‘Blue Stockings’ by Jessica Swale. Directed by Pooja Ghai. What an empowering experience. A story of the fight that a few women took to gain their right to graduate. A story where their gender was their immediate demise. It took decades to achieve their goal and it is thanks to them that I, a twenty-two-year-old woman and the women around me, can receive a degree. Though there is sadness at the end of this project there is celebration. For the tears are only there because of the delight and power felt in such a play. I will be incredibly lucky to feel like this again in my career. If I do, even once, it will have been a success. All I can do is to put hope out into the universe and work hard for myself to be involved in projects that strike a chord in my soul in the way this has. Pooja Ghai, a director that has worked at The Globe, is going on to work in a plethora of professional venues and has been the assistant artistic director of Stratford East. A woman with an incredible passion for the work taking place in the room, about showcasing the stories of those who have suffered from being a minority. She is at the forefront of the fight to bring diversity into the industry. She is a force of nature and exactly the right zest that the world so desperately needs.
As an actor I have never felt stronger, more passionate then through this experience. Pooja created an atmosphere in the room to play. From day one she invited discussion to the table. We dissected the play into units collectively and debated and conversed over every detail. By the end we had a clear outline for why our characters did what they did, said what they said. I was playing the fiercely determined headmistress Elizabeth Welsh. An advocate for women’s right to graduate. A real person who served those Girton girls with grace, fire and power. However, through these discussions at the table I found that she was much more complicated than that. She wasn’t the true feminist that I originally thought. I recognised her fight was different; her tactics were of an older and possibly wiser generation. The slow battle. Stealth. Play the game and then beat them at it. However, throughout the play she has actions that appear to contradict that entirely. She forces the character of Maeve to leave, going against the belief in giving girls from an underprivileged background an opportunity to learn. She then twists the hand of Miss Blake. A strong ally, making her choose. She is a woman who is not in support of the suffragists. She discusses how she cannot vote for who rules the country as a woman and in her senate speech she doesn’t suggest that this could be a goal for these women. She says “Giving our girls an education won’t only make better nurses and teachers..”. I ask why not doctors? Members of parliament? Why not engineers and scientists? Maybe she was aware that such opportunities will be too drastic for the men of the Senate to hear but I find it conflicting that she doesn’t express that as a possible goal. She sees the goal of graduation but not for the degree to be put into the practice. A fascinating position to play, conflicting with my own morals, another layer into this fantastic character.
Never have I felt so encouraged, supported and wanted in a rehearsal room. Pooja was an asset and an inspiration to our lives as actors. Drama schools need more women like her. She empowered us to believe that we could achieve everything that we were hoping for. She would ask ‘Is that an issue for you as your character or you as an actor?’. There was then a discussion as to why the character felt conflicted to follow through with an action and what that meant for how the scene evolved. And if it was an issue as an actor it was technically worked through, step by step leading to the action that was uncomfortable or awkward and how that could be addressed. She recognised that it is a process. You won’t achieve results in an instant. First you understand what is taking place. Then you map this out for yourself, then you add the layers of detail to build it into a functioning production. Each run you would build on your scene, this would spring it into new realms, new ideas of possible actions and eventually a connected, brave, detailed and emotionally packed piece. She would hold your hand, lead you down the path to find the answer she knew all along but wanted you to find, she’d shake you from your own demons when you needed it most. She told you the work was there, that we had it at the cusp of our fingertips. That we didn’t need her anymore. We told her she was a queen and her response was ‘No, we are all queens.’
The final product wasn’t like anything that I expected. Every night people leapt to their feet. It brought laughter, anger and tears to people. It brought the discussion of feminism into the room. The combination of a historic play (1896), with contemporary music sprung people to see that this was poignant story needs to be told NOW. It highlighted that these are still stories that are being experienced in the world today. 66 million girls in the world are not in education. Malala Yousafzai got a bullet in her head for gaining knowledge. In Nigeria 110 girls were kidnapped from their school. There are numerous economic papers that discuss how poverty can be demolished through the education of women but there are places in the world where this simply isn’t an option. To bring it to the UK; the educational system is still putting class on a pedestal. A girl from Sunderland received an offer to study at the University of Oxford. She is a fiercely bright human being but was unfortunately unable to go, despite her great fundraising efforts, she did not have enough money in her bank account to be allowed her place. Women are still shockingly unrepresented in parliament, science and engineering. And these factors delve into much darker waters when the aspect of race comes into it. ‘Blue Stockings’ has led to a discussion about every single one of these issues and this makes me extremely proud to be a part of something that sparked that.
‘We are not passengers, we are not buffeted by the wind, we change its course.’