Posted by: stelladuffy | June 27, 2012

being ignored and the suggestion of a monstrous regime

Right then, have a look here. And also have a look here in the Ham & High – you need to scroll through to page 20.

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?


  1. Well said Stella! Re historical accuracy (and since when was casting a 50+ grizzly man as Olivia actually accurate, also I doubt they use ‘accurate’ rehearsal methods, acting techniques etc – so just BS for tourists really) I went to a talk by Trevor Nunn and he said that he believed that women were acting in Shakespeare’s plays (just pretending to be men in the cast list for the authorities) because why would you write something as long and emotionally complex as Cleopatra for a spotty 15 year old boy?

    Also re casting – I recently directed Julius Caesar with a majority female cast – I just cast on who was best for the role – as this was set in a modern London setting gender ‘authenticity’ didn’t come into play – as a result I had a female Cassius, Brutus, Octavius, Portia, Calpurnia, Cinna, Trebonius, etc, etc – this wasn’t about feminism but about creating a production that reflected the reality (of what should be the reality) of our world today.

    I am one of those who has refocussed her attention away from acting to directing and writing and in both those fields I intend fully to address the fact that women are not a minority and that we need to reimagine our past, and our past as reflected in our dearly held cultural icons, in order to imagine a better fairer future – and if that means casting women as men, black as white, and disabled as able – count me in!

  2. thank you Deborah. sounds like a great resolve!

  3. Bravo Stella!! You’ve taken the rage induced words right out of my mouth. My Equity branch (NW London) are really keen to give this problem and louder voice and you’ve really helped.

  4. I’m delighted to have been useful, and it’s from your Equity branch (via Mandy Fenton) that I heard of the matter in the first place, so thank you!

  5. Now there’s an idea. I’ll repost. And, Stella, don’t know if you could be lit up by a sister campaign led by the WEA in East Mids to get more women (any women, but especially those who’d stand up and make a difference) into politics. Would be great to get people signed up. It’s at
    As you say, it’s all joined up!
    Keep shouting, Nicky

  6. (And writing! N)

  7. Have you ever stopped to think that maybe, just maybe, this 70% (increasingly elderly) female audience actually prefer to watch (and listen to) male actors?

    Like you, I would like to see more female actors on stage – especially in lead protagonist/antagonist roles. But no individual can presume to represent the views of the wider ticket-buying audience.

    The male domination of the acting-space has been blamed on many things over the years – mostly on male writers, male directors, and male literary managers – with “male” being somehow automatically equated with misogyny.

    If this was so, then the increasing proportion of female writers, directors and literary managers (the latter now approaching 100% domination within producing theatres) would surely have ended the bias. But since the bias is still there, then your article suggests that there must be some other “male” influence on play selection – and that is why female writers and directors write/stage plays for a largely male cast, and why female literary managers encourage those plays (as if they have no regard for what will actually sell to the public).

    So how about this: (1) Elderly, and possibly rather conservative, middle-class female theatre-goers might actively seek plays with male protagonists. And (2), as people’s hearing declines with age – losing sensitivity to the higher registers – they find female voices increasingly difficult to understand, and so elderly theatre-goers might actively avoid plays with a largely female cast.

    Hypothesis (1), of course, is largely cultural. If the current cohort of theatre-goers comes from a generation and class where “exciting” things are done by men, while women lead a largely domestic life – then a play about women may have an inbuilt “that sounds like it might be boring” hurdle to overcome. It might just take the current audience to die off to cure this problem.

    Hypothesis (2) is more practical – and is the one that faced the BBC for many years, when they would get complaints from elderly listeners/viewers that female newsreaders were more difficult to understand. Nowadays, most female TV/Radio presenters seem to have fairly deep voices – which may have been the BBC’s solution to the problem.

    Maybe writers, directors, and literary managers actually understand these problems at gut level – but they cannot state them, as that would be deemed unacceptable. Hence the bias remains a mystery.

  8. yes of course I’ve ‘stopped to consider’ that!! but if that population of women prefers to watch men (which I’m not at all sure they do, being middle aged myself), I’d suggest it was as much a product of their socialisation an culturalisation as actual choice.

  9. A really interesting read, thank you – have been reading Janet Suzman’s Not Hamlet recently which also touches on some of the points you have raised.

  10. Yes, Bravo again Stella! Keep at it as we all must!!!

  11. David, does your argument do more than rationalise the status quo? By (tenuous) analogy do we have a coalition government because that’s what we want?

  12. Right behind you. Excellently put Stella. It is a culturally and historically complex issue but visibility is one of the key ways to make change. (This also applies in sport.) However it seems to be a catch 22, and feels like we’re going backwards.

  13. thanks Sayan. yes, it can feel like we’re going backwards, but every time we shout, every time we make a fuss … someone, somewhere has to at least notice it isn’t ok as it is!

  14. Thank you for articulating all this. Talk to Adjoa about her recent conversations with the education dept at the RSC (we’ve never met you and me, but I’ve been mates with Adj for 22 yrs!).We talked for hours after I saw the show on Monday. Ive got to rush off, but thank you again. You’re brilliant!

    Hoxton Hall which is run by a woman, is putting on Simply Wonderful with a cast of 15 women. Vote with your feet and your money.

  16. Thanks for this article. I feel strongly about these issues too.

    Not only is less work by and featuring women programmed, but when it is it tends to be within the confines of what won’t exclude a male demographic, and thus then catering, or really, pandering to their tastes more than those women it was originally written or produced for.

    I myself as an emerging playwright seek to write plays that are about women for the enjoyment of everybody (not just for women – as ‘women’s writing’ is typically pidgeon-holed this way). My next, Three Cities, will play at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I hope it does you proud!


  17. ah, thank you Clare. and great for RSC to have Adj there being the strong, political force she is.

  18. I avoid the all male Shakespeare and the all male G&S, as a stright woman of course I like to see a few handsome faces on stage but I want to see terrific women too and preferably not just playing strippers, pole dancers and prostitutes.

  19. Spot on Stella!
    As a straight, male, white & (approaching) middle aged actor I find myself drawn to working with theatre companies that are interested in representing the full range of humanity.
    It is one of modern theatre’s aims (or at least it is in my mind) to hold a mirror up to society. To explore issues, to poke fun at and to review the human condition. If theatre is to do this effectively the mirror should show ALL of the different faces that should be reflected back at us. Include all genders/sexualities/ages/races/creeds and other sections of society that make up our wonderfully diverse world.
    I fear it is not just women that are under- represented in contemporary British theatre, but each under-represented section of society will, unfortunately, have to rally themselves and find their voices to ensure they are represented in a way that actually epitomises modern Britain & beyond.
    Perhaps though, none of them have any chance if the 51% of the population that are women are still having to fight this fight.
    Perhaps we can effect change starting with the genders first and from there we’ll understand the full extent of the problem and be able to move forward together to a fairer & diversified theatre landscape?
    I hope so.
    As ever you speak truth & reason Stella.

  20. xxx Carl.

  21. When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that the people running our world… DO NOT NOTICE WHEN WE’RE NOT THERE. Well put. And funny how whenever there is a high profile woman suddenly it becomes the ever-laughable “Year of the Woman” or there are rumbles about how women are “taking over” everything.

  22. Hi there, I think we need to be very, very careful about going down the road of dictating to female playwrights what they ‘should’ be writing. I know it can be irritating to watch plays by women with an all male cast etc but that is the decision of the individual playwright and must be respected. The last thing we need to do is give those who make decisions even more of a reason to turn us into a minority by our own insistence that women only write plays for and about women. What I’m trying to say is that if men can write about anything in the world, women should have that right too, even if their personal choices are immature and self serving and basically a pain in the ass.

  23. Don’t think I am suggesting we dictate to anyone what they should write. Just (so simple, so small, so world changing!) that theatre programmers consider representing their audiences more honestly on their stages.
    I would quite like a world though, where women don’t need to write about men to be considered ‘universal’, where women writing about family wasn’t always considered ‘domestic’. Funny how it’s not domestic when Mike Leigh or Chekhov do it though …

  24. I don’t think women write about men to be considered ‘universal’. I actually think the play dictates who it is about. And if that happens to be a male character then that is the truth of the play. And if it happens to be a female character then that also is the truth of the play. I will say however that sometimes gender can cloud the issue of a play because of limitations put on female playwrights by women and then mis- interpreted (perhaps sometimes willfully) by theatre managements. For example: If i write a play about politics, ambition in politics, corruption and if I have a male lead then that play is about just those things. If I have a female lead it is very difficult to present just those things. I am suddenly perceived to be writing about ‘women in politics’. Gender becomes the issue, even if all that happened was that my play simply told me that my lead was female. to me, the most important thing is to take gender off the table completely.

  25. Yes, of course we all aim to write what is best for the work we’re writing! I’m not saying women write about men in order to be seen as more universal, I’m saying that is how they are then perceived. But gender is always there, whether we want it to be or not. That’s why the issue matters so much. If the standard/norm is that men are leads/heroes/protagonists, and that women are sidekicks/girlfriends – and the Bechdel Test tells us this is so, no matter what else we’d like – then we do have to acknowledge that, as women, we’re writing from a place that is not seen as the centre. This can be beneficial, but it nonetheless causes problems as you rightly say. When women write women we are seen to be writing Women. When men write men they are seen to be writing. Full stop.
    By the way, no name? Feels a bit odd to me to be discussing home truths where I have my name very publicly and you don’t use yours.

  26. “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. ”

    And that if there are more than 2 women doing something — well it’s all these women taking over!! I could tell you stories about my university department, in a field supposedly “good” for not just representing women, but espousing feminist principles …

    There was an interesting experiment a NYC dramaturg friend of mine told me about, coming from this moment

    and here

    when Artistic Directors and literary advisers considered how they might go about deliberately programming at least 50% of work by women.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to reverse the proportions, and programme a season with 75% women’s writing?

