Tree. A Story of Gender and Power in Theatre.

Female writers removed from theatre production ‘Tree’ after working on it for four years. A production that claims it was created by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba and has failed to acknowledge the original writers for their work.

When the show ‘Tree’ was publicly announced to headline the Manchester International Festival (ahead of a move to The Young Vic), on October 30th 2018 we received messages from friends and colleagues congratulating us. After years of self-producing and writing fringe theatre shows, as well as developing Tree for 4 years with multiple drafts, workshops, re-drafts and industry performances — it had all finally paid off, this was our big break.

Sadly though — we weren’t informed about the announcement, nor were we mentioned anywhere in it, and it was the first indication that we were being pushed off the project by far more powerful people in theatre.

In this post, we’re going to explain what happened so that we can stand-up to those responsible — the same people who we initially trusted, who then threatened us with legal action if we spoke up. It’s worth mentioning that this whole process has been terribly upsetting and we’ve felt terrified about speaking out, but we want to be the change we want to see, and ultimately have been left with no choice because those involved fail to accept that we have a claim.


Before we get into the detail — we wanted to highlight the fact that moving the original writers off a project isn’t unusual and can be done professionally and amicably. However, the levels of intimidation and disrespect we faced were totally unacceptable, soul-destroying and as we’ve since heard — not uncommon for up and coming theatre writers, particularly female ones.

With this is mind — and bearing in mind research on the under-representation of female playwrights — we’ve not only decided to tell our story to raise awareness, but to do something about the problem and form Burn Bright — an organisation that we encourage anyone to get behind (regardless of gender) if they’re interested in creating a theatre industry that’s fairer for everyone.


2013 — THE IDEA WAS BORN

In April 2013, Idris Elba, a friend of Tori’s came to see our show, ‘Streets’. He said he loved it, (and kindly asked what he could do to help), tweeting ‘I can’t recommend it strongly enough’. He then flew Tori to Africa to collaborate on his ‘mi Mandela’ album in September of that year. Tori lived in Africa for a month (both South Africa and Mali) working on the album and supporting Idris as an artist, and she sang on multiple tracks. She is the first ‘thank you’ on the album cover and the opportunity meant the world to her and remains one of the most special experiences of her life.

In the studio in South Africa.

In January 2015 Idris invited Tori to come up with an idea for a musical, to be similar in ‘grass roots’ style to our show ‘Streets’, but using the music from ‘mi Mandela’. Tori produced an outline for the idea which would become the bones of our version of ‘Tree’ (as yet just titled ‘mi Mandela’) and brought Sarah in on the project with Idris’s agreement. Essentially the story was to be of a mixed race young man from Hackney, who was the product of an apartheid love story, who, fleeing difficult circumstances, went on a healing journey to S.A , discovering his roots. His father had been a gardener in his grandmother’s house (and a key player in the anti-apartheid movement), and the story centered around a tree he had planted there.

You can see the current artwork for the show, which uses an image of a mixed race actor, and his white mother against a tree and the South African flag colours, as well as the current show copy here.

We then met with Duchess Street Productions (now the Anthology Group, who are listed as producers on Tree at MIF and YV) and Green Door Pictures (Idris’s company), to discuss the project as an official commission. The Young Vic was talked about as a great potential fit for the project.

The commission went ahead and Tori and Sarah decided to name the show ‘Tree’, after one of the tracks on the album, which Tori knew from making the album was particularly important to Idris, and linked well thematically to Mandela being an incredibly keen gardener; they made this Tree planted by the main character’s father, a central part of the story’s narrative and a key device in moving between time zones. Tori and Sarah spent months researching the show and delivered the first draft in October 2015. We also met potential partners — The Market Theatre (who are also credited in the MIF and YV production), with Duchess Street Productions at Green Door’s offices.

In March 2016 we signed the commissioning agreement, which gave us the right to veto any other writer brought in, and to approve any changes in the script. It also entitled us to a royalty should the show go ahead.

The first ever reading of the first draft of TREE at Green Door’s offices - our friends and friends of friends came out in force (for free) to read for us and support this initial stage of the project.

