In this guest post, Lindsey Nicholas considers the current playwriting gender balance outside of London.
Is this a case of smoke and mirrors? Every time I hear about a new play written by a woman being produced, I am encouraged to think we are winning the battle for better representation in our theatres. But it is not all that it seems.
In the regions at least, nearly all productions are written by men. I don’t say this without evidence. In East Anglia, where I live, the Autumn 2013 season at the Mercury theatre, Colchester has a mixture of revivals and new commissioned plays. Out of 7 productions, 6 are written by men, one 10 minute short is by a woman. At the Wolsey in Ipswich it is the same trend (12 productions, at least 10 written by men) and perhaps surprisingly, at High Tide Theatre in Halesworth, a major recipient of Arts Council funding for the development of new writing, all the plays in its 2013 festival, which were developed to production (5), were written by men.
Beyond East Anglia, I find the situation is the same in the Midlands (Coventry Belgrade (7 male, 1 female), Nottingham Playhouse (4 male 0 female)),and in the North (Theatre Royal, York, 11 male, 1 female (one night only), one co-written); Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, 6 male 0 female), I could go on.
But it must be better in London? Well, a qualified yes. There do seem to be more female writers presenting on the main stages, although I don’t claim to have audited these fully. Often though, a female presence can be misinterpreted. Mandy Fenton, of Equal Writes, recently noted that an article in the Evening Standard billed the new season at the Young Vic as ‘dominated by female performers and directors’ when in fact the gender parity was fairly equal. In addition, all the plays were written by men.
I wonder why this is still happening, decades after writers such as Caryl Churchill, spurred on by the feminist movement, gave us plays which put women right at the centre of the theatrical experience? The theatres I mentioned in East Anglia have male artistic directors. Is it simply still the case that men are better at telling their stories (in the bar?), are more confident about using their contacts, and can connect with male directors about issues and dramas in a way that women simply can’t? I’m sure that what’s happening is to some extent, unconscious, but it is the unconscious processes that often most powerfully impede change.
I have often wondered if women need their own theatre, to more fully realise their presence, to more fully explore and value their own responses to the idea of theatre. This seems to already happen on the margins. There are many fringe companies currently dedicated to innovative, often small-scale plays by women. Also, the one area where women do seem to find it easier is in the crossover to performance art. The Wolsey, Ipswich ran the Pulse Festival in 2013, where there were a much greater number of performance art/theatre shows, often one woman shows. So do women need to define more closely how exactly this kind of theatre can transfer to the bigger stages? And would a separate theatre be better able to leverage change within the established organisations, where there is clearly very little movement?
These are interesting questions. For now, it seems to be down to writers themselves, such as Sam Hall at 17Percent, dedicated to changing a very bad statistic through regular showcases of women’s writing, to explore the issues. She suggests that close monitoring of gender ratios in theatre writing could bring about improvement. This has worked well in Sweden, for example, where in 2011 46% of new plays were written by women. (Yes, 46%!). For my own part, it is almost as if the situation has been invisible – so yes, greater attention to how exactly publicly-funded organisations commission new plays and adaptations is vital to restoring women’s voices and stories in our theatres. I’m sure the Arts Council would agree with me.
* Lindsey Nicholas is a playwright and drama teacher living on the Suffolk/Essex border. Her blog can be found at www.magicpool.wordpress.com. She is interested in expanding opportunities for women in theatre and would welcome collaboration and discussion with other practitioners, particularly in the Eastern region.