Art & Events Interview Caro Meets

Tori Allen-Martin and Sarah Henley: Burn Bright

By | Published on Friday 15 May 2020

I was immediately interested when I heard that Tori Allen Martin and Sarah Henley – with whose work you are no doubt familiar – had launched a new venture to help support fellow women writers.

The project was inspired by their own negative experience of having their involvement entirely erased from a high profile show, an incident which was widely reported on by the arts media last year after they themselves wrote a Medium post providing their perspective on what had happened.

Launching during lockdown, Burn Bright’s initial projects include a mentoring programme and a Zoom-based production. I spoke to both of them to find out more.

CM: Can you start by explaining the basics: what is Burn Bright and what are its aims?
TA-M&SH: Burn Bright is a not-for-profit organisation which aims to level the playing field in as many ways as possible for writers who identify as women.

CM: You went public last year about the unpleasant experience of being excluded from a show that you co-created. To what extent did that inspire you to create Burn Bright?
TA-M&SH: It completely inspired it. The only real reason for going public about that experience was that we didn’t want to be part of the problem by just rolling over and taking it, and by not exposing it. Someone had to say “enough” and that we won’t be treated like this any more.

What we really wanted was for the show we’d worked so hard on to be seen, and to be credited for our work, and to be a part of it. We were never going to get that, so just complaining without an actual call for change seemed pointless.

We realised we had an opportunity to make a difference, so we thought about what we wanted for women writers coming after us, for our peers, for ourselves, and Burn Bright was born. It was about turning a dark situation into something bright, and being the change we want to see.

CM: Do you think what happened to you is a common experience for writers in the arts sector?
TA-M&SH: Sadly yes, and we were so saddened to receive countless messages from writers who have been through the same, ie they just found themselves eradicated from a project while a big name takes over. Some of the most successful shows on even now began with a woman who was then deleted.

We hope Burn Bright will give more people the confidence to come forward and share their stories – the more we call it out, the less it can happen. We hope Burn Bright will become a safe space for people to tell us what’s going on, and if they don’t have the courage to call it out for whatever reason at least we can try and get to the bottom of it.

We’ve also been working with the Writers Guild – who have been amazing – and we hope all of this will end up in the erasure of some of these loopholes, like ghost writing offers, or at least making sure that if they have to exist, you’re paid handsomely – as you would be with a novel – so it at least buys you the time to focus on your own projects.

CM: Time Bank is one of the initiatives you have created. Can you tell us about that and what it entails?
TA-M&SH: The Time Bank matches women writers with experienced creatives from all walks of the industry for free mentorship and guidance. On our advisers list we’ve got TV writers such as Oliver Lansley and Kirstie Swain, TV development people, producers, PR people, accountants: all sorts!

When we did our initial survey to those who’d signed up to know more about Burn Bright, we found that people missed out on having an ‘old boys network’. They had to knock very hard on doors to get them opened – or not. We want to give access to help and advice and create our own network of people who can help lift women up in the industry.

CM: ‘Better In Person’, a collection of short plays, is to be presented by Burn Bright via Zoom shortly. Can you tell us what kind of content to expect?
TA-M&SH: Not really! The idea is that they are stories that are set on Zoom, which shine a light on some of the conversations that are happening now, in lockdown, that would be far better in person.

They’ll illuminate some of the sadness, and hilarity, that comes with having to do things electronically. And because they’re actually set on Zoom, hopefully the medium will be a bonus rather than a hindrance. But be set to witness all kinds of stories unfold!

CM: How did you go about selecting the plays for inclusion and producing them?
TA-M&SH: We’ve commissioned these plays, so we’ve not read any of them yet. We asked women writers who we respect, who come from diverse backgrounds, and we’ve asked them to bring the essence of them to it.

We felt so much of the work being announced during this lockdown period was so samey – lots of the same white, middle class faces, similar ages, often already massively successful – we wanted to be the antidote to that; we didn’t want anyone on our line up to look the same, or to come from the same walks of life. All five women are brilliant writers, with what we feel are really important voices – we’re just so overjoyed they said yes.

CM: When did your work on Burn Bright begin? Has lockdown been a hindrance or a catalyst?
TA-M&SH: A catalyst. We were scared, I guess, because it felt like a big responsibility – we never expected the support we got, never in a million years – and the whole experience leading up to this was traumatic, and it’s taken us a really long time to recover, actually: it really made us question our place in this industry and we felt the pressure of not letting other writers down.

