Feminism and Theatre

Last week I went along to the theatre and feminism discussion at the Gate Lab. I wasn’t wild about their title: “Is Feminism a Dirty Word in the Theatre?” because it seemed too focused on the word feminism rather than the issues faced by women in theatre, but I was looking forward to an interesting discussion. I was not the only one – there was a great turn on the night, of male and female attendees. And thankfully the fantastic panellists – Anne Clarke, Róise Goan, Ingrid Craigie, Marina Carr and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman – didn’t reference the title and just got on with it.

Róise Goan began the discussion with some stats about where we are now and why it’s just not good enough. She said that as a woman working in theatre, she didn’t realise there was a glass ceiling until her head was banging off it. She pointed out that while there are more women than men working in theatre, and the gender balance is even more tilted towards the women in drama courses and youth theatres, as you move up the ladder there are fewer and fewer women in decision-making roles in the theatre. The Gate (our host for the evening) has produced only four plays directed by women in the last 10 years and an equally pitiful small number of plays written by women. The numbers are all pretty depressing but I don’t think any of these stats caused much shock or surprise among the audience. We all know that things are bad; they’ve been bad for a very long time and they don’t seem to be getting any better.

Anne Clark made the point that it’s not just theatre that suffers from this problem; discrimination against women can be seen in all areas of society. Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington’s case against NUI Galway last month demonstrates that it definitely exists in the academic world. It’s also not a new problem. Marina Carr talked about Virginia Wolf’s To The Lighthouse, and the character Mr. Tansey who repeats “Woman can’t paint. Woman can’t write”. She feels that attitude still exists consciously or not, in women’s minds as well as men’s. She herself is sick to the back teeth of being refereed to as a “female playwright”.

The actors Ingrid and Genevieve were also not particularly hopeful. Genevieve said that one of the reasons she wrote Pondling (her award-winning one woman show) was because she wasn’t getting work and had a lot of time on her hands. The lack of work for female actors is also not a new thing. I recently read Lay Up Your Ends, a book about the history of the Charabanc Theatre in Belfast. It was set up by a group of actresses who were fed up about the lack of parts for them on the stage and decided to create their own shows instead. They did not set out to be an all-female company but the government funding they received required everyone in the company to be out of work for a certain length of time and they couldn’t find any male actors that met that requirement. That was in the early 1980s. Ingrid said that she thinks young actresses today have a harder time than she did because they are expected to create a personal brand; it’s about more than just their performance on stage or in an audition, they also need the online presence, the right look, etc, while the media is always on the hunt for the newer, younger, Next Big Thing.

Ingrid described joining the Abbey at the start of her working life. She was part of the Abbey company and had a secure, regular job for three years. There was an audible ripple in the room at this information, it’s an idea that seems almost unimaginable now. It felt like there was a lot of young actresses in the room, just finished their training or still at it, there because they are afraid about what the future holds for them. They know that there are a lot of them and not nearly enough parts to go round.

At this point there didn’t seem to be a lot of optimistic in the room, just a general feeling of resignation at how bad things are. Then we moved on to questions from the audience and there were also a lot of people there who wanted to speak. A lot of the audience were people who worked in theatre – I saw a lot of familiar faces in the room – but there was a good mix of young and old, male and female. I think it could have become a very lively debate, but unfortunately the whole discussion only lasted an hour. It felt like it was just getting started when it was time to call it a day.

Some things that came up:

  1. How things are marketed. A couple of people made the point that work by women is often only marketed at women, and as a result is often seen as less important because it’s for women, it’s something that only women would be interested in.
  2. The use of mentors. This was suggested as something that is working well in tech companies, who have a huge problem with attracting women to that area. Maybe we need something like Women in Film and TV for theatre. WiFTV is a support network for women working in those areas and one of things they offer is mentorship. The Irish chapter has been dormant for a while but has been coming back to life over the last couple of years. You can connect with them here. I’m not sure what shape a theatre-focused organisation would take but I think there could be a need for it.
  3. Using funding to encourage parity. This was taking an idea from film. The Swedish Film Institute aims to have achieved equality in film production in Sweden by the end of 2015. One of the ways they are making that happen is to stipulate that funding provided by the Swedish Film Institute must be divided equally between women and men. This was a controversial idea in the room but some people did voice their support of quotas and forcing things to change, instead of waiting around for it. Personally I am in favour of it. If the Abbey and the Gate were told they had to have an equal number of female writers and directors on stage by 2017 or their funding would be cut, I am sure they would start having a lot more conversations with women in theatre.

And then, just as things were getting interesting, it was over. Any discussion on a topic of this scale is always going to feel unfinished but it felt like there was huge desire to hear more about possible solutions and ways of changing how things are. It felt like the beginning of something, an acknowledgement that things need to change. I don’t know if the Gate plan on running any more discussions like this, but I think there is a need for them. We need somewhere to direct all that anger and frustration and turn it into positive change.

Were you there? What did you think?

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