Roaring Women: American Writers opens on 4 December after months of preparation by the third-year students on Drama courses at UEA. The festival consists of two main plays, and three curtain raisers written by oft-overlooked female playwrights of the early 20th century.
Two weeks before the opening, I sit down with assistant directors Toby Skelton, Ben Purkiss and Phoebe Wood, and publicist Amy Bonar, to talk about the work that has gone into the festival; from the plays being chosen by their tutors back in May, through auditions and role allocations, a complete renovation of the drama studio, shooting trailers and designing posters, to the last push before opening night.
The two main plays featured are Machinal, written in 1928 by Sophie Treadwell, and The Children’s Hour, written in 1934 by Lillian Hellman. Machinal follows a young woman through her life as she enters an unwanted marriage, while The Children’s Hour explores the consequences of one girl’s actions against her two headmistresses. Although set almost ninety years ago, the students assure me that the plays aren’t out of touch with today’s world.
“You can put them on stage and you don’t need to modernise them. The audience will watch this and go ‘wow, this literally could have been written yesterday’,” Ben explains.
“With Machinal, it’s a play about a woman who is trapped within society and she has no out. We want the audience to watch the play and say, ‘I don’t know, if I was in that position, what I would have done differently.’”
“Although the plays are all very different stylistically, there is a running theme of womanhood through them. They challenge the establishment, but in different ways,” Amy tells me.
“We branded it ‘Roaring Women’ with the idea of women trying to find a way to express themselves – even though society is trying to silence them, they’re still roaring. It’s also a play on the idea of the roaring twenties in America,” Amy explains, “we look on the twenties with a lot of nostalgia. These plays offer a fresh perspective on it.”
There’s a lot of pride behind this festival; every student has both an acting and a production role, meaning every student has been instrumental in making sure this festival is the best it can be.
“It’s great to go in and see the studio and the set and the costumes. There is a certain pride in that. This is something we’ve all collectively worked on,” Toby explains. “It’s quite sentimental, to do this last massive project together. It’s almost a last hurrah.”
There’s a lot at stake here for these students; constantly in the back of their minds is the fact that this production will be given a grade. Despite this, they tell me, the focus has become the show.
“We want to tell these stories well. They’re great plays and we want to bring them to life in the best way possible. We want to bring about a positive change in theatre and the arts because there is still a lack of women and diversity in general,” Amy explains.
“We want to celebrate these women and do them proud,” Phoebe adds.
Machinal, paired with Trifles, is on the 5th, 7 and 9 December at 7:30pm in the UEA Drama Studio, and The Children’s Hour, preceded by The Italian Lesson or A Class in Greek Poise on alternating nights, is on 4-8 December, with the exception of 7 December, at the same time and place. Tickets are £7 for the general public and £5 for students.