So we didn’t know where to start, but our amazing friend Tara Finney came on board and really has been a rock for us, and we three had a Zoom catch up one day and it just kind of spring-boarded from there and, before we knew it, we’d launched.

It just felt like the right time – it’s all so uncertain and strange and it feels as though we need to champion marginalised voices more than ever because, what we’re seeing is a lot of safe bets, and that’s never going to inspire the next generation of unique voices – we wanted to create a safe space and be the antidote to all the same-same work, as we mentioned.

CM: Can we talk about you and where you came from now? Did you always want careers in the arts? What steps did you take to begin those careers?
TA-M: For me it’s been a real trial and error – I always loved writing but no-one had ever said ‘hey you could do it as a career’ – I didn’t even think about writing for theatre or TV, it just didn’t exist in my mind! I don’t know who I thought wrote any of it, I just didn’t think!

I was a singer primarily, but got locked into a recording contract and was then depressed, thinking I couldn’t sing for years without being in breach of my contract! My mum suggested I do a musical theatre summer course anyway – I never auditioned for drama school because I didn’t believe I’d get in. I went and it changed my life. Paul Spicer was running it, and he and Julie Atherton gave me various opportunities and it went from there really.

Sarah got me involved in a show she was co-writing – we’ve known each other for over 20 years as we went to Youth Theatre Workshops in Epsom together – and then, off the back of that show, I got the European tour of ‘Hair’, and it just kept going.

I set up my own company, with a focus on giving opportunities to new talent, Sarah ended up running that with me, and we started co-writing: I really did learn on the job! I’ve always been a grafter and I just got involved and showed up and did the work, and just kept on creating my own work and eventually it led to more and more work.

It’s never been easy, I’m not a lucky person – I feel like I’ve always had to fight five times harder – but I guess it’s why I won’t be defeated. You slam a door in our face and we set up Burn Bright and bash that door down with a thousand more women beside us. I’m the poster girl for make your own magic I guess. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but I won’t be dragged there, I’ll definitely arrive on my own terms – however long it takes.

SH: For me, I don’t know… it seems to have been one step forward, three back all the way! I started writing when I was touring the country with Quantum Theatre For Science in a children’s show about recycling. For those who know me – that will be quite amusing.

I’d take a big bottle of cider to my ‘hotel’ room and write about the law firm I used to work in which, in my mind, was insane. This turned into my first play, ‘Getting Out’, which I accidentally ended up producing at the Lion And Unicorn. It sold out and was extended and I think that gave me the bug. I felt a lot more comfortable in front of a laptop than on the stage – despite having trained at LSMT – but, like Tor, I’d never really thought of writing as a thing.

I didn’t come from a theatre background in any way and had no contacts, so I sort of just kept going and made it up – sometimes on my own, other times with Tor – and learned a lot of lessons along the way. I was 25 when I started writing, so too ‘old’ for a lot of the young writers programmes, so I felt a bit lost a lot of the time. Still very much learning and have a fair amount of imposter syndrome even now.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
TA-M&SH: To be joint artistic directors of the Young Vic and programme as many marginalised voices as we possibly can!

CM: What would you have been doing if COVID hadn’t happened?
TA-M&SH: Tori would be filming on a big TV gig and writing a couple of really nice – first ever – commissions, which have been postponed. Sarah would have been in rehearsals for ‘Burkas And Bacon Butties’ which was due on at the Park Theatre in June, and running her comedy company NextUp – well, that bit she still is, only from her bedroom with a toddler!

CM: How have you been keeping sane under lockdown?
TA-M&SH: “Have we?” is the real question! Like anyone, we’ve just been taking it a day at a time, being kind to ourselves and Burn Bright has been a really nice focus – something positive coming out of a dark time all around.

CM: What’s coming up next for you (fingers crossed, COVID willing)?
TA-M&SH: Hopefully filming will resume for Tori in September and, in the meantime, she has a couple of writing projects on the go. Sarah will go back on at the Park when it’s open, and we will both go out and see a lot of people and hug and snog them all.

‘Better In Person’ will be performed on 25 May, see this page here for more information. For more on Time Bank and Burn Bright in general, see the website here.

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