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Nastazja Somers Talks About “HerStory”: The Feminist Theatre Festival at Theatre N16

Artwork for "HerStory 3".

Director, actor, and playwright Nastazja Somers talks about why she founded HerStory and why it’s important to not just her, but theatre as a whole.

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Last year I received a really great honour: I was part of a discussion panel for the inaugural HerStory festival of new short plays created by Nastazja Somers. Feminist theatre is something I passionately support, having also covered and championed shows like Ladylogues! and Whoop ‘n’ Wail Represents… Then there are other initiatives such as Bechdel Theatre, but it’s by no means enough to redress a balance, and theatre is still incredibly white male dominated in terms of both writers, directors, and even critics! Somers has therefore not stopped with just the two  two-day festivals last year, but is continuing HerStory into 2017 for a third weekend, with the support of Theatre N16 and Artistic Director Jamie Eastlake.

Talking is no longer the answer to the challenges that modern British theatre is facing; it’s time for doing.

HerStory

Poster for the first ‘HerStory’ festival.

“In my “2017 Theatrical Plans” list, I wrote in bold “I WILL ONLY ASSOCIATE MYSELF WITH FEMINIST WORK”. As the founder of HerStory – which went from being just an idea in my head to being an incredibly successful and challenging event that seems to not only put women centre stage but unites artists from all different backgrounds – I started to feel responsible for making a real difference. Talking is no longer the answer to the challenges that modern British theatre is facing; it’s time for doing.

“I would venture to guess than Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” writes Virginia Woolf in her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own. History has not been kind to women who were often scrutinised, vilified, or simply erased by those who wrote it: men. Whilst in education, we are taught about men such as Napoleon, Edison, or John F. Kennedy, but we rarely hear about Amelia Bloomer, Wu Zetian, or Grace Hopper. On top of that, history has its own way of diminishing women. A pioneering scientist and the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Maria Sklodowska-Curie, was subjugated to an incredible amount of discrimination from her male colleagues and to this day is denied her full name. She is remembered as Marie Curie, as her request to be remembered by her maiden name was ignored, meaning her heritage, of which she was so proud of, became forgotten.

“Herstory” is a term that has been invented to describe the need to tell those beautiful and important stories of brave, intelligent, and strong women, who, despite being treated like second class citizens, prevailed in fighting for their own rights and dreams. Whilst deciding to use it as the name for the festival I knew that putting these women’s stories centre stage was going to be one of my objectives. I was also aware of pressing contemporary issues that needed addressing right here and now and the lack of multidimensional roles for actresses.

Apparently “No Man’s Land” or “Art” deserve to be revived every couple of years, but yet we should stop making work about issues concerning half of the world’s population?

I don’t like statistics. I think they are often misleading and tend to create a sense of detachment. “One in four,” is a myth in itself, as I don’t have a single female friend who hasn’t been sexually assaulted and I know many, brave and strong women who have openly talked about being raped. Yet I keep hearing from different people that the subject of sexual violence towards women is being “done to death” and there is no need for it any more. Apparently No Man’s Land or Art deserve to be revived every couple of years, but yet we should stop making work about issues concerning half of the world’s population? You see, there is a problem in the way society views female-oriented work. Female work is being sneered upon and branded as something, “done by angry feminists”. If Katie Mitchell was a man, and not a feminist, would she really be branded as, “too radical” for the British stage? Although let’s be fair, her “exile” allows her to make work in a far more artistically open and inquisitive country than this. And although I am a number one fan, I cannot help but wonder: would Ivo van Hove be just as welcomed here if he was a woman?

“HerStory” has made me realise that I really don’t like it and I’d rather create my own game…is the fringe just a society of mutual adoration where everyone pats each other on the back and is perfectly satisfied with the status-quo?

Producing and directing at HerStory has taught me a lot. It has taught me about the immense talent that is out there. It has made me question my own values and it made me understand that I too have been in one way or another suppressed by this industry. It made me realise how much I love working with women. Do you remember the consensus about women not working well together? Well it’s a myth. When you are in this industry sooner or later you have to play the game, apparently, but HerStory has made me realise that I really don’t like it and I’d rather create my own game.

Yet the most important lesson from taking on this journey every three months has been realising my own sense of responsibility. There really is not much more point in talking about diversity in theatre; it is a time for action. Having worked in the fringe for the last couple of years I’ve started noticing a pattern, a safety net that became our way of shedding any kind of liability. All the problems that we seem to be facing right now are never our problems. Diversity issues, lack of female BAME artists, lack of female playwrights and/or directors: sure it’s always the fault of those at the top. The white, privileged and middle aged men, usually nameless, those who make the decisions: they are to be blamed. Yet these people are not in charge of the fringe scene. So why am I not seeing female oriented work in the main fringe venues? Where are the BAME artists in the new re-imagining of the classics? Where is this in-your-face theatre made by women that I seem to be swamped with every time I organise the festival? Finally, is the fringe just a society of mutual adoration where everyone pats each other on the back and is perfectly satisfied with the status-quo?

I have received over 200 scripts and applications.

A one woman show about the pitfalls of being a British East-Asian actress, an all female performance collective using dance and comedy to deal with the issues of sexuality, a coming of age story that examines the day to day issues affecting young women, a piece about leaving Sierra Leone for Britain, a female soldier talking about suffering with PTSD: these are just a few of the pieces that will be staged at HerStory during its third edition. I have received over 200 scripts and applications, this being the absolute hardest part of my job as I’m deeply overwhelmed by the diversity of angry and political voices out there. I am planning on making the festival a week long event, giving it more time and staging more urgent stories. Finally alongside this HerStory, Barbara Houseman, one of the leading vocal coaches is going to run a workshop. Taking from her experience with Shakespeare and her recent involvement with Phylida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy at Donmar Warehouse, Houseman is going to work with four actresses on male Shakespeare characters, the result of which will be shown as the final act of the festival.

How can we be satisfied with ourselves when so many stories remain untold and so many voices are silenced?

I’d like to thing that we live in revolutionary times and that the current political state of the world is slowly awaking us from whatever lethargy we were in over the past years. I would like to think that this is the time when we the theatre makers begin to challenge ourselves and fight for what we truly believe in: equality. For how can we be satisfied with ourselves when so many stories remain untold and so many voices are silenced?

The one quote that has been my maxim for this month’s HerStory is from Vaclav Havel: “It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.””

HerStory takes place at Theatre N16, London, SW12 9HD, on the 17 and 18 of February 2017. For more information and tickets, visit www.theatren16.co.uk.