Poppy, Naomi, Lisa, Sabiha, Jane, Sally, solo pictures smiling

PART 1 - CELEBRATING SOME OF THE EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN IN MANCHESTER FOR #InternationalWomensDay

We've been lucky enough to cross paths with amazing individuals inside our building and around Greater Manchester. To mark #IWD we contacted a selection of fierce women and asked them some questions around how we can all be advocates for equality, and how creativity can help to #BreakTheBias. Check out the three-part blog below to see their responses. 

Poppy Waxman

Young Company Graduate

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what do you do?

Hello! I am poppy! I was born and raised in Manchester through the theatre scene. I joined the Royal Exchange at 15 years old and found my love of theatre through the Young Company and the amazing people around me. Now at 20, I'm studying European Theatre Arts at Rose Bruford where I am learning to become a theatre maker, mover and performer! I also teach acting to a youth theatre group in London which I love.

TW POPPY WAXMAN 2

International Women's Day is championing the # BreakTheBias – how do you think theatre/creativity can help to do that?

Theatre can help #BreakTheBias by giving an array of opportunities to women who haven’t been given these platforms to show who they are and the power that they hold. We need to allow Women (especially of the global majority) to write their own stories and have ownership of themselves and their creativity. Theatre should be an inclusive space where we can all feel free to celebrate ourselves.

What can we all do more of to advocate for equality?

To advocate for equality we need to become aware of ourselves and the spaces that we hold around us, making sure we are making an effort to change our behaviour so that we can create kinder, fairer and more accessible spaces. Read more, ask more questions, change the language that you use and ask the people around you if there is anything you can do better!

What steps do you take to help you to create an inclusive environment in your work/school/community?

To create an inclusive environment I always start with kindness. I try showing people that I am a reliable friend and companion. Small things that I have also tried to implement into my daily life are;

  • Asking people's pronouns, accessibility needs and if there is anything that I can do to create a better, warmer environment.
  • I try to create safe spaces around me by being kind, understanding and inclusive. If I don't know or understand something, I try making the effort to educate myself by asking or searching things up.
  • When creating Theatre I try to celebrate people whose voices are important to me and do it in a way that can reach a multitude of people. I ask myself does this work celebrate Individuality and our idiosyncrasies?

What three top tips would you choose to pass on to other women so that they can get the most out of 2022?

  • Accept that your weirdness is what makes you wonderful.
  • Your voice is important, so don't silence it or allow others to.
  • Do one thing you love every day, even if that is just drinking a coffee.

Tell us about a woman that inspires you?

The woman that ALWAYS inspires me is Nickie Miles Wildin. She is a talented, intelligent, fierce and an unstoppable woman. She has always taught me so much about theatre, creativity and accessibility and I will always look up to her to become a theatre maker who cares about representing real people in the world.


Naomi Sumner

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what do you do?

Hi, I'm Naomi a Manchester-based playwright and dramaturg. I'm also a transracial adoptee of Chinese ethnicity, adopted into a white British family so a lot of my work is about identity and belonging - including what it's like to feel like a white middle-class woman trapped in the body of a Chinese boat dweller or "sea gypsy."

TW NAOMI SUMNER

International Women's Day is championing the # BreakTheBias – how do you think theatre/creativity can help to do that?

Sadly, women are still chronically underrepresented in theatre. In 2020 a study showed that in British theatre women were outnumbered by men 2:1 and less than a third of new plays produced were written by women. So maybe we could start by programming more female writers! Especially those at the intersection of gender, race, disability, religion and or sexuality. Some people say that "theatre is a gym for empathy" so it can help us see things from another person's perspective and challenge our biases. Theatre asks us to think, "What if...?" and so can encourage us to imagine a different world.

What can we all do more of to advocate for equality?

Be aware of who else is in the spaces we inhabit day to day but more importantly who is not and why that might be. Think of how you could change those spaces to make them more welcoming and safe to a wider range of people. Ask people what they want and need rather than making assumptions - simply listening can go a long way. But also platforming marginalised voices rather than speaking on the behalf of people - however well-intentioned.

What steps do you take to help you to create an inclusive environment in your work/school/community?

Working in theatre I lead a lot of workshops and rehearsals with diverse groups of people and over the past year or so I usually start new projects by reading the Equity safe spaces statement which says that everyone is entitled to work in a safe space, free of fear or bullying or harassment and making a commitment to work together honouring our differences. The statement also says that if we do witness bullying or harassment, we'll speak up knowing our voices will be heard and taken seriously.

As a playwriting tutor, I try to get my students to read plays written by a variety of playwrights, male, female, Black, Middle Eastern, South and East Asian, LGBTQ+ and go beyond the western canon. I also emphasize that there are many story structures beyond the hero's journey which is very male/patriarchal!

What three top tips would you choose to pass on to other women so that they can get the most out of 2022?

  • Practice taking up space, physically and vocally.
  • Make time to rest - you can't and shouldn't even try to do everything.
  • Linked to that - don't be afraid to say no to things you don't want to do or can't fit into your life. It's good to have boundaries.

