45 North are the company making waves in theatreland. Halima Hassan talks to its Creative Director, Jessica Rose McVay about paying at least Equity minumum, supporting female-identifying and non-binary creatives and the importance of seeing stories from the point of view of the victim.

45 North is the latitude of the US city of Minneapolis, the hometown of Director and Producer, Jessica Rose McVay and (not) coincidentally, is also the name of the theatre company McVay is the Creative Director of. McVay is a graduate of UCLA’s School of Theater and Film and worked in the New York City theatre scene before making the UK her home. After obtaining an MA in Drama Directing from the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, McVay set up Jessica Rose McVay productions, which was later renamed 45North. 

McVay chose to make London her base partly because of the unrestricted and varied ways of theatre-making that exist, the opportunities to apply for public funding, and how Equity is not prohibitive here. “As you get to know the ins and outs and the intricacies of the industry you become more aware of the flaws. The difference is the Equity minimum which we always strive to pay all of the actors,” McVay shares. “Equity means that young producers and early career producers and companies have a better chance at supporting their artists and that’s always going to be one of the founding tenets of 45North,” she tells me.

For a relatively new comany, 45North are making big waves with their commitment to championing the careers of female-identifying and non-binary artists. They have pledged to ensure that the creative teams of the shows it produces are made up of at least 75% female-identifying or non-binary creatives. “Our goal for this year is to produce between 10 and 20 productions, and that includes R&Ds. It is important that we’re getting female identifying and non-binary creatives in those rooms from the early stages.”

The company has also launched a First Draft Commission aspect to the career support they offer the female-identifying and non-binary artists. After a submission process that concluded earlier this month, the company is in the process of selecting five scripts to develop into complete first drafts. The support 45North will provide the creatives with includes studio time, desk space at the office, and feedback sessions with the producing team. This is a scheme 45North are hoping to expand in the future. “The commissions really came out of the idea that we are incredibly privileged in that I was able to start this company and that we have the financial capital backing. I don’t want to get to the point that we get so big the distance between [us] and young artists and emerging artists is so great I don’t know how to help them.”McVay elaborates, “with the First Draft Commission scheme, at least two of the five will be non-white. Now that we’ve set a very clear agenda with regards to gender disparity, we are trying to factor in other aspects of identity.”

McVay currently runs 45North with Creative Producer, Emily Carewe, and they are looking to expand, adding an events producer to their team this Spring. “Doing a commissioning scheme is something that usually sits with a theatre. So, in that way we’re not just working as a producing company but also, functionally, like a venue. And doing events sits within a more corporate world, events are theatrical,” McVay tells me.

MEAT, a play written by Gillian Greer and which has just opened at Theatre503, is a project Carewe brought on board when joining 45North, and Carewe’s and the company’s first full production. “MEAT came through Emily who was approached by Gillian and Lucy [Jane Atkinson, Director] prior to joining 45North. It’s an incredible script that deals with consent within a relationship,” McVay explains. 

MEAT was a finalist in Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award in 2018 and the production is being supported by the charity Solace which supports ‘women and children in London to build safe lives and strong futures, free from domestic and sexual violence and abuse’. 

Consent is a topic at the forefront of culture. There are public discussions taking place right now about abuse within industries, perpetrated by people with a lot of power. “I was part of the group of people who were outraged when Bitter Wheat came out,” McVay states and I nod in agreement. “I think when you’re speaking about something in which women are the majority of victims, we need to write plays from the point of view of victims,” she continues.

Another important discussion that needs to be had more openly is about sexual assault and abuse in intimate, domestic scenarios. McVay remarks, “there’s a way to be trite about the issue and dismissive. MEAT asks what sexual assault looks like when it’s convoluted and difficult and with two people who care about each other.”

Not many people in the theatre industry choose to wear multiple hats. I ask McVay what it’s like balancing being a director and producer. “It’s difficult. It challenges different parts of my brain. In the rehearsal room I get to be creative and I get to ask questions about the script or an idea. When I’m producing it’s about marketing and finances. Emily is a creative too, an actress as well as a producer. Is great to be able to give each other notes both creatively and business wise.”

The ultimate goal of 45North is to platform stories that are often unheard and grow talent. “I think there’s as big a difference in going from that first step of getting your first play produced to moving from small-scale to midscale theatre. All of those step changes can be really tricky to navigate, and for us we want to help artists through all of those step changes,” McVay concludes. “We don’t want to become known as a company who only deals with these issues or that we only make work about X issues. We want to make a breadth of work and that includes how [and by whom] the work is made. 

For more information on the company, visit 45 North’s website.