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Three Generations of Women by Anna Jefferson and Alice Trueman

Three Generations of WomenThree Generations of Women, by Anna Jefferson and Alice Trueman, and directed by Ria Parry, is a story of the horrors of moving back in with your mum in your 30s, of finally appreciating the best piece of advice your grandmother ever gave you and of extraordinary family secrets held across the generations. The full production tours for the first time opening at Greenwich Theatre from 1st to 5th March, 2016.

After meeting women in London, Brighton and Leeds, and collecting hundreds of personal stories from all around the country in a new online archive, Broken Leg Theatre have distilled the contents of an astonishing research project into a new play.

Three Generations Of Women (The Play)
Elsie is born in a Yorkshire pit village in 1936 and will never know another way of life. Gilly is the first woman in her family to go to university, enjoying every ounce of freedom the 70s has to offer. Frankie learns everything she can about sex from Judy Blume; in 1989, who didn’t?

This is a story of the horrors of moving back in with your mum in your 30s, of finally appreciating the best piece of advice your grandmother ever gave you and of extraordinary family secrets held across the generations. Alice Trueman recently answered a few questions about the project and the play.

Can you tell us about the Three Generations Project and why was the decision made to focus the project on women?
The idea for Three Generations of Women grew out of a conversation in the pub between myself (Alice Trueman) and Anna Jefferson (the co-writers and directors of Broken Leg Theatre), about the different challenges women have faced over the last century. How things have seemingly progressed yet regressed almost in the same breath when it comes to women’s rights, pay and social visibility. We also questioned whether there was more pressure on women today – the sense of expectation to be everything to everyone and to keep so many plates spinning in different areas of their lives.

These weren’t questions we felt qualified to answer on our own, so with support from Arts Council England, we met with groups of women up and down the country to talk to them about their experiences of growing up in the UK over the last 100 years. Our project struck a cord with women at a time when movements such as No More Page Three and Everyday Sexism project were starting to gain great momentum.

We spoke to a huge variety of women in person all over the UK, from a group of midwives in London, to mums at a playgroup in Brighton, to a group of elderly women, the oldest of whom was 102, in Leeds. We started with the same series of questions, asking the women about the challenges they’d faced in their lives, and the best advice their mothers had ever given them. But the directions the discussions took us in were profoundly different. We then went on to launch an interactive website www.threegenerationsofwomen.co.uk] which has proved a popular space for women to share confessional, funny, and deeply inspiring experiences – it has received thousands of stories so far and continues to grow.

Are there underlying themes from the responses you have had for the project?
Freedom certainly cropped up again and again, from social expectation, from economic restraint, from personal boundaries. Growing up was another regular topic, what it meant to grow up in different parts of the country at different times. And the word guilt cropped up a lot, guilt around work, families, relationships, not quite managing to keep as many plates spinning as other women seemed to. Most of all though, women talked about secrets – keeping them, having them kept from you, secrets held in direct response to societal taboos, secrets kept in families which continue to affect future generations for years to come…

What was the thought process to get this into a play?
We wanted to write a play inspired by real lives and relatable experiences, we wanted it to grow out of the discussions we had been having but without it turning into a verbatim piece or a sea of disparate voices.

Work-shopping with a group of actors (several of whom are still in the show) really helped us focus our minds on what elements of our research might hold most dramatic value, and how to find a language of common experience, which didn’t feel too simplistic and still voiced a range of differing perspectives. We were drawn towards the idea of family and home, both literal and figurative, as they have provided us with a backdrop to explore a whole range of stories, experiences and themes that interested us and have come up repeatedly throughout the research.

How have you determined which stories could be put together turned into a stage production?
There were so many brilliant anecdotes, such a range of voices; from the woman who wanted to be a barrister but was laughed at by her teacher and told to find a job more suitable for a girl, to the grandmother who learned to ride a bike in a corset and bustle, to the great-grandmother who eloped on a horse with her future-husband! We wanted to honour all the stories, but joked that a play drawn from female experiences during the last 100 years was going to take literally 100 years to tell. Who would want to see that? Who would want to write that?

