Why Leed-based Unsung Collective are flying the flag for feminist theatre

Some of the theatres and companies that have featured in this series have been tricky to define.

The production of Unsung which toured in 2019.
The production of Unsung which toured in 2019.

How do you sum up in a pithy sentence exactly what Sheffield Theatres is? How can you explain Leeds theatre company Slung Low?

The company whose story I tell today is much easier to describe. If brevity is the soul of wit, Unsung are a witty bunch. Five words is all they need. “Feminist Theatre. Based in Leeds.” Done.

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“We make theatre that gives voice to unsung women – from those whose stories have been forgotten by history, to those whose stories are unfolding now – with an unapologetically feminist agenda,” says Alice Barber, artistic producer of the company.

Poster for the radio adaptation of Unsung, created in lockdown and available on the company’s website.

“Through their voices, we make work that chimes with the contemporary female experience – and we use that word, ‘female’, in the broadest possible sense. We approach our work with a sense of irreverence and anarchy; ultimately, we want our audiences to come away from shows feeling empowered, as though they’ve had fun, and bursting to share the night’s experiences with others.”

If you take a look at the company’s website you’ll see it deftly sidesteps the accusations that it might be in any way po-faced, a charge that can sometimes be laid at the feet of companies who have a political agenda.

Barber does the same in person when I ask about what defines the company.

“We’re here to dismantle the patriarchy, brick by brick,” she says, mischievously, but also sincerely. “The notion of women supporting and empowering other women is key. We take an intersectional approach to our work, acknowledging that there will always be other forces at play alongside sex. You can’t pick and choose the type of equality you believe in – you either believe in it, or you don’t.”

It feels at times like it’s not so much a theatre company as a call to arms. The other members of Unsung include director Elvi Piper and writer Lisa Holdsworth.

The company didn’t so much come into existence as was forced into being.

“At first it was a necessity-as-birth-of-invention situation,” says Barber. “I’d recently finished university and had set out to try and make some theatre. Luckily, I bumbled my way into the path of brilliant director Elvi Piper and – the both of us feeling particularly strongly about female representation onstage and telling women’s stories – we put our heads together to start work on ‘Unsung’, later joining forces with writer Lisa Holdsworth.

"We assembled a crack team of brilliant female performers and devisers to create the show – and so Unsung Collective was born, as a vehicle to share what we’d made.”

The Leeds-based company is also fiercely proud of being Yorkshire born and bred. While the pandemic put paid to some of its plans, it did record a radio play, (which is available now).

“We’re a young company, so we’ve only created one production so far. Unsung toured in 2019 and was meant to be retouring in 2020,” says Taylor. The play told the story of four women who ought to have greater recognition, the creatives behind the show believe.

“We could not have asked for a more rewarding outcome. People were eager to get home and research the characters further, while others identified areas where they felt their life aligned with the stories we’d told, urged us to keep telling them, and thanked us for giving their voices a platform.

“We have so much more to give in this regard – making women feel represented, and voicing the unique challenges they face. One production currently in development centres around a chronic pain condition called Vulvodynia – which is something it is estimated up to 16 per cent of women suffer from.

"It will be a lavish musical cabaret with a cast of two actor-musicians that – through wit, music, and glitter – will interrogate institutionalised gender bias within medicine, and examine the too often taboo subject of female sexual health, as well as raising awareness about a widespread, distressing, and mournfully misunderstood condition.”

There is clearly a lot of fire and energy fuelling the work of Unsung and it seems that being stymied by the pandemic has only made this young company more determined to tell the stories it believes should be told.

For now Unsung, like all of us, have to contend with a theatre industry facing the greatest challenge it has ever known.

“In the future I think we’ll certainly be giving more thought towards adaptability at the earliest stages of forming ideas. It feels so valuable at the moment to be able to shape-shift – to have a variety of versions of a show that, chameleon-like in nature, can play literally anywhere.

“I also wonder whether touring may stay off the agenda for a while; I’d love to really bed into a space in Leeds, and run a show here. Which is the plan for another one of our upcoming projects, a large-scale site-specific production focusing on women’s Roller Derby, which we’re hoping to get off the ground over the coming year.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that most of us working in this industry are stretched beyond our capacities, and that we’re only going to survive if we support one another.

"We’re very lucky in Leeds to have a wonderful ecology of generous and supportive companies.”

Unsung – the stage play

Unsung, the play, by Lisa Holdsworth, told the stories of Ada Lovelace, Sophia Jex-Blake, Lilian Bader and Andrea Dunbar, four women whose stories, the company believed, were not as lauded as they should be. “The show threw these four women in a room together, intertwining their stories and experiences to interrogate the fact that the perspective on history that we’re all taught – right from the get-go – is male,” says Taylor.

Unsung the radio play is available on the website: unsungcollective.com. More on Twitter @unsung_women and @unsungwomen (Insta/Facebook).