Arts Arts Editor Muse

It's Time for Herstory

Hope Jennings-Grounds explains the latest project from TFTV which aims to bring unheard female stories to life

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Image Credit: Image: Bryn Richards

York is a city full of very talented and incredible people. You see them in the local news, in our University, and even walk past them in the streets. Now take a step back and consider the amount of people that would have influenced York throughout history, and the role that they may have had in making York into the wonderful place that it is today. In relatively recent history, women have made huge steps in gaining equal rights.Through time, they have worked hard to earn and receive their deserved recognition and appreciation. However, what about the women that have made an impact before recent times? What about the women that, even today, are not recognised in the ways they should be? Theatre has often taken up the role of bringing history to life, whether it is truthful productions or fictional versions of true accounts. This is a way of sharing people’s stories, not only to inspire people to consider the difference they could make but also to show how society has changed through the decades and even through the centuries. By presenting these big changes throughout history, it helps to stress how different things may be in the near future. Admittedly, some historical plays aren’t always beacons of positivity, and are often produced simply because certain moments in history can be made into riveting theatre.This project highlights that these historical stories don’t always need to be about past rulers or moments from battles and wars, as interesting as they are to stage. There are other heroes that we probably walk by everyday who have always been there but unfortunately, in this case, have been under-represented; it would be interesting to consider whether this would have been the case if they were men. This is why it is important to represent them now. Not only to tell their stories and celebrate their lives, but also to highlight the progression of equality in our society. There are still injustices for women in the world. However, by representing the great things they have done, it allows us to celebrate the women that drove us forward in society, who inspired us, and helped to give us the opportunities we have today. Herstory York has many volunteers working towards putting together recounts of 100 women from past to present, who have influenced or made an impact on York. These can be found on their website and often offer pictures and factual information on who these women are, and why we should know of them. Students are also actively involved in the project, allowing them to have a deeper understanding of the women that they are representing. Dramaturgs are researchers for theatre and therefore have the job of ensuring that the script is historically correct. Some information on the women is just not available leaving the scriptwriters with a certain amount of artistic license to fill in the blanks and build a story to present to an audience which is engaging and doing justice to the untold stories. It’s important they work closely with the writers, relaying their findings and exploration of not only the women,but the times they were living in and what it meant to be alive then. This ensures a consideration of how they would have spoken, what class they were, as well as what sort of education they would have had. However, that is just one aspect of the extensive research that needed to be done to stage these women realistically. Although politics is often connected to governmental matters, within theatre we must consider personal politics. Personal politics refers to the small political details that are formative to someone’s life and experiences; a prime example being class. When representing some-one who perhaps doesn’t have their whole life recorded, these little details are often helpful in realising the answers to questions that haven’t been documented.The Herstory team accumulated this in-formation by searching through archives and articles as well as other sorts of records and documentation. Each woman has a page, or several, on their lives, families and what they did for York that made a difference. Some of these women are still alive to this day and are actually at the peak of their careers. An example of such is Juliet Forster who is currently the Associate Director at York Theatre Royal, and continues to advance her impressive career. Kate Atkinson, who is featured in the play, successful writer who spent along time based in York. She now lives in Edinburgh. This allows us to truly see the impact that these women have had not only in the past, but also continuing to this very day. If anything is to betaken from this project, it is that change still needs to happen within our society and arts. After fighting for their rights, women still are often underrepresented and, although things are a lot fairer now, there is a long way still to go. Some of the women being researched are alive today yet don’t seem to be talked about as we’d expect or hope, considering their impact. This is such a wonderful project because it contributes significantly to the local history, highlighting the part women had to play in it. TFTV have decided to make this their yearly political theatre project. By putting these women on stage, it allows us to materialise some of their stories and hopefully bring more awareness to the project and the good things it is doing. Although only some of the women themselves will be put on stage, it is the aim to represent them all through this medium and illustrate how they are part of a bigger picture. The performances to represent this project run from the 9-11 May, and will be made up of three separate half an hour shows all put together by different groups of TFTV students. With original scripts written specifically for the evening, each group will be taking a unique approach to representing these women. The hope is that, although not all the women can be put on stage, there will be a showcase in the foyer of the theatre for more of the women to prove the point that this exploration does not end here; it is absurd the amount of women still neglected within traditional narratives and histories.The three shows titled inVISIBLE, After Words and 3 Women Walk Into a Bar will be held at the Black Box Theatre in the department of Television, Film and Theatre with tickets for the shows already selling online.The project will be created over four intensive weeks, this includes the research, writing and design of the show overall. Therefore, the cast and crew are working rigorously to bring the show together on time. Although this project is focused on the role certain women have had throughout York’s history, it has the potential to highlight the sheer quantity of British women who have remained unnoticed despite their significant influence on society, be that the arts, religion or education. It is both shocking and saddening to think of just how many women in British history still fail to be recognised for the good things that they have done, especially when we compare this to the recognition of their male counterparts. One of the women featured, Nellie Hewitt, was a nurse during the First World War and worked in a workhouse in York, tending to the injured. She started nursing at the young age of 16 and was working when York got its worst bombing during the war in 1916. The injuries and travesties that Nellie would have had to face are a stark contrast to how most people in the UK spend their teen years, and thus provide such powerful stories to tell through the stage. This contrast to the stereotype is a recurring fact for many of the women being represented as they lived unusual and often challenging lives. Despite this, they still fought to make a difference for both the women and men of their time, and for people in York today. The struggles these women faced truly struck me, as they drew attention to some of the more disregarded difficulties that people have faced in the past, and continue to today. Despite these personal and circumstantial challenges seeming so difficult to overcome, the women studied are proof of the strength that we as individuals have, and how this can also be used to help others. In a sense, this project as a whole functions to highlight the recurring struggles within society throughout history. However, more significantly it shows how people have continued to strive forward and change their lives, and their wider communities. Nevertheless, the fundamental core of this project is an emphasis on, and showcasing of, the journey women’s rights has taken, and how the different challenges that women have faced are a product of the time in which they were living. It evokes optimism through showing how our society has changed in such a short amount of time, suggesting that there is hope in continued progression and development in the short-term future.Currently, the Herstory volunteers are working closely with the teams at TFTV to build up a production which represents the politics and history of these women’s lives correctly and putting this context into a story which can engage audiences.There will be a small exhibition to help the audience enjoy the theatre with a deeper understanding of the individual and their historical context. One of the most exciting and impressive aspects of this project is how it has brought different communities in York together, working towards a collective goal of effectively representing the people of our shared past. While we are considering what these women did for York’s history as individuals, it is also important to appreciate how they continue to influence the city by connecting students and local volunteers so that they can work on this project together. Through the use of educational resources, the students have been able to expand upon the research that existed before this production.
If you are interested in the Herstory project and the worthwhile work that they do,then further details can be found on their web-site:www.herstoryuk.org.

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