In this post, playwright Tamara von Werthern talks about Fizzy Sherbet, a short play reading series which has now been reimagined as a podcast to showcase the voices of womxm writers…
At the tail end of 2016, theatre director Lily McLeish and myself met up for a coffee. We were
meeting for a lot of coffees at the time, as we were preparing to work together on my play The
White Bike, plotting on how we would bring it to the stage in a full production, discussing structure
and finalising the draft. At this particular meeting we were feeling enraged by the fact that a man
who was on record saying horrible things about women, and had been accused by a woman of
terrible things had just been elected into a position of massive power. It worried us that women’s
voices were being silenced in this way, that the female side of this particular story didn’t seem to
hold much weight.
I mentioned to Lily that Olivia Trench (another friend of mine who also happened to be Drama Development Executive for Eleven Film at the time) and I had come up with the idea of starting a new writing initiative for women and asked if Lily might be interested in coming on board. She agreed straight away. It seemed the perfect solution to amplify women’s voices, to give them some kind of platform, some safe space in which their voices could be heard loud and clear. Lily and I had met at a workshop run by Tonic Theatre’s Lucy Kerbel, so we already had a strong shared interest in addressing gender inequality in the theatre industry. It felt like the logical next step to put our ideas into practice.
We decided to do a call-out and ask for short plays written by women, in English, but allow submissions worldwide. We wanted to know what women were really thinking, how they were responding to the world changing around them. But there was no restriction, no given theme. We were simply looking for those stories that spoke to us directly, the ones that leapt off the page and
into our imagination. We organised a series of readings at an East London venue, the Hackney Attic and were overwhelmed by the response to the call-out. Many hundreds of plays landed in our inbox, from all over the world, including places like Hawaii, Italy, Germany, the US, Canada and the UK. The readings were a great success. Not only did they sell very well (we were the most-attended gig at the venue that year), they also attracted a lot of attention from the industry. And most importantly, they connected writers, actors and directors, all of which mingled in the bar after the readings.
When the lockdown started, Lily and I decided to relaunch Fizzy Sherbet and, in order to make it work independent of venues being open or shut, launch it as a podcast. The added benefit of this was that in a digital format we could not only open our submissions worldwide, but also reach our audiences across the globe.
We had been astonished and surprised by the reach our small-scale series of readings had achieved in a short time: when we looked at the data, we saw that we had had interest from 45 different countries, including Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Bulgaria, Rwanda, Malta, Russia, Zimbabwe, China, Tunisia, Sweden, Lebanon, Australia and the US and Canada. We really felt we wanted to meet this amazing wave of interest half-way.
Meanwhile, during lockdown the impact on the theatre industry is dire, and early indications show that women will be more affected than men. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that whilst the amount of hours of uninterrupted work mothers could do compared to fathers was 60% in 2014/15, during the lockdown this has plunged down to 35%. I have to add that I was interrupted twice while writing this article, being tasked with keeping the kids quiet while my husband works from home, and I also emptied the dishwasher while I was down there anyway. But it’s not just working mothers who are badly affected by the lockdown. The BBC reported on 6 April 2020 that 17% of employees in shutdown sectors were women, compared to 13% men, and The Telegraph called the effect the lockdown is having on gender inequality ‘devastating’ (Laura Bates, 17 June 2020). Added to this, the Guardian reported that one third of UK women were suffering from mental health problems brought on by social isolation (The Guardian, 14 June 2020). It looked as if any gains that had been made on addressing gender inequality were now in danger of being eliminated. We felt it was high time to do something meaningful about this, so at least we could feel part of the change we wanted to see. We also felt that connecting women at this time would help us all to feel less isolated.
We assembled a team of seven female theatremakers, which includes producer Steph Weller, director Anna Girvan, dramaturge/director (and leader of the Playwriting School Denmark) Sandra Theresa Buch, producer Ameena Hamid and actor/writer Josephine Starte and started zooming across three different countries to put everything together. It was a brilliant way to feel connected and to counteract the depressing reality of the lockdown with some positive action. For our pilot season we selected seven writers: Marie Bjørn, Babirye Bukilwa, Eve Leigh, Amy Ng, Buhle Ngaba, Josephine Starte and Tamara von Werthern. Each short play will be presented alongside an interview with the writer as well as a special guest, who can add another dimension to the issues raised by the play or the writer and their work.
What we find most exciting about this project is that it will connect theatre makers across the globe. Many of the podcasts we are currently recording are collaborations across different countries, including Germany, Denmark, South Africa, the UK, the USA and Australia and we’re hoping that this will spread even further with future episodes.
Excitingly, we are now at the cusp of launching the pilot series of the podcast on 24 August. Have a look at www.fizzysherbetplays.com to find out how to get involved and listen to the episodes. Our submission policy is that all women and non-binary people from anywhere in the world, and of any age can submit short plays (10-20 minutes) written (or translated into) English on any topic (but restricted to a cast of maximum4 actors) by sending their plays to firstname.lastname@example.org to be considered for the next series. We look forward to receiving them. Let’s get fizzing!