Hey British Theatre, Where Are All the Women?

Things have got slightly better since Shakespeare's time, I guess.

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Oct 28 2014, 3:00pm

A scene from Smooth Faced Gentlemen's all-female "Titus Andronicus" (Photo: Daniel Harris)

Women, for whatever reason, make up the majority of theatregoers. However, the male-to-female ratio in the industry - including everyone from actors and playwrights, to chief executives - is stuck at the same dismal 2:1 it's been lingering around for decades. So while theatre may have progressed since Shakespeare's time, when women were mostly illiterate and men donned dresses to play Juliet and Ophelia, there's still a fair way to go until we see gender equality on our stages.

I didn't realise quite how uneven things were until the end of last month, when I attended Tonic Theatre's Advance Symposium at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Over six months, Tonic worked with 11 leading theatres from across the country to proactively explore how they could achieve greater equality in theatre. Why? Because the stats are depressing. The real low point for me as a female playwright was that, of the 20 plays performed in the West End on a randomly selected evening that week, only one was written by a woman: The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie.

Maybe that evening was a fluke. Or maybe men are biologically better at writing plays and making theatre, just like women are biologically better at giving birth and having breast-feeding. Thing is, it's difficult to measure artistic merit when our notion of what's good and what's not is informed by centuries of male-dominated stories. The fact is there are fewer plays by women or about women (17 percent of plays and 35 percent of roles, according to research published by Sphinx Theatre) because, until relatively recently, their lives were not considered to be as interesting or important as men's. We've been fed the fairytale narrative for so long that we're too scared to stray from the Hero's Journey.

The woman behind Tonic Advance is Lucy Kerbel, who put a directing career on hold to challenge the "but we've always done it this way" approach to making new work. "I was very aware that in the rehearsal rooms I was running I was often one of the few women, and I began to wonder whether I was sort of colluding in it," she tells me. "I happened to glance down at my CV one day and I saw that I'd directed one play by a woman, and thought: 'Oh my god, I'm a card-carrying feminist, so if I'm not doing it, then who is?'"

Tonic Advance, then, was about trying to move things forward. "Rather than just talking about it, we were actually doing something about it as an industry. But to have that action coming out of something that was well-informed and educated."

It's the "doing something about it" bit that sets Advance apart from previous conversations surrounding gender equality in theatre. Each participating theatre came up with a specific question to explore over the six-month programme. Some have already taken action. Sheffield Theatres, for example, have pledged "to employ an equal number of male and female actors throughout each season".

I'm all for 50:50. Obviously. I am also a playwright and want to see my plays produced. But by imposing targets and quotas, aren't we also limiting creativity and artistic freedom?

Kerbel, whose book, 100 Great Plays for Women, was published last year, thinks the opposite. "If we're only putting on our stages half the possible range of stories, and those stories are only being interpreted by half the possible range of talented individuals out there, then we're not giving our audiences the full range of quality work that we could be." She thinks it's "fucking convenient" that the majority of work in our national institutions "has been created by white, able-bodied, middle-class men". That is, she rightly says, "not representative of the population".

Lucy Kerbel (Photo by Slav Kirichok)

This is precisely where the West End differs from subsidised organisations. Does a theatre that has been funded by taxpayers' money have more of a social responsibility than a big, commercial producer? Possibly. An Arts Council England spokesperson told me that there are two stages to assessing national portfolio funding applications. "Firstly, we look at the application itself and how it addresses the criteria we set out. Secondly, we consider how well each applicant would fit into a balanced national portfolio to ensure we had the right spread of investment by looking at diversity, range of art forms, size and type of organisations and geographical spread."

Jack Bradley, who was previously literary manager at the National Theatre before joining Sonia Friedman Productions as literary associate, has experience in both the public and private sectors. He thinks that we all share the social responsibility. "Unless you challenge the aesthetic," he says, "the status quo will always maintain."

The four top positions at SFP are held by women - something Bradley says challenges the aesthetic from within. "In the same way as I don't want to tell the same story every night, women don't want to hear endless stories about blokes. They want to hear stories that haven't been told. I think we all want that." He feels, like myself and many others, that the West End "shouldn't just be doing musicals, revivals and The Mousetrap. What it needs is a variety of material, and that's where the interaction between the public and private should most collaborate."

