In the last couple of days there has been a bit of a storm brewing over the lack of roles for women in plays produced in the UK in subsidised theatre, as part of Equity’s campaigning into equal representation of women in drama. (The Guardian sums up the past couple of day’s developments here. The comments also make pretty interesting reading.)
This isn’t a new topic. As indeed the topic of the under-representation of women playwrights in the UK theatre isn’t, which is what started me off with 17Percent. We have to admit it is a complex issue, which has come up every year since I have been looking at it, and there are no overnight fixes. We are looking at the brick wall of a society based on patriarchy, and this includes the arts. Looking at numbers of women working in most walks of life; for example, the boardroom, in politics or directing films is equally horrific. Before equality can be reached in the arts, we need it elsewhere.
Chipping down the wall will take a while, but it can be done. Things are starting to change, frustratingly slowly for a lot of people, myself included. But they ARE changing, which is why I keep mentioning how exciting it is that female experts are all over BBC TV, with their metaphorical picks in hand.
For the audience to vote with their feet is one solution – go and see a play by a woman or a play with good roles for women as often as you see plays by men or plays with male-dominant casts. I try to do this, it’s difficult though – historically there are simply more plays written by male playwrights, and more parts for men; as seeing a man in the lead role is what the audience is used to. And the people who commission things are generally deeply conservative, they stick to a formula of what is safe, and what is known.
I recently did some work in a school, and following this experience I’ve started thinking that we need to do more to encourage children to think outside of the status quo. Instead of encouraging girls to love pink, and boys to play football, promoting, according to PinkStinks.org.uk ‘a dangerously narrow definition of what it means to be a girl’ (or a boy); children need to see men and women in less stereotypical roles in all kinds of media.
Put plays/films/TV on with roles for women, but make sure they are good roles. Show us all areas of women’s experience. And make it compelling.
We need more women writers so that different voices are heard. But let writers of all genders tell the story through whoever best serves the story. Women don’t just want to write about women, but at the same time, why is it a problem if they choose to? Male writers are just as capable of writing roles for women, and need to do it a bit more. I want to see compelling drama. I want to write compelling drama. And if the character the writer creates is outside of their experience or gender… isn’t that what a writer’s imagination is supposed to be able to do?
The intention with She Writes showcases was always to make sure there was an equal or plus ratio of female to male parts. So far we have showcased plays with about a third more roles for women, as they were the best plays submitted. Due to the nature of short plays there are quite often only one or two characters, and we have received lots of great female monologues – however, in no way could the plays be described as solely about the ‘female experience’. We have had aliens, a Nordic bard, a map-obsessed couple, an Elizabethan food taster, a grieving widower, a ghost, and Adam and Eve!
In the last batch of 8 plays we had 9 roles for women and 6 for men. You can see them here on the YouTube channel. The issue of equal representation on stage is one that isn’t going to go away in a hurry. Drama should be a mirror held up to society and until we see more women in all aspects of life, the positive changes that are occurring will appear to us as frustratingly slow.