The Thelmas bring their latest full-length production, Coconut, to Ovalhouse before a UK tour. Artistic Director Maddy Moore's company tells female stories, by women, for everyone.

“When I started The Thelmas in 2014, the first thing we did was Ladylogue – an evening of six, one-woman shorts by emerging female writers. I got so frustrated with female writers not being commissioned.”

Coconut Ovalhouse

Madelaine Moore

Artistic Director Maddy Moore, like so many female theatre makers, noticed the disparity in our industry long before the current movements that are helping to promote gender equality. The Thelmas’ mission statement announces that they ‘at heart are women supporting women’ – even the name, inspired by Thelma & Louise, resonates with their passion for telling stories of women, written by women, but for everyone to enjoy:

“When I did the first Ladylogue, I approached [female] writers and asked them to write about whatever they wanted. Every single one was about a male other – given carte blanche, they all wrote about a husband, boyfriend, brother etc. I think that women seem to write certain types of plays – whether that’s because they think that’s what will get programmed, or whether that’s what they’re interested in writing… who knows? People like Lucy Prebble or Lucy Kirkwood write big, meaty, political work. But there’s not that many in the last 10 years, so either it’s not getting programmed, or they’re not writing it.”

There’s this sense that women can’t handle big concepts – that’s utter rubbish. This is why we do what we do.

Coconut Ovalhouse

Through The Thelmas, Maddy is passionate and driven to help readdress this imbalance. And their latest work, Coconut, is a step in helping to promote the female narrative. Written by fellow Thelma Guleraana Mir, the production centres around British Pakistani woman Rumi, who is often referred to as a coconut – brown on the outside, white on the inside. She meets Simon, who has decided to convert to Islam, and hopes that this will be enough to keep everyone happy:

“On the subject of things that women write about, and having banned stories for Ladylogue about male others, Coconut is of course all about Rumi’s relationship with Simon – the irony is not lost on me!

“What is important to us though is that throughout the story Rumi stays at the centre of the narrative, and we use the story to explore wider themes about identity, religion and cultural expression. It is a Bechdel fail (which we find pretty funny), but actually we feel that this is a story not currently being told from a female perspective. It is important to us that we change this.”

Coconut Ovalhouse

Kuran Dohil & Jimmy Carter in Coconut (image courtesy of Greg Veit Photography)

I think the above statement is an important one. By championing female writing, theatre and narrative, Maddy and The Thelmas aren’t dictating that a male perspective cannot be included in the production – to completely ban almost half of the population in favour of championing the other half would be a toxic strategy. It plays into a wider conversation currently circulating the theatrical ether – should playwrights be able to write material that they don’t necessarily have personal experience of?

“I go backwards and forwards on it all the time. A lot is about intention, but there have been situations with plays out there written by a straight white man that are absolutely not within the realm of their experience. Sometimes it feels quite genuine, sometimes it feels quite cynical.

“In terms of the subject matter, we need to represent more people on stage who are not straight white men, or middle class, straight white females – you can’t just replace one with the other. I’m in a position of privilege – I’m an educated, straight, white female. So, in terms of the company, I need to make space for other voices, to make sure that we’re an intersectional company.”

Coconut Ovalhouse

Kuran Dohil & Jimmy Carter in Coconut (image courtesy of Greg Veit Photography)

Coconut is a prime example of this dedication to an intersectional vision, telling a story that is unique yet familiar. It’s also a great example of tracking the lifecycle and development of The Thelmas since the company’s inception in 2014, as Coconut was first presented in the first Ladylogue as a 15-minute short back in 2014. Once it finishes its run at Ovalhouse, it goes out on tour – an important goal for Maddy to get outside of the London bubble:

“The big mission for us is to make partnerships outside of London, to get regional work shown and make work with regional theatres. People get so stuck in a bubble – it’s great that everyone supports each other, but you want to see what a show is like outside of this audience. I would like for us to be able to make shows that are for bigger houses as well as emerging company studios, which is what we are at present.”

When have you emerged? There’s no answer, but it seems to be the question of the day.

Coconut Ovalhouse

Hannah McClean in Ladykiller

A poignant question – when is a company no longer emerging? Is there a quota for productions presented, or a probationary time period that must be passed? There is no answer of course, and that may be because there are insufficient support mechanisms in place to allow companies to transfer to the next stage in their development. But for Maddy, the goal seems to be with multiple projects, thinking a couple of steps ahead for The Thelmas. A single production can itself become all-consuming, but it doesn’t represent a long term strategy in and of itself:

“We’ve got another show, Ladykiller – another short from Ladylogue – that’s coming up with Oldham Coliseum for the first time as a full-length piece. It’s very different from Coconut, very weird and very dark After Oldham, we’re doing three nights at Theatre N16 and then we’re taking it to Edinburgh, Pleasance Courtyard – it’s definitely an Edinburgh show!

“There’s another show we’re working on with Naomh CullenI Farted In Shavasana – a one-woman show set in a yoga class. It’s site specific, which makes it slightly trickier, but there are plans to make that happen.

“Then there’s Guleranna’s next play, Bootcamp, which we did a reading of recently – again very different from Coconut, about a group of women who are domestic violent survivors in a boxing group. I’d love to have a big female cast show like that and it doesn’t happen very often, especially in new writing. So much of new writing is limited to what people think they can get made.

“We’re also trying to do more on the participatory side. We’ve started a writers group, Weapons of Mass Creation – Writers, at Canal Cafe Theatre bringing new female writers in – we want to make work with non-professional groups.”

 

 

Coconut plays at Ovalhouse until 28 April 2018. For more information, please visit the venue website.

For more information about The Thelmas and their future work, please visit the company website.