Exeunt interview – Natalie McGrath discusses Oxygen and Dreadnought South West

This interview appears on Exeunt (www.exeuntmagazine.co.uk)

Natalie McGrath discusses Oxygen and Dreadnought South West 

How did the project begin?
In 2008 I saw a photo of a group of people, mainly women and children, lots of bicycles, holding a banner that read ‘National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies Land’s End to London’, and immediately thought that there was a story to be told. At the British Library, I found a book by Kathryn Bradley called Friends and Visitors, which is a history of the women’s suffrage campaign in Cornwall, published by the Hypatia Trust. I started to have conversations with people about it, and as my research continued, I discovered more about the pilgrimage, and that the women had stopped in all these places throughout the South West. Piecing the dots together, I thought that it would be exciting to write a play about this, and to do a Cornish tour with Cornish actors, so many of whom are experienced in touring work.  

Is the play and its genesis a specifically Cornish story?
The initial conversations I had were in Cornwall with Josie Sutcliffe, Melissa Hardie MBE at the Hypatia Trust, and Sarah Pym at The Works, and originally the idea was that I would write a play about the Cornish part of the pilgrimage; partly because I first started to explore who I was as a writer through the Responses project at the Hall for Cornwall back in 2006/07. The call-out for Responses asked for people to think about writing a play in response to the English Renaissance, which is still our most prolific, and revisited, period of new plays, and one that we continue to return to and learn from. It was an amazing brief, very clever, and people from all over the theatre industry came to Cornwall and worked with us. That project inspired me, got me writing, gave me a community and confidence for the first time, and I always wanted to go back and work there. Funnily enough, I wrote a play about two maps and here I am years later with another play that has a map at its heart. When I discovered the pilgrimage had such a strong connection to Cornwall, I was determined to set up a project somehow. There were eight routes nationally taken in 1913, and the South West route began at Land's End, and by the time the women who walked all the way left Cornwall, around 15,000 men and women had either walked with them or heard them rally at one of the stopping places. I think that is amazing.

So how did you transform it from that single image that inspired you into the multi-date tour that it is now?
I invited director Josie Sutcliffe to come on board, previously head of theatre at Dartington. Josie has a great track record of working on new plays by women; she is also a Greenham stalwart, and has a sense of the women’s movement. I knew that a project like this would be more than just a job, and that people would have to buy into the ethos. Following conversations with cultural managers Sue Kay and Mary Schwarz, we decided to run a project 100 years on that would cover the whole region. It became incredibly ambitious. Responsive arts and heritage projects called waymarkers were suggested, and the potential of land journeys. Mary and Sue really helped focus the vision for the Dreadnought project that has emerged in 2013; their incredible experience was invaluable.

You mentioned the ‘ethos’ of the project being an important aspect…
Although at first we didn’t know whether we had a theatre tour or a commemorative walk or a heritage project, we realised very quickly that we were potentially working towards launching something that was about championing women’s voices and stories, and which might operate as a platform to encourage the development of women artists and theatre makers in the South West. It was also clear that we were looking at something that wasn't so widely known about as a piece of our social, historical and political heritage. This felt very exciting as a combination and central to a burgeoning ethos for the work that we might get to make and promote.

The current Arts Council funded project, Dreadnought South West, has become about having a voice and using it, and encouraging people to grasp the notion of how important it is to ‘dread nought’ and speak up. On the pilgrimage, the women used their voices to rally and recruit, and we are hoping to capture a sense of their tenacity and spirit by holding pop-up ‘speakers’ corners’ events along the tour route. The Fawcett Society, which is the contemporary NUWSS, is campaigning for more representation of women MPs in parliament. Those connections across that 100 years are very simple for me in terms of the current situation, in that if we have more female MPs, for example, then 52% of the population are likely to be better represented in political decision-making processes. Their voices might be heard differently, they might be heard in the first place.

How does the play, Oxygen, fit into the project?
Oxygen is the lifeblood that runs through it, and will be performed at many of the stopping places along the original route. There isn’t a theatre show in every place, but there will be episodes, fragments and parts of the show in public spaces, some of which will be where the women rallied. We have worked with the epic form in order to be able to do this, so each episode is a whole world in itself, and some episodes are what were known as 'newsies', women who stood in the street, or mainly on the road, to sell suffrage literature and to campaign. The pilgrimage itself was organised by suffragists who were law abiding, as an alternative to the heightened militancy of the suffragettes in 1913, to show a different face of the movement to as wide a reach as possible. It was such a simple idea.  

