First Thought Talks at GIAF

I wish I could have spent more time in Galway during last month’s GIAF but all I managed was a couple of day trips. I saw Arlington (a love song), which was dark and twisty and very Enda Walsh, and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a high-energy belter of a show with a fantastic cast and great songs. I also went to one of the First Thought Talks in Aula Maxima: “All the World’s A Stage – Can Theatre Define a Nation“, a big topic which I thought was particularly relevant in our big centenary year. I liked that the people on the panel were from different nations – The Guardian‘s theatre critic Michael Billington, Neil Murray – a Welsh man who was Artistic Director of the Scottish National Theatre until he took up his new position at the Abbey this summer and Cathy Leeney, the token Irish woman, who teaches drama at UCD. The panel was chaired by Cathy Belton. It was a really interesting, wide-ranging discussion that touched on loads of topics and I think she did an excellent job facilitating that.

There were copies of Michael Billington’s book 101 Greatest Plays available to buy after the talk and they talked a little bit about the book, particularly about the plays that he had left out. He said that a lot of people were very upset with him for leaving out King Lear. He also left out Waiting for Godot, instead choosing to include Beckett’s All That Fall. He was however, very complementary about Druid’s production of Godot, crediting it with making him see the play in a new way. (Sidenote: I didn’t even try to get a ticket to Waiting for Godot. Partly because I feel like I only just saw in the Dublin Theatre Festival but also because of my embarrassing tendency to fall asleep during Beckett plays. I knew I wouldn’t be able to doze off undetected in the Mick Lally Theatre, it’s too small to the potential for embarrassing myself too high to risk! If there is another run I will try and get a ticket because I’ve heard such good things about this production that I feel confident that it will keep me awake!)

There was also some discussion on the plays Billington did include, particularly where they were from. As a proud Welshman, Neil Murray was disappointed that there were no Welsh plays in the book, though Ireland was reasonably well represented. Nobody mentioned of the number plays by women on the list but I did a bit of research afterwards and found that the 101 plays included only five by female playwrights, which is not a great ratio. There were more plays by Shakespeare on the list than by women. The five plays written by women were The Verge by Susan Glaspell, Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, Men Should Weep by Ena Lamont Stewart, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and Top Girls by Caryl Churchill. Billington does write a little about the lack of women and how he made his choices here.

The discussion about how to represent the nation on stage began by asking how theatre in the UK can reflect the nation after the Brexit Referendum. Michael’s suggestion was that it should become more European; bringing European countries to British stages, saying to those companies and to the UK audiences – we are still part of Europe. There was also the flip-side of that, which was the Scottish National Theatre taking show into communities, 10 SNT shows premiering on the same night on 10 different stages in various locations around Scotland, and how this gave the communities and the audiences a more tangible sense of connection with their national theatre. I wonder if theatre is always outwards looking and aspirational, does it lose that connection?

I was eager to hear what one of the incoming directors would have to say about our National Theatre. Murray described the Abbey stage as being “highly charged” and that he was interested in seeing new companies bring work to that space. He also seemed interested in seeing lots more new work and new writing on the Abbey stage, which would be a break from tradition. This is a theatre that has staged three different productions of The Plough And The Stars in the last seven years. As Neil Murray said that’s “not a criticism, just a fact.”

WTFatAbbey

Once talk turned to the Abbey, the WakingTheFeminists movement was not far behind. There was praise for all the work they have done in drawing attention to the sexist bias that exists in theatre so we can start working to change it. Someone else pointed out the other types of diversity that disappeared through funding cuts in the last few years, namely theatre companies representing cultural minorities that lost their funding during the recession and now no longer exist. Pan Pan’s 2006 production of The Playboy of the Western World, in Mandarin with an all Chinese cast was mentioned as a show that brought a non-white, non-Irish audience to the Project. If theatre is attempting to define or even just reflect a nation, it should reflect all parts of that nation.

There was also some discussion about ways to get young people into the theatre. Partly by changing what is on the stage, but also by offering cheaper tickets or free tickets or pay what you can tickets. All of which I am very much in favour of! I particularly liked the suggestion of selling last minute tickets at a greatly reduced price. The Abbey do this for Cameo Club members – €10 Standby tickets, Monday – Friday only, 30 minutes prior to the start of any Abbey Theatre show. Sadly it’s not available to everyone because you must be a student or aged 26 or under to join the Cameo Club.