2016 — DEVELOPMENT AND WORKSHOPS — MOMENTUM BUILDS

In May 2016 we had a great workshop at Hackney Empire workshop directed by the wonderful Paul J Medford and involving phenomenal industry talent including Sharon D Clarke, Susie McKenna and Joanna Riding, as well as young artists from the area (it was always important to us to give opportunities to new talent in this production — we wanted to launch a nationwide search for the mixed-race/biracial protagonist and essentially ‘find a star’ and launch his career). We were excited, the project was attracting the attention of people we admired as well as inspiring young people, and we looked forward to the future.

Sarah, Tori, our original musical director - the incredible Aaron James Williams (also not informed about the project moving forward) and Sharon D Clarke at our Hackney Empire workshop.

In October there were a number of emails regarding the project to the Young Vic (then headed by David Lan) and in November that year we had a workshop at the Dominion Theatre, again directed by the wonderful Paul J Medford, featuring a stellar cast including Sharon D Clarke, Clare Burt, Kadiff Kirwan and Khali Best and many more, with the sharing presented by Idris. All of the producers currently involved with the 2019 production of ‘Tree’ were invited and/or present at this sharing.

A sizzle created from the Dominion Theatre workshop of Tree.

This workshop required an abridged script with narration, created by Tori and Sarah as well as casting days and significant prep. The Market Theatre also arranged for a South African actress and choreographer to be present and integral to the sharing, and it all went down brilliantly!

We’d written some additional music for the show to cover gaps where the album didn’t have something for the story. One of our tracks, Impossible Dance, (which we wrote with Aaron James Williams) was sung in the sharing by Clare Burt and it was an absolute career highlight for both of us.

Impossible Dance by Tori, Sarah and Aaron, sung by Tori.

Despite only having had a short time to rehearse the sharing, the buzz about it was exceptionally positive. We received messages, cards and flowers the next day from all the producers involved thanking us for our hard work and passion and planning next steps. We were also overwhelmed to hear that the BBC had read our ‘Tree’ script and placed us on the BBC New Talent Hotlist 2017 because of it; we started to believe that we had something really special.

Soon after the sharing we were informed that Manchester International Festival were interested, as well as there being communication with the Young Vic, and that this partnership might be a route forwards with multiple emails chasing up on the project over the rest of the year.

Just after our sharing at The Dominion. Tori and Sarah with Idris and Tristan Waterson, who starred.

MAY 2018 — KWAME KWEI-ARMAH JOINS THE PROJECT

In May 2018 after having not heard anything for a good while, Tori received a phone call from Idris confirming that Kwame Kwei-Armah was keen for the Young Vic and MIF to partner on the show. Idris apologised for the silence and clarified that he only wanted to get in touch when he was sure it was definitely going ahead, and that it was. He suggested that we meet with Kwame as soon as possible to discuss next steps.

On the 29th May 2018, we met Kwame at the Young Vic (at the request of MIF) — he was friendly, warm, effusive and excited about the project. He explained explicitly that he didn’t want to write it, that we were the writers and that he would dramaturg and direct the project, with the next steps being: him to chat to Idris re the direction of the show, Tori, Sarah and Kwame to brainstorm the next draft, Tori and Sarah to write the next draft, then workshops in October and January, followed by a full production in June/July 2019. We were elated — we couldn’t believe that this project we’d been working on for so long finally had a home, and somewhere as incredible and forward-thinking as the Young Vic. On the 11th June 2018 we received an email from MIF following on from our meeting with Kwame, and confirming dates for the project including load-in dates etc. Later we also received availability checks for the workshop in October. For us this felt very real.

JULY 2018 — IT STARTED TO GO WRONG…

Between June and October, there were multiple emails and phone-calls between Tori, Sarah and MIF suggesting that delays were merely down to difficult scheduling with Idris and Kwame’s diaries, along with reassurances that the project was happening. We now know that the project was continuing to be developed without us, given that the public announcement, copy, engagement of the rest of the creative team etc, happened prior to any further agreement with us.

