What We Did
“Although our specific question was about leading parts for women, we ended up discussing and considering far wider questions about the way in which our industry works and how our day to day practices might be (inadvertently) contributing to ongoing inequalities on stage and backstage and preventing women from taking an equal artistic place at the forefront of our theatre culture”
Jenny Worton, Artistic Associate and Lilli Geissendorfer, Producer
Tonic looked at every new play given a full production in a sample of 12 London theatres (Almeida, Bush, Donmar, Finborough, Gate, Hampstead Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith, National Theatre, Royal Court, Theatre503, Tricycle, Young Vic) in 2013. For each piece of new writing they noted the male/female character ratio and plotted that against the gender of the playwright.
What We Learned
There are roughly the same number of new plays being produced by women as by men but there was a significant difference between where these plays were being produced. A new play by a man is more likely to be produced on a large stage and a new play by a woman is more likely to be produced on a smaller stage. The discrepancy is even more significant within buildings with more than one auditorium.
The research also showed that across the sample of new plays produced by these 12 London theatres in 2013, of those written by women, 52% of the cast were female and 48% were male. In those written by men, 35% of the cast were female and 65% were male.
What We’re Doing in Response to What We Learned
We need to consider finding both short and longer term actions which gradually reduce the discrepancy and think about to what extent, as a venue with a larger stage, we are impacted by the ‘different stages for different genders’ finding of the research.
Although we attempted to explore whether it was possible, we were not able to adequately define what constitutes a ‘leading’ character, because different people defined different characters in the same play as leading. Without this information we are drawing conclusions based primarily on quantitative not qualitative evidence. That said, we did feel that there was enough of a difference in the statistics to make our broad conclusions significant. As well as aiming to commission an equal number of female and male playwrights, we also feel that it is worth raising the question of parts for women in each of our commissioning conversations. Whilst we believe that writers must be free to create work without the onus of fulfilling quotas, we wonder if there is an unconscious bias towards creating male characters. Consequently, we will aim to simply raise the question of female characters as we are in the process of commissioning both male and female writers. In so doing it will be interesting to see whether this affects the statistics for the number of female parts created.
Is This Work a Step Towards a Bigger Goal?
Ideally we would like to explore whether there is an unconscious (or conscious) assumption about the way we expect to receive narrative and meaning. We suspect that the difference in the number of parts created for women is less about the way writers conceive story as the way theatres programme work and potentially the way audiences receive it. The questions we’re interested in talking about in the long-term are to do with the notion of why many more stories feature male protagonists than female and the extent to which this crosses forms from theatre, to television, to film, to novels. For example, is the current success of theatre adaptations from prose an attempt to look for inspiration for leading female characters in a different body of work (as compared to the theatrical canon)? When we consider archetypal character journeys, do we simply have many more male than female examples? In spite of some powerful female characters within our canonical texts (Shakespeare, Greek tragedy) has the dominance of male characters given rise to a way of thinking about drama which is now at odds with modern society? Is it relevant that as an art form, we tend to look back to reviving classic texts as much as we look to the creation of new narratives?