Can the International Playing Field be levelled? When I was at the Women Playwrights International Conference (WPIC) last month, I participated on a panel about ‘Female Representation on Stage – with a focus on female playwriting/playwrights’.The panel comprised of playwrights from Sweden; Sofia Freden, Ninna Tersman, and researcher and drama lecturer Yael Feiler; from Australia; playwright, dramaturg and associate artist at the Malthouse Theatre, Van Badham, and Chris Mead, artistic director of Playwriting Australia, and me, representing the UK.
The main question of the debate was ‘All over the world, plays by women are produced less often than play by male playwrights. Why? How can we change it?’
What resulted was an interesting discussion about how seriously gender equality in the theatre is taken in these three very different countries, with the conclusion being drawn that the playing field for female writers is not at all level from country to country. Below I have presented a summary of what it’s like to be a female playwright in Sweden, and during the next few months I will be researching the same topic for Australian playwrights.
I have also presented some ideas inspired by Swedish practices which could perhaps inspire positive actions in this country.
Equal… equaler… equalest?
In Sweden, gender equality is taken very seriously; in Sweden’s governing Parliament, half the delegates are women. They were declared to be the 4th most gender equal country as of 2011. (The UK is 16th; and Australia is 23rd. Figures from www3.weforum.org)
There has also been a “quite generous cultural politics agenda in general in Sweden for quite a while (since the beginning of the seventies)”, according to playwright Ninna Tersman; “Gender equality in other fields, such as our subsidized children’s day cares, a generous parental leave policy, also influences a general idea about equality in all professions.”
Even so; in 2006 the government appointed a committee to investigate gender equality in performing arts, as it had been overwhelmingly male dominated. Since this serious discussion of gender in the theatre, a lot of positive change has come about.
Theatres have instigated programmes to effect change and highlight inequalities, employers and theatres have joined together to develop courses – including a women’s leadership course in artistic/managing direction. The theatre academies have grouped together behind a two-year study ‘Portraying gender’ that has affected teachers and students. Dramaturgs have rediscovered women playwrights and started putting on forgotten works. Other productions have used gender blind casting and swapped male/female roles to give a different perspective.
How Swedish theatre is funded:
The Swedish government via the Swedish Arts Council heavily subsidises the arts. State funding for culture in Sweden amounts to roughly SEK 5.5 billion per year. Much of this funding, around SEK 1 billion, goes to the performing arts. And this generous funding was very apparent the week I was in Stockholm, with at least 5 free cultural festivals and gatherings all happening around that time.
‘Cultural policy objectives state that everyone should be given the opportunity to participate in cultural life and cultural activities, and also the opportunity to take part in creative activity of their own. Making culture accessible – in every respect – is the overriding aim of the Swedish Arts Council,’ says their website.
Sweden’s actions towards gender parity
Since 2006, when the government instigated their inquiry, Svensk Teaterunion (the forum for co-operation and information within Swedish performing arts,) has documented all professional stage productions, noting the gender of all creative artists and performers involved in any production.
This has given rise to a valuable yearly set of comparable data. These figures are from 2011:
- In 2011 there were 418 theatre productions (63% were Swedish language productions)
- 38% of all plays performed were written by female playwrights
- 46% of all adaptations were written by female playwrights
- 31% of librettos were written by female writers
- 46% of directors were female
- 46% of new Swedish drama was written by women
- 52% of new drama for children was written by women
- 52% of dramaturgs were female
These statistics are already quite impressive, and still the Swedish theatre community, backed by the Swedish government, actively continues to strive for better. According to Ninna, this may be easier in Sweden, due to the fact that “all our regional theatres, state theatres and even the fringe theatres are supported exclusively by state funding. I think this had made it easier for the government to impose various policies regarding gender equality.”
The success of some small but incredibly effective actions taken since 2006 in Sweden, show that it is possible to modify patriarchal institutions, but there needs to not only be a real commitment to doing so, but also a continual and on-going process of monitoring, once the changes are made.
