Written by Tamzin Sallis, 8 July 2019
This is a statement from Giant Olive to redress what we believe to be a misrepresented narrative being circulated in the media by Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin regarding ‘Tree’ at the Young Vic. This is from one woman in the arts who passionately believes in the need to support female playwrights, but also feels that an attack has likely been misdirected towards the wrong people, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba. This is not another #MeToo moment. I tried to reach out to BBC Front Row this evening prior to the show going out and unfortunately they completely ignored my statement or input, censoring it from the public interest in favour of a ‘popular narrative’. This is a wrong that needs to be put right. I am aware that we will become the target for some horrible responses. As Roald Dahl once said: ‘I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else’. Please keep it in mind before you judge us all.
Some context: We have experienced first-hand the way in which Sarah Henley attempted to claim credit for work which stopped a project from going ahead, employing legal pressure as a tactic. In 2010, Giant Olive was awarded a £10k National Lottery Grant to produce Zip: Gun & Knife crime, A Streetdance Musical based on the play Zip by Ray Shell. Here are some links below:
The premise of the work was to engage with local young people in Camden who had been affected by knife crime both as victims and perpetrators. We conducted a series of workshops, providing mentor support, choreography, and bringing in artists and musicians. The project culminated in ‘Zip: A Streetdance Musical‘ which was performed in the Camden Fringe at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town. Sarah Henley was brought in by Ray Shell as a mentor to the young participants to help them to write dialogue. She brought in Tori Allen-Martin to sing in the production.
Following a critically successful run with coverage from the BBC, Choice FM and other industry press supporters as well as politicians and the police, we were advised by Camden Council and the National Lottery to mount a national tour to adapt the work for different areas. Following the production, Sarah Henley threatened litigation, demanding co-ownership, rights and basically making the project a non-starter with her unreasonable and disproportionate demands. These were the type of demands that make a production financially unviable to mount. The fact that the original concept and work had come from Giant Olive, based on Ray Shell’s original play, seemed to be completely lost on Sarah Henley who had greater financial means than the production company. The project did not go ahead because Giant Olive was not in a financial position to take on a legal case.
Shortly afterwards, Sarah Henley and Tori Allen Martin put on ‘Streets’ in April 2013 at the Cockpit theatre, which in my opinion and that of others involved in the original Zip production was influenced by the concept and style of Zip: A Streetdance Musical. James Kenwood was part of the production, along with several of our other Zip performers. She also tried to recruit Ray Shell who declined for obvious reasons.
Idris Elba saw ‘Streets’ and decided to give Sarah & Tori a chance to further their careers by working on ‘Tree’. It doesn’t surprise the Giant Olive team that this process did not work out given our experiences. ‘Streets’ had been, in our opinion, influenced by ‘Zip: A Streetdance Musical’ that Sarah Henley had tried to claim credit for. This was another ownership narrative and there had clearly been litigation involved, according to the statements that had been put out.
We are very disappointed that Kwame Kwei-Armah and Idris Elba, artists who have done so much to support new talent and women playwrights, are being presented in this detrimental way by Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin. We haven’t reviewed the legal documents, but based on the media narrative this situation appears to indicate a similar pattern of individuals that are conducting themselves in an unreasonable way.
So, here’s our thoughts: The industry has much to do to support women playwrights, and there is much to be done to promote a more diverse theatrical landscape. I’ve recently been awarded a PhD with an emphasis on these issues and I care deeply about them. But do not mistake the types of behaviours employed here by Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin as representing the issue. Theirs is, in my opinion based on the media coverage, a different story of unreasonable negotiation tactics and one that resulted in the end of a worthwhile project for Giant Olive.
Let’s not exploit a serious issue to defend bad industry conduct, from somebody with a history of this type of behaviour. Let’s not allow the industry acolytes to get away with using this as a way to say ‘yes, we support women playwrights’ without changing anything at all.