Sunday, June 12, 2011

Page Left: women playwrights working together

The International Institute of Modern Letters’ (IIML) MA scriptwriting programme is now in its tenth year. Taught by Ken Duncum from the beginning—except for last year, when David Geary took over while Ken was the New Zealand Post Mansfield Fellow in Menton—the programme takes ten students through an intensive eight-month writing experience. There have been equal numbers of women and men on the course, and the prizes awarded have been shared among women and men, too.

Until now, because I was an IIML scriptwriting student who wanted to write screenplays, I’ve focused on the MA students who write for primarily for film. I was intrigued that although the women who take the course are strong writers, once they graduate they are underrepresented in projects that the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) funds, in comparison with the male graduates. But after years of observation and inquiry, I am sure that this happens for the same primary reason that women who write screenplays, wherever they are in the world, have more difficulties than men. Getting a screenplay produced is challenging for every screenwriter, because film production is expensive and risky. But people with resources to fund films are always more likely to fund a golden boy than a golden girl.

In contrast, far fewer resources are necessary to publish works written for the page, and most women graduates of IIML’s parallel MA programme for writers for the page have their work published. I’ve speculated before that this programme's influence explains why there are few gender issues in New Zealand's literary community, including its prize lists. For example, this year three women graduates of the MA (page) programme, now on IIML’s PhD programme, feature in the most recently announced awards. Pip Adam won the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) Best First Book of Fiction. Lynn Jenner won the NZSA Best First Book of Poetry. And Laurence Fearnley is one of three finalists in the New Zealand Post Book Awards Best Fiction Award.

To date, because I don't write plays, I haven’t thought much about the scriptwriting students who write for the stage, usually only one or two out of the ten Ken teaches each year, though a couple of years ago an article by playwright and MA scriptwriting graduate Branwen Millar added to my understanding of the conditions for women playwrights in New Zealand. It had "some grim statistics about women playwrights' representation in productions and awards". And I learned a lot from some American research into playscripts and gender. But this week Page Left's first production opens at Bats Theatre in Wellington, Hannah McKie's McKenzie Country. And I think that the highly strategised organisation behind this production may change things for women playwrights in New Zealand for ever.

When I saw Page Left's website and its promo clip for McKenzie Country, naturally I wanted to interview the women involved, especially as I'm in the middle of writing about women working together. And I was also interested that multi-award-winnning actor and poet Michele Amas, who was part of Development-the-movie, is in the play.

And now I know more I'm going O WOW. Page Left's framework and philosophy comes through well in the interview that follows, I think, and is an inspiring model for women playwrights working in twenty-first century New Zealand. And Michele's association with this first production enhances their project enormously through her implicit advocacy of Page Left's strategies, her capacity to mentor the group, and her presence as an actor.

Page Left is a group of four women graduates of Ken's course: core members Hannah McKie, Kate Morris and Rachel Callinan, and associate Whiti Hereaka. All with impressive credentials.

According to their mission statement:
Page Left is an all-female New Zealand playwright-producers group that bridges the gap between script and stage. We believe there are two key elements to producing great theatre a) a solid script and b) the right creative team. We will deliver both.
This isn't the first women's theatre group in Wellington of course. There was Hen's Teeth, for many years. The Magdalena Aotearoa Trust is based here. But I think it is the first group initiated and run by writers, and Page Left differs from these groups in other ways, too. Kate Morris kindly answered my questions, except for one that Hannah McKie has answered.



How did the women in Page Left meet?

Kate Morris: We are all graduates of the MA in Scriptwriting at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. Rachel and myself were in the year previous to Whiti and Hannah.

However, that's not exactly how we met - Hannah approached myself and pitched the idea of creating a production company in NZ based on the tenants of 13P over in America (and then I pitched to Rachel). You can find some more information about 13P here, but it's about doing plays not just developing. I feel there's a tendency in NZ for writers to get stuck in cycles of development, when what they really need is a light at the end of the tunnel—to see their work up on stage. Otherwise your script may just end up collecting dust in your drawer for five years and you end up with the nickname 'paper playwright'. It's a bit of a futile exercise to write a play that no one may ever see.

Why did you decide to work together?

KM: Well we all get along together! That helps, chemistry whenever you're creating is important. But primarily we decided to work together because we found ourselves in a similar position career wise. All of us had a pretty impressive string of awards and scripts to our name, but we found that that wasn't actually equating to getting our work produced in NZ.

When you're emerging you're a risk to professional theatres/existing production co's because your name and your work is your brand—which needs to be marketable so you can guarantee audiences. When you're new or emerging you're pretty much invisible brand wise, but how do you actually become visible when they're just so few opportunities to get your work up?

I think it's important to stress that above anything else we are WRITERS first. We are a writers group, which became a production company in order to guide work to fruition.

So I guess our point of difference then is that our work is always script based and kiwi written, Page Left is dedicated to getting new New Zealand script work up on its feet. We don't devise.

