Secrets, sexism and strength are among the aspects of the female experience being explored in a new play, fuelled by the stories of real women. Producer Beccy Smith sets the scene.
Beccy Smith is a producer, dramaturg and writer based in Brighton. She produces new work for a variety of local companies including Stillpoint and Wildspark Theatre and youth arts group Cultures Club.
She specialises in new writing, visual theatre and puppetry and runs a number of lifelong learning projects for adults and young people, including the nationally recognised ArtAid for looked-after children living with mental health issues, and Brighton Puppetry School.
I became a mum in May. Last month, I returned to work after eight months ‘off’ doing some of the most physically and emotionally demanding work I’ve ever done. As a freelancer I’d like to think I’ve always had a pretty holistic attitude towards what work means and there’s usually a very straightforward equation of time put in against earnings coming out.
Now though, the maths is different. I have to weigh up project interest minus time away from my son, plus childcare costs. I (naively) never anticipated this conflict – I’ve always loved what I do and I thought sharing my time between work and baby would come naturally.
I count myself extremely lucky that my first project back – producing a new play, Three Generations of Women – is helping me understand this conflict as something that recurs in women’s history; to appreciate how far we’ve come and spur me on to play my part in how far we’ve still to go.
The play is fuelled by a project of the same name, set up by Broken Leg Theatre in 2014. The writers who lead the company, Anna Jefferson and Alice Trueman, were interested in writing a play exploring the ways the nature of female experience has changed over the past 100 years. But they didn’t want to work from the history books – what theatre is best at is bringing to life the lived experience of individual perspectives – and so they set out to tap into women’s own voices.
Working in collaboration with a host of women’s organisations across the country, including midwives’ circles, children’s centres, older people’s groups and university societies, the company put together a killer list of questions and held open forums to share and record experiences.
The answers to these questions – and many more besides – fuelled Broken Leg Theatre’s new play:
Tell us a story of the best kept secret held by a woman in your family, from any generation.
In what ways do you feel your identity as a woman might have been shaped by or informed by your mother’s own attitudes and behaviours?
When was the last time you encountered sexism?
How have women asserted themselves historically within your family?
What kinds of women inspire you the most and why?
What advice would you give your 16 year-old self?
When did you first become aware of your gender?
What aspect of your life do you feel most guilty about? (work, family, health, etc.)
What pressures do you feel are put on you by society to conform to a gender stereotype?
In what ways do you feel your identity as a woman has been shaped by the media?
Have you ever asked for a promotion or a raise at work? After how long in your role? And how was it received?
What do you think of the word feminism? Does there need to be a new word?
And what experiences they were! Of secrets passed between women within families, of inspirational women who have influenced them, of gender stereotyping, the nature of the word ‘feminism’ and much more. At the same time, an open-access website was created for women anywhere to share their answers to these questions and the stories started flooding in.
Stories of secret children (so many secret children), of the grandmother who learned to ride a bike in a corset and bustle, of the woman who quietly stood up to Irish Free State soldiers, of women who educated themselves and held their families together in the face of hardship and adventure. The responses were almost overwhelming and continue to grow. From here the writers’ challenge has been to distil a thousand voices and experiences into a single powerful narrative.
The company have created a play that reflects many of the recurring patterns of these experiences and glitters with the many insights – into friendship and motherhood, work and domesticity, identity and empowerment – shared by our incredible contributors.
And we felt inspired to do more, so we made the decision to produce the play with an all-female team of artists which has never at any stage felt like a compromise but a nod to the strength and inspiration of the amazing women whose stories we have discovered through the course of making the play.
Our story follows one family, albeit a fractured one, in which three generations of women, each shaped by the eras they live in, are uncovering the secrets that have held them together – and kept them apart – for the first time.
We’re in the thick of making it right now, and it’s hard work and busy, but also fun and a total privilege. What has affected me most powerfully is a growing understanding of my own experience in context: the conflicts I face aren’t unusual but it’s still easy to feel isolated.
Instead, on a daily basis I get to think about the difficult decisions made by hundreds of other women in wildly diverse circumstances and the amazing things they achieved.
Witnessing their struggles and strength is incredibly validating when facing my own difficult choices. Perhaps we all still need to feel part of a movement, and here, in this project, we can be.
“My aunt was forced by my grandparents to give up a daughter born out of wedlock in 1969. The next generation in our family have only just found out. The daughter found us and we love her and her family; we are all from the same mould. There’s been a cousin who looks just like me living a few miles away from me for years and I never knew. She’s made my aunt’s life immeasurably happy.”
–Anon, 36, from London
“My mother lived with her widowed mother from 1910 until 1933. My mother was the only bread winner having completed a secretarial course qualifying in Pitmans shorthand. She was one of the first lady bank clerks in the UK during WWI and kept her job after the return of men following the war due to shorthand qualifications. The male bank clerks left newspaper cuttings on her desk every day re: women taking men’s jobs causing my mother deep distress until her mother pointed out she was doing a man’s job as she was the only breadwinner in the family.”
–Anon, 75, from Blackburn
“I come from a very working class background and one relative from a long time ago was quite a character. Living in a time when jobs were scarce and money was tight, she used to dress up as a man to go and work down by the docks – an all-male workplace. This was obviously very risky, but I think amazing at the same time!”
–G Nicholson, 26, from London
“Me and my mother: my poor mother was systematically abused by the man who my father had chosen to be my godfather. This vile specimen no doubt held me when I was a baby.”
–Anon, 58, from East Sussex
“My Nana was a maid in a stately home and her ‘master’ was chased by a bull… she stabbed the bull with a three prong pike and saved his life… Every year he gave her a bag of flour in thanks… Years later he mistook his new maid for her and left the new maid the stately home in his inheritance.”
If you’d like to share your story, or simply find some inspiration, visit www.threegenerationsofwomen.co.uk where you can read from more than 2,000 entries and rising and join the community by sharing your own experiences.
Three Generations of Women plays at Greenwich Theatre, London, 1-5 March (including Saturday matinee); Carriageworks, Leeds, 10 March; The Old Market, Brighton, 15 March; and The Lowry, Salford, 25 and 26 March (including mums and babies matinee).2265 Views