What We Learned

Tonic’s Advance programme brought together the Artistic Directors, Chief Executives, and senior creative staff of a cohort of eleven theatres.

These theatres recognised that something was preventing talented women in the theatre industry from rising to the top. They wanted to understand why this was the case, and then lead the way in addressing it.

From October 2013 to May 2014, Tonic worked with them to make this aspiration a reality. It designed and guided them through Advance, a six-month period of research, reflection and activity which tasked them to take an interrogative and methodical approach to understanding the root causes behind the comparative lack of women in key creative roles. Rather than settling for quick fixes or advocating a ‘sticking plaster’ approach, Advance tasked the theatres to understand not only where barriers to female talent exist within their organisations, but why.

As part of this process, Tonic conducted research with 641 people who work in the theatre industry. We interviewed, surveyed, and ran focus groups with actors, agents, casting directors, designers, devisors, directors, literary managers, playwrights, and academics, as well as students and tutors on performing arts courses. We also investigated the numbers behind who is making work in England, and on which stages. The findings were massive and far-reaching. There’s probably enough data for Tonic to construct a thesis on the subject, but given our time and budget doesn’t run that far we’ve summarised some of the findings here. Of course, if you’re interested in accessing our data, or talking through the specifics of what we learned about actors, directors, designers, or writers, you can always make a request via the contact page.
+ 10 key things we learned

These are the key themes that emerged across the research.
+ Interesting stats

Also, here’s a roundup of some interesting stats we found.
+ 5 key things theatres can do

We’ve included some suggestions here for what other theatres, learning from the 11 that took part in Advance, might like to do to move forward themselves.

Interesting Statistics

Artistic Directors of theatre National Portfolio Organisations

Tonic looked into the gender of artistic directors of the 179 theatres or theatre companies in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio1. We found:

Gender Balance

There is a total of 188 artistic directors working across the portfolio (some organisations have more than one artistic director, some have none, the vast majority have one). Of this,

63% are male (119)

37% are female (69)

Size of Subsidy

Within the National Portfolio, the size of subsidy varies significantly between organisations. If looking at NPOs in receipt of more than £500,000 in Arts Council England subsidy in the 2014/15 financial year, the proportion of female artistic directors reduces significantly.

Larger Organisations

Of the 46 artistic directors working across organisations in receipt of £500,000 or more:

76% are male (35)

24% are female (11)

Smaller Organisations

Whereas female artistic directors are better represented outside of this top bracket. Of the 142 organisations receiving less than £500,000:

59% are male (84)

41% are female (58)

1 Arts Council England’s first National Portfolio was announced in April 2012, a collection of 696 arts organisations (including 179 theatre organisations) which, having been successful in an open application process, were awarding funding for a three year period, replacing ACE’s Regular Funding programme. The new National Portfolio for 2015 – 18 was announced in July 2014. Further information

Whose work is on the biggest, most visible stages

Tonic selected a random evening, Saturday 13th September 2014. From looking at websites and ‘phoning and emailing theatres, we took a snapshot of the number of men and women on stage and in key creative roles in the 20 top subsidised NPO theatres and in the West End. The results were not promising.

NPO Productions

Of the 24 productions being performed in the 20 top subsidised theatre NPOs2 that evening, women accounted for:

38% of Directors (10)
37% of Performers (78)
8% of Writers (2)
57% of Designers (13)
22% of Lighting Designers (5)
17% of Sound Designers (4)

Creative teams on NPO productions

West End Productions

Of the 20 plays being performed n the West End3 that evening, women accounted for:

29% of Directors (6)
29% of Performers (86)
4% of Writers (1, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap was the only play on stage by a woman)
30% of Designers (6)
20% of Lighting Designers (four productions all lit by the same designer, Paule Constable)
0% of Sound Designers

