Aoife Duffin in Spring Awakening

Aoife Duffin in Spring Awakening

Founded in


1998 (As Oxford Stage Company) 2005 as Headlong

Artistic Director

Jeremy Herrin

Since 2013

Headlong logo


Headlong creates exhilarating, award-winning theatre for audiences across the UK. We interrogate the contemporary world through a programme of fearless new writing, radically re-imagined classic texts and potent 20th century plays. We position the next generation of theatre makers alongside artists of international standing and challenge them to create the most inventive theatre they can imagine. Headlong places digital innovation at the heart of what we do; building unique online experiences to sit alongside our productions and enrich our audiences’ engagement with the work.


Company type: touring

Company Type


Headlong tours work nationally and internationally

Public funding graph

Public Funding


Arts Council England subsidy for the 2013/14 financial year.

Location: London





Opened in 2013


Core staff

Our Question

Does our current commissioning model suit men better than women? If so, what could we do about that?”

Like a lot of theatres, Headlong has favourable gender statistics when it comes to numbers of women employed across the company, but less favourable statistics when it comes to women taking key roles in creative teams. We are committed to improving this in the future and in order to move towards this aim, we are first looking at how we can improve gender balance with writers. Over the last 7 years, Headlong have produced 9 new plays (5 written by men and 4 written by women) and employed 11 writers to do new versions of existing plays (8 male writers and 3 female writers). Overall this works out at 35% female writers to 65% male.

What We Did

“The fact that there was an almost scientific approach to Advance felt really reassuring. It feels that with the proper data we can work out where the blockages are and we can do things about them. So rather than it being this big, generalised, slightly fearsome subject that no one wants to get involved in, it’s feeling more realistic and one we can do something about.”
Jeremy Herrin, Artistic Director


We put out surveys to both male and female writers and to agents, we held discussion groups with male and female writers, met with Literary Managers from several other participating theatres and did some number crunching on our previous productions.

What We Learned

The results of the research clearly demonstrated that there is an industry-wide disparity between male and female writer’s – on average, female playwrights write more plays, get fewer plays on and get paid less. It was also clear that women perceive that they are treated differently because of their gender (60% compared to just 25% of men).

What We’re Doing in Response to What We Learned

Identifying the exact cause of the disparity was difficult to pinpoint but we did identify these key areas which we feel we can address:

  1. Supporting the current crop of exciting female voices from the studio to the main stage.
    A number of very exciting female writers have emerged in the last 10 years, many of whom came from the Royal Court and many of whom our Artistic Director, Jeremy Herrin has already worked with. We want to ensure that these writers develop from the studio to the main stage which means investing in their development and giving them commissions which enable them to stretch themselves – for example giving young female writers their first adaptations of existing plays.
  2. Improving the way we work with writers on commission.
    There was a clear message from all the writers (both male and female) that theatres don’t always communicate well with writers about commissions that are given. As a result, writers don’t feel they can share work at early stages, don’t ask for development time if they need it and in some cases don’t deliver at all because of lack of contact. Nearly all the writers were basically unsure of what theatres structures were regarding writers commissions.
  3. Improving the way we talk to female writers.
    Feedback from the female writers, both on the survey and in the discussion groups, suggested that women are getting confusing and often quite off-putting messages from theatres about ‘what women write about’ quite early on in their careers. Several women reported being told – ‘women write this sort of play/men write that sort of play’ and several women reported being told their work was intimate and suitable for smaller stages when they felt it wasn’t. Several agents also supported this view. Women also appear to feel a pressure to ‘not write’ about particular subjects because they will be too female.
  4. Improving general writer information/first access.
    A generalisation no doubt, but one of the more worrying things which came up from the research was that some writers had a worrying lack of knowledge about how the profession works and had some odd perceptions about what theatres wanted from them. This appeared to come from a lack of sharing knowledge with other writers.

Is This Work a Step Towards a Bigger Goal?

Our ultimate aim is to achieve gender equality in creative teams across our organisation. We will start by targeting writers, but intend to move on to directors where we would like to achieve gender parity amongst freelance directors. We would then like to move on to looking at ways of working with more female lighting and sound designers. We have already achieved gender parity with regard to set designers and core staff members.