So instead we started to construct a narrative drawn from real life, but without becoming slave to all that source material. We had to step away form the research for a while before the play could materialise. We found that the themes and messages that hit at a deeper emotional truth stayed with us. We managed to identify the hooks that underlay a lot of the stories we received, and used them to tether ourselves. Once we had created a fictionalised storyline, inspired by the kinds of experiences we had heard about, we then found ways of weaving in subtler details and specific anecdotes we had gathered during our research, and rewrote them in the words of our characters and into the world of our story.

What can you tell us about Three Generations of Women the play?
After months of work, script-in-hand readings were held in Brighton, Leeds and London (the largest audience Greenwich Theatre had ever had for a play reading), and audiences were invited to chat to us after the show and give their feedback. Were they interested in the story? Did they feel a connection to it? What worked, what didn’t ring true? Luckily, audiences were unanimous in their support to see the play fully produced.

Three Generations of Women is a story of the horrors of moving back in with your mum in your 30s, of finally appreciating the best piece of advice your grandmother ever gave you and of extraordinary family secrets held across the generations. The full production will tour for the first time in Spring 2016 (dates below).

What has changed and what has remained constant through Three Generations of Women?
Throughout the project? Or through three generations of women being born?

In terms of the project itself, Anna and I (Alice) have remained a constant since its inception, as has the support of Greenwich Theatre and the Arts Council England. We have had a wonderful, and sometimes challenging time researching, writing and fundraising over the last couple of years. It has been a fantastic step-change for the company to collaborate with producer, Beccy Smith, who has worked tirelessly since the read-throughs to bring our vision to full production and on a national tour. Beccy has gathered a brilliant team for this stage of the journey; interestingly, Broken Leg Theatre is now working with an all-female creative team to realise the production – these are the artists we felt were best placed to help us tell this story. But that, like the forums, has been an eye-opening experience. Women are still embarrassingly underrepresented in theatre. So to be working with an exceptional female director, Ria Parry, and an experienced creative team of women, feels befitting for a project that explores the challenge women have faced over the last three generations to find their voice and shape their world.

Imagine 100 years from now… what would you expect or hope The Three Generations of Women research and play to be like?
James Haddrell, the Artistic Director of Greenwich Theatre and our mentor on this project, described the project as ‘a lasting record of the social experience of three generations of women’, and we certainly hope that the research will be preserved both digitally and potentially in print. In our wildest dreams the project would have continued throughout the next 100 years, providing future generations with the ability to look back across two entire centuries of female experience told from first-person perspective. The notion of a history told through the individual voices of those who have experienced it is hugely empowering, and I am sure the internet is going to reshape our entire concept of what makes history.

We also have high hopes of using certain transcripts and our archive for further dramatic expression – as inspiration for Broken Leg Theatre run writing workshops, for instance, and perhaps even as a heritage project. Watch this space!

And in terms of the play itself, we would hope it would be preserved in a library of 21st Century classics, and celebrating its centenary as the longest running West End show. Let’s see.

You have collaborated on this project – what can you tell us about working together?
We have now co-written two plays as Broken Leg Theatre. Co-writing with someone is an ongoing relationship, sometimes it can be more intense than the relationship you have with a boyfriend or girlfriend as you are living in each other’s heads while you create your characters. It has been such a fantastic experience to grow together on our second co-writing venture; we both want to keep challenging ourselves, and writing in a way that feels exciting and fresh. Co-writing isn’t an easy balance to strike, but I think we have developed an understanding of where our respective practices meet, and where we are a helpful challenge to one another’s comfort zones. Working and writing with another person in this manner pushes you to be braver, to go that step further, and to explore different, less well worn rivulets of ideas from those which are hardwired into your creative thought-processes.

What makes this production worth getting along to see?
If you’ve read up to the end of this interview then I’m guessing this play must be right up your street.

And if you’re the kind of person that has skim read this, then you’ll be glad to hear that we were lucky enough to work with dramaturg Kirsty Housley (Complicite), to polish our script, so any unnecessary bits have been edited, leaving our audiences to enjoy just the good stuff!

Three Generations of Women tours to the following:
Greenwich Theatre, London: Tues 1- Sat 5 March (including a Sat matinee)

Carriageworks, Leeds: Thurs 10 March 2016

The Old Market, Brighton: Tues 15 March

The Lowry, Salford: Fri 25- Sat 26 March (including a mother and baby friendly matinee)


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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