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A new women-led theatre & arts festival being hosted at The Old Rep aims to showcase a variety of female-identifying talent - and there’s a slightly barbed motive behind its title, lead producer Elena Roselli reveals to What’s On...

An eight-day theatre & arts festival designed to celebrate the work of female-identifying playwrights, directors, actors, comedians, creatives and designers takes place at The Old Rep theatre this month. It’s the latest ‘first’ for the venue, which became the UK’s first purpose-built repertory theatre when it was built in 1913, and continues to push the envelope for creative work.

This latest project, titled Hysteria, is being put together by an all-female team steered by lead producer Elena Roselli. The University of Bologna student, who is an event management intern at the theatre, has been thrown in at the deep end when it comes to the self-funded festival, which came on to the theatre’s agenda in April, the same month she joined.

It’s Elena’s first experience of organising anything of this nature, but rather than being phased by the challenge she faces, the friendly Italian is embracing it.

“I stumbled upon a world I only knew from the point of view of the audience or from acting,” she says. “And now I’m involved in all of the logistics of organising a festival. It’s really exciting and thrilling but also quite overwhelming at times - although I’m loving every minute of it!”

Curating the event has been especially enjoyable, she explains. As well as putting out an open call for applications via the theatre’s website and social media channels, Elena went to see a number of shows and comedy acts, and spent time checking out what was happening at other theatres in the West Midlands “to see if there were any current productions that could fit the theme of the festival.

“We saw pieces, we talked with the artists, and we also have a few events at The Old Rep, such as the Up To Scratch night, where local actors and writers can put their pieces on our stage once a month, so we had a chance to talk to them and get them involved too.

“Being in touch with these great artists is definitely worth the pressure that comes with organising a festival in a historic building like ours.” 

Going the self-funding route - as opposed to applying for grants - has added to the pressure, with the team forced to get creative when it comes to raising money for the project. As well as recruiting sponsors, they’ve been staging open-mic events that not only provide local artists with an opportunity to perform, but raise additional funds via raffle tickets sold to audience members.

“The open-mic events give local artists the chance to show off their craft in front of an audience,. The last one was on the 8th of June, and we had a great range of performers, dancers, actors, singers and musicians. The next one is on the 8th of July, and we’re still looking for artists [at the time of writing], so if anyone is interested, please get in touch!”

As well as the opportunity to see something new on the stage, the nights give audiences the chance to win prizes donated by numerous sponsors, including Ming Moon Buffet, O2 Institute Birmingham, Coventry’s Albany Theatre, Coventry City FC and Telford Ice Rink.

“We have a lot of amazing raffle prizes donated by various sponsors, and every penny we make will go towards the costs of hosting the festival. You can win a walking tour given by Sampad Arts, a private tour of the Tudor Rose Museum, tickets for Michael McIntyre, a lot of food-related vouchers, and even pots and pans!”

But if the festival organisers have accepted charity in terms of fundraising, they’re paying it forward by teaming with the Tickets For Good initiative, which offers free and discounted live-event tickets to NHS and charity workers.

“We’re donating 10 per cent of the tickets each night, and the artists will choose which charities they go to. Obviously we’re gearing it towards charities aimed at women, but we want to make theatre accessible to everyone. We’re really proud to be supporting this initiative.”

The organisers are also hoping to foster a community spirit around Hysteria, running networking events alongside the festival to enable creative artists to meet up and potentially get involved in future projects.
But as much as the festival has a number of fascinating side-issues aims, its primary focus is to showcase and celebrate women and female-identifying artists, as well as to highlight the contributions of women to the theatre industry and promote gender equality and inclusivity in the arts. And it turns out that the title is a swipe at a simplistic - and misogynistic - label often thrown at women...

“We decided to name the festival Hysteria as we wanted to reclaim the term, because it’s usually something that’s used against women for when they express their emotions. Now we’re using it in a context where our [female] culture is celebrated.”

At Hysteria, that culture will include stand-up comedy from the likes of Hannah Byczkowski, Stevie Martin, Janine Harouni and Steff Todd, and theatrical works including Blackout, Baggy Bra, Vanilla and the comedy curiosity that is the brilliantly titled (deep breath) Ladies Of The Sutton Coldfield Branch Of The Cliff Richard Fan Club. There will also be a family-friendly matinee and comedy night featuring Britain’s Got Talent star Abi Carter-Simpson.

“That should be a really interesting night, and a great way to open the festival,” says Elena, who shows admirable impartiality when queried about which shows she’s most looking forward to, before letting her guard down and naming a couple of potential highlights.

“I really love Vanilla, one of the plays we have on the 30th of July - I’ve already seen it and thought it was brilliant. I can’t wait for the public of The Old Rep to see it!

“Also, the night with Janine Harouni and Steff Todd, two female-identifying stand-up comedians, is going to be a lot of fun. They are amazing women, and I think our audience will really love them.

“We’re also trying to have a take-over night that’s LGBTQ+ focused, because we want to be as inclusive as possible with the festival. It’ll feature female-identifying performers that are part of the LGBTQ+ community and is something that should also be a lot of fun. 

“To tell the truth, I can’t wait for the whole thing!”

The Hysteria festival runs at The Old Rep, Birmingham, from Saturday 22 to Sunday 30 July.