays many of the pieces were extracts from plays in the book, but we also commissioned a new piece of writing from playwright Kate Kerrow, based on press accounts of the involvement of the Actresses' Franchise League in the 1911 Census boycott. The resulting monologue, The Sleepless Woman, was wonderful - incredibly moving, a joy to perform and an interesting way of engaging with archival material and journalism from a number of sources.
Another new piece also attempted to reframe existing archival material. Actress Rosie Ede and I worked on a new piece we called Mrs Pancake which was inspired by surviving recordings of anti-suffrage music hall entertainments performed by men. We made Mrs Pancake into a larger than life character who boldly interacted with the audiences and the general public around her - taking negative stereotypes of suffragist women and owning them, exposing them and mocking them. The commissioning and development of new material was a great part of the development process and hopefully gave audiences a variety of styles to enjoy as well as an introduction to some of the many issues tackled by campaigners for the vote.
The audience response to the walks was fantastic! You can see some of the reviews here
The whole experience was and remains a questioning of process, of perceptions of authenticity, of representation of archival material, and of stories about political activism and theatre, past and present. Three years on, there are more stories I want to tell, more plays that speak to current campaigns and issues in the industry as well as illuminating the work of the AFL. Scary little Girls is a feminist production hub and in 2013 we were incredibly lucky to have Mary McCusker, from a feminist theatre company started in the 1970s called Monstrous Regiment, taking part in the production, creating a link between feminist performers, writers and producers across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The creation of those links and the awareness of the history of women's activism is so important - and it was a delight to be able to contribute to that.
And we're doing it again! The next Stage Rights! walks will be on Saturday 28th May, with audience groups leaving the Theatre Royal Drury Lane every twenty minutes from 11am to 2pm.
Tickets are £15, £12.50 for concessions and free for under 16s.
Click here to book tickets!
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research