Ali Kemp and Deborah Klayman: Whooping and Wailing on the Road to Gender Equality

Lizzie Bourne and Dani Moseley in Nice Jumper, Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents… Desire.

Ali Kemp and Deborah Klayman are the co-founders of Whoop ‘n’ Wail, a theatre company established in 2011 with a seemingly simple mission statement: innovation, entertainment and social justice.

When we set out on the Whoop ‘n’ Wail road four years ago, we had no idea the direction it would take us in and how much the company’s ethos would develop. Starting out with a three-hander staged at the Edinburgh Festival about the incredibly unsexy topic of Women in Prison, our debut play eXclusion was an unexpected springboard onto the path we are now on.

As Whoop ‘n’ Wail is a company founded by two actresses, we were keenly aware of the dearth of significant, meaningful roles for women in UK theatre. eXclusion was born from our shared interest in mental health and incarceration, and a desire to be both innovative and entertaining while telling a previously unheard story. We were lucky enough to produce the play in association with the charity Women in Prison and gain support from the Prison Reform Trust.

Spurred on by the success of eXclusion, we began co-authoring short plays for Sam Hall’s 17percent, an organisation that supports and promotes female playwrights. In 2012, our friend and fantastic artist Leah Lovett introduced us to the Bechdel Test, which we are sad to say we had not come across before: two named female characters who talk to each other (at some point) about something other than a man. The concept struck us so deeply that our first play for 17percent’s She Writes initiative, My Bloody Laundrette, was entirely inspired by Alison Bechdel’s The Rule. This was followed by Cascade of Baubles, which we chose to write as a gender-neutral play with a cast of six characters (played by four actors) that could be played by any combination of men and women.

In 2013, we were commissioned by Sam to write one of the three pieces showcased in What’s Through the Door? at London’s Canal Café. The result was Losing Light, another gender-neutral play for a cast of four. The play was well received and transferred to the Rochester Literature Festival.

Our interest in new writing had been cemented and with it, the drive to create entertaining theatre that gave significant and interesting roles to women without excluding men. We both agreed that “women’s theatre for women” was not going to change the status quo: what we needed was to find the right forum to include our male colleagues, and at the same time challenge the lack of female-centric stories being told. The answer was surprisingly simple; we decided to create a new writing night in a central London location, but it would be a showcase with a difference. We would select plays by equal numbers of male and female playwrights, invite an even mix of male and female directors, and insist on only one caveat: all of the plays must pass the Bechdel Test. We were delighted to find that Gerald Armin at Waterloo East Theatre, where eXclusion transferred after the Edinburgh Festival, was just as excited by the idea as we were! We really cannot thank both Gerald and Sam Hall enough for their ongoing support.

So – to the showcase itself. The first and most important part of putting a Represents… night together is finding great plays and playwrights to work with, which we do through our open submission process. The only way to sell (literally and figuratively) a night of “feminist theatre” is, above all else, for it to be entertaining. Once the plays are selected, the gender issue is never discussed again – these are the plays, those are the characters, and our fantastic directors and actors work their socks off to make them truly great. So far, they are definitely succeeding! The Launch in November 2014 sold out, and in February this year our second, Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents… Desire, gained a superb four-star review. Our proudest moment was reading the following lines in James Waygood’s wonderful review“A celebration of feminist theatre that explodes any notions that it’s predictable or restrictive. Whoop ‘n’ Wail continue to challenge and delight.”

So far Represents… has achieved its aim, and then some. Including our upcoming showcase, Mayday, we will have staged eighteen new plays, nine by men and nine by women, all of which have at least two significant roles for women. Encouraging playwrights to challenge the gender of the characters at the centre of their stories has also had an unexpected side-effect; the plays are more representative across the board. We have a wide age range in the roles, far more non-white protagonists, and see less conventional relationships between those characters. That is what is so exciting about the project – it has started to take on a life of its own, and we really can’t wait to see what will come next!

© Whoop ‘n’ Wail, 2015

 

Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents… Mayday will play at the Waterloo East Theatre on the 27th and 28th April.

 

Tickets:                £12 (£10 in advance)

Box Office:         0207 928 0060

Book Online:     www.waterlooeast.co.uk  

Website:             www.whoopnwail.com

 

About the authors: Ali Kemp is an actress, musician, writer and producer working in theatre and film. She trained at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) and The Actors Temple, London. Deborah Klayman is an actress, musician, producer, voice artist and writer. She trained at Drama Studio London and is one of the Traverse Theatre’s “Traverse Fifty” playwrights. As Whoop ‘n’ Wail, Ali and Deborah have co-authored the plays eXclusion, My Bloody Laundrette, Cascade of Baubles, Losing Light, Heart’s Desire and Madjesty.

 

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