Cambridge theatrical communities are well-represented at the Edinburgh Fringe every year. This year there are about 25 shows from current or recently graduated Cambridge students at the Fringe, and countless others from alumni. And they are in good company. Alongside those performers sent from Fen to Firth each year we are joined by Oxford, Bristol, Durham, London, Exeter, Leeds and many other high-achieving universities. Despite any diversity within university communities, a large portion of shows at the Fringe are either all-male or male-dominated.
Walking down The Royal Mile a flyer was thrust toward me saying “All-male acapella group – you look like you’d love it, ladies!”
As we walked away, I thought “why all-male?” Male performance is hardly a unique selling point here at the Fringe. A performer in this year’s Footlights Tour Show, Ania Magliano-Wright pointed out to me that the finalists of the Chortle Student Comedy Award were exclusively male, accompanied by a male compère. The final took place here at the Fringe, and in the website review of the event, there was no mention of the lack of female and non-binary representation. It’s as if it is taken for granted that comedy is a male space. As the make-or-break platform for comedy in the UK and arguably worldwide, it suffers a remarkable lack of diversity.
Because of problems like this, Ania has been working with fellow Fringe performers Ruby Keane and Emma Plowright to create Stockings, an inclusive comedy troupe for women and non-binary people in Cambridge.
Here at the Fringe, rubbing shoulders with the upcoming heroes of performance art from all over the world, Emma points out to me that as Co-Director of the Cambridge Impronauts she had to learn that her opinion was one of the most important in the room. Having authority over male colleagues in theatre can be quite a shock, and Emma and I have both found that directing, especially at the Fringe, has made us find more respect for our own talents and opinions. We have found that relying on our own gumption while working with male cast or crew members can be a challenge, and having female flat-mates or friends to support us has been essential.
Emma explains to me that in the wake of the success of the Lady Smoker and the newly established BME Smoker, more resources are now behind inclusivity in comedy. While this will hopefully make Cambridge comedy more accessible, and the Festival has some equivalents, the performing arts remain especially challenging for women and people of colour. Even in the progressive world of the Festival, which seems to embrace self-expression, even within the Cambridge contingent represented here, women and non-binary people are working so hard to win a place, on top of the standard graft that it takes to get here.
Scene, a play by Lola Olufemi and Martha Krish, which had a run at Corpus Playroom earlier this year, has a cast and crew of women whom I was keen to talk to for this article. The Scene team are warm, and show just how welcoming the theatre community can be. They also stress the support, solidarity and love they share on stage and in their all-female flat. However, they found that their show, which is about two women writing a play about an interracial queer relationship, divides audiences somewhat.
Martha explains to me that flyering can be a particular challenge: they tend to filter who they approach so as to protect themselves and each other from possible negativity. This seems extremely sensible to me; no one ought put themselves at risk when flyering for a show. Saskia, one of the actors in Scene, explains that she does not feel comfortable announcing ‘queer interracial couple’ in public, and while they have had some wonderful responses of gratitude and praise, these topics also face pushback and rudeness. They have found that exit-flyering other feminist shows has been a safer and more successful pursuit.
Amiya Nagpal, a performer in another Cambridge play this Fringe, told me that very few men would accept the flyers for her show, Mirror, Mirror, Off the Wall. Some of the publicity design was in pink, and when they heard the words ‘fairy-tale’, men would imagine it wasn’t for them.
The flyers for my show are a bright magenta, but also have a picture of two smartly-dressed white men on them, and so the reactions I experienced were not nearly as gendered.
This year I’m directing a sketch show, written and performed by two men. In a way, I suppose, I’m part of the problem. At one point in the show, the duo addresses one of their sketches, explaining that it passes the Bechdel Test, but remind themselves that this requires female parts to be played by female actors. It’s hard not to notice the gaping holes the performing arts where women could be, but every day of the Fringe I am reminded of them by that sketch.
The cast of a sketch show at Pembroke New Cellars in 2015 were interviewed for a preview in Varsity, and the only question asked of the two women in the show (myself and Mini Smith), was ‘How do you perceive the role of women in Cambridge comedy?’. Mini put it much better than I could: ‘My friends told me I was funny ‘cause I am lol fuck the patriarchy.
With thanks to:
Amiya Nagpal is a Performer in Mirror, Mirror, Off the Wall
Ania Magliano-Wright is a Writer and Performer in Dream Sequence
Emma Plowright is the Director and a Performer in Improv Actually
Emmeline Downie is a Performer in The Oppression Olympics
Katt Weaver is the Technical Director of Studio 9
Martha Krish, Lola Olufemi, Amy Malone, Saskia Ross, Laura Cameron and Gabrielle McGuinness are the cast and some of the crew of Scene
Other all-female or female-dominated shows and acts to look out for at the Fringe: