The Company began in 1983 as a group of 9 women who came together for a course of drama workshops funded by the Workers Educational Association entitled Women & Theatre. The workshops led to a devised piece, Choices, about teenage pregnancy that toured in 1984, followed by The Saving of Erutan, a peace pantomime. 4 of the group, Janice Connolly, Polly Wright, Jo Broadwood and Sue Learwood, decided to continue the work on a full time basis and form a women’s theatre company. They worked collaboratively to research, devise, write and produce new theatre relevant to the experiences of women. In 1986 Women & Theatre was incorporated as a limited company and became a registered charity in 1987.
In 1989, in response to the need for public education around HIV, the Company began to focus on work that centred on health and social care issues. The Company developed a national reputation for excellence in the field of Theatre in Health Education and in the use of theatre as a training tool for health professionals. While retaining the core principle of representing women’s experience, the Company also worked with male and mixed groups.
Over time the member’s interests diversified and 3 of the 4 co-founders left the Company to pursue solo projects. Janice Connolly remained committed to the Company and its ideals and in 1995 became the Artistic Director. Working with a series of administrators and a pool of freelance artists Janice developed the Company’s profile for new writing and increased the canon of work being produced.
In 1997 W&T received a National Lottery grant for 2 Mercedes vans, and equipment. The Company restated its commitment to producing high quality theatre for new spaces and diverse audiences. In 1998 Victoria Firth was appointed as the first General Manager, to co-run the Company with Janice, a post which has since been filled by Sorelle White and Jess Williams/ Pearson.
In 2000 W&T celebrated the millennium with a national tour of a new musical, Tribe of Beorma. To differentiate this project from our health repertoire we called it Women & Theatre On Tour. This strand of work allowed us to create a new high quality art product for small scale touring regionally and nationally. Further W&T On Tour productions include Fag Hag (2002) and The Bad One (2004 & 2008).
In 2002 the Women’s Nationwide Cancer Control Campaign granted funds to W&T for 2 initiatives: To fund 3 national tours of award-winning breast health play The Learning Curve; and to develop a new piece raising awareness around cervical cancer. Like all of the Company’s work the process began with in-depth research and interviews were conducted with women and health professionals in Birmingham. These interviews were then used to create a series of monologues intended to entertain, inform, empower and inspire. The resulting production The Cervical Monologues premiered at the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Patrick Centre in March 2005 and toured nationally to community & health venues, and became one of the Company’s most frequently requested repertoire productions for many years.
In February 2004 Women & Theatre were announced overall winners of GlaxoSmithKline’s Impact Awards for excellence in community health, receiving a prize of £30,000.
In September 2004, full-time and part-time Associate Director posts were created, forming a core artistic company of three with the Artistic Director. This proved to be an effective and creatively exciting departure whilst the company continued to utilise the talents of its freelance pool of artists. The company grew to have 6 core members including artistic and operational staff (3 full-time and 3 part-time.) More recently however, in response to the financial crisis and the challenging nature of the ensuing funding climate, we have streamlined to a core team of just 3 part-time posts, and numerous freelance artists working with us on a project basis.
2008 saw the Company celebrate 25 years of creating illuminating new work about things that matter. Celebrations included a Gala Comedy Night involving a nationally renowned line-up of female comics – which has since formed an annual part of our artistic programme and fundraising strategy.
In 2011, Women & Theatre moved premises from The Friends Institute in Highgate to The Old Lodge at the Uffculme Centre, a site owned by Birmingham & Solihull Mental Health Foundation Trust. This marked the start of a formalised partnership with BSMHFT, through which we would develop collaborative drama-based work which makes an impact and largely engages service users in in-patient settings with a view to enhancing the patient experience and improving patient outcomes.
2011 also saw W&T’s most ambitious production to date, The Palace of Wasted Dreams, in association with mac, an important milestone in the company’s artistic direction and relationship with its local communities. Other highlights included W&T winning Birmingham & Solihull’s ‘Big Ideas Bonanza’ – a prize rewarding innovative ideas for improving the health of local residents – for our Community Comedy Clubs. This strand of work has gone from strength to strength with the delivery of 6 courses in residential homes for older adults in 2012 funded by The Baring Foundation and The Rayne Foundation, amongst others. 2013 has seen the project develop further: Time to Change funding has allowed us to begin the delivery of our Laughing for a Change project which aims to tackle stigma and discrimination around mental health through the delivery of community comedy courses and a professional tour.
In recent years we have also specialised in creating high quality participatory theatre with marginalised groups: working with local LGBT adults, in the development of site specific heritage production Gay Birmingham, Back to Backs; working with intergenerational groups in Make Do & Mend; working with diverse YP including visually impaired and newly arrived in Underrated; Birmingham The Musical. Whilst all projects are different in content, style and target group, all are united by core values of inclusion, empowerment and the creation of quality theatre.