Taking Up Space by Lyn Gardner

Every time a woman writes a play, and particularly if it is a play about female experience, she is challenging the fact that men still take up most of the space on our stages.

Clare Barron’s Dance Nation is a play about a diverse group of teenagers on the cusp of womanhood. It charts their friendships, their rivalries and their interior lives. It is a play about girls eager to take their place in the world as young women, working out who they are, where their ambitions and loyalties lie, and what makes them hurt. They use their bodies to take up space and claim it as their own.

In the very act of being performed, Dance Nation makes a stand by occupying space on stages which have  historically been given over for the most part to male playwrights and male experience. If women’s experience has made it onto the stage it is often in smaller, more marginalised studio spaces. Places where that experience  remains less visible.

"Every time a woman writes a play, and particularly if it is a play about female experience, she is challenging the fact that men still take up most of the space on our stages."

As the director Phyllida Lloyd observed back in 2015 at Cutting Edge: British Theatre in Hard Times conference: "It’s not a conspiracy by men to keep women off film or stage, it’s just they don’t notice if we’re not there.”

Indeed, they do not. In Michael Billington’s 2015 book, The 101 Greatest Plays from Antiquity to the Present, only six of the plays he selected were written by women. Of course, such a book and its choices are designed to create conversation and debate. But it is also a reflection of how the history of theatre is one of men commanding the space and then more men passing judgement.

If women have dared to lay claim to that space their efforts have often been dismissed as domestic and their attempts to play with form as a failure to understand traditional dramatic structure. But as the academic Susan  arlson has observed, “by evaluating women’s drama against traditional standards of plot, reviewers and the established theatre community they represent dismissively conclude that women’s play’s lack structural integrity.”

One of the pleasures of Dance Nation is the way it borrows from the tropes of popular culture, in particular movies such as Bring It On, and the TV series, Glee, and then explodes and subverts those tropes. It makes us see the characters and their inner lives a little bit differently, not least in the way it explores their secret emotional hinterlands, plays tricks with time, and underscores the feeling of the girls waiting for their lives to begin.

Women are used to waiting: for the vote, for equal pay, for equal opportunity. It’s not that women have spent 2,000 years failing to write plays—in the first two decades of the 20th century alone around 400 women were estimated to be writing plays in the UK—but they have spent 2,000 years waiting for them to be performed. As playwrights for much of that period they were largely invisible. It is no surprise that women in theatre have tended to dominate in administrative roles, roles that are crucial, but which are often under-valued, under-paid and which leave them unseen.

"One of the pleasures of Dance Nation is the way it borrows from the tropes of popular culture...and then explodes and subverts those tropes."

When they did succeed in claiming centre stage they were often viewed as an anomaly, and silenced. That was the fate of Ena Lamont Stewart who in 1947 wrote Men Should Weep about the rich lives of women living in a tenement in Glasgow’s poverty-stricken East End during the 1930s. It is a mighty play about female support and community, as Josie Rourke proved in a revival at the National Theatre in 2010. But Lamont Stewart received neither encouragement or support from a male dominated industry. Her plays were not seen.

Towards the end of Dance Nation as the young women face stiff new competition in the dance contest, one of the girls says resignedly that “dancing boys are unbeatable.”

For too long playwriting boys have proved unbeatable. But no longer. The climate has changed, even if the startlingly increased rise in the staging of plays written by women has largely come about through a shaming process that has held theatres to account for the lack of female creatives involved in so many productions.

But plays such as Dance Nation, Elinor Cook’s Out of Love and shows such as The Hamilton Complex—featuring 13 teenage girls excavating their own lives-- mark out theatre space as female territory and lay claim to it with an often unashamedly raucous power and an often-uninhibited joy.

As Barron makes clear in her stage directions for Dance Nation “Cuteness is death. Pagan feral-ness and ferocity are key.” Dance Nation makes manifest what Margaret Atwood noted in Cat’s Eye: “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”

Sometimes terrifyingly so. When the 13-year-olds in The Hamilton Complex fix us with their gaze and demand to know “are there any paedophiles here today?” you can almost feel every male in the audience shrink. When these same girls scream their pain and confusion into microphones, suggesting emotions for which no words can ever be sufficiently large, you feel the chaos they are unleashing.

As with the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour there is something almost Bacchanalian about the combined power of these young women on stage. They scare us. Because that is what happens when the marginalised, the discounted and the previously invisible start to claim space. They make us uncomfortable when they look us directly in the eye, and refuse to look away. Even if they are 13. Especially if they are 13.

But if these plays and Dance Nation have the ferocious energy of something long pent up and needing release, there is also something deeply touching and energising about the way they explore female friendship in all its complexities.

"The young women in Dance Nation cannot be silenced. They fill up the space and demand to be seen. You can shut your eyes, but they will still be there. They are not going away."

That great chronicler of female teenage experience, the novelist Judy Blume, wrote of the sustaining joys of female friendship. “We are friends for life. When we’re together the years fall away. Isn’t that what matters? To have someone who can remember with you? To have someone who remembers how far you’ve come?”

So, it is a pity that female friendship remains so underexplored on stage. We are used to seeing men’s lives and relationships excavated in the theatre whether it is David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenross (especially if it is Glengarry Glen Ross) or Jimmy and Cliff talking across a woman doing a lot of ironing in Look Back in Anger.

These are the plays that make it into the canon while plays that explore female relationships and rivalries, from Debbie Horsfield’s Red Devils—about four football mad teenagers— to Claire Macintyre’s Low Level Panic (recently revived by the Orange Tree so providing a welcome opportunity for reassessment), too often slip back into obscurity after one of two outings.

Perhaps it is because they do not fit the traditional male view of female friendship which is better served by plays which present women as competitive bitches and rivals for men’s attention. Even Shakespeare presents a very particular view of female friendship. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Helena and Hermia may have once been “two lovely berries moulded on one stem” but their friendship is presented entirely in relationship to the men who pursue them.

Even Rosalind and Celia’s friendship in As You Like It, the most steady relationship of the play, becomes subsumed by the conventions of comedy that culminate in a conventional happy ending and marriage which leaves Rosalind—one of Shakespeare’s strongest and most linguistically inventive characters—silenced, and she and Celia parted.

The young women in Dance Nation cannot be silenced. They fill up the space and demand to be seen. You can shut your eyes, but they will still be there. They are not going away.

Lyn Gardner has been writing and thinking out loud about theatre for over 30 years. She currently writes for The Stage.