Playwright Sarah Rutherford talks Institutional Sexism

Sarah Rutherford. Credit for the photograph goes to Mark Douet

Sarah Rutherford is talking enthusiastically about Dora the Explorer, the ideal role model for her two mixed-race daughters, aged eight and 10. “The great thing about her is that she’s also not white. So every time Bob the Builder came on, I’d stick the Dora the Explorer DVDs on.

“They were being bombarded by these very active boys and men who ‘did stuff’, and the occasional female characters tended to be in the background being pretty.”

Rutherford is annoyed about a controversial CBBC guideline document, which described young girls as manipulative and overemotional. She shakes her head: “How hateful is that? It’s not just neglectful, it’s really negative. It shows you what you’re up against.”

Sexism irks Rutherford, particularly within theatre, and it is something she is trying to combat. The fact that Adult Supervision, her first full production as a playwright, featured a fully female cast is no coincidence.

She says: “It was a conscious decision. It irritates me that it’s down to female writers to redress the balance – we are the ones not getting the work, why should it be down to us to write all the female characters?”

Adult Supervision

Adult Supervision, photo credit goes to Mark Douet
Adult Supervision, photo credit goes to Mark Douet

Last autumn, Adult Supervision enjoyed a sell-out opening run at the Park Theatre, where Rutherford is writer in residence.

The play is a comedy, and focuses on the mothers of non-white children attending a predominantly white private school. She has drawn directly from her own personal experiences – while she is white, her husband, an eye surgeon, is of Jamaican descent.

Yet Rutherford was quick to point out that the diverse private school their children attend in Dulwich, near their family home in Clapham, was not the school depicted on stage.

The play tackled the potential for embarrassment and awkwardness found within attitudes towards race, particularly mixed-race, and contained lines taken directly from comments made about Rutherford’s children.

Rutherford reveals that she had some concerns about the play’s subject matter. She says: “When you’re dealing with controversial subjects there’s always the risk that people will take it the wrong way.

“The most irritating thing was a couple of reviews who described moments in the play as implausible, and picked out the examples taken directly from life.

“Anybody who has any experience of living with race in any form could come to me with much more outrageous stories,” she says.

Adult Supervision, starring Olivia Poulet, Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain, photocredit Mark Douet
Adult Supervision, starring Olivia Poulet, Susannah Doyle, Amy Robbins and Jacqueline Boatswain, photo courtesy of Mark Douet

Adult Supervision became a commercial and critical success, earning a What’s On Stage award nomination for Best Off-West End production. Its sell-out crowds included figures such as Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of the BBC’s hit series Sherlock and an incognito Keira Knightley. Rutherford admits she wouldn’t have recognised Knightley in her hat and glasses, had she not introduced herself at the end of the show.

Rutherford’s children, as well as providing her with a mine of material for Adult Supervision, have shaped her career. Until the birth of her eldest 10 years ago, she worked as an actor; a career she loved, having committed to it in her late twenties.

Although she was “always performing” while growing up in Scotland (any hint of a Scottish accent is long gone), she initially chose an academic path, gaining a first class degree in English from Oxford and completing a PhD at Edinburgh while also working as a freelance arts journalist.

However, having children made an acting career less viable. “I did start turning down acting work,” she says.

“You start making things very awkward for your agent if you turn stuff down. I imagined I’d be straight back into it after having babies, but I didn’t feel that same desire to put everything else on hold. It’s possible that if I haven’t had kids, I never would have started writing.”

Her decision has paid off. We meet in a busy sushi restaurant on Regent’s Street, a stone’s throw away from BBC Broadcasting House at Portland Place, where Rutherford has been pitching ideas for radio.

While award nominations are a pleasant distraction, the most exciting aspect of Adult Supervision’s success has been the way it has put Rutherford in demand – as well as radio, there is interest from larger theatres, film and TV. She says: “A lot of doors have suddenly opened – the trick is keeping them open. It’s an exciting time.”

There is also the small matter of Rutherford’s second production at the Park, Allah in Neon, scheduled to open later this year.

The work is based on intense workshop sessions with the diverse residents of Finsbury Park, where the theatre is based. Rutherford smiles: “It’s about a Muslim lesbian, so that’s very much continuing my preoccupation with women and underrepresentation, and controversial subjects. There’s still a lot I’ve got to say about feminism and race.”