Joyce McMillan: The worrying trend behind Class Act

THE Traverse’s Class Act 2015 project is both inspiring and troubling, says Joyce McMillan
Theatre critic Joyce McMillan. Picture: Neil HannaTheatre critic Joyce McMillan. Picture: Neil Hanna
Theatre critic Joyce McMillan. Picture: Neil Hanna

Seventeen short plays in two and a half hours, 11 fine professional actors playing dozens of roles, and three top directors – led by Traverse associate Emma Callander – pulling it all together into a fast-moving evening of theatre; and that was just one of the two shows that made up this year’s Class Act event at the Traverse, at the end of January. Twenty-five years old and counting, the Traverse’s project designed to encourage senior school students to write plays has had a remarkable history, involving leading Scotttish playwrights as mentors, and travelling as far afield as Moscow and Tolyatti, in Russia; its most famous graduate, so far, is the comic writer and actor Greg McHugh, best known as Gary Tank Commander.

This year, though, Class Act 2015 was a concentrated Edinburgh event, featuring a total of 33 plays written by students at Firrhill, Gracemount, Holyrood, Portobello and St Thomas of Aquin’s high schools; the texts of the plays have been published in book form, and the result is a truly impressive volume, with pieces ranging from a heartbreaking cameo on the life of a boy with an alcoholic Dad, to a hilarious school gym changing-room dialogue featuring two girls with very different attitudes to underarm hair. The plays – often written by teams of two or three writers – are clever, theatrical, and often intensely revealing about the troubled mood of the times we live in; one of the most disturbing is Sluts, by a team of four young writers from Gracemount, which bravely explores the horrific world of online bullying and sexual shaming, among a group of teenage girls.

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There’s one aspect of the plays, though, that raises questions: for although the vast majority of the young writers involved are girls – 40 female students to 12 male – it remains true that, as is the norm in British theatre, almost two-thirds of the speaking characters in the plays are men or boys. It’s worth asking, in the first place, why students in their teens should so clearly identify drama and playwriting as mainly a subject for girls; it often seems as though certain aspects of gender sterotyping have actually become more marked in the last few decades, as the aggressive separation of genders – pink and sparkly on one side, noisy and warlike on the other – has become a global marketing tool.

And beyond that, there is the even deeper question of why, when so many young women are finding a voice through the Class Act project, they still so often prefer to speak through male characters, as if the male voice was still normative, and the female exceptional. Overall, there are 74 male speaking parts in the Class Act 2015 plays, and only 44 female ones; and the plays often follow the classic pattern of two or three male characters revolving around a single female, who acts as a foil, or as territory to be fought over.

There are positive explanations for this bias, of course, as well as negatives ones; if playwriting is about imagination, then it’s only natural that ambitious young female writers will want to make the leap into seeing the world from a male perspective, and vice versa. Yet it’s still worth thinking about the many forces in our society – from the persisting male dominance of the upper echelons of economic and political power, to the aggressive internet porn culture that normalises a cold-eyed “male gaze” on female bodies and behaviour – that still tend to make young women see the world through eyes other than their own. The level of talent and imagination on show in this year’s Class Act is blistering. When it comes to women’s voices, though, there’s a feeling that after two generations of change, something profound in our attitudes to gender has hardly shifted at all; and may even, now, be moving backwards.

The Class Act 2015 play book is available from the Traverse Theatre.