“I took decisions based on who I admired and wanted to work with” – Fiach MacConghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Something exciting has been going on in the Dublin theatre scene this past week. #WakingTheFeminists ignited as a response to the release of the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 “Waking the Nation” season, which came close to pretending that women have no creative role to play in the history of Ireland, past or present. That response has been immediate, well-organised and passionate. In the ongoing conversations it is now generating, I would like to see the above quote, part of MacConghail’s initial reply to being queried, given some attention, because it encapsulates so much about power, prejudice, and the way the arts functions.
Flash back to Sydney in 2001. Long ago, but not that long ago. One of Australia’s most prominent directors, Richard Wherrett, gave a speech complaining about the standard of theatre in Sydney, in which he said, “Should political correctness, which I assume is driving the STC’s selection of women directors, be banned?” Roused to defend the establishment that had made him one of the country’s most produced playwrights, Louis Nowra wrote a response that included, “The real reason for there being more women directors is not so much a deliberate policy, but the natural process of filling a vacuum left by young male directors, who would rather work in film.” It should be noted that this agreed excess of female directors was nothing like equal numbers, it was merely more than the strict one-per-year that was standard at Company B, Belvoir St Theatre at the time. Everybody knew that women would never get a look in, in creative roles at Belvoir until Neil Armfield left (I suspect a similar feeling about Dublin’s Gate theatre is present). Neil programmed according to what excited him, and nothing could be better counted on to make him look like he’d been doused with a bucket of cold water than to show him work created by women.
I bring up these examples despite their age (Wherrett is dead, Armfield is no longer an Artistic Director with hire power, Nowra still occasionally puts out public statements that he is not at all sexist, see, he has a wife) because the comments they felt free to make show the same flavour of careless contempt as we see from MacConghail. The assumption was that they didn’t even need to make a case for assuming a female director meant a second-rate one, or that a male director was preferable. Just as MacConghail felt it was obvious that who he would rather work with would be who we would rather see. Just as he didn’t see the need to question why he only admired and wanted to work with men. Those who have been successful enough to rise to the top creative programming levels have done so through relying on their own tastes and instincts, but nothing is more subject to whim than instinct, and nothing is more subjective than taste. The similarity of these men, on opposite sides of the world, with immense power to shape startlingly similar cultural systems, shows us how much the continued lack of women in senior creative roles in the theatre is a direct result of a decades-long refusal to see talent when it arrives in the body of someone who doesn’t remind them of themselves.
In Sydney, Darlinghurst Theatre got quite a lot of flack recently for its imbalanced 2016 season, but it is far from alone. Sport for Jove has remained relatively unscathed for even worse numbers (no female playwrights, one female director for a one-act piece that seems to be a curtain-raiser for the full-scale productions), but if most of your plays are directed by the Artistic Director himself it gives you something of a loophole. The Griffin theatre, with a female Artistic Director, and experimental, progressive agenda and a policy of presenting exclusively new Australian writing has still programmed four male playwrights and one female for 2016 (though their numbers are better for directors, and were also much better in 2015). The Ensemble is consistently the worst, and quite openly has no plans to address the issue. Niall at TheatreSydney.info offers a cup of tea and a biscuit to anyone who programs equal numbers (the “Tell ’em They’re Dreamin’ Award“), but openly expects his bikkie stash to remain all his for the foreseeable future. Here too, there has been a spontaneous, collective decision that patience has been a virtue for too long. #WakingTheFeminists has a sister movement in the Women In Theatre and Screen initiative (WITS) in Sydney, brand new and very promising.
Attention to raw numbers is only the beginning, comparative profile matters even more. It remains too easy to pass women the sop of a development that goes nowhere, a staged reading, or a try-out in a minor space. Many articles have repeated the “one play by a women out of ten scheduled” statistic, from the Abbey’s 2016 season, but the single female playwright mentioned, Ali White, is contributing “a specially commissioned monologue for children”, designed to introduce The Plough and the Stars to students. So basically the smallest possible investment of resources or predicted exposure, the lowest profile thing they could give an artist, and the most minimal production costs. So children can learn about a play written by a man. Patrick Lonergan has taken considerable trouble to examine the Abbey’s record of staging female authors on their main stage, as opposed to their supporting performance spaces. Comparing again to Belvoir’s history, it was nothing short of outrageous the way Kate Gaul was perpetually handed the tough sell to direct. Each year she would knock it out of the park, and then get another new work, low-key production while the glamorous classics would go to the latest bright young man. She has still never been hired by a major theatre company to direct a Shakespeare piece, despite doing several creditably with her own company, while the bright young men continue to mangle star vehicles on the enormous stages of the STC.
There are certain fields of human endeavour that have a history of struggling to attract women. There are many valuable conversations going on right now about why girls with loads of science and maths potential drop out of STEM subjects during their teenage years, or how software design companies could be made less hostile to women. Theatre is not one of those fields. I have taught enough university and tertiary vocational training courses to know that the vast majority of young people who make an initial commitment to careers in theatre are girls. Applications to drama training courses, Arts degrees, creative writing courses, university theatre, co-op theatre, fringe theatre, community theatre, women dominate at basically any kind of theatre making up to the point where someone is engaged in a paying creative role. Then it suddenly reverses. When you have ten women for every man showing up, and yet ten men for every woman being hired, those cries of ‘best person for the job’ make no sense whatever unless you are just really old-fashioned, slap-on-the-back-of-the-head sexist. If arguments that there just aren’t enough qualified women around to choose from are specious when they come from someone planning a tech seminar, they are ludicrous when coming from someone programming a theatre season.
This is where a shout out is due to independent Irish companies like Rough Magic, Pan Pan, Corn Exchange and Druid, who have been putting women as well as men into their creative development journeyman positions for years. It is due to their genuine engagement with change that there is now no excuse that there are not sufficiently trained and experienced women available. Remember, too, that all those companies have women in senior creative positions who could be drawn upon by the Abbey and the Gate: Joe Dowling was just about the only person doing Shakespeare in Dublin for years, but if the Abbey want to memorialise his contribution they could easily have put it off for a year, and brought Lynne Parker in to direct Othello, to balance the 2016 program (not to mention the value of the fresh take she would certainly bring to the urgently current themes in that play).
It has been a great personal pleasure for me to see so many of my former students, as well as current students and staff of my alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, taking a leadership role in this action. After Lian Bell initiated the concept, Maeve Stone, Oonagh Murphy, Roseanne Lynch and many others have been working to spread the word, and this video was made by students at Trinity. It also makes a huge difference that the men who stand to benefit from statistics skewed in their favour, like Wayne Jordan and Loughlin Deegan, have immediately and decisively spoken up in support. Maybe this is out of a belief in justice or the National Theatre as having a responsibility to genuine representation of its nation, but just as likely because they have worked closely with many talented, inspiring women, and want them to have their due.
Sydney and Dublin have so much to say to each other in the present moment. Now, we work to turn hope into happen, growing from this shared ‘click’ point. Those who are making the effort to make noise need to keep it up, and not let it disappear as the dust settles. Dublin women should know that Belvoir St Theatre took one season to go from one woman directing per year to half the season. All it took was a change of Artistic Director. Brenna Hobson wrote a cathartic article in the Guardian that showed her pride in the new version of the company she leads. Whichever city you are in, it is time for the change to happen now, and all the way. We are way, way beyond the point of conversations about working towards some vague future ideal. We have the women who direct, the women who write, and the women who are damn good at it. Those with the capacity to make decisions need to realise that there is no reason for them not to begin full diversity of representation now. The history of women in the arts is the history of people being grateful for less than they deserve. That, in itself, could be the best thing we decide to change.