On the 18th October Idris and Kwame filmed a promo shoot for MIF & YV production. We were unaware of this happening until we found out via Kwame’s Instagram.

Image via @k_kweiarmah on @instagram

Also on that day, there was a phone call out of the blue from Idris to Tori to say he was sending over a revised synopsis by Kwame, and that he had only just seen it himself. We were a bit confused as to why Kwame would be writing a synopsis. When the email came later that day, in the cover letter at the top it had Kwame’s clear intention to write the piece stating ‘when I sit to write the first draft…’. This was very surprising to us after what he had told us when we met. A quiet panic set in.

Even though certain elements of our story had been changed in the revised synopsis: in our opinion, our story of hope and celebration had become more of a black trauma narrative and it had been politicised in a way we weren’t happy with, with certain race issues (including a character based on Tori’s mixed ethnicity) contorted in a way we felt was detrimental to the show and the way mixed ethnicity is viewed as a result, Kwame held onto our ideas and work including the premise, timelines and time-zones, most of our characters and their relationships to each other and many of the plot points.

On the 19th, Tori responded to Idris personally to discuss her and Sarah’s issues with the revised synopsis. And on the 20th, Tori and Idris spoke on the phone and she asked whether she could speak to Kwame directly so that we could work out any creative differences and find the best way to move forward. Idris agreed that this was the best way forward and said he’d put this in motion.

On the 25th there was more contact between Tori and Idris as Kwame had declined to speak directly. Instead Idris suggested he try and fix a creative meeting between us and Kwame. Tori explained that until we knew what was being expected or asked of us in terms of an offer/contract — it was difficult to have further creative discussions. We thought we were writing the piece, and now Kwame had ear-marked himself for the role and had utilised our ideas, characters and story development in his revised synopsis.

Idris and Tori decided to stop going back and forth between themselves and hope instead that between agents and venues a resolution could be found. Idris remains the only person involved to have actively communicated personally with us, he did this on a number of occasions despite his manic schedule.

OCTOBER 2018 — THE ANNOUNCEMENT + THE GHOSTWRITING OFFER

On the 29th October our agents repeatedly asked what the offer was in terms of our writing. Finally, on the day the show was announced publicly without our names in any of the materials and citing (bar the casting director) an entirely male creative team, we received an offer from Kwame via MIF to write a new draft of the show based on Kwame’s revision of our synopsis.

The offer required a new draft of a musical within one month and offered no credit or creative control, with Kwame ‘taking the script development through to final delivery’ with ‘the right to retain the text from the draft, but (..) under no obligation to do so’. This was for £2K each all in. We couldn’t believe it.

Because so many industry friends and connections had seen our Dominion workshop, we were inundated by congratulations that the show was going ahead, as well as a fair few confused messages from pals (not to mention actors and creatives who were in the workshop) who wanted to know why we weren’t on the publicity. As you can imagine, this was professionally quite damaging, with people filling in the blanks as to why we were no longer involved.

On the 30th, MIF got in touch having received a counter-offer (to the ghost-writing one) from our agent asking for a credit for our work. MIF asked to put that discussion aside and stated that Kwame has offered to clear his diary ‘tomorrow’ on the 31/10/19 (only) to meet with us for a creative meeting. We were unable to do this on such little notice due to work commitments and also we didn’t feel comfortable having any further discussions on the ‘creative’ side after receiving the ghost-writing offer and not having been credited in the announcement. We were keen to get that cleared up first, and believed that to be imperative, based on how we’d been treated.

NOVEMBER 2018 — THE DISMISSAL

On the 14th November, a good while after the public announcement of the show, we were officially dismissed from the project, citing our reluctance to have this creative meet as one of the reasons. We were particularly disappointed in the way the narrative had been spun, as we asked only to postpone the meet until a fair and clear offer had been made. We had been kept in the dark for months whilst the project moved forward, and had repeatedly responded as promptly as possible, as well as trying to speak to Kwame directly to see if we could find a resolution, which was denied.

