I meet Rosie Thomas and Ella Nokes, co-directors of Shotgun Theatre’s upcoming show “Made in Dagenham”, at 9am on the Monday of exam week. The day is the first – and last – term time break in a monster rehearsal schedule which has consumed hours of the cast and crew’s lives since September; a reprieve well earned from a weekend of back-to-back work on what is shaping up to be an incredible performance. When I set my voice recorder rolling, one of the first jokes Ella cracks refers to the implausibility of directing such a mammoth project in the middle of their third year at Exeter, but the two women in front of me are clearly resilient workers; neither of them give the impression of being over-worked and worn out. Instead, as we get talking I’m taken aback by their energy and passion for the story they’re telling, a tireless enthusiasm born last August when they applied for its joint directorship.
Both of the girls are clearly proud of the way that their work is pioneering change in Exeter’s already rich theatrical community
They make it immediately clear to me that the need to see the show directed by women, attentive toward and understanding of the history behind the tale, drove their application. They find its authenticity beautiful. I ask them to tell me the story, and they respond so eagerly and with such clarity of knowledge that I know Ella isn’t joking when she says that her application portfolio is probably the best researched piece of work she has produced in her time at university.
Rosie: It is the story of the women who worked in the Ford factory in Dagenham. It was the biggest factory that Ford had in England, and the women sewed the leatherette which went on to the car seats – a really vital part of the production line. They were downgraded to an unskilled grade – on the same level as the cleaners – and it came to fruition that this was due to their gender rather than their skill set. The job itself was highly skilled, and they didn’t have any manuals or instructions or anything like that. The women decided that they wanted to go on strike; that was the only way to make an impact and make the managing directors realise that something needed to change. They went for one day first of all, and that didn’t do anything; they went for another week, and it spiralled from there. They ended up meeting Barbara Castle who was secretary of state at that point, they were featured in national press. It was a huge deal. They shut down Ford operations in England because of it, making a massive impact on the British economy. Ultimately it led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. It was one of the biggest catalysts in creating that act.
Ella: The impact on the UK’s industrial productivity caused by the strike made Parliament listen and it forced that act into Westminster. I think that, whilst equal pay is still an issue, there is so much owed to these women, who did it because they realised they had no other choice.
R: They did it to begin with because they wanted better pay and then they realised very quickly that it wasn’t just about them: it was about women and it was about equality.
They care about every character’s backstory. They care about every beat of this musical. They care about making it real in every way possible – including but in no way limited to the casting of two local children – Finn and Emily – as Sharon and Graham, the offspring of the show’s central couple. Both of the girls are clearly proud of the way that their work is pioneering change in Exeter’s already rich theatrical community. As Ella says, “It’s the first show that Shotgun has done that has had any form of outreach in terms of going to the local community [for casting], but it’s also the first show that I know of at uni that’s actually included children.” She laughingly continues that she frequently tells her peers that the two kids have more talent than the rest of them put together, and Rosie wholeheartedly agrees. “Finn and Emily haven’t made this a challenge. They’ve made it so easy. They’re wonderful.”
They make it immediately clear to me that the need to see the show directed by women… drove their application
In fact, watching the two grin at each other as they discuss the lengthy and complex process of bringing Dagenham out of the script and onto the stage, you’d find it hard to believe anyone in their cast or crew have ever put a foot wrong. Even at this tense and crucial stage of rehearsal, there’s none of the palpable irritation that so naturally accompanies twelve weeks of being cooped up in a room with the same set of people, day in and day out. The directors clearly have a passionate but calm ethos when it comes to production; they laugh when I ask if they have sometimes struggled to unify their vision of what the musical should be, and Rosie simply tells me “We are very good at talking it out when we disagree.” There’s an innate sense of trust and respect between the two of them; a bond which I can tell extends to their cast and crew. This production is built on coherency and liaison. It’s a collaborative effort from start to finish. They understand that telling this story well is more important than griping over minor issues, and the storytelling’s only limit is the imagination of the directors: the whole crew know their craft dauntingly well as my interviewees demonstrate in their discussion of the show’s mechanics and how the cast engages with the intelligently built set.
E: It’s nice to have student theatre showcased in a venue which isn’t on campus. It makes it more accessible to local audiences. The Phoenix is a great space. It’s a very multi-purpose space, which is occasionally difficult because it’s not just for plays, it’s for concerts, and music, and poetry, and trying to translate that multi-purpose space for a musical is always a challenge but I think our stage team have done it really, really well. Our idea for set started with a show we saw in Edinburgh, which is an improv musical called Showstoppers. They take ideas from the audience and they make a musical up on the spot. Because of the wild and spiralling nature that their performances extend to, their set has to be incredibly multi-purpose. All of it is just frames, stairs and platforms on wheels, and that’s what they make the show with. And we were like, that’s so clever how they can just turn that around and it be something else, using their imagination to create different things with just these simple shapes. That is something that would be so appropriate for a show like Dagenham that goes from a Ford factory to a house to Westminster to Eastbourne – why don’t we translate that multi-purpose idea into the staging of the show? Our flexible set consists of two door frames and three tables on wheels that break; they become long tables, they become individual tables, they become kitchen counters, they become hospitals and beds, and their actual design doesn’t change, but the way our cast interacts with them makes them change, which is really cool.
R: How the cast manipulate these doorframes especially brings the audience into the knowledge that we’re telling them a story, and we’re literally creating it before their eyes. There is no façade or pretense. This is just happening, and we’re showing how it’s built and how it unfolds; the set is a big part of that.
When I spring a final challenge on them – sell me a ticket in six words – they laugh, looking uncomfortable for the very first time. “I can’t count,” Ella professes. “I have an A Level in Maths but I just can’t count.” However, left to think for a few seconds, she bounces back with a wholesome sense of assurance and understanding of Dagenham’s message. “Equal pay is still so important.” And after an hour of discussing the show in detail with these competent, energetic, passionate women, I cannot wait to see the cast of this celebration of feminine brilliance and worthiness sing, dance and act its way through its four night run next week.
“Equal pay is still so important.”
Made in Dagenham runs at Exeter Phoenix from 16th – 19th January. Tickets can be bought from this link – http://bit.ly/mdeindgnhm