Women in Theatre

On 24 April, the Women in Theatre report was released. It is a report commissioned in July 2011 by the Australia Council for the Arts ‘to bring the research on the issue of women in creative leadership in Australia up to the present day, and provide a basis for the sector to discuss these issues and to reach agreement on some strategies to address the situation.’

This fresh wave of interest in this most complex matter was stimulated by the announcement of Neil Armfield’s final season at the then Company B in September 2009. The sight of a stage full of bright young men, and just one woman, got people thinking and talking.

One response was to have the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, usually delivered by one person, given over to a panel discussion, Where are the Women? Is there a lack of women in key creative roles in theatre? On Sunday 6 December, the panellists lined up: Rachel Healy, Alison Croggon, Shannon Murphy, Marion Potts and Gil Appleton, moderated by Monica Attard.

Even that sparked controversy. The Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award is usually made directly after the lecture. Its prize is a Company B commission, worth $10,000. One of that year’s shortlist, Caleb Lewis, withdrew his entry. While speaking of his concerns about gender equity, he claimed that this lecture and award afternoon was the wrong context for a forum on this topic. In an open letter to Company B he wrote: 'I feel that recent events have now overshadowed the award, politicising the announcement of a winner to such a degree that I no longer have faith in the panel’s ability to award the prize without bias.'

The Award was given jointly to Tahli Corin and Caleb Lewis. The decision was reached by the selection panel prior to Caleb’s decision to withdraw his entry. He had been out of reach, on Palm Island, since announcing his withdrawal. He later declined the award.

And so it began. Again.

You’d be wrong to think that this was just an Australian problem. Take a look at the National Theatre's current season. It has 33 writers and directors involved. Only five are women. Or take a look at what’s on Broadway. At the time of the Philip Parsons Lecture and Award, I counted 80 directors and writers, of whom only 15 were women. And this was described by the New York Times as a “banner year for female directors” in New York. The conservative Wall Street Journal published an article last month when the 2012 Tony Award nominations were released called 'Lots of Guys, Too Few Dolls', in which the author was 'reminded of a sad truth: While Tonys are equally bestowed on male and female stars of the stage, there's a colossal gender gap in the honors given to the men and women who create the shows.' In 2002, a report on the status of women in the American theatre was released. It came from the New York State Council on the Arts Theatre Program. It found that just 17% of the plays produced in the USA were written by women. In 2008, the Emily Glassberg Sands thesis Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender sparkled a lot of debate. Her figures are much the same: women wrote just 18% of the plays in production at non-profit subscription theatres in the USA.

And it’s not just a theatre problem. There have been considerable mumblings over this year’s recent Cannes Film Festival. At the 2012 festival, as in 2010, there were no films directed by women in competition, and in the 64 years of the Festival only one woman Jane Campion has been awarded the Palme D'Or. You can sign a petition here. At the Academy Awards, of the 85 times the Best Director award has been given, only four women — Lina Wertmuller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow — have been nominated. Only one Kathryn Bigelow for 2009's The Hurt Locker has won. In 2011, only 5% of the top grossing films in Hollywood were directed by women. The number has decreased since 1998.

There was also an outcry when Triple J’s “Hottest 100 of All Time” was announced in July 2009. There were over 500,000 votes, but not a single female artist chosen.

In 2010, VIDA, an association for Women in Literary Arts, surveyed the world's leading literary journals and magazines and found that, overwhelmingly, they published men more than women. Just two examples: in 2010, the New Yorker had 449 men and only 163 women writing in it; the London Review of Books had 334 men and only 74 women.

And who writes the leading op-eds? In the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, there's good analysis of how opinion is disseminated in the major news outlets:
Women wrote 20 percent of op-eds in the nation’s leading newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal—between September 15 and December 7, 2011... And women were practically absent in the debate of many hard news subjects, with their opinions accounting for 11 percent of commentaries on the economy, 13 percent on international politics, 14 percent on social action and 16 percent on security. Perhaps just as striking, women produced just over half—53 percent—of commentaries on “women’s issues.
I'm reminded of how, way back in 1998, Joanne Rowling's British publishers, Bloomsbury, insisted on 'J.K. Rowling' because it was felt that boys wouldn’t read books written by a woman.

The world of business fares no better. In 2012, only 13.9% of directorship positions in ASX200 companies are held by women, and 64 still do not have a woman on their board, according to the Boardroom Diversity Index published by advocacy and support organisation, Women On Boards. In the UK, a recent survey found that 73% of female managers believe barriers to advancement still exist, compared with only 38% of men. 

The world of government tells much the same story. In the USA, of the 538 elected legislators currently serving in the House or Senate, only 17% are women. In Australia, it's a little better: women comprise 30% of all parliamentarians in Australia’s parliaments. The world average is just 19.6%.

How do we unravel what’s going on; or rather, what’s been going on for a long time?

Let's turn back to theatre. At about the time this new wave of concern first erupted, the theatre maker and actor Margi Brown Ash offered some thoughts on a now defunct blog (ourbrisbane.com). She asked questions in her attempt to sort through the problem:
Is it because as women we are conditioned/encouraged to be more collaborative? Is it a possibility that we are less inclined to embrace the role of director? I would be interested in learning about creative works that do not mention the word director... what is the gender equation there I wonder. I am also wondering if the gender difference shows how the present set up could be seen as traditional, and women are needing a less traditional landscape on which to create? A flexible one that allows her many roles to sit comfortably together... the role of mother and the role of artist; the role of mentor; of carer... rather than wanting to change the figures perhaps we change the system... there's lots of opportunities... so how do we get these multiple opportunities to be fee paying... I think that's the question.
I think that’s really interesting. How do we build a theatre culture that includes the work Margi’s talking about in a way that makes it economically sustainable for these artists? Of course many theatre artists who are women wish to work in the large companies and are happy to be part of those power structures. But many others wish for quite different, much more flexible structures, which we struggle to create.