Tell us about a woman that inspires you?

Fellow Chinese adoptee Naomi Ji inspires me with her VLOGs telling the truth about what it's like to be a transracial adoptee and how it can affect your identity and mental health. She is always so honest and open - sharing things like her DNA test results with her followers. I was so pleased that she was not only a contributor to my verbatim play about adoption SAME SAME DIFFERENT but came as a special guest to one of the performances and took part in the post-show discussion.


Lisa Johnson

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what do you do?

I’m a freelance artist and secondary school trained art teacher originally from Blackpool, now residing in lovely Leigh near Wigan. I am part of an artist collective called Creative Spin Studios, based within the beautiful red brick walls of Leigh Spinners Mill. Here I have my own personal studio, where you’ll find me illustrating and drawing animals (mainly cats!). I also run a community interest company called Heart Communities CIC centred around arts education and wellbeing. My overriding passion is to make people’s lives better through creative activity.

TW LISA JOHNSON

International Women's Day is championing the # BreakTheBias – how do you think theatre/creativity can help to do that?

This is exactly why I love theatre! Theatre has it all, doesn’t it? Within a theatre performance, you have the words, music, visuals, movement all in one, making it the perfect vehicle to tackle issues such as gender bias. Through storytelling theatre draws you in and makes you empathise with the characters, really feeling what they are going through. There is no better way to grab someone and make them face up to someone else’s reality and challenge the way they think and behave. This is a huge part of why I became a Local Exchange ambassador in Leigh, and why I am so passionate about being able to reach the people within our community with theatre which tackles issues such as this.

What can we all do more of to advocate for equality?

I think it’s important for us all to speak up and challenge when we see or experience something which goes against equality. International Women’s Day gets that conversation started. The more women who stand up against this, the better! The Break The Bias pose is so powerful! People respond to visuals such as this. If we all get behind the social media campaign and cross our arms to show our solidarity, this will send out a very powerful message and help to challenge people’s attitudes towards gender bias.

What steps do you take to help you to create an inclusive environment in your work/school/community?

Within Heart we make Young People’s Voice a top priority. We value each of their thoughts, ideas and feedback which includes ensuring that they are all treated as equals, each with an equal opportunity to share in whatever way they feel comfortable. We avoid stereotypes and use appropriate language ensuring that each young person feels valued in their own right.

What three top tips that you would choose to pass on to other women so that they can get the most out of 2022?

  • Believe in yourself and don’t give up when things get difficult or uncomfortable. Failure allows us to learn and get better at what we do. Lean into it and be brave!
  • Make time for mindfulness, whether that’s going for a walk in the countryside, taking a yoga class or doing something creative. Be good to yourself and allow for some quality time self-care.
  • Above all else, be kind! ALWAYS! You never know what someone else is going through, despite them looking ok on the outside.

Tell us about a woman that inspires you? 

Brene Brown is my guru! She is a researcher from Texas who focuses mainly on shame, vulnerability and leadership. The TED Talk which she did in 2010 went viral! As soon I watched this I was hooked and since then I’ve been reading all of her books. Her wisdom is helping me navigate what has been a difficult and challenging time. I highly recommend reading her books and listening to her Podcasts. Her main influence is the wonderful Maya Angelou and a lot of her writing is based around this quote “You are only free when you realise you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great”. She is basically saying that you belong to you and that’s what true belonging is. This has been a game-changer for me.


Sabiha Khan

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what do you do?

My name is Sabiha Khan, I was born and raised at the heart of Manchester, Cheetham Hill. I currently work in the media industry as a Sales Manager and have been at my current company for 8 years.

TW SABIHAN KHAN

International Women's Day is championing the # BreakTheBias – how do you think theatre/creativity can help to do that?

I can't speak on behalf of the entire theatre/creative industry, however from my experience with RET I have seen some great progress in equality across sexual orientation, gender, race. In particular women in the theatre, last year we had 2 solo performances Bloody Ellie and Glee and Me, both powerful stories revolving around strong women. We also see a female artistic director at the RET all helping to break the bias.

What can we all do more of to advocate for equality?

Less judgement in general, regardless of the choice an individual makes and how they identify themselves, be more supportive of those who are going through a time of change or having difficulties in opening up about their choices.

What steps do you take to help you to create an inclusive environment in your work/school/community?

I take my time to support various community groups to represent not just females but my ethnic background. Within my job role, I am a Mental Health First Aider, part of a group where all those from BAME groups will sit and discuss our experiences within the industry and support younger peers in developing their careers.

What three top tips that you would choose to pass on to other women so that they can get the most out of 2022?

  • Your goals are achievable, dream big, break down the big dream into small goals and go for it!!
  • Life can be difficult at times, there will be ups and downs but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It took me 7 years at my current company to be promoted - the key is to never give up.
  • Look after yourself before you can help others, I always use the example when we are on a plane and the flight attendant takes us through safety. We are always told to put on our oxygen masks first, before helping others. If you are not 100% then you can't look after others.

