Practitioner Voices: Anna Birch

Interviewed October 2004 by Becca Gill as part of the Total Theatre Explores research project.

Anna Birch (PhD) is a professional theatre director and producer (Sensible Footwear, ReSisters and Royal Court Theatre, London).

Her scenographic and dramaturgical style has evolved into major site-based, multi-media performance projects, including Di's Midsummer Night Party (2000) and Wollstonecraft Live! (September 2005, London, UK and planned for Ohio, USA 2007)

How do you describe your artform practice?

I am a theatre director and theatre maker; a theatre maker as a person crossing boundaries, moving on from conventional theatre terminology.

How do you describe your work?

I trained at The Royal Court Theatre and am an expert in the development and production of new writing particularly by women playwrights. In 1996, I changed to working in front of the proscenium arch instead of behind it as a way of enhancing the representation of gender.

Since then, a lot of my work is site-based, multi-media performance where I digitise my performances, as well as using new writings in my work.

After I finished my PHD, I had to define my terms as a director-maker, so I carried out a piece of research into the performative languages of Caryl Churchill and April de Angelis. As a director of April's early plays, I developed her concept of inside and outside / domestic and public space and from Churchill I brought the cross-dressing and trans-historical character languages into the public space.

What are your main areas of inspiration and do they change with each project?

My main areas of inspiration would be April D'Angelis and Caryl Churchill and my mentors Max Stafford-Clark, Peter Brooke and Deborah Warner.

My ways of working become more coherent but also evolve. By evolving, I am aware of what becomes clearer and less clear in my work.

Does gender matter in performance?

Yes. Historically women were not on stage till the 1600s. As Shakespeare is prominent in the western canon, women's work is informed by the heritage of cross-dressing performances where young boys played women in the earlier productions of his work.

In the public space you are observed as a female performer and female theatre-maker and the spectator becomes aware of the artistic vision.

Also, I feel that gender constructs relate to meaning-making in the theatre: the father and mother figure within directing impacts on the role and expectations of the female director and her company.

Does your body determine the work you make or the way in which you make it?

As I work physically and outside the theatre space, I find that my body is central to my work. My body has experienced many things as a female, which are gender defined. So yes, body is always important and my work evolves and develops in partnership with changes in my body.

Would you consider your artistic priorities to be different to those of men?

Some. For example, priorities such as precision and breaking new ground overlap for both women and men. There are different thrusts for female directors which are to do with representing parts of a culture that are under represented for example the achievements of women, women's histories and the representation of women on and off the stage.

Would you consider your aesthetic criteria to be different to the aesthetic criteria of men?

What would be interesting is to look at the aesthetic differences of work made by men and women. The development of female playwriting is essentially down to Max Stafford-Clark and the Royal Court. It would be very interesting to turn back the clock to see how plays by women would have been different in a different script development environment where women were in charge.

Early development of languages used in playwriting and power structures impacted on my work and on the canon. In the late 1980s, new women writers were taken into main venues and a space was made.

How would you define feminism?

I do not think the definition has changed; the history of feminism is strong enough to support any definition.

There has been a large struggle of equality for women since the Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft in the 18th century through to world political issues. Globally there are many examples of women standing up for their rights as can be seen in the Middle East as we speak. The turn of the century suffragette movement gave women the vote here, so my grandmother, for example, could vote. Before that she would not have been able too, some women in the world still do not have a vote.

I would like to see feminism as a stone gathering moss rolling into the future. Childcare, equal pay and choice are still burning issues for women all over the world.

According to your own definition, would you call yourself a feminist and what does that term mean in relation to yourself and your work?

Yes, feminist practice is about how I work, who I work with and what kind of work I make. My choices centre around investigating and analysing and bringing to the foreground female experience.

Do you think that theatre can effect social change?

Yes. Any art practice does through time and energy. A space is created where an opportunity for critical discussion and dissent are made possible.

How would you define the effect of the funding system on women's performance work?

A lot of female directors used to work in regional venues where the funding has now collapsed. The economic system has changed, and I do not think money has increased; arts funding, small as it is, usually gets very good value for money spent.

What do you see as the biggest problem facing women in performance today?

Pornography, media, advertising; this is all making it seem like a struggle and even harder for a female performer to battle for anything that is self-defined for a woman. Political silencing impacts upon the representation of femininity.

What from your perspective is the future for women within performance?

I know many theatre designers who are woman that are very talented and keen to flatten the conventional theatre hierarchy; they want to be in charge of their own work and maybe even perform and make work. Also, by blurring the boundaries, which I find exciting.

I see the digital inheritance and technology has more to give. There is a different representation of feminism which is exciting and inspiring.

Women in Entertainment - a fabulous group of women performers, directors, designers etc - provided a platform for women in the 80s to early 90s; their archive records the struggles in and outside the industry to demand an equal share of the cake for women and spotlights women and age and diversity, disability and representation in general.

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