Creative teams on West End productions

2 National Theatre, RSC, Royal Exchange, Royal Court, Leicester Curve, Birmingham Rep, Young Vic, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, Northern Stage, Nottingham Playhouse, Bristol Old Vic, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Unicorn, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Belgrade, New Vic. The Lyric Hammersmith, Sheffield Theatres and West Yorkshire Playhouse are part of this group but had no performances that evening.
3 Members of Society of London Theatres (Criterion, Saint James’, Aldwych, Old Vic, Geilgud, Donmar, Globe, Haymarket Theatre Royal, Harold Pinter, Duke of York’s, Wyndhams, Trafalgar Studios, St Martin’s, Noel Coward, Duchess, Regent’s Park Open Air, New London, Fortune. NB, the Royal Court, Young Vic, and National Theatre are part of SOLT but have been counted just once, in NPO figures, although NT transfers (Warhorse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) have been included here.

Research into Playwrights

We looked at every new play that received a full production in 2013 across a sample of 12 London theatres: Almeida, Bush, Donmar, Finborough, Gate, Hampstead Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, National Theatre, Royal Court, Theatre503, Tricycle, Young Vic.

Writers having new plays produced

A total of 72 writers were represented of which:

57% were male (41)

43% were female (31)

We then split the theatres in the sample very roughly into two groups: ‘larger/primary spaces’ (Almeida, Tricycle, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Olivier, Lyttleton, Hampstead Upstairs, Donmar, Lyric Hammersmith main stage) and ‘smaller/secondary spaces’ (Gate, Theatre503, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Cottesloe, NT Shed, Hampstead Downstairs, Bush, Finborough)4.

Productions in main spaces

In the writers in the larger/primary spaces:

76% were male (26)

24% were female (8)

Productions in smaller spaces

Whereas for writers produced in smaller/secondary spaces:

36% were male (12)

64% were female (21)

In theatres with multiple spaces

Three theatres within the sample were considered to have multiple spaces: Hampstead Theatre, NT and Royal Court5.

Smaller spaces

Within these buildings, in the smaller spaces (Hampstead Downstairs, Cottesloe, Shed, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs) the majority were written by women.

26% written by men

74% written by women

Larger spaces

Whereas in the larger spaces (Hampstead Main House, Lyttleton, Olivier, Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs) it was almost the inverse.

76% written by men

24% written by women

4 This split is imperfect in certain respects, and there is arguably little comparison between a writer having his/her work staged in say the Finborough and the Cottesloe. However, in dividing the spaces, we were attempting to mark the relative distinctions between stage size, auditorium size, level of prestige, and relative financial risk.
5 Although the new Bush building has more than one space, these spaces are all of a studio scale so felt less useful to include it in this sub-sample.

Who’s Writing What?

In the same sample group as above we looked at the total cast numbers in plays by male and female writers.

Cast on stage

Looking at who performed in the plays included in the sample, we found that a total of 294 cast members were male and 205 were female meaning:

59% of casts were male (294)

41% of casts were female (205)

We then wanted to see who was writing what. From the research sample we took it would seem that on average, male writers write fewer roles for women, whereas on average female writers tend to write nearly equal numbers of roles for men and women.

Characters in plays written by men

Looking at the total cast numbers we found that plays written by men average out at having almost two men for every woman on stage.

65% male (206)

35% female (111)

Characters in plays written by women

While casts in plays written by women averaged out as being roughly 50/50.

48% male (88)

52% female (94)

Are female playwrights less likely to deliver on commissions?

Something many of us involved in Advance had heard given over the years as an explanation for the comparative lack of new plays by women being produced, is that women are less likely to deliver on commissions. Whether this may have been true at some point in the past, who knows, but from the 169 playwrights who took part in an online survey for Advance, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case now.

Have you failed to deliver?

When asked if they had ever failed to complete or deliver on a commission:

13% of male playwrights said yes

12% of female playwrights said yes

Do male and female playwrights earn different amounts?

