Buxton actor, writer and director crowdfunding for debut play tackling issues of women's safety

A young Buxton theatre actor is making big plans for the New Year after launching a crowdfunding campaign to help take her hard-hitting directorial debut to the Edinburgh Fringe with a timely message about women’s safety.

Annabel Harrison, 24, began writing the play, Zip It, last winter amid a blizzard of headlines which highlighted issues of gender identity, sexual harassment and domestic violence, and the threats women experience as they go about their lives.

She said: “I was motivated by both my own experiences and those of people around me. Thinking about it in the isolation of lockdown really reinforced how atrocious actions had have almost become normalised, and how keeping quiet about it had become the norm.

“The murder of Sarah Everard was something that really shook everyone and there was a massive movement of women which followed, all with stories which don’t get as much news coverage but which deserve to be heard.

Zip It creator Annabel Harrison hopes to provoke necessary conversations about women's safety.

“The last year seems to have been story after story, even in Buxton where there have been attacks in the last few weeks. The lack of change in response to such atrocities means that this play needs to be seen and discussed now more than ever.”

She added: “As a young woman I’ve experienced sexual harassment my whole adult life – not just comments, but being grabbed, touched, even picked up by strangers. It happens almost every time I go into a busy city. Every woman I’ve spoken to in the process of writing the play can say something similar.

“Even if they had not been victim of a really terrible crime, something is happening daily and they are being made to feel unsafe. I think it’s getting worse and we’re heading back to a dark place on this.”

According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.6million women in England and Wales experienced domestic abuse in the year ending March 2019, and almost one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Two women a week were killed by a current or former partner.

A woman holds a placard during a protest against policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard last March. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Most experts expect that such shocking figures will only have risen over the course of the pandemic, a devastating situation that leaves many women feeling no safer at home than they are on the streets.

With Zip It, Annabel hopes to raise challenging questions about responsibility and complicity – about speaking out and seeking change, or keeping quiet.

The drama takes place in an immersive reality dating gameshow where two young women share their experiences and the audience is asked to make crucial decisions which change the course of a story.

Annabel said: “The responsibility is so often put on individual women to be vigilant. People ask what a victim did or could’ve done differently. We rarely focus on what really needs to change, how we can educate people and create a situation where women feel safe to use their voice and be heard.

Annabel is looking to push back against taboos around women's safety which she says leave too many women suffering in silence.

“I want the audience to feel they have had an experience, and I find immersive plays are the ones which have most affect. People come out and the end feeling they’ve been involved in change themselves.

“The story also focuses on the male perspective and how to involve men in the conversation. I’ve done a lot of work with the Samaritans too, and learned a lot about domestic violence and how it affects both women and men.”

She added: “These are conversations which aren’t happening enough in any sector of society, even in the arts, but I think there’s no better way to push that boundary than theatre. People might disagree with my opinions on this but that’s fine. It’s a case of bringing the discussion to light and asking why so many people feel unsafe.

“There are a lot of hard-hitting moments but also funny, lighter moments. You have to be really sensitive in how you portray messages like this. We have the charity Women’s Solace Aid working with us as a sponsor for the show and they will be running workshops and offering therapy alongside the play.”

Intensive rehearsals are due to begin in March, ahead of the first performances on April 25-26 at the Stage One theatre in Leeds – where Annabel studied at university – with an all-woman cast picked from fellow northern members of the National Youth Theatre.

From there, she hopes to take it to a wider audience at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the summer, and then potentially on tour. Along the way, Annabel has to embrace powerful changes of her own, balancing the roles of actor, writer, producer and director.

She said: “I’ve always loved devising new work as an actor and I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long time.

“It has been an interesting transition to look at what I’m doing from every other perspective. This story really means a lot to me and I’m really excited to see what I can do and learn more about the dimensions of directing.”

First comes the challenge of financing the show. Annabel and her production team have already committed their own savings to the project, and the crowdfunding appeal launched last month is almost halfway to the goal of a further £4,000.

Annabel said: “Putting on a show of any size comes considerable costs to pay cast and crew, buy props and costumes and set materials. Anything left over after the performances in Leeds will go towards getting us to Edinburgh, or be given back to Women’s Solace Aid.”

To make a donation in support of Zip It, go to https://gofund.me/c643e084.

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together.” – Louise Cooper, editor.