Blog: Louise Townsend

The theatre maker on putting forgotten figures in history centre stage. Her latest production tells the story of Mary Macarthur, who led the women chainmakers in their strike and battle for fair wages

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At Townsend Productions we’re always looking for stories of inspirational people who have made a significant contribution to the world of work and to society. Our work in the past has centred on the stories of the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Shrewsbury Pickets, the International Brigade, the brave strikers at Grunwick, and now inspirational leadership in the shape of Mary Macarthur, who led the fight to draw public attention to the plight of sweated labour, and in particular women workers at the turn of the last century.

Our theatre projects are about people who should be revered and celebrated, but are often forgotten figures of history, largely because their achievements are scorned by the elite.

Victories in the fight for ordinary working people are rare, but Mary Macarthur was a determined fighter for social justice and led the women chainmakers in the Black Country in their strike and battle for better wages, and for the principle of a minimum wage in the industry. Macarthur was also a defiant trade union leader, determined that through unity people could find better prospects in life through education and self-improvement.

Her story, and the story of the women who risked what little they earned from their work to go on strike is a story that deserves to be told. It has so many relevant connections – increasingly with the working conditions that so many workers in poorly paid jobs are confronted with today.

In every project we have created there are modern relevances, especially to do with workplace environment, conditions and wages. It is clear that the major steps made over the last century for a more equal society have been, and are continuously, being reversed. Apart from climate and the environment, there is no issue that is, or at least should be, more important.

This is something Mary Macarthur, and many like her, realised in the 1900s – it was unhealthy for society and inexcusable for civil society to allow people to be degraded and devalued when there was the means available to make life better for all.

Songs are central to the story we tell about Mary Macarthur, and we have chosen to relive the story as a ballad ‘opera’ in which the songs carry the message through the style of song that was popular at the time – street ballads, music hall song, hymns, protest songs – popular and powerful means to share this incredible story.

Audience participation is a major feature of the work we do. Often, because we have small casts of two, the audience become an integral part of the show, and we rely upon them, and their contribution, as extra cast members. We always aim to have moments where the audience can join in, either in the chorus of a song, or even as part of a picket line or part of rowdy mass meeting.

It’s very important that we break down any conventional barrier between us as performers and producers, and that the audience contribute to the atmosphere of the performance; ultimately it brings the show to life, encourages involvement, and raises the audiences consciousness to the subject matter and issues that are dealt with in the play.

Rouse, Ye Women! debuts at Harrogate Theatre from 4-9 Feb before touring in Leeds, Salford, Sheffield, Scarborough and Doncaster. For more details and tour dates visit:

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