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many areas of public life, from politics to sport, the media to publishing, fashion to film, along with the bizarrely outdated and yet stubbornly persistent assumption that male = universal, and female = niche.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?