I was also interested in this, from about this time, from Alison Croggon on her blog theatre notes: 
It's something that post-colonial thinkers as well as feminists note: the internalisation of power relationships and representations by those at the pointy end of them, which itself becomes an entrenched part of the problem. Is it really helpful, for instance, to have equal numbers of women playwrights if the playwrights who are chosen to "represent" women - as inevitably in such circumstances they are - only perpetuate the power relationships that ensure women stay second class? Etc.
And again:
If you pursue simple number crunching without a clear idea of what that means and what this sexism actually entails, both in women and in men, you'll achieve very little aside from creating careers for some few favoured women, which then will be presented as a victory for all women. You will hit some very familiar problems.
The numbers should be much better. There’s no doubt about that. But Alison’s point is that equity in those terms will not guarantee a fundamental shift in our deepest perceptions of women and their relationship to power and aesthetics. And that’s the greater, and deeper, challenge. We’re all familiar with the old promise that supporting the careers of a few selected women will be good for all women. It’s just not true. Years of institutional support of the careers of Gale Edwards, Marion Potts and Robyn Nevin, for example, have not created the seismic shift that’s required. It’s something, no doubt, to be able to point to women such as these, but their presence hasn’t struck at the cultural core of the problem.

Is it because most Artistic Directors are men? Maybe, but I don’t think that’s all of it. Our largest theatre company, Sydney Theatre Company, has been led by a woman for the last 13 years (the last five or so equally by a woman and man). This is enough time to have made a difference, but the numbers there have been no better than anywhere else. This might have something to do with Sands’ finding from an experiment she ran for Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender. Sands sent out unknown scripts by four prominent female playwrights to artistic directors and literary managers across the USA. They were sent under pseudonyms. Half named a man as the writer (for example, Michael Walker), while half named a woman of similar name (for example, Mary Walker). The finding? Female readers gave lower ratings to their own gender more often than male readers. The men rated scripts by either gender equally.

People had a field day with this unexpected finding and it was often reported incorrectly in the media when the study was announced. It was often sensationalised: women artistic directors don’t like women’s plays! The actual finding was that there was a kind of 'prophetic discrimination': women artistic directors in the USA knew plays by women would face bias and thus predicted they would have a lower value. In other words, female readers took into account the perceived bias against female playwrights and by doing so, one might say, helped perpetuate it.

We all, men and women, want to believe in our own objectivity, but we all share conditioning that leads us to often overvalue the work of men and undervalue the work of women. Stories about men, too often, are considered universal, while stories about women, too often, are considered specific.

Would Yasmina Reza’s Art have been produced in almost every theatre around the world in the late 1990s, and translated into over 30 languages, if its three protagonists were women? Would that have made it somehow specific rather than universal, and so less commercially viable? We are conditioned to accept that specificity in male writing is universal, but still struggle with specificity in writing by women. Even women, from an early age, though less and less, are trained to make deep connections with male protagonists. In an environment that makes theatre more and more reliant on box office income, theatres can sometimes assume (wrongly) that the recognisable male protagonist is a safe box office choice.

At Griffin Theatre Company, I programmed Debra Oswald twice and saw first hand how her female protagonists found a large and hungry audience. It was a lesson. Until we become conscious of the assumptions that underpin all these kinds of choices, and understand them, we can’t really move beyond a ‘more jobs for women’ angle. Employment is important of course, but it’s part of a much bigger and complex picture. One we, I, need to understand.

That Philip Parsons forum in Sydney in late 2009 asked: Where are the women? Well, they are in general manager/producer positions all over the country. Why are these jobs so regularly held by women? Is it because these roles require an exceptional talent for facilitation, a quality some believe to be best represented in women? I don’t know. Leigh Small, Sydney Film Festival CEO, suggests that 'some people say the best management style is when a man adopts a female management style,' citing former Sydney Opera House CEO Richard Evans, Sydney Theatre Company general manager Patrick McIntyre and former Bell Shakespeare general manager Chris Tooher as male arts administrators with sympathetic management styles. 

The raw figures at the theatre company of which I am Artistic Director are no better or worse than at any other theatre company of its type. Which means that they are not good enough. The project for La Boite Theatre Company at this time is to open its eyes and to grow its capacity so that we can achieve many better things in the future. These 'better things' include radical intervention in this area of concern. Part of the solution is connecting with the independent theatre sector. Around the world, it's clear that the 'smaller' companies have the best gender equity results, for a mix of reasons to do with flexibility and the nature of risk. La Boite Indie has thrown up all kinds of programming and aesthetic challenges to our thinking, gender and otherwise.

The bigger project, and one much more important than theatre or numbers or who got what job, is to enable the return of the feminine into our culture. We see it happening all around us: in our increasing sense of oneness with our planet, in the growing embrace of the human community in the face of the totalising effects of globalisation, in the widespread recognition of the value of partnership and pluralism, in our developing desire to reconnect with the body, emotions, intuition and imagination, in our increasing appreciation and inclusion of indigenous cultures, and so on and so on. The feminine principle has long been suppressed, we know this, but it’s also clear that the trajectory is towards a great reunion. It is the evolutionary imperative of the masculine. For this to happen, for us to recover our wholeness, there must be, among many other things, a willingness of the male to open himself to things that might shatter all that felt safe. That this project is overwhelming and scary should not deter us. In all areas, and especially in the arts, we must strive to give breath to this essential reconciliation.


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