Theatre: Three Generations of Women, Leeds Carriageworks

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A new play, set in Leeds, explores the changes in women’s lives over the past century through three generations of one family. Yvette Huddleston reports.

The past 100 years have seen some seismic shifts in society, not least of which is the role of women – and a new play, at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds tonight, explores some of those changes, inspired by the real-life stories of women in Leeds, Brighton and London.

Created by award-winning company Broken Leg Theatre, Three Generations of Women is set in Leeds and was written by co-artistic directors Anna Jefferson and Alice Trueman. “Alice and I both have strong connections with Leeds,” says Jefferson who is based in Brighton. “I grew up in the city and Alice was a student there; also it’s a place where experiences of city life and village life rub up alongside one another, helping us to show a real range of women’s experiences.”

Work began on the play in 2014 but the idea initially grew out of a conversation in the pub between the two writers a few years ago. “It was at a time in our lives when we were both quite busy and trying to juggle work and family,” says Jefferson. “We started thinking about the kind of challenges our mothers and grandmothers faced and how those had changed over the years. It feels so much at the moment that there is a pressure on women to be all things to all people.”

After successfully applying for Arts Council funding for research and development, Jefferson and Trueman began talking to groups of women around the country, whose ages range from 15 to 94, about their experiences of growing up in the UK. They met local groups in Leeds, including women from the Hey Days project for over-55s at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and OWLS (Older Wiser Local Seniors) as well as students from the University of Leeds, to focus on the ways in which women’s lives have altered over the last century. “Some really interesting things came out of meeting and talking to those women,” says Jefferson. “And it was great seeing what a supportive environment they created for each other to share their stories.”

The company also set up an interactive website inviting women to submit anonymous stories about their experiences as mothers, daughters, friends and confidantes. The response was huge. “The project really seemed to strike a chord with women at a time when movements like No More Page Three and Everyday Sexism were starting to gain momentum,” says Jefferson. “Women were sharing some incredibly brave, really moving stories. By the end of it we had stories from a broad cross section of backgrounds and ages.”

Women were asked to answer a series of questions such as ‘In what ways do you feel your identity as a woman has been shaped by your mother’s attitudes and behaviours?’, ‘What is the best piece of advice you received from your mother or grandmother?’ and ‘Tell us a story of the best kept secret held by a woman in your family from any generation’.

Creating a narrative that would work on stage from the thousands of responses they received was, Jefferson admits, challenging. “It was tricky because you want to feel you are doing justice to everybody who contributed,” she says. “So we started looking at the themes that were coming through – and one of the strongest was around secrets that had been held in families for years and the effect those had on subsequent generations.”

The play, directed by Ria Parry, follows three generations of Yorkshire women in one family – Elsie, born in a pit village in 1936 and taught to keep herself to herself, Gilly who came of age in the Swinging Sixties and her 30-year-old daughter Frankie who has given her job and moved back in with her mother. Appropriately, the production has been realised by an all-female cast and creative team. “Women are still embarrassingly underrepresented in theatre,” says Jefferson, “so it has been fantastic and very fitting to work with an exceptional group of women to tell this story.”

Three Generations of Women, Carriageworks Theatre, March 10. Tickets on 0113 376 0318 or www.cariageworkshteatre.org.uk