By mornayoung, May 20 2015 06:31PM
When the CATS awards were announced last week, I felt an all too familiar disappointment as I read the nominees. There were, of course, wonderful names and brilliant productions. But the all male list of nominated directors and playwrights showed, yet again, how rife the gender imbalance in theatre is.
Lynn Gardner recently published this blog titled “In 10 years nothing has changed for female playwrights – it’s time to act”. It’s a well informed but frustrating read. What stood out for me most was the term “organised forgetting” coined by playwright and academic Julie Wilkinson. Essentially, many hoped that equality would come ‘in time’ following progress made in the 70s and 80s but a lack of continued commitment has stalled this effort.
I am a female playwright. I am friends with many gifted female artists who, quite frankly, are not given the opportunities they deserve. Over time, I have heard numerous ‘excuses’ as to why women playwrights remain unequal to men in the industry. Apparently women don’t pitch as well as men. Women can’t write about political subjects. Women in their 30s leave and have babies, why invest in them? Blah dee blah dee blah. Most of these reasons are so innately sexist that I’m ashamed to even type them.
People live in fear. Fear of criticising an employer and losing a commission. Scared of commenting about critics in case they get a bad review. Worried about challenging those who hold the balance of power. I understand this. I had a terrible theatre experience in the past where I was treated appallingly and experienced blatant sexism. I felt bullied, vulnerable and, honestly, I didn’t know who to turn to. People don’t like it when you rock the boat. Keep your head down and get on with it. That’s what I did and I’m not proud of it. This is where my biggest problem with the arts lies. Most of us like to think that we’re progressive left types. We fight injustice. We lead campaigns and challenge politics. We’re very good at speaking eloquently about unfairness. And, yet, I don’t think this is necessarily echoed in our own work environments.
I originally trained as a journalist because I believed (as a naïve teenager) that reporting was an honourable profession. I imagined myself exposing injustice and fighting the bad guys. All too soon did I realise that the media wasn’t the vehicle of truth I imagined. The elite at the top hold the power. In recent years, I found a new way of telling the stories around me through theatre. I was perhaps naïve to think that the media was honourable but I see no reason why theatre shouldn’t be.
In November last year, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced her new 50/50 cabinet after “pledging to put equality at the heart of government”. Here we are in Scotland with a uniquely balanced Government. Has this great feat trickled into the arts? A simple answer: no.
Theatre prides itself as being at the forefront of politics but change only happens when people pledge to make it happen. Let’s put this to scale. We’re not talking about defeating poverty. We’re not talking about tackling the bankers or austerity. We’re not talking about changing the world. The challenge that lies before us is actually one that is easily fixed with a bit of time and careful planning. It is not an impossible situation. It’s not even a particularly tricky one. We have an abundance of wonderful female directors, playwrights and theatre makers in Scotland. They are out there. So why aren’t they represented?
Venues and organisations have a responsibility to ask themselves this question. In England, Tonic Theatre’s Advance Programme has been working with 11 theatres including the RSC and The Young Vic to bring concentrated change to the gender imbalance. The 11 theatres involved recognised that something was preventing talented women in the theatre industry from breaking through. They wanted to understand why and to pave a way for tackling this. Advance asked theatres to consider what barriers exist within their organisations that prevent female artists from prevailing. They asked them to monitor statistics.
We cannot keep taking part in the “organised forgetting”. It is everyone’s responsibility to address this and challenge patriarchal institutions. All too often, venues and organisations hold the power. Artists shouldn’t be afraid of the places that present their work. At the end of the day, what is a venue without artists? It’s just a building. Yes, we need them to showcase our work but they need us too. That relationship should not and cannot be one sided. Venues and organisations have to adapt their thinking. They can, very simply, make alterations that permanently change the gender landscape in theatre.
Every year, I attend some sort of women in theatre event, be it play readings or discussions or showcases. These are the types of events that I should be heralding and, yes, it is wonderful for women to have this kind of platform. All too often, however, it feels like these become tick-box “that’s the women’s contribution done” and we all go on our merry ways, back to business as usual. These events have little standing unless theatres actually embrace and incorporate the discussions and feedback. They have to back up a conscious effort to address the gender balance otherwise they simply become excuses for not programming enough women because they’ve had ‘their slot’. I’d also like to point out that, often, women aren’t paid for their contribution to these events.
I am proud to live in Scotland with our 50/50 Government but I would be even prouder to work in an industry that embraced, relished and showcased their commitment to equality. Women’s events are a temporary solution. We need long term monitoring and plans. I’m all for embracing 50/50 quotas but venues and organisations have to take the lead. Gender imbalance in theatre isn’t exclusive to Scotland or the UK. It’s echoed around the world from France to the US. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a country that was used as a positive example of gender equality?
In Sweden, gender equality is taken seriously. They were declared to be the 4th most gender equal country as of 2011 (The UK is 16th. Figures from www3.weforum.org). In Parliament, half their delegates are women – sound familiar? In 2006, the government appointed a committee to investigate gender equality in the performing arts as it was overwhelmingly dominated by men. A vital part of this was gathering data that allowed yearly comparisons to be made. By 2011, 46% of new Swedish drama was written by women. The success of some small actions showed that it is entirely possible to embrace gender equality in theatre with strong commitment and an ongoing monitoring process. This is exactly the lead we need to follow in Scotland. It isn’t good enough to know there’s a problem and to simply forget it. Know the problem and then, for goodness sake, take steps to bring about positive change.
Awards like the CATS will continue to showcase the gender imbalance if programming doesn’t change. Indeed, we essentially accept under representation every time award lists like this are published. Venues and organisations must start to monitor their statistics and consciously consider the problem. Critics need to criticise inequality. If you programme an all male season (playwrights, directors and actors too) then, clearly, there is an issue. If you claim not to know enough talented women then try harder. Go out into the world and find them. They’re there. Form relationships. Nurture and develop the talent. Ask artists what you can do to help foster links. Women are not a minority and it’s important to remember this. At 52% of the population, we are a desperately under-represented majority.
I don’t want to go to the theatre to be reminded that, yet again, women are unequal. I don’t want to see a continued focus on white male stories written, directed and performed by white men. Theatre shouldn’t look like Westminster. It should be diverse and representative of the world we live in. I want to live in a fair and equal country and I most certainly want to work in a fair and equal industry.
Change is possible but we need commitment and ongoing evaluation. We need to celebrate our female talent and remember those that history forgot. We need to lose the fear of asking questions and, instead, open up legitimate dialogue between artists and theatres. Only then will we see tangible results.