“I found it really inspiring, to be in a room of people who were setting their minds and their imaginations to what feels like a particular problem. It was wonderful to be with a group of people who, by hook or by crook, are going to change the landscape. And by starting to talk about it and articulate these problems and to voice some of these questions, I think that change is already in process.”
Jeremy Herrin, Artistic Director

Advance – An Eye Opener

Written by Sam Potter, Creative Associate at Headlong

The greatest benefit of taking part in something like Tonic’s Advance programme is in having your own perceptions challenged, and that was certainly what happened to me. Headlong were late to the party in joining Advance. The programme had started two months before I was appointed, and one of my first decisions as Headlong’s Creative Associate was to approach Tonic’s Director Lucy Kerbel and ask her if we could join the group.

We already knew that gender equality was going to be a priority for Headlong moving forward and I wanted us to be at the forefront of any movement for change happening within the industry.

I started out considering myself to be a fully signed-up member of the campaign for gender equality in the theatre. When I was the Literary Manager at Out Of Joint, prior to joining Headlong I had conducted my own research into female writers. I had written an article for The Guardian about my findings. I work in a key role within a company where I am able practically to make change happen. I didn’t have anything to learn, did I?

Well, as often happens when you genuinely open yourself up to new ideas, it turned out that, in fact, I did.

At the first away day session I attended, at the National Theatre Studio in January 2014, one of the first things to challenge my thinking was the Gate’s research into women working as sound and lighting designers. I had been focusing on directors and writers – it’s the area of the theatre I am in a position to effect – but realising the figures for female lighting and sound designers were so much worse, really made me think. It made me fully appreciate that change can’t just come for one group of women. It needs to come for all of us. It can’t just be about the people with their names at the top of the posters, it’s got to be about the whole profession.

The away days carried on challenging me with interesting questions; could technical rehearsals be run differently to the macho three-day-blitz model we tend to favour in the UK? Do we pay and schedule the parents we employ appropriately? Should we, as theatre companies, be more transparent about our gender statistics? Are quotas the only way to enact actual change? Do we view male and female directors differently? Should we encourage the Arts Council to keep more detailed information on gender statistics amongst freelance staff? Could we create a London-wide childcare scheme that enables actors in London to help one another? All important and stimulating food for thought.

From Headlong’s own detailed research into how we could work better with female writers we discovered that though the statistics could tell us what is happening, they didn’t tell us anything about why.

The answer to that question lay entirely in the grey areas – the female writer who feels stifled because she feels she can’t write about domestic subjects; the writers who think they might not have progressed because of their gender but have no proof; the woman who lacks confidence to pitch but doesn’t know how to do it differently.

From looking at the problem in this complex way we were able to identify significant trends amongst writers and respond to them, which is why this year at Headlong we will be launching two new long term initiatives for writers – a writers group (kindly supported by Charles Diamond) aimed at supporting writers from studio spaces onto our main stages, with a particular focus on female playwrights and a three-year partnership with Blacklisted Films, aimed at developing Emerging Writers.

The biggest thing I got from Advance however, was the initial thrill that came from walking into a room on the first day and discovering that the RSC, the Tricycle, the Almeida, Pentabus, The Gate, Sheffield Theatres, ETT, the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Young Vic and Chichester were all just as concerned about improving gender balance in the theatre as we were, and that they were all just as committed to making it happen. That first moment gave me a thrill of optimism that change was possible. This hasn’t left me and it has been crystal clear from everything we did with Advance that change has to come from an industry-wide movement. It’s not possible for any one company to address gender inequality alone. We have to work together because we are so interconnected. The brilliant lighting designer working at the Gate today will almost certainly become the brilliant lighting designer at Headlong in the very near future.

The genius of the Tonic Advance programme has undoubtedly been the bringing together of lots of different theatres to address this complex problem together.

Sam Potter, Creative Associate, Headlong

Creative team employment stats

Why do this work?

The answer’s simple; things are still far from equal in the theatre industry...
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10 key things we learned

We investigated the numbers behind who is making theatre work in England, and on which stages. The findings were massive and far-reaching...
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5 key things other theatres can do

Practical suggestions for what other theatres can do to move forward themselves...
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