When I catch up with Barney Norris, he’s calling on a faulty Skype line from the foyer of Salisbury Playhouse. Between all the crackling and fading in and out, he tells me about rehearsals for his new play, Every You Every Me, directed by David Mercatali. He describes it as, “a play about coping, Kurt Cobain, rebellion, revolution, opening your A level results, choosing your life and the pressure of systems on kids”.
Every You Every Me will follow on from the success of Visitors, which garnered critical acclaim and earned Norris a Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright back in 2014. In particular, Visitors drew praise for its strong female lead characters, Edie and Kate. But as Norris notes, it’s actually disappointing that this still needs to be said. “It should be completely unremarkable that someone writes a good part for a woman,” he says, “but that’s where we’re at. I remember that Eleanor Wyld, the younger actor in Visitors, said it was the first job she’d done where she didn’t have to kiss anyone, remove any clothing, or ‘be sexy’. Which again, is depressing, but it’s the state we’re in.”
It is this kind of imbalance which makes Sphinx Theatre‘s upcoming Women Centre Stage Festival so urgent. In the UK at present, Norris tells me, only a third of mainstream theatre roles are played by women. He is unequivocal about how negatively this affects the industry. “If you believe, as I do, that the theatre’s job is to reflect and interrogate and express society, to show us who we are in order to allow us to begin reimagining what we might be, then that statistic feels like a problem. A skewing of who we are that limits the art form and lets down the audience. The festival, for me, is a positive action being taken to draw attention to this imbalance.”
Norris is part of the festival’s new writing project, 24 Hour Plays: Heroines. At the start of his allotted time he will choose a story from the previous week’s newspapers, featuring a central female character. He’ll then write through the night to create a short play inspired by the story, and send it off to his director Alice Hamilton to be rehearsed and staged the following day.
This seems like rather a daunting task, but Norris is excited. “My work’s going on alongside April De Angelis’, Rona Munro’s, Rachel De-lahay’s and Roy Williams’ in the National Theatre – who wouldn’t be excited about that?! And I’m getting the opportunity to contribute to a cause I believe in.”
Indeed, Norris is passionate about the issue, referring to gender inequality as a “massive ugly disgrace” and unequivocally stating that he is “a feminist”. Asked how his being a male playwright affects his contribution, he describes the project as a “people’s festival”, which aims to tackle an industry-wide issue. “Everyone, regardless of gender, should be advocating for a greater representation of women in theatre. It’s not the job of women artists to sort that out. It’s the job of everyone.”
In the past Norris has spoken out against what he calls, “a particular dramaturgical bias”, which “allows the phrase ‘what makes you angry’ to substitute for ‘what do you want to write about.'” Yet in this case he is writing about something that clearly infuriates him, and as he says, “we live in a world where you can get angry about gender inequality on a pretty much daily basis.” How, I wonder, will he reconcile that anger at the wider situation with an examination of his real-life subject matter?
His reply is inspiringly simple; he will “write something human.” Though Norris doesn’t yet know who’s story he will tell, or how he will go about it, he is confident in one thing − “the loudest statement I could make on behalf of anyone would be to try and get them right.”
The Women Centre Stage Festival is playing at The Actors Centre & The National Theatre on Friday 28 & Saturday 29 March. For more information and tickets, see their website.