Why do Advance?

The answer’s simple; things are still far from equal in the theatre industry. A quick browse through the season brochures of the majority of theatres across the country will show that female names on cast and creative team lists are in the minority. Yes, there are more than there may previously have been, and it might be that in other areas of these theatres – in the admin offices or in the stage management teams – women outnumber men.

But when it comes to what audiences, i.e. the public, see and hear on stage, it remains overwhelmingly written, directed, designed and performed by men.

Of course, theatre is not alone in this. On the public stage, women remain less likely to be seen and heard. At the time of writing, just 147 out of a total of the UK’s 650 MPs are female and, even after David Cameron’s ostensibly ‘female-friendly’ July 2014 cabinet reshuffle, just 23% of full cabinet ministers are female. It’s a trend that remains in so many areas of public life, from politics to sport, the media to publishing, fashion to film, along with the bizarrely outdated and yet stubbornly persistent assumption that male = universal, and female = niche. One playwright surveyed for Advance’s research commented:

“Essentially, men are viewed as people and women are viewed as a minority. I don’t think consciously but subconsciously… Why isn’t sport on the TV news called ‘the men’s sport’ because it’s 95% about men’s sporting events? Yet we see ‘sport’. And if a women gets reported it’s ‘a women’s event’.”

It’s a subject unpacked expertly by Mary Beard in her work on The Public Voice of Women and indeed, it does seem that the female voice when talking about ‘femaleness’ is given far greater space and credence than when talking about, well, anything else.In many ways, day-to-day life in most sectors – not, of course, just theatre – is constrained by archaic practices and preconceptions, often out of step with modern aspirations for gender equality. This country is one in which care of children is still primarily viewed as the responsibility of mothers rather than shared equally with fathers, where there is a tendency for rhetoric to focus on ‘motherhood’ rather than ‘parenthood’, and where negative effects of parenting on career progression appear to be felt disproportionately by women. Although not relevant to parenting alone, our working culture is largely one that has yet to learn how to turn flexible working, part-time working, or job sharing to the greater advantage. Too often, it is a headache for employer and employee alike.

In the grand scheme of worldwide gender inequality, women in theatre are far from being at the sharp end. But still, making advances in how we in the industry work, think and do is something we should not be complacent about. Theatres are public stages, they give us a platform from which to tell stories; to showcase voices, dream up new worlds, and depict all the possible things that human beings might do. The platform provided by theatre is admittedly a smaller one than that of TV, film, or the media, but it is a platform none the less. Those of us who work in it have a choice: we can either use that platform to try to shift things; to tell stories by and about the whole population, not just a small section of it. Or we can leave things as they are. But if we choose the latter, and simply tell the same stories in the same way over and over again, aren’t we – and our audiences – losing out?

“Although the theatre industry is overwhelmingly populated by bright bold women – which is wonderful – the higher you climb, the more the constituency of women thins out. There is still something that is holding us back.”
Director involved in Advance research

“In the press, I’m always the ‘Former-Actress’. You’d never hear them call Pinter a ‘Jewish Former-Actor and Father-of-Three’. No man has ever been written about on paper as a ‘Male Playwright’.”
Playwright involved in Advance research

The Current Picture in Theatre

Loads of women work in theatre, something consistent with the wider arts industries. In fact, ArtsHub research found that in 2013/14 the average person working in the arts was female and 34 years old.

However, while administrative staff in theatres, education departments, and increasingly, stage management teams, are female-heavy, when it comes to theatre’s main interface with the public; what audiences see and hear happening on stage, it’s still significantly less likely to have been written, directed, designed, or performed by women.

Theatre is not unique in suffering from a lack of women in the most visible roles. But where theatre differs to fields such as technology and engineering, is that at entry level, drama is overwhelmingly a female pursuit. Numbers of girls and women enrolled on drama, theatre studies and performing arts courses at school and university level far outnumber boys and men year on year. From a participatory perspective, amateur dramatic groups have traditionally been populated by high numbers of women, as have youth theatres. Tonic’s 2012 research study into opportunities for girls in youth drama found that in a survey of 291 teachers and youth theatre practitioners, three quarters described their organisation as having more girls than boys taking part, or an entirely female membership.

And when it comes to attending theatre productions, it seems women are leading the way. According to research published by Society of London Theatres1 in 2010 , 68% of people attending productions in the West End are female. Among young audience members, the proportion is even higher, with women accounting for 73% of attendees in the 16 to 35 age bracket.