There are interesting times ahead for theatre in Dublin. The change of personnel at the Abbey and at The Gate will shake things up a bit. WakingTheFeminists is already shaking things up, read this article to see what they’ve done so far. There will be lots of interesting repercussions coming out of that movement and I’m looking forward to them. In terms of Brexit we don’t know what the repercussions of that will be. Right now, the main effect it’s had to bring a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds – will it be harder for Irish theatre makers to go to the UK, long-term or just to tour? I studied drama in the UK, will that become more difficult for Irish people to do? The only concrete change is that the pounds is currently really weak against the euro, which I’m sure Irish artists in Edinburgh this year are pleased about! I don’t think the rest of it will be so positive.

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Nollaig na mBan

Tomorrow, January 6th is Little Christmas, also know as Women’s Christmas or Nollaig na mBan. Traditionally it’s a day for women to gather and go out for the night or host a party for female friends. #WakingTheFeminists have declared it a day to celebrate women and have been encouraging feminists to use the day to plan a get together.

There are events happening all over Ireland, and the world. There’s a list of events on the #WakingTheFeminists website and a few more are popping up on twitter. All events are open to feminists of all genders.

One of the objectives of these gatherings is to talk about what you’d like to change. I’m missing the #WTF events tomorrow because I am going to another Nollaig na mBan celebration in the Irish Writers’ Centre, so here is my list of changes.

What changes would I like to see?

  • Gender quotas. As I wrote at the beginning of November, I still think that funding decisions based on gender quotas would help to balance the scales in terms of the number of women making work. Money is a great motivator.
  • More stats. I really like the infographics about the number of male and female writers and directors who have worked at the Abbey in the last years. It makes the unbalance very clear and it’s hard to argue with statistics. I’d like to see more information on the people who are submitting plays to the Abbey. When the controversy around the Waking The Nation programme first happened, one of the questions that appeared on social media again and again was “but how many women applied?” Because the Abbey have a policy of accepting unsolicited scripts, and a Literary Dept to read them, it would be interesting to get some information about those playwrights, things like gender, age, location.
  • I found Brian O’Bryne’s blogs on childcare and sexual harrassment very interesting to read. There’s obviously a lot of room for improvement in both these areas. I love this piece by Tara Derrington and I would love to see an Abbey creche. As well as catering for actors in rehearsals or auditions, it could also offer childcare options to artists having meetings in the Peacock cafe. Bullying and harassment are against the rules in every workplace but things can be trickier in the theatre, for all the reasons that Brian points out on his blog. The #WTF website includes information on this issue. It shouldn’t be acceptable in any job and it certainly shouldn’t be “part of the job”.
  • More feminists in government. I don’t see the #WakingTheFeminists movement as being only about theatre or only about the arts. The aim is more equality in general. Voting for feminists in the next general election (which will hopefully happen sometime this year!) is one way to move closer to that goal.
  • It would be great to see an organisation like Women in Film in TV for the performing arts. An organisation that offers support and mentorship to female artists, promotes equality in the sector, provides networking opportunities, gathers statistics and can act as a lobbying body, and with a membership structure to pay for all those things.

What am I going to do?
I’m going to keep talking about it, I’m going to keep supporting female artists (I have tickets for three female driven pieces in First Fortnight – Enthroned, Overshadowed and Alison Spittle Discovers Hawaii) and I’m going to vote for the feminists in the General Election.

Happy Nollaig na mBan and here’s to a more equal 2016!

#FairPlayForWomen

Last Wednesday the Abbey Theatre announced Waking The Nation, their 2016 season and there were immediately comments being made online about the total lack of gender balance. Only one of the ten playwrights featured is female, and there’s only three female directors. Four days later, the conversation is still continuing on Facebook and Twitter which I think is fantastic. This is not going to go away any time soon. Lian Bell did a sterling job of collecting responses from the theatre community last night (Oct 31) – have a look at her twitter stream here or follow the #WakingTheFeminists tag.

I do plan on writing about it, it’s just taking me a little while to get my thoughts in order. This is a placemarker post with some suggested action! It’s one of things that came up in conversations online – instead of just talking about this injustice, what can we do to make it better? Tanya Dean‘s suggestion was to put your money where your mouth is and see more work by women.

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This is really easy to do because, despite what the Abbey programming might suggest, there are lots of women making great theatre in Ireland right now. As I said in my last post about Feminist Film Festival, I think it’s important to support female artists and because it’s the first of the month, I thought I’d do a short list of work by women on this November.

