Made in Dagenham
by Regina Legarte
An interview with Claire Brewin, a second year Social Anthropology student and the lead actress of the LSESU Drama Society’s production of Made in Dagenham. Made in Dagenham is a musical about the female workers in the production line of Ford Motor that campaigned for equal pay in the 1960s. Catch it in the Old Theatre on 7th, 8th, and 9th March.
Imagine you are an anthropologist doing fieldwork with Rita and the people of Dagenham. What would you find?
I think I would find quite a cohesive group of women who are very determined and very dedicated to their cause. There is a lot of joking around, mocking each other. There are a few very strong characters, such as Beryl, who is particularly mocking of other people. There is a lot of swearing. But the other girls, they just laugh along, they mostly get on pretty well. There are little frictions – with one girl in particular, Sandra, who goes on to do promotion work, so that causes a bit of a rupture in the fight for equal pay.
And in terms of placing your fieldwork with the characters in a wider social and political context?
They are generally from working class backgrounds. Rita, for example, lives in a council estate, and her son goes to a private school on a scholarship. She feels that her son is treated differently because he is a scholarship boy, and I think that enrages her as well.
The women have been doing the same sort of jobs as men for a long time, but being paid less. They settled for that for a while and then they start to question it. They feel as though they are being treated as second-class citizens, but they do not want to be. They are fighting to move forward, and I think that through their solidarity with all the other girls, that is the way to success.
How do you think their cause affects gender relations and dynamics?
I think they are definitely challenging traditional notions of male and female roles, particularly in the working class setting, and especially in the era in which the musical is set – still the 1960s, still an industrial period for the UK and the area of Dagenham in particular. At that point, it is still the men who are supposedly the breadwinners, so they are challenging the notion that women should be dependent on their husbands and showing that they can earn the same amount of money for doing similar jobs. So, they are definitely challenging those sorts of roles in trying to even out the value of their labour.
Imagine you are an anthropologist doing fieldwork with the cast and crew. What would you find?
I would find a group of people having a lot of fun, taking the mick a lot! Out of the musical, out of each other, out of some of the lines and some of the choreography which are particularly funny. Again, it is quite a cohesive group of people – there aren’t any cliques, everyone gets along with each other, everyone is really nice.
I would not say there are particularly any sort of distinct power dynamics. Obviously, there is Sam and Jack, who are the director and the musical director, but they are very friendly in their approach to directing. They get along with the cast and the band, and they like to have a laugh with the cast, as much as just the cast members themselves, which is really nice. Everyone is pretty committed and punctual, wanting to be there and putting in a lot of effort.
What other experiences with theatre have you had?
I remember seeing The Sound of Music when I was six, and I think that is when I got a little obsessed with theatre. Apparently, for the next two months, I went around the house singing Sixteen Going on Seventeen, and I was playing the recorder at the time, went into my Year One class, and played Edelweiss to them – I do not remember much of this!
I told my mum that I wanted to try that sort of thing, because there were kids in the show and I thought I could be one of those kids. There was an advert in the local paper about auditions for the children’s chorus in the local pantomime, which was 101 Dalmatians, so I went along to the auditions and I ended up being the smallest puppy, which was really fun. I did a few more pantomimes, started dance lessons, attend summer schools etc. I remember the summer school I went year after year was the highlight of my childhood! I would look forward to it, and I would have dreams about it with the excitement of going. We would put up a show in just a week.
I did quite a few productions in school, and in amateur groups. I was part of the kid’s choir for the national tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in the northwest region and north Wales – that was a lot of fun, it was very cheesy. I have been doing as much as I can throughout school. Once I left school, I took two gap years, and did a couple of plays, but not as much as I would have liked to. It is nice that, now that I’m back at university, I can get involved a bit more. I did A View from the Bridge last year with the LSESU Drama Society, I did Macbeth earlier on this year, and now Made in Dagenham!
Are there any similarities or differences between theatre and anthropology?
Absolutely, I think they are actually quite similar. If you are getting into a character, it is a similar process to what an anthropologist does when they go to their research site; they have to immerse themselves in the surroundings and get a sense of the ‘ native’s point of view ’. I think that is very similar to what an actor does. If you want to portray a character realistically, you have to try and get in the mindset of your character and understand their surroundings, their backgrounds, their social relations, their intentions and motivations, and why they do certain things. They are very similar in the way of getting to know your character and getting to know people.
How do you feel that your experiences in theatre have added to your own anthropological perspective, or vice versa?
We have this research project in second year at the moment, and because the processes are similar, I think I’m a bit more used to it, having to observe as much as you can, understand a different point of view, and immerse yourself in a different way of life and being. I think that is very helpful, because in a similar sense, the anthropologist goes into a different world with different people, and the actor goes into a different world of their character, so the two complement each other.
Since you are inhabiting the world of Rita, which is different, in what way would you say it is similar?
We grew up in different eras, in the same country but different areas. Our experiences are slightly different – I have never worked in a factory, and Rita was not lucky enough to attend university. But I think her mindset is fairly similar to my own. She is quite feisty and she won’t just let things slide. If she feels someone says or does something unjust, she will speak out about it, she won’t just turn a blind eye. Throughout the musical, she does not realise how political she is being, or how much she has to be angry about, and to use that anger to her advantage. I think, in a similar sense, in the last year or so, I have come to realise that it is easy to just get angry about things, but you can actually speak out about them. You can try to push things forward and make a change. It takes a lot of work, but it can be done.
The musical is set in 1968 and we are in 2018, so it has been 50 years since the women of Ford Dagenham went on strike, but the issues of gender inequality persist. For example, a week ago, I went to Fight Night, an Athletics Union event at the LSE. There were girls and guys doing the round cards. The guys were dressed in shorts and T-shirts, just walking on, not doing anything special, showing the card and walking off. The girls, however, were wearing very skimpy clothing, their hair down, pouting, shaking their hips. And I thought, why do the girls have to do this and the guys do not? I got very angry, and I thought that it was weird that LSE is supposed to be a forward-moving institution, but the way they are portraying women is stuck in the 60s. The issues are definitely still relevant, and I can definitely see them. I do not know whether through playing Rita, I have almost become more aware of it in a way that I can pick up on these things.
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