Putting women's voices centre stage in Yorkshire theatre

As the LBT prepares to host a series of one-woman shows, Nick Ahad speaks to outgoing artistic director Victoria Firth.

Victoria Firth the outgoing artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre.
Victoria Firth the outgoing artistic director of the Lawrence Batley Theatre.

There’s a change coming.

Earlier this week a man accused of several sexual assaults was being questioned at a press conference at the White House. When Donald Trump, for it is he I describe, said to journalist Cecilia Vega: “I know you’re not thinking, you never do,” Vega ignored the protocol of respecting the office and played the man.

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“I’m sorry?” she replied, in a tone that left the world in no doubt what she meant. The cowardly president didn’t engage with the irritated journalist and attempted to move on. That ‘I’m sorry’ and the way Vega delivered it, incredulous at the disrespect she was being shown, might hopefully mark a moment, a line in the sand where female journalists demand and are maybe even given, the respect they deserve – and by extension all women?

Okay, I’m not holding my breath, but with the #MeToo movement and the fact that rampant misogyny is being called out as Vega did, it does feel like a shift is in the wind.

A small part of this change is being embodied at Lawrence Batley Theatre, which is staging a series of one-woman shows this autumn.

There currently are not enough women and BAME theatre makers getting the platform they deserve in our theatres. Not an opinion, just a fact. Ideas like A Festival Follow On, which will see several one-woman shows coming to the stage of The Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) this autumn, will help fix the imbalance.

The Huddersfield theatre has been run inventively and impressively by artistic director Victoria Firth for the past decade. A couple of weeks ago she announced she was stepping down from her role. It is a real loss to the theatre: Firth has been right at the vanguard of making this little venue punch way above its weight.

Fortunately, Firth tells me, she will be staying with the theatre two days a week to help with programming and to help the venue transition to its new management when she leaves to pursue several other projects, including helping artists create work as an independent producer.

“I have often had a sense of frustration at the fact there is not enough support for local artists, not enough investment in artists in Kirklees,” she says.

Like my home town Keighley, where John Grogan MP is trying to tempt more Arts Council money in 
to the area, towns in Kirklees 
often miss out to the bigger cities in West Yorkshire.

“That’s one of the reasons for leaving, actually, I feel like I can work with artists and companies and help them develop perhaps more quickly working as an individual than I might be able to from within an organisation,” she says. “It’s also the reason for bringing A Festival Follow On to LBT this autumn.”

The reason A Festival Follow On is so named is because it, well, follows on from a festival staged at the venue earlier this year. In March Lawrence Batley hosted A Festival, two weeks of artist workshops, creative events and live performances which were deliberately programmed to be entirely female.

The Follow On has been created to keep that spirit, the Fringe-type, DIY spirit of this type of theatre, alive at the LBT. Interestingly, Firth didn’t set out to have an all-female line-up this time, it just happens that she’s ended up with one.

“I wanted to put a marker down to say this is the sort of thing we want to do more of,” says Firth. “Artists need stepping stones to create and present new work. I have always tried to make LBT as porous as possible and things like this that allow artists the space to create and share new work is really important.”

A Festival Follow-On features three different pieces by women exploring issues that affect them personally and in turn, how society views issues such as class and health. Firth says the theme that pulls the pieces together, loosely, is ‘identity politics’.

“I was conscious that the festival didn’t have any work made by men, but it wasn’t a conscious decision this time around,” says Firth.

“I feel like it’s always been part of the programme though, not to push an agenda, but to find a way to communicate a message of diversity in all forms with our audience.”

I wonder if this decision of Firth’s, along with Vega’s line in the sand and the continuing power of the #MeToo movement is all part of a shifting tide. “It feels like an interesting time. I was at the press night of Amanda Huxtable’s Abigail’s Party in Hull and she’s a Huddersfield woman making great, diverse work. On Sunday we’ve got a female Doctor Who from Yorkshire making her debut on television. I watched the trailer and just hearing Jodie Whittaker and her Yorkshire accent, it makes me really happy. I think we are starting to see some changes.”

Let’s hope so. And it’s thanks to people like Victoria Firth.

Three Pieces in A festival follow on

The Class Project: Rebecca Atkinson-Lord’s show about belonging to tribes and families, the place you belong because you were born there; the places that are in your blood but also the places you adopt. October 9.

Gutted: Liz Richardson’s frank and funny account of living with an inflammatory bowel disease. 
A journey of love, laughter and loos. October 30.

Pricks: Jade Byrne has had over 70,000 pricks… of the medical kind and she sets the record straight about Type 1 Diabetics like herself. It blends spoken word, poetry, projection and an original soundscape. November 15.

Details: www.thelbt.org.uk