Looking at proportion of income from playwriting

From the writers who completed the survey, it does appear that female playwrights earn a lower proportion of their income from writing for the stage. For the 12 months between 1st Jan 2013 and 1st Jan 2014:

60% or more of their income

15% of female playwrights said writing for the stage accounted for 60% or more of their income – compared to 26% of male playwrights.

26% male playwrights

15% female playwrights

20% or less of their income

61% of female playwrights said writing for the stage accounted for 20% or less of their income from writing for theatre – compared to 51% of males.

51% male playwrights

61% female playwrights


We were interested to see whether there is a discrepancy between the number of women who embark on careers as directors, and the number who direct at top level. It seems there is.

Young Vic’s Directors Network

There are 1153 people registered as part of the Young Vic’s Directors Network. Of the 1121 who state their gender, 60% identify as female, and 40% as male.

40% male

60% female

Graduating directing courses in 2013

We took a sample of graduates from eight post-grad Directing courses in England and Scotland. Of the 37 students that graduated from these courses in 2013, 59% were female, and 41% male.

41% male

59% female

Directing in subsidised theatres 2011/12

However, in contrast, research conducted by Elizabeth Freestone found that in the 2011/12 financial year, in England’s 10 most subsidised theatres, just 24% of directors were female.

76% male

24% female

Directing with the National Theatre or RSC in 2013

Tonic’s research shows that in 2013, just 33% of directors on National Theatre or RSC productions were female.

67% male

33% female

10 Key Things We Learned

The following points are not exhaustive, but provide a summary of the key themes, ideas, and discoveries that emerged across the research. Some are of course simple common sense. Most are relevant not just to gender, but to the question of diversity and equality far more broadly.

  1. As we move forward, we need to ensure the female artists who rise to the top of the industry represent a range of women; if they all come from the same background or have similar characteristics, there will still be much further to go.
    Gender doesn’t function alone. It intersects with a whole range of other characteristics in a person such as age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability plus elements of their personal circumstances such as financial status, socio-economic background, and geographical location. Because of this, every person needs to be seen as a unique combination of characteristics and circumstances, any of which may combine to impact on the way in which he or she interacts with the theatre industry; it’s far more nuanced than simply saying “women are like this”, or “men are like that”.
  2. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always had.
    There are some really ingrained things in how we in our industry think, work, and make decisions, most of which have been handed down to us from a time when women weren’t anticipated to be equal in the workforce, let alone having their voices and ideas amplified on the public stage. Consequently, many of the barriers to women today are a result of these now outmoded structures. While we don’t need to tear the whole thing down and start again, if we’re going to make changes so we can have a better, more effective and equitable way for our industry to function, we will need to be self-reflective, analytical, and not settle for saying “but we’ve always done it like this”.
  3. If left to occur naturally change will happen, but is likely to be unacceptably slow.
    This will lose us yet further generations of talented artists. Proactively creating change will require work, time, thought, effort and, in some cases, money. But the results will justify the outlay, if not exceed them. Only when it becomes a core part of what an organisation unquestioningly does as part of its minimum standards – like balancing its production budgets, or ensuring its performance spaces are accessible – will greater gender equality happen.
  4. Existing imbalances aren’t purely down to women leaving to have babies.
    Parenthood is a significant factor, but it’s not the only reason women are less visible at senior creative level in the industry. There’s a myriad of factors to do with work-place environments, behaviour, how we perceive art and artists, and who it is we trust enough to make work on the biggest, most visible stages.
  5. Having a diversity of decision-makers in an organisation is just as crucial as having a diversity of artists.
    It is perhaps human nature that all of us will feel drawn towards working with certain people, and that when we make decisions about who to employ, a certain amount of cultural bias will be at play: often we will instinctively select people we feel on a similar wavelength to, or with whom we have things in common. But it’s for this very reason that theatres need a diversity of people in creative decision-making roles; people with different tastes, backgrounds and perspectives, whether that’s on a Board or in a script-reading team. Otherwise, it is less likely certain artists will be championed, or have that all-important chance taken on them when they’re starting out or trying to reach the next rung of the career ladder.
  6. We need to look at where power lies and target our efforts there.
    It may be that part of the solution is in designating additional resources and support for individual female artists. But before that happens, it is crucial that the gatekeepers of opportunity, and those who hold the majority of power in the industry – organisations and leaders – reflect on their role in either inhibiting or promoting equality on their stages. All-female playwriting groups are good, but if no theatres will put on plays written by those women because they have an unfounded fear that their work won’t sell tickets, little meaningful progress will actually be made.
  7. When an organisation tries to create change, there will always be both opportunities and hurdles, regardless of its size.
    Small organisations can often create internal change far quicker than large ones, yet large organisations generally have resources and clout that smaller ones lack.
  8. Sometimes imposing quotas or aiming for 50:50 targets isn’t the right way to go…
  9. … but sometimes imposing quotas or aiming for 50:50 targets is the only way to go.
  10. Equality is not the antithesis of quality.
    Saying you have to employ “the best person for the job” doesn’t work unless you’re really scrutinising what you mean by “best” (and checking it doesn’t just mean who’s most visible, who happens to fit a certain traditional mould, or who is like you!)