On the 20th November, our agents meet Green Door to discuss the situation. They were told it was a different project entirely and so our contract had no value, but that they would consider a ‘with thanks to’ credit as a goodwill gesture. They also asked us for a schedule of elements from our script — ‘Tree 17.12.15’ that were ours that they shouldn’t use. Disappointed, we took legal advice.

NOVEMBER TO NOW — LEGAL WRANGLINGS GET US NOWHERE

Since then we have had legal advice and have spent a significant amount of money (that we don’t have) with lawyers. Letters have gone back and forth on the issue. The official line from their side is that it’s a completely different project (despite Kwame’s revised synopsis being very much based on ours, and the subsequent offer to ghostwrite it, not to mention the same producers, and partners who were on board with our version etc).

Whilst we’ve no doubt that our script will have been changed significantly for the production draft (with our central ideas and themes having been utilised and twisted) we have no interest in the show not being a success because we recognise and respect that a team of talented people have worked very hard to create something. However that doesn’t take away their behavior and the disrespectful treatment we endured, and that it’s probably only changed now because we fought; initially nobody seemed to have a problem with Kwame lifting so much of our work and all of our character and story development.

At the time we first sought legal advice, all we knew was that the show was going ahead, without us, with Kwame’s revision of the synopsis based on all of our work — with not even a credit or a conversation — how could we not challenge that? Now evidently things have changed, but there were always going to be new drafts, it’s part of the process - things change and grow and develop. However, we put four years of work into that project, and the majority of those involved read our script, our proposal documents, our premise, and our synopsis — there is no way it’s a ‘different project’, no matter how much it’s changed. And the reluctance to take any accountability for the fact that until we fought it, the majority of the revised synopsis was our work, just without our names on it, is at best sad and at worst, disgusting.

We’ve heard from friends in the industry that allegedly halfway through the initial workshop of the show, it changed overnight, and this was around the time of the initial letters from our lawyers outlining the things that were lifted from our script for Kwame’s revised version of the synopsis.

We’re at a loss because to defend ourselves in court, our lawyer says we’d be looking at £20K minimum and that despite him thinking we are squarely in the right and that they are in breach of contract (the commissioning agreement entitling us to the right of veto over additional writers and changes, as well as a royalty), litigation tends to favour those with deeper pockets. We have offered mediation but they came back after our deadline on this, suggesting far more expensive mediation options (that they know we can’t afford, as we’ve explicitly told them so) and only after the show has already happened.

They have continued to make financial offers to ‘buy us off’ which they have said are in no way linked to our claim or our contract. However these offers were very small (barely covering our fees) and financial only, not acknowledging our rights under the contract, or with any kind of accountability. Basically they’re putting a price on us shutting up about what’s happened, and for us, unless it’s game-changing money we could do something positive with as well as compensate for the four years of lost work (and even then it would feel very wrong), it doesn’t fix the issue, which is one of artistic integrity.

Tori sent a four-page heartfelt letter to Idris effectively saying we would drop our claim and any financial settlement if instead, they would help us set up a scheme for female writers and help us create positive change in the industry; they said they were interested but refused to talk about this further or commit unless we signed something that denied we had a claim regarding Tree.

WHY WE’RE MAKING THIS STATEMENT

All we asked for was a conversation, credit where it’s due, and a bit of heart. But everyone is acting as if we’ve never been involved at all. People need to be better, especially people who inspire others. We were overjoyed when Kwame got his position at the Young Vic and he is undeniably talented, inspiring and charismatic — and we’re crushed that someone we looked up to and thought of as a trailblazer for new talent has refused to engage.

We want people in powerful positions to take accountability, to appreciate and honour hard work, to open doors, not close them, to have conversations, to communicate, to say sorry to the people who need to hear it, to send the elevator back down. We want venues like the Young Vic to honour what they preach, to truly develop new writers, because those are our future voices, to not let ego dictate — we want Kwame to practice what he preaches, not just some of the time but all of the time. What he preached to us was not what he practiced, and we’re devastated about that — but we hoped that due to all of this — maybe he’d reach out — maybe we’d talk. Maybe one day we will.