There is a marked difference between the level of women entering the industry compared to the number of those making it to top positions

So there is no lack of women interested in, studying, or attempting to build a career in theatre. But where, it would seem, there is an issue, is in regards to how many women with the requisite talent, commitment and ambition are able to make it up the ladder to the top. How many get beyond student productions, low-or-no-pay work on the fringe, or ‘emerging’ artist status to attain the most visible creative roles, proper pay, professional recognition, and the opportunity to make well-funded work on this country’s best resourced and most prestigious stages? Whereas, for instance, 60% of the young directors who are registered on the Young Vic’s Directors Programme (and who reveal their gender in their personal details) are female, research by Elizabeth Freestone in the Guardian showed that in the 2011/12 financial year, just 26 productions in the 10 highest subsidised theatres in England2 were directed by women, compared to 83 by men.

It goes without saying that creative roles in theatre, like any in the arts, are always going to be intensely competitive, and demand for jobs will far outstrip supply. High rates of drop-off, even among those who start promisingly, are an inevitability and then there is luck to factor in: both in the sense of ‘right time right place’ and the accidents of birth; of family connections, educational opportunities, financial circumstances, and a myriad of other factors. However the marked difference between the level of women entering, or attempting to enter the industry compared to the number of those making it to top positions suggests that it is women who, to a far greater extent than their male counterparts, drop off or fail to progress up the ladder. And, for as long as we refuse to believe than one half of the population is somehow biologically more gifted at writing, directing, designing or acting in plays than those without a Y chromosome, we have to admit that there is something out of whack about our industry that means talented individuals are failing to thrive.

1 The West End Theatre Audience, a Research Study for the Society of London Theatres by Ipsos MORI (2010)
2 National Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Exchange, Royal Court, Leicester Curve, Birmingham Rep, Young Vic, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, Northern Stage

“Inequality is everywhere. I’ve never had anything spoken to my face, but I look at theatre generally, and I see a predominance of male names everywhere, so it doesn’t need to be spoken aloud in order for me to feel it.  In fact, I wish it WAS spoken aloud, so I could respond. Pointing at it and bringing it up makes me feel like I’m whining, or bossy, which cunningly pays into the perpetuation of gender stereotype.”
Playwright involved in Advance research

“Do I feel I was massively disadvantaged as a woman? Yes I do. But there was never anything that happened to me along the way I could put my finger on and say ‘it’s because I’m a woman’.”
Director involved in Advance research

But Aren’t We Making Progress?

Brilliantly, yes we are. In 2013, 11 women directed main stage productions for either the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, compared to two in 2003 and two in 1993. The last few years have seen a wave of new artistic directors coming into post who are actively engaged in the question of how to address gender inequalities, a significant number of these new appointees themselves women.

Artistically, there’s been a reinjection of energy into the exploration of female stories on stage and in particular a desire among some of the country’s leading theatres to engage in sophisticated feminist debate via productions such as the National Theatre’s Blurred Lines, the Royal Court’s The Mistress Contract, and the RSC’s Midsummer Mischief season. In 2013, Tonic’s own book 100 Great Plays for Women was published by Nick Hern Books and sold so fast it had to be reprinted less than a month after release.

But while things are certainly shifting, we’re not there yet. The 11 women directing at the NT or RSC in 2013 is progress indeed, but twice this number of productions were directed by men. And while there are more female artistic directors of theatres than ever before, just 36% of those in Arts Council England’s National Portfolio are women, dropping down to 24% for organisations in receipt of ACE subsidy above £500,000 in the 2014/15 financial year. So while we should definitely celebrate our successes, we should not mistakenly believe we are there yet. Nor too should we fall prey to the “there’s one” syndrome – we see one female playwright having her work performed on a main stage and give ourselves a pat on the back, feeling the work has been done. Across the Advance research several playwrights of both genders commented on media coverage of young, female playwrights in this respect, with one saying:

“There’s a certain amount of fetishising young female playwrights in British media which skews the perception. They seem to be everywhere but actually, it’s just that one has come along.”