“I think Advance has fundamentally given us permission to include the subject of Gender in all discussions. It’s shone a light on the challenges we face and ignited conversations that are now taking place on a regular basis with regard to programming, creative teams and women on stage.”
Sarah Nicholson, General Manager,
Sheffield Theatres

5 Key Things Theatres Can Do

  1. Start monitoring the numbers of male and female creatives they employ;
    It’s the best way to see where progress most needs to be made. And it’s not only about numbers: not just whether the number of women cast during a season equals those of men, but whether the quality and scope of their roles are as good too. Or whether a theatre that stages the work of a healthy number of female playwrights is doing so on their largest stages as well as in their small studio space.
  2. Consider how they build relationships with artists.
    Across the board in our research, the pitching process came in for particular criticism with many artists pointing out that confidence comes in many different shapes and sizes, but that the structure of a 45-minute coffee meeting often precludes many of these from being visible.
  3. Develop mechanisms to better obtain honest feedback from freelancers.
    The research revealed a general lack of transparency between people who work as freelance artists, and people who work in organisations, with the former feeling their employment status is too precarious to proactively initiate conversations with organisations about how they found working in them, and the latter often being too stretched to spend adequate time seeking in-depth feedback from artists. Unless freelancers are given the opportunity to let organisations know anything about their working environment, communication style, working hours etc that has proven problematic or felt uncomfortable to them, those organisations are unlikely to discover where barriers are routinely arising for certain people.
  4. Work collectively to create a more effective pipeline for female talent.
    According to our research, embarking on a career in theatre isn’t necessarily problematic for female artists, but progressing to the same extent as their male counterparts is. All theatres, regardless of size, can play an active role in ensuring the careers of talented female artists don’t stall at certain points (in particular, making the transition from studio spaces to main houses seems to be a real sticking point) by communicating more proactively about which artists are ready to move up from smaller stages to bigger ones.
  5. Consider making gender equality a regular agenda point in staff meetings or Board meetings.
    It’s a good way of stopping the matter slipping out of focus for an organisation, particularly during their busiest periods.

“I was struck by how deeply inequalities are ingrained in the very fabric of the stories we tell – the canon, Shakespeare, male-driven narrative arcs – and not just in the structures of power that deliver them.”
Lilli Geissendorfer,
Producer, Almeida Theatre

The Process

Advance took an interrogative and methodical approach to understanding the root causes behind the lack of women in key creative roles….
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Why Do This Work?

The answer’s simple; things are still far from equal in the theatre industry…
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Next Steps

Do you think we’ve missed a crucial area that should be explored next? Do you have thoughts on Advance? We’d love to hear from you…
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