Tonic Theatre presents TONIC CELEBRATES: Round-Up

Tonic Theatre have been pioneers of the movement towards gender equality in theatre since 2011. Under the leadership of Lucy Kerbel, Tonic has worked with some of the UK’s leading arts organisations including the National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company and Chichester Festival Theatre to achieve greater gender equality and diversity in their workforces and repertoires whilst also striving for industry-wide change. They have published three new plays with predominantly female casts designed to help schools, youth theatres and university drama societies provide better casting opportunities for their young women, as well as Kerbel’s best-selling reference guide 100 Great Plays for Women. So it seems only fitting that now, five years down the line, they should launch Tonic Celebrates: a series of events “celebrating women at the top of their game.”

Joining Lucy Kerbel in discussion at the Ambassadors Theatre for the inaugural event on 22nd June was trailblazing lighting designer Paule Constable, Tricycle Theatre’s artistic director Indhu Rubasingham and writer of Nell Gwyn, Jessica Swale. The three women shared stories of their busy working lives, their progression since starting out and their hopes for the future, highlighting needs for grass-roots level empowerment, an end to women’s self-censorship and maintaining integrity in the face of adversity. Constable urged the audience to “hold your own creativity as precious” and embrace the moments when you can feed your creativity, because they are rare.

The conversation in the first half of the evening was led by Kerbel’s questions, ranging from what an average working day looked like for the panellists to how they began their careers. Surprisingly, Rubasingham and Constable both defected from different subject areas to study drama, whilst Swale’s “baptism by fire” came when she was assistant-directing for Max Stafford-Clark when he suffered a stroke, meaning she had to step into his shoes. One of the qualities uniting these womem is that they got to where they are now through challenging themselves – Rubasingham forced herself to direct her first play, Constable juggled an apprenticeship alongside her degree and Swale almost found someone else to write Blue Stockings before trying it herself. They are each of them living proof that women really do have the power to do anything they set their minds to.

When asked about their thoughts on the future of gender equality in the arts, all three women agreed that it’s an exciting time to be alive. Rubasingham is inspired by the increase in women leading more venues now than when she started, and takes heart in seeing that level of aspiration expanding. Swale, whilst happy with the progress being made, is frustrated when the gender agenda takes away from the quality of work being made – she wants audiences to see work by women because it’s good in its own right, and not just good for a woman. She called upon schools to help instil this in their students. Constable’s vision for the future involves achieving greater diversity backstage, pushing against the “wall of men” and turning baby steps into big strides. She makes a very interesting point that any headway accomplished seems to be accompanied by a wave of backlash, so we now need to work on building confidence and voices to combat that.

In the second half, Kerbel took questions from the floor which covered mentors, motherhood, managing time, mistakes and memories – inspiring incredibly honest answers from the interviewees. Constable, as the only parent on the panel, thanked her stay-at-home partner for allowing her “to make selfish decisions” and continue her career as well as being a mother. Rubasingham, responding to the question on time-management, openly admitted to doing “all the wrong things” by sacrificing her sleep and social life for the love of her job. Swale pledged to regret nothing, a sentiment echoed by the others, but recognised how exposing her work is; the personal and emotional investment it requires means you must always “trust your gut”.

It was the answers to the final question of the evening though that carried the most weight, especially in hindsight following the fallout from Thursday. Lucy Kerbel invoked her Chair’s privilege and asked the event’s last question: if you could only hold onto one theatre memory, what would it be? Jessica Swale recalled a time when she was snowed in at rehearsals for The Rivals with Red-Handed Theatre. The cast and creative team all played games and had a Christmas party, coming together in pure love for what they do. For Paule Constable, it’s creating the moment in War Horse where Joey goes from little horse to big horse. This struck a chord with the audience, as anyone who’d seen the show murmured fondly in assent. She called it “everything theatre can be… A collective moment of imagination.” This sense of collaboration in Paule and Jessica’s stories was shared by Indhu Rubasingham, whose memory was of working internationally in Cuba and building relationships “beyond our differences”. She said “everything transcends” in that environment and championed the humanity of theatre, allowing people to connect no matter who they are. Her words sum up a huge part of what we stand to gain from remaining united.

Details of further Tonic Celebrates events are yet to be announced but I can’t wait to see who will be on their future panels, especially as the audience was asked to make their own suggestions before leaving. This was an uplifting and inspirational evening providing a great cross-section of the arts and stirring contributions from three game-changing women. Next please!


© Hannah Roe, 2016


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