Liz Newell is passionate about women in theatre. She wants to see more women on and off stage, in writing, acting, directing, producing and staging roles. She formed Maiden Voyage Theatre Company (MVTC) early last year in a response, she says, to the “latest, fiercest round of awful statistics and general outrage about the lack of gender parity in the Australian arts industry.”

Since forming MVTC she has presented two well-received works, Belated (written during her time in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Emerging Writers Group in 2015); and Alone Outside, which was a finalist for the Martin Sims Prize at Fringe World Festival last year.

The company’s latest production, Toast, is a meditation on family, loss and grief directed by Emily McLean (Dust, Grounded) with Alison Van Reeken, Amy Mathews, Anna Lindstedt and Samantha Maclean in the principal roles. The creative team also comprises Rachael Dease (sound design), Sally Phipps (set and costume design) and Chloe Ogilvie (lighting design).

“I’m passionate about giving emerging artists a platform and new writing a place to thrive,” Newell says. “MVTC is a female-focused company and nine out the ten people working on Toast are women, but parity is parity – that can only mean opportunities for all. At its heart MVTC is about reminding people to keep an open mind when they’re building their creative teams. A project can only benefit from having a diverse range of perspectives contributing to it.”

Why are there still gaps in the industry and a lack of opportunity for female directors, writers and actors?

“The funny thing about theatre is simply that so much of its history has to do with men,” Newell says. “Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Ibsen, Beckett, Brecht … these are the people responsible for building the theatrical canon we know and love today, and they’re all men. But it’s 2017, so it can and should be much more than that now.”

Newell believes the Perth arts industry struggles less with gender parity than other places and she sees a vibrant and exciting independent theatre scene continuing to develop here.

“We have numerous theatre companies here whose leaders and core team are mostly women, and that is a great start, but there are always improvements to be made and awareness to be raised,” she says.

“A lot of high-quality, interesting new work that’s being made in Perth right now is thanks to the indie companies we have here, like The Last Great Hunt, Renegade Productions and Rorschach Beast. We all benefit hugely from the existence of The Blue Room Theatre, which is totally unique in Australia for making a point of programming work by emerging artists and getting it seen.”

Newell says the themes of Toast are universal – family, memory, death – with the three sisters at the centre of the story dealing with the fallout of loss in very different ways.

“I find relatable theatre to be one of the most engaging kinds of theatre, so building lifelike worlds populated by believable characters is a priority for me as a writer,” Newell explains. “Toast’s tagline is, ‘grief is weird.’ People do dumb, strange, hilarious things when the rug is pulled out from under us.”

Despite the seemingly dark theme, Newell says cast and crew had a lot of fun in rehearsals.

“In spite of the subject matter of the show we spent a lot of time making each other laugh uncontrollably,” Newell admits. “Alison, Amy, Anna and Samantha are extremely funny, insightful and talented actors. The chemistry between them is great. My writing is really character-based and naturalistic; our director, Emily McLean, is great at interrogating a script with the actors and pulling out meaning I didn’t even realise was there. She’s as interested as I am in what makes people tick, and she knows what makes a human drama compelling.”

Toast is at The Blue Room Theatre May 9–27. Tickets are available online.