At the heart of Oxygen is the notion of how different people campaign for the same cause. We’re not performing an historical re-enactment, although I have infused stories from that time into the story, and images from a collection of original photographs weave their way into the images of the play. I have imagined a story of two sisters – one who chooses a militant path and another who rallies with the law-abiding suffragists on the pilgrimage – as a way to connect these ideas and for an audience in terms of placing a personal story as the play’s central artery. With feminism, the personal as political has been strong in its message for many years. Oxygen explores the personal within a political framework. Women were taxpayers in 1913, and yet they couldn’t vote. On the pilgrimage, that issue was always on the agenda; at every rally they gave along the way. They believed they warranted representation and this was one of the arguments made to reach a wider public's ear.  

You’ve stated that this is not a ‘historical’ play, and yet it is set in 1913. How do you negotiate that and keep it relevant?
Originally I wanted the script to span 100 years, but that was wildly ambitious! I have very eclectic musical taste, so I wondered if I could start the show with music contemporary to 1913, music that the women on the march would know, then end with some punk, inspired by Pussy Riot, whose activism has been very much in our minds as we have been on the Dreadnought journey. As it is, I’ve been writing songs, something I’ve never done before, which have been scored and given arrangement and vision by composer Claire Ingleheart. I've learnt a huge amount from Claire, and her music is just beautiful and moving. Some songs feel more contemporary than others. Hints of my Methodist upbringing have managed to find their way through as well! I’m looking back at the past, attempting to make some sense of now, if that’s possible.    

But what became the real challenge, politically, was to write something rooted in 1913, because it was such an extraordinary year for the women’s movement. In the first six months, with the Reform Bill – which ensured that women couldn’t be put on the agenda in parliament – there was a huge upsurge in militancy. Militants had been quieter during the process in 1912, but the Bill’s passing really alienated them and things livened up on both sides of the campaign. Non-militants also took a stand, disrupting local election processes and events. The militant WSPU undertook a ferocious window-smashing and arson campaign. They were imprisoned, tortured through forcible feeding, then the Cat and Mouse act was enforced, leaving many women near dead and incredibly damaged from starvation. I have consistently thought about how these have resonance to us today rather than trying to feed through too much historical accuracy.  

I decided to explore the law-abiding women through the pilgrimage and the militants. I somehow couldn't separate the material and write a play about one and not the other. Again, the epic form has opened up the space for this and the way I write, which is often through using and exploring heightened language, sometimes expressionistic and often seeking something poetic. In the play, one of the sisters states, "All we had left to fight with was our bodies," and this still has resonances today. Pussy Riot again come to mind, or Guantanamo.

Where does the play fit in relation to the negotiation between art and activism?
I am constantly reminding myself that the women who were on the pilgrimage or involved in militancy were all activists, they all sacrificed something to walk for a day or more, or if they were imprisoned and went on hunger strike. These are different extremes of protest, of course, and I'm not comparing them; it is contextual. While researching their stories, I kept thinking, “and here I am doing an arts project!” But for us, starting to realise this vision over a year ago, we always thought that it was to do with feminist and gender politics. I don’t like phrases such as ‘post-feminism’, because I don’t think feminism ever went away. But here we are again asking many of the same questions, perhaps in a different way, with different pressures due to contemporary social forces like the internet, but they are still there. However, there are new articulations of where we are in terms of feminist thinking and ideology, such as Kat Banyard's The Equality Illusion, which is an incredibly powerful book. We are interested in how resonances of 100 years ago might have something to say about now, particularly in relationship to gender equality. I still think it is an incredibly important question that needs constant attention in order to allow for better social justice.

What are your thoughts on women’s representation in the current theatrical landscape?
There is a suggestion that only 17% of plays produced are by women. That is some gap in representation! I’m determined to be part of a culture that works towards changing this. I feel strongly about putting women's stories and voices centre-stage in my work. This might not always be popular, but again I think it is crucial to a vibrant culture that we strive for equality in representation. A century ago, theatre makers just went out and made work. It might be fair to say that there were more plays by women being performed back then. They were deeply connected with the issues, that was their form of activism. They were supported by actor-managers, there was a prolific sense of work being made that was part of the discourse of women's suffrage – it is an interesting model.

One decision I made early on was that I would make all the voices in Oxygen female. We know that there are a lack of female roles and representation of women in theatre, and this is such a relevant issue that needs to be continuously revisited. I feel it is particularly resonant in theatre, partly because it is the world I operate in, where great roles for women, who are brilliant and flawed, are few and far between. But I do know it isn't just an issue for the creative industries, it is everywhere. So it has been important to us to promote these stories, skills and talents of women as part of the wider project and in the touring show. Something we will continue to do, hopefully.  

