Publishing raises awareness of women’s work in theatre

Director of Tonic Theatre Lucy Kerbel explains why the company is partnering with the National Theatre Bookshop on a project to highlight published plays and theatre books by and about women

The National Theatre's Bookshop
The National Theatre's Bookshop
(© Philip Vile)

Tonic has always been interested in publishing. It’s really good that we, as an industry, are having the conversations about gender in terms of productions, asking who’s at the centre of the narrative, who we get to see onstage and in creative teams. I also think publishing is a really helpful additional way to support and promote the work of women in the industry.

It’s to do with reach. If something is published and distributed, then it means it can be accessed by a really wide range of people. There’s a longevity to published work that productions, by their nature, just don’t have. If you publish something there’s a decent chance that that book or play might be on a shelf twenty, thirty maybe fifty years time. Tonic’s core work is about trying to achieve greater gender equality in the creative industries, but we are a very small company so we’re always thinking about what we can do that will have maximum reach.

We found that the majority of young people who took part in youth theatre are girls but there were a lack of roles for them

So far we’ve commissioned five Platform plays for young people in partnership with Nick Hern books, which we publish as single texts. When we started on the project, I wasn’t thinking about producing the plays. Instead I thought we should take the resources and energy we would have put into producing them and put that into publishing them and promoting them to schools and youth theatres across the country. In our research we found that the majority of young people who took part in youth theatre or school theatre are girls. But when it came to the scripts they were using, there was a lack of roles open to the girls to play. We were hearing that the roles were less enticing, less complex, less challenging. These are now being used in classrooms and youth theatre sessions up and down the UK, but also across Europe, in the US and Australia and even Indonesia.

One of our strengths in this country is that we do publish plays. If you look at the work that Nick Hern, Oberon, Methuen and Faber are doing – that isn’t the same in other countries. Here’s it’s far from unusual that you will find a new play by a very well-known writer published in the same week as a previously unheard of, unproduced emerging writer. There’s something very special about that.

Tonic Recommends, which will be a selection theatre books either written by women or that have women at their heart

Since we published 100 Great Plays for Women in 2013 it’s been really interesting to see those plays pop up all over the place. There’s The Stepmother at Chichester Festival Theatre, The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich at the RSC, to the Finborough’s Just To Get Married. My Name is Rachel Corrie, and Low Level Panic were both produced recently as a result of the JMK Award. All we did with those plays was highlight them in our collection. We made them visible.

Today, to coincide with International Women’s Day, we’ll start a collaboration with the National Theatre Bookshop. It was the Bookshop who approached us and I’m really glad they did. A section of the shop and also the website, will be dedicated to Tonic Recommends, which will be a selection of curated plays and theatre books either written by women or that have women at their heart. It’s not everything, there’s space for between 25 and 30 books, so this is absolutely just the tip of the iceberg. But it’s about saying: 'If you’re excited by some of these titles then go and dig further yourselves'. We’ve got recommendations from brilliant leading women in theatre who have been involved in our work including Harriet Walter, Rosalie Craig, Tanika Gupta and Jenny Sealey. It’s not planned as a one-off either, if it works, we’re hoping to bring it back.

The project is all about trying to increase the awareness of the work which will hopefully increase productions of the plays. We’re flagging the contribution women are making to theatre and I would love to see some of those titles which are rare or out of print to be brought back. As an industry I think it’s worth continuing to remember the weight publishing can have.

Find the NT Bookshop's Tonic Recommends here and read more about Tonic Theatre here.

Read all our International Women's Day coverage