There is, of course, a danger of "women's stories" becoming niche. "You don't necessarily want the freelance artist to celebrate their difference if all that means is that they remain different and on the outside," says Bradley. "It's how you get from being someone on the edge to the hub." This, he says, requires an aesthetic seed change: "It helps if there are females running the buildings."

There are some new initiatives for female artists that are beginning to address the imbalance. Mandy Fenton was awarded the Writers Guild Theatre Encouragement of New Writing Award in 2013 for launching Equal Writes, which focuses on "practical and creative responses to the question, 'Which women are we not seeing represented on stage?'"

Their call-out last year attracted over 800 submissions and resulted in a night of 12 short plays that each, in some way, challenged gender stereotypes (my favourite featured a bearded woman at a company board meeting). The event shouldn't have felt niche, but somehow it did. The question is, then, whether female-led plays and productions (like, loads of them, not just one or two per season) can segue from niche to mainstream. But is there actually a marked difference in the kind of work being made by men and women?

You'd think so, considering that of all the new plays staged by 20 of London's top producing houses in 2013, male playwrights accounted for 76 percent of main space productions. "People commonly say that men write large-scale ideas and that women tend to be more introspective," says Bradley. He doesn't think that's true. "It's the size of the concept rather than the size of the show that matters. It's about how big the question is and I don't see why women can't ask big questions. Some of the most difficult questions that have ever been put to me have been put to me by women I've known."

But many of the women I know don't get to ask those questions in the first place. One playwright I spoke to said: "By default I write interesting women, but do not expect to see them produced at the same rate. When I finally wrote a play about boys it was immediately produced. Boring."

It says something that almost all of the freelance artists I spoke to for this article asked to remain anonymous. Kicking up a fuss about gender inequality just isn't attractive to potential employers.

(Image by Ewan Munro)

"Marlene" worked on a piece last year that "relegated women in the room to onlookers". When she tried to point this out, she was shouted at and told that she "speaks in a way that provokes men". "Betty" had her confidence badly knocked by a bullying director during her first professional acting job. "I felt that I couldn't speak up against him because he was 20 years older and very much established," she says. "I was straight out of drama school and, obviously, just a silly little girl."

Casual sexism in the workplace is often more subtle than that, though. One of my favourite anecdotes comes from Nadia Latif, a theatre director, who told me that, aged 22 and working for the first time in a major London theatre, her associate director told her "that no one would ever take me seriously if I continued to wear short skirts and high heels in rehearsals". But Latif wasn't to be intimidated. "I've worn short skirts and high heels to rehearsals every day since and worked almost solidly for seven years."

If we want to change the statistics then we've got to change the culture. Gender isn't a binary concept, but maybe it does make sense to start with men and women as a talking point. The bottom line is that we go to the theatre to see the world through someone else's eyes. Kerbel says: "I love the fact that I can go and sit somewhere and, for 20 quid and two hours of my life, I can experience the world through the eyes of a teenager living in Vietnam in the 1970s or an aristocrat living in Scotland in the 13th century. That's the magic of it for me."

Gender equality doesn't mean battle of the sexes, either. I don't think there's a conspiracy in theatre against anyone who isn't an Oxbridge educated white male. And it's not that there aren't any women in top creative roles. There are more female artistic directors running our theatres than ever before, but as Marlene says, "It's simply disproportionate the higher up the ladder you go."

Things can only get better, right? Well, for the first time, ACE are asking every member of the national portfolio to develop a diversity action plan and report back with their progress. And with initiatives like Tonic Advance hitting the mainstream, change could be afoot.

"There seems to be a good female bias in the 'emerging' bracket," says playwright Ella Hickson, who last year put Wendy centre stage in her adaptation of Peter Pan for the Royal Shakespeare Company. "The real test will be if this sees itself well into the middle career section." I agree with Latif when she tells me that the language around the question of women in theatre "treats being a woman as though it were a minority", but the pro-active fight that my contemporaries are putting up is galvanising. We might not be smashing the glass ceiling quite yet, but we're certainly making cracks.

Rose Lewenstein is a playwright living in London. Follow her on Twitter: @RoseLewenstein

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