The project has been about conversations the whole way along, so was the process collaborative in the same way, in terms of discussing it with the director while engaged in the writing process?
During the development phase, what Josie and I first talked about was creating something that could play indoors and out, but also something that connected to the founding aims of the women's suffrage campaign – to end child poverty, to end sweated labour, and to end the white slave trade – asking how might they have a resonance today. These conversations between Josie and myself have been integral to the making of Oxygen, allowing for a critical dialogue to be present at all stages of the writing process. She has also been part of the research phase, and her role has also been that of dramaturg. It has been incredibly fruitful for me to work in this way with a director.  

Josie teaches Brecht at the National, she trained at the Berliner Ensemble; so she has a passion and understanding of Epic theatre that is second to none. Her challenge to me was to see if I could write in the epic form, as we agreed that it might just lend itself to the subject matter. So I’ve been learning on my feet with that aspect of the play and writing practice! We’ll see. For instance, the scenes are called ‘episodes’, and they stand on their own, but work towards the whole, and this also informs how Josie worked in the rehearsal room, such as not necessarily working through the episodes in chronological order. It has been a fascinating process to experience and learn from. I think I’ve written around 20 short plays, if you like. Josie works with the notion of disruption and it is fair to say that Oxygen encourages and embraces this idea. It is a great word to have in the room when thinking about the women who campaigned for the vote. So there isn't a smooth narrative arc, even though there are narrative strands, and there are more than 20 roles for the cast to play with, so shifts and transitions become critical to the material and its internal mechanisms.

We’ve also tried to have as much of the creative team involved along the way. At early meetings with Sophia Clist, the designer, she asked really great questions, and in turn asked me to be bolder, pushing me to look at things from another angle; Sophia and Josie worked very closely together in rehearsals. Two artists, Catherine Cartwright and Nicci Wonnacott, have also fed into the creative conversations, and our choreographer, Diana Theodores, has also been part of dramaturgical sessions. It has been invaluable to have such experienced artists in the room. I’ve been really lucky.

Part of the reason that this project is based in the South West is not just that I’m based here, but that I’ve received some fantastic support and development: Theatre West produced my first play, Metal Remains; the Brewhouse in Taunton produced my Rift last year; and in 2011 Bristol Old Vic developed and produced my play Coasting. Their support for writers is second to none. I’ve learnt so much from working in this region, and I love living here, that I felt that this was the point where I could take on an idea and lead. I have also been able to develop as a writer through Arts Council funding and the arts organisations who have supported me. I think the South West is a great place to attempt an idea like this; we have an exciting culture of theatre-making here. I don't want to get complacent and expect to be commissioned in the usual way; I believe writers can lead too, and I also think theatre is an ever-evolving industry that thrives on innovation and big, bold ideas. I hope that this is one of those.

Because of the route of the pilgrimage, this wasn’t ever a project to take to a theatre and ask them to put it on for a run. We wanted to connect the region, and asked how an arts project with historical and political content at its heart do that. How might a writer lead in this way? Collaboration, of course. I've been learning a lot over the past 18 months, but really it is the history of the pilgrimage that has inspired people to support and participate, allowing us to talk with people from Land’s End to Marlborough, and then on to Richmond. If I’d had the confidence five years ago we’d have a play from each route by now, converging in a festival in Hyde Park. As it happens, walks are now happening along the other pilgrimage routes. This is so exciting and galvanising.  

So the project has inspired individuals and organisations to remember the pilgrimage in their own way?
There are talks, projects and debates going on all over the region, as well as commemorative land journeys. In Teignbridge, there are two choirs who have won Heritage Lottery funding to talk to women and girls in order to write cantatas for generations of women, which will lead to a concert; two core artists are working with marginalised women across the region to create art objects; there’s a historian in Bristol who is mapping suffrage walks around the city; we provided the provocation for the New Blood writing season at the Bike Shed Theatre. Funding permitting, we are also hoping to establish an online museum of suffrage objects from the region, which will create a lasting legacy and educational resource.

At the end of the day, it is about remembering the women who campaigned 100 years ago, about reminding ourselves of a history that needs further documentation and celebration. This is for them, even if they might wonder where we are today as a society, and be a bit livid about that.     

And what sort of legacy might result from Dreadnought South West?
One thing that has materialised for me is that this is not just a one-off project. As difficult as this was to articulate and conceive, and to raise the funds, I always wondered if a platform was emerging for women artists to engage in the relationship between arts and heritage. That would be the future I’d like Dreadnought South West to have, to continue to explore that notion of celebrating women’s voices. It would be a great privilege to do so.  

Oxygen is on tour until 20 July 2013. See www.dreadnoughtsouthwest.org.uk/oxygen-tickets/  for a full venue listing.