A unique project by a Brighton theatre company has inspired women from around the country to confide their most extraordinary secrets.
Since it was launched last month, the project has recorded nearly 1,000 responses and now the stories are set to form a valuable digital archive of the lives of women in Britain over the past 100 years. Katy Rice reports.
There's the woman who wanted to be a goalkeeper for Arsenal, the angry friend who spat in the face of her friend's husband because he’d been sleeping with prostitutes and the grandmother who saved a man’s life by killing a charging bull with a three-pronged spike.
These tales of thwarted ambitions, homemade social justice and sheer bravery are merely a taster of some of the extraordinary experiences of women, their mothers and grandmothers from Sussex and beyond that have appeared on the website of Brighton's Broken Leg Theatre in the past three weeks.
The theatre’s three directors Anna Jefferson, who lives in Preston Park, London-based Alice Trueman and Emily James-Farley, 37, who lives in Worthing, decided to create their next production, called Three Generations of Women, from women’s real experiences.
On January 22 they launched a website inviting women to answer a series of questions designed to prompt revelatory answers.
“The floodgates opened,” said Anna, 35, who co-founded the theatre with Emily in 2008, staging plays at venues including the Hackney Empire and London’s Greenwich Theatre.
“So far, we have had more than 800 responses and the stories have been incredible.
“From illegitimate children to powerful female role models, women are sharing very emotive, personal experiences.
“Many have revealed family secrets they’ve never told anyone before and they've been able to do this because they can remain anonymous.
“It is very humbling that this project has enabled these women to speak out and we intend to keep the submissions to create an archive of real life stories to be shared, as a legacy for the project.”
The questions range from the best advice their mother ever gave them, the moment women first became aware of their gender and their family's best-kept secret. But their answers are not the only research being carried out for the project, which is funded by Art Council England.
Anna and Alice have been touring the country to speak to women from all walks of life about their experiences. They have held forums in venues in London, Leeds and Brighton, including in Hollingdean and Preston Park children’s centres and at New Writing South, a literary writing development agency deputy chaired by Anna.
Three Generations of Women will ultimately be written by pregnant mother-of-one Anna, who studied Theatre at Brighton University, and Alice as a realistic reflection of women growing up in Britain, questioning whether life is easier for women now or whether they face the same challenges as their mothers and grandmothers but in different guises.
Alice, 31, who comes from Brighton, said: “When we first started thinking about the play and applying for funding, there really wasn’t the huge buzz there currently is around the resurgence of feminism.
“But by the time we got the Arts Council grant, it seemed to be a real zeitgeist – from Pussy Riot to The Everyday Sexism project; suddenly it was in people’s consciousness.
“So we’ve been lucky with the way it’s unfolded – these issues are becoming prioritised again and it is a really important time.”
Alice, who recently directed Bridget Jones actress Sally Phillips in an upcoming short film called Egg, added: “We wanted to consider in what ways a woman’s sense of place in contemporary British society has progressed since our grandmothers’ and mothers’ time, and in what ways it may have even regressed.
“As well as intergenerational secrets, nature versus nurture, and both the traumas and triumphs that get passed down, we were also interested in how having a child, or indeed not having a child, affects your identity and standing as a woman.”
From the start, the project’s success depended on the response from women. The idea has certainly caught the public’s imagination, with newspapers including The Independent on Sunday running features on the project and stories and messages of support flooding in on social media sites.
Feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, who last year received threats of rape and murder on Twitter when she criticised the Bank of England for replacing a picture of Elizabeth Fry with Winston Churchill on its £5 note, tweeted: “Amazing new initiative by @brokenlegplays: telling the stories of 100 years of growing up female in Britain”.
Support has also come from three theatres that later this year will stage three rehearsed readings of Three Generations of Women, including Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre and the Greenwich Theatre in London.
James Haddrell, artistic director at the Greenwich, said: “Alice and Anna’s project is not just about writing a play.
“It has the potential to become a lasting record of the social experience of three generations of women, the transformation of personal oral history into written record.
“Broken Leg’s project will bring together women's experiences and perceptions from the last few generations and allow public comparison in a way that I’ve not come across before.”
Feedback from the rehearsal readings will also be incorporated into the final version of Three Generations of Women, adding to the growing archive of experiences that will provide a revealing and sometimes haunting legacy for the project.