Interview: Sue Parrish, Sphinx Theatre

Sue Parrish is the Artistic Director of Sphinx Theatre. Sphinx Theatre have been running since 1973, although went by the original name of the Woman's Theatre Group. The company strive to address gender inequality in theatre and create opportunities, particularly for female writers and directors. On the weekend of 27th/28th March 2015 they will host a two day festival of performances, workshops, readings, commissions and ideas, launched in response to the ongoing gender disparity on UK Stages. I was really fortunate to speak with Sue this week to find out a little more about Sphinx Theatre, the Women Centre Stage Festival and her work.

1. You became the Artistic Director for Sphinx Theatre in 1991, please could you briefly share with us a little about your journey to that position and your reasons behind choosing to work for Sphinx Theatre?

I started in theatre as an Arts Council Trainee at the Half Moon, when it was a fringe theatre known for its socialist politics. I was very lucky to be at a hotbed of cutting edge radical theatre, which premiered the Dario Fo Can’t Pay, helped launch gay and feminist companies like Gay Sweatshop and Cunning Stunts and where Simon Callow gave his Arturo Ui among other actors who are now household names.

I'd been involved in women’s organisations since 1979, and was active in the Conference of Women Theatre Directors and a founder of the Women’s Playhouse Trust which was a pioneer among other pioneers. All other feminist companies emerged from the fringe, but the WPT gave established actresses the opportunity to ‘come out of the closet’ and declare their inequality. Our president was Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and our associates included Glenda Jackson, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson and Harriet Walter.

I came to Sphinx, then the Women’s Theatre Group, out of a passionate desire to continue that work.

2. I imagine a lot has changed in theatre since 1991, where do you feel we are at currently in addressing the gender imbalance in theatre? What changes have you seen take place (if any) since the early 90s?

I think things have changed. There are far more women writers and directors at all levels, and the kind of blatant sexism we once encountered is dying out. What hasn’t changed is the central drive of most plays, which is through a male character. What I find shocking and disheartening is the general ignorance of most young people of the history of feminism. I so often feel like we're re-inventing the wheel.

3. What has been one of your highlights / favourite projects so far during your time with Sphinx Theatre?

I have loved all our shows, from the big successes like April de Angelis' Playhouse Creatures to even the not so ‘successful’, you learn so much from every production. I specially loved Sweet Dreams by Diane Esguerra, who was my lead actress at university. It was an exploration of Freud’s ‘Dora’ case, from small beginnings at the Chelsea Centre, it toured UK twice and was invited to university psychology departments because of the accuracy of Diane’s portrayal of Freud’s imaginative process.

4. You have a festival coming up on the 27th and 28th March, as the culmination of the Women Centre Stage Project, which launched last year.

a. How has the year been? What were the challenges working on this project? What were the successes / highlights? What change do you feel has come about through the project?

Developing the project has been totally absorbing, and though I have been at this coal face for a long time, many of what seemed like outlandish dreams are about to happen! One of the many challenges has been developing stage pieces in under six months. Adrenalin is a wonderful thing! I have been amazed at the variety of companies excited by the ideas and contributing work. One of my favourite recent conversations was with Sir David Hare, who wanted to join us to write one of the 24 Hour plays but will be on Broadway, and has sent us huge good wishes!

b. What events are you most excited about during the weekend?

All of them. It will be fascinating to see how the audiences react to intense, poetic pieces at one end of the spectrum, and knockabout physical playlets at the other, and of course, we have no idea what the 24 Hour writers are going to present us with on the morning of the 28th! The range of women onstage will be fantastic - I think the hard thing is deciding which events NOT to see!

5. Do you have future plans for the Women Centre Stage Project? Will it progress from here?

We do hope that it could become an annual event, but drawing more widely across the regions as the BT/ NT Connections scheme for young people does.

6. What other things have Sphinx Theatre got lined up for this year?

We have a new play The Question by Peter Cox which we are planning to premiere, and a gorgeous snippet can be seen in the Works in Progress: Women at War event at the National Theatre on Saturday 28th March. It's set in Weimar Germany, and explores the impact of totalitarianism across Europe. In the spirit of ‘cabaret’ the play includes fantastic music, long-lost gay anthems and modernist classics from Eisler, Weill and Hollander.

7. If you could create / deliver / direct any project or performance, without any restraints, what would it be, where would you do it, and why?

As an ex ballet dancer, I am full of envy that the acclaimed theatre director Nancy Meckler is directing Scottish Ballet shows! And that is my secret dream, to be in rehearsal with Tamara Rojo, another heroine!

Thank you Sue.

You can buy tickets for Women Centre Stage here:

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