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Sonia Friedman, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Rosemary Squire

Sonia Friedman, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Rosemary Squire

Leading Ladies: Five female theatrical pioneers

First Published 8 March 2021, Last Updated 9 March 2021

A lot of the magic that we see on stage happens behind the curtain. In fact, some of the biggest successes in West End history are owed to some women that you might not have heard of. Here are five pioneering women of the theatre, plus a special pioneer of the future for you to keep an eye out for!

Margaret Hughes

Margaret Hughes painting by Sir Peter LelyMargaret Hughes painting by Sir Peter Lely (Photo credit: Hunter Kahn, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s shocking to think of now, but there was a time when women appearing on stage was unheard of. Acting was considered a purely male profession until 1660 when a lady called Margaret Hughes came along. At age 15, Margaret became the first women to act on stage when she played Desdemona in the King’s Company production of Othello. What an inspiration!


Rebecca Lenkiewicz

Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Photo credit: Sarah Lee)

From the first woman to act on stage to the first woman to have her original work performed on the main stage of the National Theatre. In 2008, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin became the first play written by a woman to hit the main stage of the National. Rebecca was originally an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company but clearly she was destined for playwriting.

She has since gone on to write plays for the Arcola Theatre (The Painter, 2011) and an adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw which was performed at London’s Almeida Theatre (18 January – 16 March 2013). In addition to theatre, she has also written for television and film including Ida, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the European Film Award and the Bafta in 2015.

Rebecca is truly a powerhouse, proving that you really can do it all!


Nica Burns

Nica Burns is a multi-award winning theatre producer and Chief Executive of Nimax Theatres, one of the most notable names in the West End.

She started as an artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse and went on to find Nimax Theatres in 2005 with her business partners, co-owning the Palace, Lyric, Apollo, Garrick, Vaudeville and Duchess theatres. In 2008 she was elected President of the Society of London Theatre for three years and Vice President 2011–2013.

Thanks to Nica, we’ve been able to enjoy a number of gorgeous venues across London as well as over 100 incredible shows, most recent of which includes Everybody’s Talking About Jamie which will be reopening in June!

Appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to theatre, Nica is one of the top women in our industry and we are incredibly thankful to her hard work during these challenging times and can’t wait to be back in her iconic venues enjoying some smash-hit shows.


Sonia Friedman

Sonia Friedman (Photo Credit: Jason Alden)

You might not have heard of Sonia Friedman but you’ve almost definitely seen one of her productions. Sonia has produced two of the most acclaimed plays of the decade, Jerusalem, and one of the most acclaimed musicals, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, winner of an astounding 9 Olivier Awards. Friedman also brought us the comedy-musical hit, The Book Of Mormon. Quite the CV!

Her list of achievements knows no bounds, having won Producer of the Year at the Stage Awards three years in a row, as well as taking the number one spot in The Stage 100, becoming the first number one in the history of the compilation not to own or operate West End theatres and the first solo woman for almost 20 years.

Sonia was also featured in TIME100, Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018 and she will be inspiring us all for years to come having formed Sonia Friedman Productions (SFP) in 2002, a subsidiary of the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG).


Rosemary Squire

Rosemary Squire (Photo credit:  Ambassadorslauren via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve ever been to a West End show, the chances are that you’ve walked into a building owned by Rosemary Squire. She was co-founder and co-owner of the Ambassador Theatre Group (one of the biggest companies of its kind in the world) for 24 years. She was also the second female president in the history of the Society of London Theatre – serving for three years as president and three years as vice-president. In 2016, Rosemary concentrated on new projects, including co-founding a new live entertainment business, Trafalgar Entertainment and acquiring a theatre in Trafalgar Studios. To list the number of major productions or theatres that she has been involved in would be too long for this article – let’s just say, she is undeniably a West End luminary.


Ameena Hamid

Ameena Hamid (Photo credit: Danny Kaan)

Because it’s International Women’s Day, we want to highlight Ameena Hamid, a pioneering female who we think is a true role model to the future generations.

At just 20 years old, Ameena is the youngest ever female producer in the West End as the Associate Producer of Death Drop which opened at the Garrick Theatre in December. The brand-new comedy starring RuPaul’s Drag Race superstars Courtney Act and Monét X Change is an historic West End first bringing together a full cast of leading drag performers, in a hilarious murder mystery like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

We caught up with Ameena last year to talk about what it’s like to be a young producer and about all things life! Check out the interview below and tune into our Theatre Chat Live on Official London Theatre’s Instagram channel on Tuesday 9 March at 6pm where we will be joined by Ameena herself.

Related Article: Tell Us In 10: Ameena Hamid
In this week's Tell Us In 10, we're talking to Ameena Hamid, Associate Producer of Death Drop and the youngest ever female producer in the West End!

Women have played some of the most important roles in the history of theatre and performance arts in the UK and though we’ve highlighted six, we realise this is just a small drop in the ocean.

From the first performance by Margaret Hughes in 1660 to the youngest ever female producer in the West End, we are so thankful for the many female figures that have graced us with their passion, creativity and dedication. Here’s to the pioneering women of theatre!


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almeida theatre Ameena Hamid apollo theatre Arcola Theatre duchess theatre Garrick Theatre Lilian Baylis lyric theatre Margaret Hughes national theatre palace theatre Rebecca Lenkiewicz Rosemary Squire sadler's wells sonia friedman the old vic vaudeville theater

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