Women in the theatre industry

There have been times when I have gone into a meeting with a financier and it’s been a film about a woman and they say, can we write up the man because otherwise we won’t finance it…And I say “no”, it’s about a woman, the male part is the small part.

Gemma Arterton, in The Telegraph online, 14 March 2016. Arterton has established an all women theatre company called Rebel Park.

Did you choose the last play you saw because it featured great roles for women, backstage and on, and men’s names were in the minority in the programme notes? Or was it the story, the actors, the playwright, or the reviews that caught your interest?

If you were motivated by gender equality on the list of credits it’s likely that you would have been disappointed. For most plays, historic and contemporary, are written, produced and staged by men, and feature more leading roles for men.

Recent research by the Guardian bears out the discrepancy in numbers. For example, in 2012, among ten prominent, subsidised ‘non-West End’ theatres in the UK (such as the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Manchester), women made up 33% of the boards of directors, 36% of the artistic directors and the percentage of new plays by women staged in the sample theatres was 34.5%.

Gender inequality is also borne out by a recent British Theatre Consortium report on British theatre repertoire, which covers 273 theatres. In 2013, plays by women represented 31% of theatre productions, 24% of performances and 17% of total audiences, and, hence, this entailed shorter runs and, unsurprisingly, lower box office returns. ‘Even translations and adaptations, which are mostly commissioned (and thus in the theatre’s gift), showed the proportion of women authors lagging behind,’ noted John Morrison commenting on the report for the Writers’ Guild Theatre of Great Britain.

Certainly the imbalance is not due to lack of talent, or a shortage of female applicants for the top jobs; at least half of the drama school entrants are women. Considered reasons for the imbalance may be a subconscious prejudice against women by men given they are often the ones spearheading decisions to employ or not to employ; the perception that technical jobs are the province of men, given their physicality; stories exploring feminine issues are trivial; women ‘can’t do’ politics and comedy; lack of child care facilities and long working hours which jar with family life; and women’s lack of self confidence which affects their presentation and deflates their aspirations.

In an article in the News Statesman, Alexander Woolley notes that in 2009 ‘an American experiment, in which identical scripts were sent out to theatres, half with a female name at the top and half with a male name, showed that artistic directors and literary managers rated the apparently female-authored scripts less highly. Female directors and managers, incidentally, were found to be no less guilty than their male colleagues’.

Recent research by academics with Loughborough University focuses on the increasing interest in the social sciences in how creative work is gendered. The researchers point out that although creative work is perceived as socially progressive, women and other ‘social’ groups are in a minority in these fields and senior roles are filled mostly by men – certainly not a socially liberal status quo! The research suggests that ‘encouraging women into theatre work…can never in itself answer the call of those seeking gender equality in this industry [theatre], because even in a minority [at drama school] men can benefit from their perceived masculinity to get ahead, at the expense of women’.

Given that women make up the majority of theatre audiences, should we not stage plays that reflect women’s life experiences? If we accept that women and men do behave differently from one another, the theatre industry is missing out perspectives and talents that are uniquely and remarkably feminine. Our stories are not their stories. Our horizons are different, not better or worse, just different. Common sense dictates that a man could have written The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but the autobiographical basis of the story makes this unlikely. Part of the reason we are drawn to the play My Name is Rachel Corrie is because it is the story of a woman’s fight against injustice.

To thwart the status quo, Lucy Kerbel, an award winning theatre director, established Tonic Theatre in 2011. The organisation encourages the performing arts industry to promote gender equality. Lucy was inspired to establish the charity when she visited the Riksteatern headquarters in Stockholm. In an article in the Evening Standard, she noted how much the Swedish theatre industry is so much ‘more equal than ours. In the past ten years, Sweden has changed the face of its theatre. And both men and women call it a golden age for theatre, saying it’s opened the floodgates for new artists and creativity’.

Tonic Theatre’s first major initiative is Advance, a six month programme which works with the cohorts of theatrical establishments – such as the Almeida, the National Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Headlong – to help them address the imbalance. The project is supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Arts Council among others; the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama is a project partner. The companies explore where and why the barriers exist, and draw up plans to promote gender equality. The Gate Theatre explored why men are more naturally drawn to lighting and sound design. How can access to these roles be made more equal? Sheffield Theatres pledged ‘to employ an equal number of male and female actors throughout each season and ensure that female roles also have prominence and run against current stereotypes’. English Touring Theatre discovered that personal safety was a gender specific issue that should be addressed. Was the route between the theatre and where women were staying safe? Would women find the facilities appealing? The ‘digs’ list will answer these questions.

Kerble has also sought to raise awareness of great plays written by women by publishing 100 Great Plays for Women. Each play has a predominantly or entirely female cast. The repertoire ranges from ancient times (for example, The Assemblywomen by Aristophanes) to the present (for instance, Contractions by Mike Bartlett). For each play Lucy has written a paragraph about the story and an ‘introduction to the play, what it is that makes it brilliant, and worth considering for production today’. There are also ten plays for solo female performers. The book is a fine read; there is no exasperating jargon.

With future generations of female actors and other ‘creatives’ in mind Tonic Theatre conducted research focusing on the opportunities for girls in youth drama. The work culminated in Lucy’s report: Swimming in the shallow end – Opportunities for girls in youth [females aged 11 – 25 year] drama, focusing on the quantity and quality of roles available to them, plus a commissioned series (Platform) of ‘female heavy’ scripts especially suitable for younger women.

The artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice, is trying to put more women on the stage. Why can’t the Duke of Gloucester be a woman? she asks. But why do women have to take men’s parts to stand in the limelight? Perhaps the only male parts women should be taking are that of producer, director, stage, lighting and costume designer, so that when the curtain rises, women will no longer frequent the shade.


For more detailed information, please visit: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/interactive/2012/dec/11/women-theatre-key-statistics, http://britishtheatreconference.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/British-Theatre-Repertoire-2013.pdf, https://writersguild.org.uk/why-do-women-playwrights-lag-behind/, http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/sbe/inspire-08/gender-inequality/, http://www.tonictheatre.co.uk.