A Turning Point in Irish Theatre

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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.

EmptyStage

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.

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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.”

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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.

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Them the breaks

[This is long and a little bit rant-y and I still didn’t include half the things that have flitted across my brain over the past week. If you’re short of time, skip to the end where I have included a few suggestions towards action. Also, I am aware that it’s not just women who are discriminated against in the arts, and in the world at large. Theatre is dominated by middle-class, white, able-bodied men. I’m writing about discrimination against women because that’s what I know, and because I want to add to the conversation that’s happening and keep up the momentum that has built over the last week. I expect/hope that getting more women in positions of power will help to open the doors to all, particularly because women have experience being the Other and the Outsider.]
Fiach Mac Conghail ‏@fmacconghail Also, sometimes plays and ideas that we have commissioned by and about women just don't work out. That has happened. Them the breaks.

Because I’m still on my holidays, I haven’t been spending as much time in front of my computer as I usually do. I saw the reactions to the Abbey’s Waking The Nation announcements on Twitter before I read anything from the Abbey. And maybe because I’m in holiday mode (ie had a few glasses of wine), I didn’t pay much attention to it. There’s nothing new about women being ignored by the big arts institutions. The Abbey isn’t even the worst of them – at least they included a few women. You have to go a long way back to find the last time the Gate staged a play written by a women. But then the discussion didn’t go away. There were more comments on Twitter and conversations on Facebook. I realised I needed to take a closer at this before weighing in with an opinion.

I went to the Abbey’s website and looked at the programme and I read the press release and then I got angry. The more I read, the angrier I got. The programme is described as “an exciting roll-call of new Irish voices alongside major revivals of the some of the great plays from the Abbey Theatre repertoire”, but doesn’t include a revival of a great play by a woman and those new Irish voices are almost all masculine. In 2015, that is a disgrace. I am particularly disappointed that all the revivals are by men. This suggests that nothing written by a woman in the last 110 years was deemed worthy of inclusion. Then Fiach’s comments on Twitter just added insult to injury. He said he programmed the things that spoke to him, and they just happened to be all written by men. That’s just not good enough. When you are the Artistic Director of the National Theatre with €8 million of taxpayers money to spend, you should feel obliged to include the voice of half the population, even if it isn’t to your personal taste.

Pointing out sexism is a bit of a hobby of mine. In my experience when you tell people they are being sexist they get defensive. The Abbey was no different. While defending this bit of blatant sexism, a lot of the blame was thrown back at women – there was the suggestion that if they were good enough, they would have been included; that the plays weren’t ready and it would be unfair to the playwright to stage them; that there were just more good male playwrights to choose from. The other thing that surprised sexist-deniers do is point out all the things that they have done for women. In Fiach’s tweets he listed the plays by women that have been programmed since 2008 (all nine of them, three by Marina Carr) and the female to male ratio of the New Playwrights Programme (13 out of the 24 writers were women). It’s always the same – sexists will blame women or deny the sexism is happening. Nobody has ever turned around to me and said “oh, you’re right! I hadn’t noticed. How did we let that happen?”

Because I don’t think it was done on purpose. I don’t think Fiach is intentionally or maliciously keeping women off the Abbey stage but I do wonder if he didn’t notice the lack of female voices or just didn’t think it was important. If I was feeling generous I might say that it’s understandable not to see this lack of women as something unusual or unacceptable. For a long time, leaving women’s voices out of public discourse was the norm. We live in a patriarchal society and those attitudes are ingrained at every level and in every aspect of our society. Patriarchal attitudes are insidious, they are so deep in our brains that we are mostly unaware of them. That’s why we have work against those unconscious attitudes and biases.

This means that, if you think there are no suitable plays by females writers that fit into the big centenary programme at the National Theatre – try harder! Find the one you dislike least or spend more time discovering and working with female writers until you find one you do like – don’t just shrug your shoulders and say “Them the breaks”. That’s not good enough. You need to do more. Some might say that’s not fair – why should they spend more time working with women or cultivating female talent? If it’s all about equality, then shouldn’t the women be treated exactly the same as the men? But the cards have been stacked against women for centuries and because of those insidious patriarchal attitudes women still aren’t regarded the same as men. We need to take the time and effort to balance the scales. And now is the time to do it.