An additional threat to further progress arguably exists in the form of arts cuts, and the consequent atmosphere of anxiety in which risk-taking can feel difficult for theatres. While staging work by or about women certainly shouldn’t inherently be seen as ‘risky’, it is easy to see how the programming of ‘box office bankers’ – plays coming from an existing cannon which is limited in the scope they permit for female stories – could easily swallow up increasingly large proportions of theatres’ producing budgets. And as theatres are forced to cut back on the number and scale of productions or increase their co-producing, there will be less work to go round for artists. In tough times, survival of the fittest becomes ever more ferocious. But do we believe in some kind of Darwinian meritocracy of talent; that ultimately, those who possess it will rise to the top? Probably not. Rather, however, it is likely to be Darwinian in the sense that it will be those best adapted to the current conditions who survive and prosper, regardless of whether their talent is the greatest. If we’re not careful, rather than the steady but slow march of progress we’ve been used to towards a more diverse and representative theatre industry, we could find we go backwards. We will have an industry increasingly populated by people who all look, talk, think, and make work, in a very similar way.

In 2012 The Stage quoted outgoing NT artistic director Nick Hytner forecast optimistically:

“One of the things I can predict with confidence is that – looking at the young playwrights and directors in their 20s and 30s – that by the time they get to be in their 40s and 50s the theatre will be, in terms of sex at least, reflective of the audience that it plays to.”

Hytner’s picture of the future, while utopic, cannot be taken for granted. The current wave of young female playwrights and directors he refers to is not the first to grace British theatre, and the challenge will be whether we as an industry can better hold onto them than we did their predecessors so that, by their 40s and 50s, they’re still with us and making work on an equal footing to their male contemporaries. Hytner’s confidence in theatre’s ability to achieve equality is wonderful, even if – when it came to employing female artists – the majority of his own tenure at the most heavily subsidised theatre in the country left much to be desired. But given that Nick Hytner, and many of us, believe that we can achieve gender equality, why not try to speed the process up? Surely that’s got to be better than condemning female artists to another 20 years twiddling their thumbs and waiting for equal access to opportunity to appear?

“I see too many young women who think they’re not good enough and too many young men unable to self-question. Girls are being worn away. Their skills are not being admired.”
Lighting designer involved in Advance research

“There’s no security for us. It’s job by job.”
 sound designer involved in advance research

why focus on top roles?

Of course, some artists – regardless of gender – will always opt to work on the smaller scale, or in a way that receives less public recognition or financial recompense.

Some will love the creative freedom that making work on the fringe brings and will choose to stay there. Others will recognise that their commitment to making brilliant work with a local youth theatre group far outstrips their desire to make a splash in the West End.

But for many theatre artists, economics will necessarily be a driving factor. It is generally recognised that other than for the exceptional few, theatre, and in particular, acting is not well paid. However, with the cost of living escalating, and in particular in London where the greatest concentration of theatre work exists, getting to perform on one of the country’s top stages for £500 a week and a credit on your Spotlight page that says you command a similarly respectable wage – rather than in a room above a pub for no pay at all and the danger of appearing happy to work for free – isn’t just a case of profile and prestige but, pressingly, of financial survival. And it’s not just actors. Getting to direct, write or design a show for a main house rather than a studio space might make the financial difference between being able to keep going in what will always be a precarious field for another year or not. Or between being able to do a job because it covers childcare costs, rather than leaves you and your partner out of pocket.

Some women – and men – will always want to work at a lower level. But for many, if they are going to have a career that sustains them financially and creatively, it simply isn’t an option.

The question of resourcing goes beyond how much a theatre artist earns in a year. It’s also about the level of resourcing in the organisations that do or don’t choose to employ them. A talented lighting designer working in a tiny black box space can create powerful effects with just a handful of aged lanterns. But give them a main stage and a full complement of state-of-the-art equipment to play with and they’ll really show what they can do. Plus, they’ll grow and develop as an artist, break boundaries, push things forward, and generally make the work that enables them to be stretched, fulfilled, and challenged.

In an industry that revolves around visibility and being offered a job on the basis of whether potential employers saw or heard about your last show, being in the most visible slots is key to career progression. As a writer, having your play staged in a theatre’s main house as opposed to its small studio space inevitably has an impact on the level of profile your work achieves; greater audience capacity, longer runs, increased chance of being reviewed by the national press, and a heftier chunk of the marketing and PR budgets go a long way to increasing a writer’s profile, making landing that next commission all the more likely.

So yes, some women – and men – will always want to work at a lower level. But for many, if they are going to have a career that sustains them financially and creatively, it simply isn’t an option.

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What We Did

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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What We Learned

Rather than settling for quick fixes, Advance tasked the theatres to understand not only where barriers to female talent exist within their organisations, but why
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What’s Next?

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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