Thursday 12th November 2015 was a momentous day for Irish theatre and Irish women. The #WakingTheFeminists event at the Abbey was a deafening roar from women who had been silenced for too long, as well as a proud celebration of the amazing Irish women who work in theatre.
I wasn’t in the Abbey on Thursday afternoon but I was following along on social media, from my bus journey into work in the morning and throughout the day. I was a distracted employee, my head and heart were elsewhere. I tuned into the Periscope broadcast for a little while at lunchtime but I found it a bit too emotional. I was in danger of weeping at my desk; weeping with pride for those courageous women speaking up on stage and with joy that they have finally been given the opportunity to say those things. There is a huge sense that what was said were things they’d felt for a very long time, issues that they felt strongly about, but also things they’s been warned against saying. Some spoke about how they had almost come to accept the absence of women on the National stage, they’d almost stopped talking about. And then Lian Bell came along and encouraged them to speak and each voice was joined by a dozen others and then a dozen more. I think the whole experience was cathetic for lots of people, I know I wasn’t the only one with tears in their eyes on Thursday afternoon. It opened up something; something very necessary and long over-due. The fact that 500 tickets sold out in 10 minutes and the over-flow filled the bar, the foyer and the street outside shows how necessary, how longed-for this event was. (Not to mention the 4,680 supporters that have signed the online petition.)
I am in awe of the organisers for making it happen so quickly and run so smoothly. That meeting, that large ticketed event, with 29 speakers from across the theatre sector, with sign-language interpretation, that was recorded and broadcast online live; they put all that together in about a week. It also started and finished on time, or close to judging by tweets and the length of the video. And it was a beautiful theatrical event. I loved that image of the empty stage that slowly filled with women as each speaker sat down after they said their piece.
I love that they included Lucy Kerbel from Tonic Theatre, a UK company set up to help their theatre industry achieve greater gender equality. I love the dance party at the end, that’s included in most of the videos of the day’s event. I also love all that press coverage. This is an organised movement with a lot of savvy producers in it’s midst! And very well connected – so many high-profile men and women from all over the world have shown their support in the last couple of days.
It was also very encouraging to see the incoming Abbey directors – Neil Murray and Graham McLaren tweeting their support on the day.
— Graham McLaren (@MCLAREN_G) November 12, 2015
This is just the first step, I think there’s still a lot of hard work to be done before we see any real change in the theatre landscape. But it’s an incredible first step. It’s so hopeful and buoyant, it’s people working together and being generous to each other, and making change happen. The will is there and the last two weeks have shown that change is possible – the Director of the Abbey recognised and admitted to mistakes in the 2016 programme. I don’t know yet if there are any plans to make changes to that programme, but it’s still a good first step.
And these first steps towards equality are not just happening in theatre. Sexism is being noticed and reported in lots of areas. There was a lot of press coverage around Equal Pay Day at the beginning of the month; Equal Pay Day is the day when women start working for free because of the gender pay gap. It’s Ireland that gap is 14.4%, which means for every €1 that men earn, women receive on average €0.86. Earlier in the week, the Hearing Women’s Voices report came out to say that women’s voices are wilding under-represented on the radio. And on the same day as the Abbey meeting the Irish Film Board issued a press release to say that it “recognises and accepts that major underrepresentation of women exists in Irish film” and declared “its strong and heartfelt commitment to gender equality and diversity as a strategic priority.”
I would like to see other funding bodies make a similar commitment. In September, the Arts Council published their new ten-year strategy, Making Great Art Work – Leading the Development of the Arts in Ireland (pdf). Right now, they are asking people to respond to the strategy and suggest which objectives and actions to focus on in the first three-year plan. Right now, the strategy does not include any references to gender equality. After everything that’s been said in the last couple of weeks, this feels like a grave omission. Working towards gender equality should be a priority in that three year plan. A rising tide lifts all boats, and you can’t make truly great art if you are not supporting female artists.
You can respond to the plan here.