Ellie Keel: ‘I wanted to inspire and empower as many women as possible to write plays.’

Ellie Keel at the launch of The Women’s Prize for Playwriting

Unsurprisingly, one of the questions I’m most often asked about founding The Women’s Prize for Playwriting is ‘what did you hope to achieve by setting it up?’

The simple answer to this question is that I wanted to inspire and empower as many women as possible to write plays. I wanted to bring these plays to the public’s attention by creating an organisation dedicated to promoting women’s writing for the stage. I wanted to do this because I had seen big, impressive plays by women on national stages – Red Velvet, Chimerica, The Writer, The Effect, Home, I’m Darling – but I hadn’t seen enough of them. I knew I hadn’t because when I came to tell people about these plays, I would run out of examples too quickly. And yet on any given night I could walk out into the West End and take my pick of Frayn, Stoppard, Greig, Hare, Ravenhill, and all the rest – and I could see a different play by a man every night of the week. Furthermore, my own research and that of Victoria Sadler showed the true bleakness of the full picture: only 26% of new main-stage productions in 2018 were written by women.

The inequality of this situation struck me as both unfair and unnecessary. I knew that lots of women were writing good plays, because as an independent producer I was receiving them all the time. I’d also produced a new writing competition called Heretic Voices which was entered by almost as many women as men (47%), but what was striking were the different ways that they talked about their work. Men’s covering emails would read along the lines of ‘I’ve written a deeply interesting and hilarious monologue that you’re going to love’, but women’s covering emails were frequently more tentative. They sometimes spoke about their work apologetically: ‘I’m sorry, it might be a bit long/weird/need more work’. Often (but not always), the more ambitious the play, the more apologetic the covering email. I felt that the reason for these apologetic overtones was the fact that women’s writing had, for too long, been relegated to second place in many national theatre organisations.

So the purpose of The Women’s Prize for Playwriting is to end the apologies and start the celebration. We know that women can write big, impressive, epic plays, and we know that we have big, impressive, epic stages in our major theatre organisations to put them on. Our job is now to unite the two, and achieve proper parity between the number of plays by women and men on our major stages. Huge numbers of plays are being written by women already but so many of them are not being produced – and so we are setting up the prize to give theatres no excuse but to stage them. The Women’s Prize for Playwriting is a joint contribution from me and Paines Plough (and our publishing partner Samuel French) towards making this happen: to celebrate and promote the great plays already being written by women in the UK and Ireland, and inspire more of the same.

Ellie Keel, Founder and Executive Producer of the Women’s Prize for Playwriting.

Submissions for the Women’s Prize for Plawriting close at 5pm on Monday 2 March 2020. More info here: http://womensprizeforplaywriting.co.uk/

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