The gender balance question in theatre

I remember being an assistant director at the Women’s Trust, based in the West End of London in the late 1980s. The director Jules Wright, an Australian director, had organised a week long workshop for new women playwrights at the Royal Court. The playwrights that came forward to lead each day included Caryl Churchill, Sarah Daniels, and Liz Lochead. The idea was to flush out any novice women playwrights and offer them a mentoring week by experienced writers and ultimately give them a platform on which to be discovered.  A great line up of versatile actors were on hand and some strong directorial supports. But very few women playwrights attended. The debate ensued on why, why, WHY? Is it that women write too domestically and they don’t achieve universal truths? Is it that they don’t have adequate role models or formulae to follow? Are they lacking in time due to childcare demands or lacking in confidence due to endemic patriarchy? Is it that men make all the decisions and the way women write plays does not appeal to them or mean anything to them. Why? It has to be something and it is troubling because plays are a form of expression that reflect our current living conflicts. And we do not countenance the option that women do not experience conflict or are less articulate than men in other literary forms. So why?

I deduce that women are demoralised by and feel excluded from the process; that is from the process of developing and producing a play. They are dependent on a producing body and the process that body endorses. This should involve connecting with artistic leadership that embraces insight, sensitivity and imagination as well as theatre making experience. For its own sake, that is for the sake of the play. The playwright makes themselves vulnerable and they take a chance that they will be handled with care, respect and guided in the best way. It is a fragile thing.

What they don’t need is management speak. Audience target breakdowns, projected income, cost of the cast, options to double and reduce characters, persuasion to use local actors and avoid accommodation costs, challenges to the length, comparisons, boxing in, marketing and packaging.

Of course male playwrights go through the same, but, hearing them speak, I think it is a bigger deal for women. It is business but it is a sensitive one.

And the less plays written by women or for women, the less women are invited to direct.

I also deduce that women directors are demoralised by and excluded from the process of engagement. They end up doing their own thing. I have. I arrived from the UK having achieved a respectable level of professional credits. My last gig was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, in Leeds, then run by woman Artistic Director, Jude Kelly. She was one of a handful of women ADs that were in office and both vocal and fervent. I came to direct at the Lyric in Belfast and then at Druid, and then back to Bath Theatre Royal and the Lyric Hammersmith. All good. And then I moved here. And interest in me died. I was interviewed by the men-at-the-top of the day and told that I would find it hard to get work, as I was neither Irish nor an international celebrity director. There were few women writers, directors and ADs in the UK, but there were only two full time women directors in Ireland, and only one building based. And she had to be vocal and fervent as she was in such a minority. She did not have an easy time, but has done it her own way.

I resolved to create my own arena and it has taken me sixteen years. The men have never come to see my work, some of which has been class, even award winning (‘Green’, ‘Complexity’, ‘Iron’, ‘Kiss of the Spiderwoman’, ‘the Woman Destroyed’) and, like every director’s catalogue, there have been  casualties too (‘Mother Courage’) which I am glad they didn’t see.

I have started The Complex as a place to create new and original work. It is led by women, that is women artists and we cross the arts disciplines. There is equal representation at staff and Board level of women. There are nine artist’s studios and equality in the occupants. We aim to build an amazing programme next year and in it to make our own work. One new play is commissioned so far from a male writer but I will direct it. Two further commissions are under discussion with women playwrights. Last week Strive Theatre Company performed ‘In Salt Rings they Drew’ written by Sadhbh Moriarty, a promising new playwright. I think they found a positive reception at The Complex. There is more of that to come. Please keep the faith. Be vocal and fervent.