Victorian Cambridge: at the first women’s college, a group of brilliant young women are fighting for the right to an equal education, and for the chance to determine their own futures.
Jessica Swale’s feminist take on academia, Blue Stockings, will be performed by ElevenOne Theatre Co. at the Old Fire Station, 22-26 September. We tracked down director Cate Nunn to ask her a few questions about the production:
This is ElevenOne’s third show at the Old Fire Station. Can you tell us a bit more about the company?
ElevenOne’s got a lovely founding story, actually – it was a gift from one of the co-owners, Mike Taylor, to his wife Helen as her 40th birthday present, which is a pretty great gift! Their first show was at the Old Fire Station in 2009 (Noel Coward’s Private Lives), and since then they’ve been carving out a fantastic niche for themselves in the local theatre scene, putting on interesting and stimulating plays – everything from a two-hander about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (Vita and Virginia, 2012) to frothy comedies by PG Wodehouse (The Play’s The Thing, 2011) to last year’s season of plays about great people in science, including Copenhagen and the European premiere of a wonderful play called Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight. It’s a company I always love being involved with, and as soon as I read Blue Stockings I knew I had to pitch it to them!
Blue Stockings is ElevenOne’s ninth show – and they’re already planning show number 10: The 39 Steps, being staged in December.
What drew you to Blue Stockings?
I stumbled on Blue Stockings quite by accident to be honest – I’d been reading Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, and I loved it so much I thought I’d have a look to see if she’d done anything else. As soon as I picked it up, it grabbed me. I love Jessica Swale’s writing – she’s witty and fast-paced, there’s never a wasted moment on the stage, but at the same time she draws you in instantly into these vibrant characters who just jump off the page at you.
The play has everything you could want, really: it’s got romance, friendship, comedy, heartbreak, moments of high-drama, even a punch-up and someone riding a bike round the stage. Not to mention the can-can!
But it’s the characters who really make it. After I read it for the first time, I walked round seething for days about the injustice the first women students at our universities had been subjected to – being allowed in but then denied recognition or qualifications at the end of it. I wanted to march into an alumni office and demand to know why this had been allowed to happen – decades after it was all put right! That was when I realised how much she’d made me care about all these characters – and that’s the sign of a great play for me.
What have been the highs and lows of the rehearsal process so far?
Would you believe me if I said there hadn’t been any lows?! There really haven’t, though. It’s been a fantastically enjoyable rehearsal process – my cast are so talented that they make working on the show positively easy. They’ve handled everything I’ve thrown at them with ease, and everyone’s so positive and engaged with the show that the rehearsals just whizz by. It’s hard to pick out a specific high point from all of that! We had some fantastic sessions on character early in the process: everyone was so thoughtful and had so many insights to bring, which you could then see sparking off ideas in the other people in the room as well, so we had this great collaborative atmosphere going – really building the show together. But then I love the later bits of the process as well, where everyone’s starting to feel confident with the scenes and there’s all that wonderful energy as the play starts to lift off and come to life… And then there are the rehearsals where we all get the giggles over some daft thing and have to take a break just to stop bursting out laughing. It’s really a lot of fun, this show!
Gender equality has become a big issue in theatre in recent years – how does Blue Stockings fit into that?
Sometimes it feels like the balance of male-to-female roles hasn’t changed since Shakespeare’s day – and women’s roles are so often defined in relation to the male characters: the wife, the mother, the love interest. I love that in Blue Stockings there are as many women on stage as men, and that they are at the heart of the action in their own right – pursuing their dreams, fighting for what they believe in, and yes sometimes falling in love, but doing it as just one part of their characters, not the only reason for their existence on stage.
None of which is to diminish the male characters in the story either. There are some fantastic parts for men in the show too – from the idealistic tutor who has to choose between his principles and his career to the young men whose insecurity about the encroachment of women threatens to turn into violence by the end of the story.
It does feel like people are becoming more and more aware of the gender imbalance in the theatrical world, and there’s a lot of work going on right now to try and make theatre as representative as it can be, which is great. So I’m hoping we’ll see lots more plays like Blue Stockings coming out in the future.
Oxford is an academic city – do you think the play has anything new to say on university life and politics?
I believe passionately in the power of education to make things better – both in people’s individual lives and in societies as a whole. And I think that’s the main message of the play – not to take that for granted. I feel so fortunate that I’ve been born in a time and place that meant I could come and study at Oxford on exactly the same footing as a man – but there are parts of the world where even getting a basic education is off-limits to girls, just because of their gender. The message I hope people take away when they leave the theatre (as well as hopefully having had a very enjoyable night!) is that we need to keep striving to make education available to everyone – male and female, regardless of what their financial situation is, where they live or what social background they come from. The chance to learn is an amazing thing, and it ought to be open to everyone.
Tell us a bit more about yourself and the cast: what ‘double-lives’ do you lead when you’re not onstage with ElevenOne?
We’re a pretty diverse bunch – the cast includes a successful author of children’s and young adult novels, a couple of teachers, a fitness instructor, people who work in publishing, people who work for the university… And that’s just everybody’s day jobs. Catch them outside 9-5 and people are singers and musicians, dancers, one member of the cast is spending most of August up at the Edinburgh Fringe performing with her comedy group The Dead Secrets (Regulars here at the Old Fire Station, and hosts of our Comedy Scratch Nights! – Ed.) and another one coxes the City of Oxford Rowing Club. It’s a very multi-talented cast! As for me, when I’m not at my day job or working on Blue Stockings, mostly I’m either pointing a camera at something or doing advance prep for the next show I’m directing – which is in fact another Jessica Swale show (I’m a little worried I’ll get a reputation as a playwright-groupie!). I’m directing her adaptation of Sense and Sensibility for Oxford Theatre Guild at the Playhouse next spring, which will be really exciting – but the wheels start turning early, there’s plenty to be doing already!
Blue Stockings: 22 – 26 September, 7.30pm (+ 2.30pm show on Saturday). Tickets: £15, £12 (all matinee tickets £12) from 01865 305305 or www.ticketsoxford.com.