Foxy, written by Noelle Brown and directed by Oonagh Murphy.
Project Arts Centre, 27 Oct – 7 November

How to Keep an Alien, written by Sonya Kelly and directed by Gina Moxley
Civic Theatre, Tallaght,  6 & 7 November
Axis, Ballymun, 27 Novemnber

Dusk Ahead, created and choreographed by Jessica Kennedy and Megan Kennedy
Project Arts Centre, 6 & 7 November

New Addition:
Wrapped, written an directed by Tracey Martin
Civic Theatre, Tallaght, 10 – 14 November

The Bells Of, written by Barry McEvoy and directed by Louisa Sanfey.
Theatre Upstairs, Nov 10 – 21

Separated at Birth, written by PJ Gallagher, Joanne McNally and Una McKevitt, directed by Una McKevitt
Mill Theatre Dundrum, November 28

Through A Glass Darkly, adapted for the stage by Jenny Worton and directed by Annie Ryan
Project Arts Centre, 12 November – 5 December

It is a very Dublin centric list, though How to Keep an Alien and Separated at Birth are both on tour throughout the country. (Links above will bring you to full list of tour dates.) Please let me know if there’s anything you think should be included.

NewWritingFestFinally, there’s an opportunity to see new writing by men and women during the New Writers Week at the New Theatre, 9 – 14 November. You can enjoy a new play every night at 7.30pm, Monday – Saturday. Three new plays by men and three by women – fancy that!

Christmas Wish-List

As the end of the year approaches, I decided to look forward instead of back and rather than write a review of the year just gone, I wrote a Christmas wish-list for Irish theatre in 2014. If you would like to read a review of theatre in 2013, I recommend Patrick Lonergan’s Irish Theatre Highlights 2013.

In the meantime, here’s my wish list.

1. More plays by female writers, on the big stages and small.

Shush by Elaine Murphy, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 2013
Shush by Elaine Murphy, premiered at the Abbey Theatre in 2013

I feel like I’m always banging on about this but it is important! It’s been a pretty good year for female playwrights. Elaine Murphy became the third woman since the 1930s to have a play on the Abbey main stage when Shush opened earlier this year, while Deirdre Kinahan has enjoyed great success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. At the same time it’s worth remembering that women make up 51% of the population (in the theatre community I think they are more in the majority), but we don’t see their stories onstage and I think that’s wrong. It’s an embarrassing wrong that should be corrected. One way to do that it to programme more plays by women because this will encourage more women to write plays. Role models are important. When Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile in 1954 it was a significant achievement. However, his record lasted less than 2 months because suddenly people knew it was possible and set out to break the record.

2. I’d also like to see more plays by non-Irish writers on our stages. Irish theatre does run the risk of being too inward looking. Let’s expand our repertoire with Irish interpretations of great international plays. Patrick Lonergan made a lot of good points when he wrote about British drama and how we don’t see those plays produced in Ireland during the summer. Let’s see an Irish production of a Lucy Prebble play (Enron) or a Laura Wade play (Colder Than Here, Other Hands, Breathing Corpses), or a Polly Stenham play (That Face, Tusk Tusk). Let us see more great plays by non-Irish writers. I would also love to see some Anthony Neilson, Jez Butterworth and Dennis Kelly plays on Irish stages.

3. More money for the arts. A wish-list doesn’t have to be realistic, and it would be wonderful if there was an increase to Arts Council funding next year but I would settle for no more cuts to funding in 2014. The arts allocation in Budget 2014 was 7% less than the previous year. (Source: Theatre Forum newsletter.) As the cuts keep happening year after year, those who are still struggling on have become “the lucky ones” as so many companies have already gone to the wall. More cuts next year, mean more companies, venues and organisation will be forced to shut up shop and that lose of experience and talent could take years to build back up again.

4. In a related point, I’d like to see more plays with big casts in 2014. Lack of money and more profit-share productions means that small casts make sense, often with only one or two actors. This sort of restriction can and has lead to wonderful bursts of creativity and fantastic performances. I have seen some wonderful one-man shows this year – Man of Valour, Solpadeine is my Boyfriend, Howie the Rookie, Pondling, and the granddaddy of them all Silent – but it was also nice to see a stage filled with actors in the Abbey’s productions of King Lear and Drumbelly or the Gate’s Threepenny Opera. Rough Magic had a big cast in The Critic by enlisting the students from the Gaiety School of Acting and Trinity’s Players and I’m looking forward to seeing their production of The Rise and Fall of The City of Mahagonny.

5. My final wish is for more hopeful and inspirational plays in 2014. This is a bit like putting “a surprise” at the end of your Santa-list. I’m not really sure what I want, I just feel that recently Irish plays have tended to be a bit bleak and miserable. The Hanging Gardens at the Abbey almost ended on a hopeful note and then turned darker and sadder in the last few moments. Fishamble’s Guratanteed! was a fantastic piece of theatre with wonderful performances but the factual story was so hopelessly depressing that I felt reluctant to applaud them at the end. Really what I want is a more hopeful country – I want us to look forward and upwards and I’m hoping if we can manage it on the stage, maybe we can manage it in life in general.

Wishing you and yours a very happy New Year. And if you have any wishes for 2014, feel free to share them below.
2014