Conversations lead to change and we just wanted to be part of the conversation. Part of the conversation before the announcement and maybe to know where we stood before other people were given jobs — considering how long we’d spent on it and how much we cared — that didn’t seem like too much to ask. Perhaps even to hear that there was no more space for us on this project but ‘we see you and we appreciate the work you’ve done and let’s talk about maybe developing something else’, let’s ‘help’ in some way’ — rather than just allowing us to help get it here, this far, and then closing the door on us.

It never had to get to this point if we’d have been treated like we mattered, but we weren’t because in this industry of power and privilege and fame — we don’t — that’s the cold, hard truth. And while we absolutely understand that — that we are small and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make it right. We aren’t disposable — no-one is, and the people who handled this made us feel like we were, and it’s happened too many times in this industry; we naively thought on this one given the history, that this couldn’t happen. It was a kick in the teeth when it did.

At no point has anyone on a payroll somewhere just picked up the phone, explained what happened (presumably that they wanted to continue the project without us and weren’t sure how to go about it), and said sorry. That’s the really crap bit. None of this is about ego, we were willing to do whatever it took to make that show right for such prestigious venues, we would’ve worked to the bone. We also know that people get kicked off projects all the time — sure we would’ve been disappointed to get sacked but we’d have got over it. But to have been treated in the way we were and to receive a new synopsis full of our work with our names nowhere on it and to have found out the project was going ahead without us in the way we did? And to constantly have this line that ‘it’s a different project’ and no acknowledgment of anything that came before? Nobody deserves that.

There have been so many times we’ve wanted to walk away - our mental health has suffered. We understandably had prepared to have had work during this time as we had all of the dates etc. and suddenly found ourselves unemployed. For us it’s been devastating proof of the way doors are shut on women, and on the underdogs. We became completely disposable because we’re not famous or important enough. We were expected to shut up, lie down, and take it. Tori wrote another show as a kind of therapy and it had one small reading and they threatened to shut that down too…at every corner we’ve been bullied and told to be quiet. It would’ve been easier to be quiet, but this is the closest we’ve ever come to looking power in the face and if we stand down now, we’re part of the problem. So as broken and as bruised and as afraid as we are and as tiny as we feel, we kept on. We keep on.

SO WHAT NOW? LET’S BE PART OF THE SOLUTION!

Our first issue is that we have legal fees that we can’t pay, so we thought about alternative solutions. We then thought beyond that, about how to take steps towards stopping this kind of sh*t from happening at all.

We want to change this narrative, and give our story a happy ending by promoting positive change. As easy as it would’ve been for us to back down and run away and never pick up a pen again, we’ve had each other, and that’s kept us going, but some people aren’t that lucky. Some people have to face this type of situation alone, and speaking out seems too much and we get that, we’ve said many times we would’ve done the same if it weren’t for the other.

We’ll never get our show on, we won’t get back the eight months of our lives where we questioned everything and felt bullied and silenced, but what we can do is maybe help stop it happening to other people in the future, or at least give them somewhere to go for advice, support and a f**k ton of love if it does happen. We want to listen to, support and lift up other women, other people who are struggling to be heard and so Burn Bright is born. It’s our way of giving back, using our struggle to try and prevent this happening to others. We can be the lesson, so that people coming after us can soar.

We need to pay our legal fees, since they’ve got us nowhere and total approximately £5K, so we’ve set up a donations page with the idea that the first £5K goes to the legal fees, and anything on top of that, goes towards setting up Burn Bright. Our goal is to build a genuine resource that helps female writers in the industry with as little red tape around it as possible.

We fully understand that most people can’t contribute financially and that’s fine, we’re also looking for people to get involved, spread the word and collaborate, so please do get in touch.

This is shit and we’re devastated — more so because we’ve since heard that this sort of thing happens all the time. We don’t want to sit here and moan about it, we want to be part of the solution. So please do come with us on this journey. Check it out here.

Thank you for listening. Love, Tori and Sarah. ❤

Tori and Sarah — Co-Creators of ‘Burn Bright’.

Written by

Let’s collaborate to drive positive change for female writers in theatre. — Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin