And if you can’t be bothered reading, the basic point is that Equity have written to 43 artistic directors of subsidised theatres (including the Hampstead Theatre, which both of these links refer to) drawing their attention to the gender imbalances in their programming. To the fact that play after play they are offering more work to many more men than women actors, showing many more male characters than female.
So. At a time when young women are being denied education in some parts of the world, when women of all ages are being told they need to cover their hair/their faces/themselves so as not to offend men of various religious sensibilities, when women are being ‘correctively’ raped to shut them (us) up, when abortion rights are being systematically dismantled in parts of the US – why are Equity making a fuss about how many women we see on our (publicly funded) stages?
Because it’s all joined up. Because if here, in nice liberal (ish) Swiss Cottage (it may be called the Hampstead Theatre, but it is in Swiss Cottage) – and in the 40-odd other theatres across Britain that Equity has sent one of these letters to – women are not seeing ourselves on stage, it is damaging to women in places where life is much much worse. If we do not see ourselves here, if our daughters do not see themselves reflected, then we too, lose power. We lose the power to help the other women who desperately need our help.
When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that the people running our world (count the women in the front benches if you are at all unsure) DO NOT NOTICE WHEN WE’RE NOT THERE. That they think men (and yes, white, middle class, middle aged, able-bodied men at that) are ALL we need to see. We are reminded they think that we women – who buy more than 70% of theatre tickets after all – are fine with seeing season after season of theatre (and films, and TV) written by men, about men. Or even (and this is where it gets really interesting) written by women about men. The young women playwrights currently in the ascendency have clearly noticed this, noticed that they are likely to be taken more seriously, that their work is more likely to be produced, if it’s about men. Just as the young women directors are directing plays about men. (It’s certainly a way to make sure you’re not lumped in the ‘women’s writing’/'women’s theatre’ ghetto. Sigh. Assuming it is possible to be in a ghetto made up of 52% of the population?!)
I’m very interested in finding out which other theatres are on this list. The other theatres where the programmers also didn’t even notice they were only putting men on stage. That’s assuming there was no actual intention to ignore the ticket-buying theatre-going population of women, and I’m sure there wasn’t, I don’t believe it’s intentional at all – it’s just ignorance, which is possibly even worse.
And aside from all that, aside from the idea that it would be lovely to sit in a theatre and see a representation of my gender on stage (in the past week I have seen GATZ, The Sluts of Sutton Drive at the Finborough, and Matilda, and can report, happily, I saw plenty of women – in all our multiplicity – including drag) … apart from all that, if you write a play with mostly or only men in it, if you cast a play with mostly or only men in it, if you direct a play with mostly or only men in it, the statistical likelihood is, you will get a piece of a lesser standard. There are many more women in Equity. There are many more plays with many more roles for men. It’s basic maths to work out that means men of less skill are getting roles while women of more skill are sitting around waiting for a part to be written or staged that will give them a job.
Except, of course, we’re not sitting round. That lack of work is exactly why so many of us became writers ourselves, why we became directors, started devising, creating our own work. Or simply left the theatre and moved into comedy or TV or radio or film or novel writing. Because it’s too painful, too hurtful to be ignored time after time. To be told ‘the canon’ doesn’t have work for women. Well no, if you will insist on doing your all-male Shakespeares then we don’t even get those roles with our name on*. If you will insist on writing plays with ten men and two women. If you will insist on producing work that time and again ignores the people (women) WHO BUY THE TICKETS.
And there, my women friends, IS a solution. We could just stop buying those tickets. Or set up a quota system of our own. For every show with only or mostly men on stage I will buy tickets to three more with only or mostly women. For every time I attend another play written by another usual suspect bloke (some of whom are men I’m personally very fond of, as well as their work!) I will make the effort to hunt out (because it often is an effort) and support the work of a new (which doesn’t always mean young!) woman playwright. And for every time a theatre continues to slap me in the face by programming yet another season of work by and showing men – I may just choose to go to another theatre. We are the monstrous regiment of ticket buyers, we should use that power.
It’s not just the Hampstead Theatre, not by a long way. And I honestly don’t believe it’s malice, but it IS willful ignorance not to look closely at what you’re doing in your programming. Not to care how it affects your audience when they do not see themselves on your stage. If and when I get hold of the full list of theatres sent these letters by Equity, I’ll add them here.
One final point, yes I know theatres are also often rubbish at giving roles to BME actors, to disabled actors, to any actors that fall outside the mainstream of the straight/white paradigm, but those categories are minorities. Women are not a minority. And if our publicly funded institutions can’t even try to reflect the basic male/female balance, what hope is there for the woman actor who is black, the woman actor who is disabled?
* I don’t care if it’s historically accurate, so is only allowing men in the audience. Let’s see how well your all-male Shakespeares do if we return to the original Greek form of men-only audiences. It would be historically accurate, after all.
edited to add : Guardian piece about same
AND – the history thing : look, the ‘historically accurate’ just won’t wash. Historically accurately, you need to perform all your Greeks in one day, outside, full daylight, and as both a competition and a religious ceremony. Historically accurately, you need to have your Shakespearian women played by BOYS, not young men in their 20s, or even less accurately, older men in the 30s and 40s. You also need to do it at the Globe and nowhere else. You also need to make sure only posh people get the seats. And to give your actors their scripts (their parts only) just a week or so before. And again with the weather and the candlelight/limelight and no modern lx/sfx etc. NONE of the ‘historical accuracy’ arguments work. Not one of them. So if the real truth is that you blokes who love making your all-male Shakespeares just don’t want to work with women … perhaps now would be the time to have the courage of your convictions and admit it?