The theatre landscape:
In Sweden, there are over 30 municipal and regional theatres performing theatre, musical theatre and dance, for adults and children. The national stages are The Royal Dramatic Theatre (Dramaten) and The Royal Swedish Opera (Operan), and a touring theatre Rikstearten, all based in Stockholm. There are also over 200 independent theatres. In 2010, the total theatre audience was over six million per annum, out of a total population of nine million. There are 150 writers who are members of the Writers Guild in Sweden who identify themselves as playwrights.
So, I asked Ninna if she thinks it is it easier to be an emerging playwright, male or female, in Sweden? It certainly appears that there is more emphasis placed by the government on the importance of arts and culture. And more of a culture that wants to promote gender equality in all areas of life.
“Our previous social democratic government, (…) initiated an extensive reviewing process about gender issues and the way they were treated and respected both in Theatre Schools and in the theatres. The fact that we’ve also had a fund where playwrights can apply for support when writing plays, that supports female and male playwrights equally, helps too. And that the state funded school for playwrights (StDh) usually accepts two women and two men every second year.
It seems to be easier, yes, to be a female playwright in Sweden – in comparison to the UK.”
Potential actions inspired by the Swedish way:
But Sweden is a much smaller pond than the UK. With far more resources per person allocated to culture and the arts. And a more defined commitment not only to gender equality in the arts, but also to the citizen’s right and need to participate in, and have access to, the arts.
But even with figures that we in the UK dream of, (46% of new Swedish plays written by women!) still they have seen an imbalance in gender roles in the theatre and continue to actively work towards more gender parity.
Are there ways that Sweden has responded to the gender inequality in the theatre industry that could be easily implemented in the UK?
Ideas based on Swedish practice:
These are only ideas for a starting point discussion. Not all of these will be feasible, and some of them could be resisted. However, they could form a useful starting point to a more serious assessment of the gender inequality problem in the UK theatre (and indeed other art forms).
1) Monitor and collect data on the gender split of all creative roles in theatres, including playwrights – this would involve a more in-depth collation and comparison of the data that theatres have a legal obligation to collect as part of the Equality Act 2010 (Specific Duties) Regulations 2011.
2) Get drama schools and universities involved – both to ensure that they study plays by women, and also choose to study plays with a diverse range of roles for women. (It would also be desirable to have more work by women on GCSE and A-level syllabuses.)
3) Develop more ‘Women in leadership’ training programmes for arts/theatre management, plus opportunities for mentoring.
4) Commission a research project to find out where and why the drop-off of female playwrights occurs. There is lots of anecdotal evidence as to why this might be the case, but nothing empirical. Even the 17% statistic is taken from Sphinx Theatre’s study done over 4 years ago, and although this is still approximately correct and has stood steady for the past 4 years, more current data needs to be collated.
Equality in the creators of art is essential to accurately reflect and represent the world we live in. Though women make up 52% of the UK population and 65% of the theatre going audience, very little drama is actually made by women.
Drama and the stories it tells us are crucially important to the way we understand our world. If all the stories being told are being told from one perspective, generally male, generally from a very specific background, then we don’t see the whole picture and the picture we see just keeps reinforcing stereotypes. Theatre is also missing out on new voices and missing out on audiences.
In Sweden, when they saw that theatre was dominated by men, the government, who have a strong commitment to gender equality, started a programme of positive action. Actions taken by the current UK government suggest they do not have the same level of commitment to equality as the Swedish, so it seems unlikely that a Parliamentary committee would be called to investigate this issue.
However, an action that does seem tangible is the creation of a statistical analysis and research project to really find out the size of the gender inequality problem for playwrights – such a project could most likely be instigated by the Arts Council, The Writers’ Guild or Equity. Whoever it is that picks up the baton, we need to start doing real research and crunching numbers, because only once we have hard evidence, can we start asking questions to the theatres that aren’t putting on any plays by women.