Celebrating Bess Walder and Beth Cummings on International Women's Day

Catherine Wheels is thinking about women. And to celebrate International Women’s Day I want to reflect on the female characters we have placed on stage, and in particular Bess Walder who, with Beth Cummings are the only non-fiction characters we have staged in the show Lifeboat.

Looking back through a female lens I am happy to see that most of our characters have been women and many of them heroines. (Please forgive me as I talk about shows from the past). Heroines who defy convention; The female Dr Frankenstein, the two astronauts from Red, the three Slumber Sisters who, like superheroes, rescue children from nightmares and the girl from The Voice Thief who rebels against her father to save the hundreds of girls whose voices have been stolen. These characters have grit, they face their fears and jump into the unknown because they know not to would make them smaller. It makes me happy to realise that in our stories female strength and ingenuity is evident but also I recognise that for many of the characters there is vulnerability, empathy and compassion, female traits which are often seen as weak but are in fact essential to the personal growth and transformation of these characters.

With Bess and Beth in Lifeboat you witness two girls who discover an inner strength that allows them to survive where others perished.

“We didn’t let go, why didn’t we let go?”

“Well we couldn’t give up could we?”

“No that’s right, we were not in the business of giving up.”

“We hung on.”

Bess and Beth are excellent role models for children. Not just because they survived, but because of the woman they became. And today on International Woman’s Day I would like to nominate Bess as my personal role model. I met Bess in 1999 with the writer Nicola McCartney. She was in her 70s then and full of energy and generosity. She welcomed us and shared her story. She took the view that what happened to her in 1940 was nothing special. She survived, others didn’t and it was her duty to be of service to her community and to ensure we don’t forget the many people who lost their lives. She became a head teacher and was a member of countless boards and community groups. She was a formidable woman and I was a little scared of her but mainly I was in awe. She was spiky yet caring, outspoken yet thoughtful, demanding yet generous. If Bess had not been on the City of Benares evacuee ship in September 1940, perhaps she would have turned out to be a different person but her experience made her the fabulous force that she became and I salute her!

So today I send my heartfelt thanks to Bess, and Beth, and the countless women like them who have led, nurtured, inspired, cared for and taught those around them. And have made this world all the brighter for it.

Gill Robertston, Artistic Director Catherine Wheels