Quotas

The mere mention of quotas tends to makes people uncomfortable. I understand that, I used to feel the same way. But as I saw how how slowly things are changing – sometimes the change is so slow if feels like we are going backwards -I changed by mind. I’m impatient; I would like to see a more equal society within my lifetime and I think quotas are necessary to make that happen. Change is uncomfortable, so the fact that quotas provoke that response means they must be a good thing.

People are against quotas because they are afraid they will allow unworthy women to get things that should have gone to more deserving men. My instinctive response to that is; I don’t care! Again, it’s about balancing the scales. If quotas move us towards gender equality, then the risk of hiring a few under-qualified women is one I’m willing to take.

I also think that the chance of that happening is really small. There are loads of very talented, very capable women out there who are not getting the breaks they deserve because our patricachical society favours men and has done for centuries. There are loads of statistics that prove that this bias against women exists. If you believe that there are less women in politics or running companies or making work for the Abbey stage because they are just not good enough, you are dismissing a long history of sexism and you need to read up on the subject. Or you know, just believe women when they talk about their lived experience of sexism. The #WakingTheFeminists tag on Twitter is a good place to start. And if you think any woman who gets a place at the top table after the introduction of quotas is not going to work incredibly hard to prove that she belongs there, you obviously don’t know that many women.

In order to see make real change in gender equality in the arts, I believe we need quotas and that they should be linked to funding. Either the programme is 50% female, or you don’t get the money. That would speed up the rate of chance! As a kindness to those who can’t cope with the word quotas, we can refer to them as targets instead. This is what the film funders did in Sweden. When Anna Serner became CEO of the Swedish Film Institute in late 2011, she announced that by the end of 2015 Sweden would seek to have equal gender funding in all productions – the first country in the world to do so. At the time of this announcement, 26% of funding went to female directors. That was almost doubled and they reached their target ahead of schedule in a mere two and a half years. Targets work and it would be wonderful to see that sort of commitment from the Arts Council of Ireland. That’s my big pipe-dream plan for change. Here are a few other smaller suggestions.

Actions towards change

1. Go and see work made be women.
I’ve already talked about #FairPlayForWomen here. There’s also a Facebook group and a calender of events with lots of suggested shows.

2. Open Space meeting.
I love the conversations and sharing of personal stories that’s been happening on Facebook and Twitter over the last week. I’ve felt very connected and engaged with the Irish theatre community over the last week. So many voices saying the same thing makes it clear that this is not a small issue and it’s great that those voices have been amplified by Lian Bell. (This article is a good summing up of things that have been said already.)

Now we need to meet in the real world and start making plans. (No doubt this is already in the pipeline.) I think we should do this in an Open Space meeting on the theme of gender equality, something similar to the Devoted & Disgruntled meetings that happen in London each January. Theatre Forum have also hosted Open Space events around the country, though generally without a theme. I’ve been to a couple and I think the form would really suit this discussion. The agenda is set by those in the room, but everything is recorded for those who can’t attend. Actions are agreed on for each topic and a person is chosen to get the ball rolling, and keep it rolling.

3. Riot at the Abbey.
In her piece for the Irish Times, Una Mullally suggested it’s time for another riot at the Abbey. I’m not sure how I’d feel about walking out of or disrupting a theatre performance. It would feel disrespectful to the actors and other artists, as well as the audience. Am I too timid for this revolution? I suggest a picket line outside the theatre on opening night instead.

4. Theatre of Change Symposium
In response to Una Mullally on Twitter, Fiach said that women will be represented in the Theatre of Change Symposium in January. I really enjoyed the Symposiums over the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to the next one. But anyone included in that programme will get at most 90 minutes to speak to a fairly niche audience. (It’s more likely to be a 20 minute presentation, followed by a Q&A.) It’s not the same as a 4-6 week run on the Abbey stage. I think Gender Equality needs to be a topic included in the symposium. At this stage, it feels like the least the Abbey could do.

In the meantime, we will keep shouting about it. We will remind everyone that this is not acceptable behaviour. It’s time to stop feeling unsurprised and start feeling outraged. We have to keep talking until we are listened to. Hopefully nobody will have to throw themselves in front of a horse this time before that to happens.