Tell us about a woman that inspires you?

My inspiration is a very good friend and fellow RET ambassador Poppy Soldatos, she goes out of her way to help anyone she can in the community. As well as looking after her 90-year-old mum full time, she takes time out to help all local charities.


Jane Jackson

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what do you do?

I'm a 46-year-old mother of two (and I mention 'mother' first as this is this axis of my life but not the sole definer). I grew up in working-class, blue-collar Droylsden and through accident not design, this is where I also now work as a secondary school English teacher. Day to day, I deal with the mental organisation and varying education of all the little (and not so little) people in my life. From trying to make sure that my own children have a swimming kit and eat at least a piece of fruit at some point, to ensuring that my students absolutely buy into the fact that Shakespeare and literature generally is still relevant. Isn't it?

I also have a daily affair with online Scrabble. I love to read, though grieve that I don't have enough time to; adore live music and theatre and I am passionate about the great outdoors as being out there fills my soul.

TW JANE JACKSON

International Women's Day is championing the # BreakTheBias – how do you think theatre/creativity can help to do that?

Commission, produce and perform theatre and art that champions women of past and present. Create theatre and art that opens a dialogue to redress the under-representation of historical and current female figures in all fields - especially women who are not 'successful' because they discovered something, but women and girls who are just absolute lynchpin legends in ordinary houses and communities every day in the UK. The Royal Exchange should be at the forefront of that - breaking down the barriers between working classes, middle classes and the elite. The performers should be from these communities. 

What can we all do more of to advocate for equality?

Look at your own workforce - what's the gender split? What kind of roles are the women and men doing in comparison to each other? Perhaps it's split 50/50, perhaps not.

What steps do you take to help you to create an inclusive environment in your work/school/community?

I think dress codes and attitudes are really important. It is essential to examine how we're communicating with others about dress codes without body-shaming; I do challenge this whenever I come across it.

I also make sure that I never use gender loaded words to describe certain roles in society such as projecting a doctor as male or a cleaner as female for example.

What three top tips that you would choose to pass on to other women so that they can get the most out of 2022?

  • Be brave and bold and know that you matter - without entitlement
  • Rest and take joy in your life when you can
  • Advocate for social change and justice in your small ways - becoming an ally, challenging prejudice online in person, at work etc.

Tell us about a woman that inspires you?

I honestly don't have one. My heroines are collages of all the inspiring women I know and don't know. From Julie Andrews to a gutsy friend to a 5-minute voice on the radio who might say something that makes me punch the air.


Sally Penni

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what do you do?
I am a lawyer, a Barrister at Law, I wear the funny wigs and gowns as my uniform to work, like a Justice superhero really. I am also a Trustee of the Royal Exchange Theatre which I love. I also write books - children's books and books about law and I host a podcast called Talking Law.

TW SALLY PENNI

International Women's Day is championing the #BreakTheBias – how do you think theatre/creativity can help to do that?
By challenging the narrratives. By having women on stage and behind it, perhaps in non-typical women's roles. By encouraging and championing more men to break the bias. Allies are key to breaking the bias.

What can we all do more of to advocate for equality?
There are lots of things we can do, but I don't have the answers. Perhaps and it's not an exhaustive list: Get our sons, fathers, friends, boyfriends, talking about equality. Calling out inequalities when we see and hear them.

What steps do you take to help you to create an inclusive environment in your work/school/community?
Ask all those in the workplace what special days they would like to celebrate for example. Be open. Create safe spaces for conversations, then review every conversation to see what has changed. Ask those in the workplace what they would like to see as change?

What three top tips that you would choose to pass on to other women so that they can get the most out of 2022?

  • Keep going. It has been a long two years in the pandemic and women have borne most of the brunt. According to the issues we are all tired. Keep going and look after your wellbeing and that of your loved ones, especially children. The year is a marathon, not a sprint, so try and take it easy this year in between working to catch up.
  • Meet new people. Network and embrace all the good things.
  • Be grateful. Stop and appreciate what we do have, rather than what we don't have. 

Tell us about a woman that inspires you?
My Mum because she finds the positive in everything. But also please allow me to share a few women from my book WHERE ARE YOU FROM? For example, Rosa Parkes the American civil rights activist and campaigner. The Queen for presiding over the country for so very long. MARY SEACOLE who was the black Florence Nightingale, who risked her life on the front line to tend to the dying and the wounded soldiers and established the British Hotel. Also, the Bletchley ladies who were so instrumental in the war years. I met some of the remaining few and I have to say, I was speechless and did not know there were some women of colour amongst them. Finally, I also very much admire and feel inspired by the men who support women and their careers, at a time when that was neither encouraged nor deemed acceptable. They inspire me.


Enjoyed these interviews?

Have a read of Part 2 and Part 3 here.

You might recognise some more of these extraordinary women with important things to say.