Q&A :The Actress
The Actress tells the story of Anne Marshall’s rise and fall as the first actress of the British stage. Created by Long Lane Theatre Company, the producers of critically acclaimed The Giant Killers (Edinburgh 2017), the play poses moral questions that still resonate today, 400 years after the time of the story. Anne became the most talked-about person in the country, adored one day, discarded the next. Forgotten by history but paving the way for those who followed.
Long Lane Theatre Company is known for its heartfelt stories, presented with beautifulproduction values. Founded by husband and wife team, Andrew and Eve Pearson-Wright, Long Lane Theatre Company searches out stories of underdogs and dreamers, creating theatre attractive to new and non-traditional theatre audiences. We asked Charlotte Price, who plays Anne a few questions about this exceptionally moving work.
Anne Marshall, the hero of the play, was the first British professional actress and yet her name is to this day largely forgotten. Do you think this generally tends to happen to most pioneers, in every walk of life? Or is history more gender biased?
There were huge issues of gender-bias in the 17th century when Anne was fighting to be the first woman on the British professional stage. I personally think that this would have played a big part in why she was largely forgotten. I’m sure there are pioneers from all walks of life who are forgotten for completely random reasons as time has passed. But when looking at the statistics of how many male to non-male pioneers are remembered and celebrated, it is hard to ignore the idea of gender-bias it connotes. And it is not just gender. I believe a pioneer has to be someone with a passion they believe in so strongly at their core; something they want to fight for endlessly. There are many marginalised groups in the world who have a hell of a lot to fight for. Therefore, I think there must be a huge amount of pioneers whose achievements are not recognised or remembered, due largely to the unconscious and conscious biases that still exist today. Change is happening, but we still have a way to go. If someone really makes a change in the world, we should not allow time or discrimination to fade their memory.
Did you find it surprising that the story of Anne Marshall is not more widely known?
Not when considering the gender biases I mentioned above. But purely in terms of the size and impact of her achievements, yes 100%. I personally had never heard of the name Anne Marshall and neither have most people I’ve told about the play. When I first saw the casting call and began auditioning for the production, I was shocked to learn that this amazing woman was not a fictional character. She paved the way for every non-male actor that followed and stood up for their rights as humans to be seen as equals in whatever they choose to do. We all know about the Suffragettes and the phenomenal work they did to help achieve the woman’s right to vote. I would argue that what Anne Marshall achieved also represents every non-male’s right to freedom of speech. Theatre is a place to share our voices and Anne led the way for our voices to be heard for the first time. It is almost heart-breaking to know that her story has been largely ignored and I hope this production goes some way to change that.
Would you say it is rather ironic that what we now see as an act of female emancipation could have actually started as a rather cynical publicity stunt back in 1660?
Ironic yes, or perhaps simply saddening. Yes, Anne was the first British professional actress of the stage, but what I think she should be recognised for is fighting for the right to choose what she wanted to do to be happy, in a time when women in particular had very set roles in society. Whether she wanted to be an actress, a business owner or a politician, for me it is not just the specific industry she chose, but more the act of standing up and questioning why a particular gender cannot do something that is fundamentally irrelevant to their biological make up. We do have the joy of being able to recognise her empowering achievements in female emancipation now, but to me it is just sad knowing that in 1660 the majority of society may have seen this as cynical publicity stunt and shunned Anne for what she was trying to do.
Anne Marshal was one day adored, the next day discarded. Could it be that the curse of enormous fame is forever destined to be ephemeral?
I don’t think we will ever know exactly what happened and why Anne was seemingly discarded. I’d like to believe that Anne’s goal wasn’t just to be adored, but to enjoy the wonders of all aspects of performing, and that her talent simply led to this recognition for a time. I don’t believe that anything is guaranteed, but that our actions and the actions of those around us can impact our lives in endless ways, both positively and negatively. In another life, Anne could well have continued her success for her entire life, and her demise may have simply been the result of bad luck or timing, or society’s struggle to sustain support for a woman with status and power.
How important would you say is the role of humour, when telling such emotionally charged stories?
Theatre is a platform to entertain and inform. It is a beautiful place to tell stories and share voices of those that may not be given one elsewhere. Sometimes those stories are light-hearted and fictional, sometimes they are a hard look at the truths of human nature. Both are just as important. My favourite productions I’ve seen are those that make me feel strong emotions about a particular topic and a need to explore it further when I leave the auditorium. They are the ones that have made me laugh, and shortly after made me feel guilty for doing so. Humour is a hugely powerful and important tool which can in fact be used to heighten the dramatic focus of a piece of theatre. I believe that if you can make someone laugh you will have them on-side, if you have them on-side they will listen to your true message even more intently.
Do you believe Anne Marshall realised back in the day just how game changing her achievement was?
I can only speculate on that one. Personally, I doubt she was thinking about how the future may look as a result of what she was doing. But she must have been aware of the discrimination she was facing as a woman at the time, trying to make her way in the theatre industry. To see that change in any capacity must have been empowering for herself and other non-males around her. In short, I like to think that she was aware of her achievements in the society she was living in, and hopefully be proud of them, but not aware of the impact she would have on the future. I believe it is our job to recognise and celebrate that.
The Actress, Underbelly Bristo Square (The Dairy Room), 4.40pm, 3-29 August (not 16)