This year we have McKenzie Country debuting at BATS Theatre June 14-25 and then another debut, Sketch, by myself—Kate Morris, also at BATS Theatre September 6-17.

Is it chance that you are all women? If not, do you have any ‘feminist’ intentions, view yourselves as being within a feminist historical continuum? As an all-women group, do you perceive/experience any women-specific benefits or disadvantages? Are there challenges working together that might not exist in a mixed gender collective?

KM: I'm glad you asked this question because we've been asked about it before. It was completely coincidental. We didn't set out to be an all female group at all, it just so happened that we wanted to keep it to four members, we all happened to be female, and we all happened to be in the same position in terms of dealing with the frustration of not being able to get scripts of proven merit from emerging writers up on stage.

If that says something about theatre at the moment in New Zealand I don't know, but certainly we never set out to say 'females only', it just turned out we were all female.

What are the key elements of your collaboration(s)? How does the collective work, and how do the relationships work, including the relationship with your ‘associate’?

KM: Key elements, what Page Left stands for and what we want to achieve. We had a lot of discussion about that. We also help out with each others' productions be it publicity, front of house, co-producing, website admin etc... We're all friends so the working relationship is pretty smooth.

Whiti is our associate member and our guru. She has a bit more experience on us so we often flick her questions.

I would also say one of the things I particularly love about Page Left is that you can fire off drafts to the other members and get feedback on it from an opinion you trust. We've all come from the same training programme which teaches you how to read critically and live and breathe story, so we critique each other's work over coffee—maybe a bit like Tolkien and Carroll's old group the Inklings—but somewhere Courtney Central way, not Oxford and minus the tweed!

Do you think that women writers have things in common, and if so what are they and are they manifest in your writing and choices?

KM: I wouldn't want to hazard a guess at this point about what we may or may not have in common. That sounds like a three year thesis at least!

However, I think one thing Page Left as writers consciously think about is creating complex female characters. There does seem to be a lack of good meaty female roles and a tendency to write women in a 2D manner—in relationship to their male counter part e.g. wife, mother, lover/love interest etc... I think that still crops up in a lot of work we see out there today.

So in some respects yes I think being female and a writer does inform our work, we want to write female POV where possible, include more female characters and endow them with the complexity that lifts them out of stereotype.


Has it made a difference in the production of McKenzie Country that Michele Amas is a writer as well as an actor, and very supportive of women’s projects?

Hannah McKie: Michele has been very supportive of McKenzie Country from the outset of this project and we're incredibly privileged to have her on board. Without more funding there's no way we could afford to pay her what she's worth, but Michele signed on with us regardless as an active choice of supporting a young woman writer starting out in a new group of young women writers. Michele's writer background comes through in the care she shows the text and the in-depth questions she comes up with in relation to it. She's a pleasure to work with and it's a pleasure to watch her work. I can't thank her enough for joining McKenzie Country.

Why did you invite a man to do your lovely promo clip? To what extent are men involved in your projects?

Kate Morris: It's just the best person for the job, we have no gender specifications.

So you may have men directing your plays in future?

KM: Absolutely, if someone comes to us with a killer vision for one of our scripts, I wouldn't hesitate in signing them on. We are interested in getting the best result for the production. Best person for the job, best combination for the job. It just so happened—again—that we have female directors on both McKenzie Country (Rachel Henry) and Sketch (Eleanor Bishop), on Sketch we also have the amazing Alice Hill on set design. So looking at the stats, it is a bit of a female affair, it didn't set out to be, but it's actually pretty great that it turned out that way. It's nice to see more females helming behind the scenes.

You’re all astonishingly productive and successful as writers. Are any of you going to branch out into directing?

KM: For me personally—and probably all the Page Left members are in the same boat, we're primarily writers. That is what we are above anything else. Producing is something we made ourselves learn out of necessity. Certainly my preference would be to just write, I don't want to be a 'jack of all trades and master of none'. If I can come away in life knowing one thing really well I think that would an achievement in itself.

Never say never, who knows, but certainly at the moment our career paths are focused on the writing side.

Do all of you have a primary commitment to theatre? Your screenplay, Myself by Other Mothers has been selected for the NZFC's 2011 Alan Sharp Mentorship. I imagine that the others write screenplays, too. What ambitions do you have for the screen, as individuals and as a group? Are you likely to extend Page Left into film-making? Or television? Or webseries?

KM: As far as Page Left is concerned our main focus is theatre at the moment. That's not to say we won't branch out in later years into other projects in various mediums. Certainly as individual writers you will see our credits run across novels (Whiti wrote The Graphologist's Apprentice), radio, TV, film etc... So the possibility is definitely there and we're always open to a good idea/proposal, but Page Left is centrally focused on theatre at present.


For a complementary view, check out The Gender Agenda at Australian Plays. Has some great links to other articles.

1 comment:

  1. And here's a recent post about women playwrights in the United States, courtesy Women & Hollywood: http://blogs.indiewire.com/womenandhollywood/archives/guest_post_we_want_more_female-written_plays_by_katherine_bowman/

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