  27. “If i write a play about politics, ambition in politics, corruption and if I have a male lead then that play is about just those things. If I have a female lead it is very difficult to present just those things. I am suddenly perceived to be writing about ‘women in politics’. Gender becomes the issue”

    ahh, the old ‘problem’ of masculine privilege: the privilege of being male/masculine is that you don’t have to think about gender. Male/masculine is ‘universal.’

  28. […] Briefly – because I’m supposed to be doing the ‘stuff I’m up to’ not blogging about it…also this is a crap blog don’t read this read Stella Duffy on women characters on stage […]

  29. […] Duffy saying we need to avoid male-dominated plays [UPDATE: Her full argument is here, and much broader than the Guardian's summary]. Perhaps there is something to be said about […]

  30. just came back from a collaborators day – 25 attendees…3 of us female…of the 19 composers….no women….coincidentally I recently blogged this: …. …thought it was just a joke.
    – also at the Bush theatre a little while ago Madani Younis said that when they were looking through the submitted scripts, none of them had central female characters. I don’t understand this, but we need to talk about the issue, and following experiences like mine today, I know it’s problematic, but maybe there is a case for ‘positive discrimination’.

  31. there is much to change and much to work on. being aware of how it is, is at least a first step. I’m never sure about positive discrimination, but awareness – true awareness, that doesn’t need the imbalances pointed out first – would make a massive difference I think.

  32. Yes – I do agree, but surely we should have arrived to this awareness by now – I did love that episode in Borgen when the female prime minister legislated that board rooms should be 50%women…

  33. Unfortunately I think many (women and men who love women) were shut up by the men (and some women) who hate women. They were cowed by their dismissal of us as ‘angry feminists’, worried about being put into boxes that didn’t also speak of their humour and generosity and warmth, and allowed the voice to be silenced. So we just have to suck it up and get out there again. Agitate, complain, make a fuss. (Some of us have never stopped, I know), but it may just be we need to step it up.

  34. Step it up. Across the board. (My personal bug bear is that the World Cup is not called the Men’s World Cup – seeing as we have a Women’s World Cup, suggestive of ‘other’ or ‘less than’) In theatre, the policy of diversity has at least opened doors and created opportunities for minority ethnic artists, even if we still have a way to go. It is time to put women back on the diversity agenda. In our everyday lives men and women, on the whole, have similar opportunities, and in theory we can be what we want, do what we want, but the representation and employment of women in film, theatre and TV is way behind. It’s about culturally opening our eyes and hearts to the fact that women also have interesting stories, visions and make compelling protagonists. The history we are taught at school is full of men’s stories, as if women didn’t exist. We could do with a Women’s History month for starters. Publicly funded organisations have an obligation to us all equally. And we badly need more positive female protagonists on BBC children’s television programming, gender role brainwashing starts early.

  35. brilliant Sayan. Yes, all of that.

  36. Excellent post, Stella, and thanks for giving me the link.

    And please do ask your female playwright friends to consider submitting work for the NYCPlaywrights Play of the Week project:

  37. Found your website via The Guardian – I’ve been exchanging emails this morning with Jean Rogers/Equity about the issues raised. Well done for speaking out. I’m a career changer – an older playwright trying to get support to develop a big project. It’s worrying that theatre producers etc won’t acknowledge that the plays are out there with great roles for women – in my case for actresses in their 40s/50s. My play is very topical at the moment – perhaps too many women in the cast!! Women predominantly buy the tickets so put on plays for them – theatres may actually make a profit if they pull together a quality production/cast.

  38. […] to Just Us Four, partly because I have a friend in the cast and partly because after reading Stella Duffy’s brilliant, angry and inspiring blog last week, it feels important to support theatre that puts women on the stage and tells […]

  39. “I would quite like a world though, where women don’t need to write about men to be considered ‘universal’, where women writing about family wasn’t always considered ‘domestic’. Funny how it’s not domestic when Mike Leigh or Chekhov do it though …”
    Yes! Thank you, Stella. It bothers me that “domestic” is equated with “trivial” “dull” “unlikely to be commissioned.” Why should “domestic” be considered a term of abuse? Don’t we all live in domestic settings? Are “ordinary” people not worth writing about? Or is it only okay when men do it?

  40. thank you Katherine, yes, I look forward to a time when we all write about what the hell we want to write about, and are not judged for what we write by what/who we are. eventually.

  41. […] on this front and I am intensely grateful for her insight and perseverance. You should read her blog entry about the gender ratios in the UK. I particularly love her idea of seeking to balance out the gap […]

  42. Beautifully said, Stella. Would you be willing to write a guest post on the subject over at We’d *love* to have you.

  43. I would, but am up to my neck in two shows for the next few weeks. after then?

  44. Would be happy to wait until your schedule calms down a bit!

  45. cool, nudge me mid October ish?

  46. Will do.

  47. The International Centre for Women Playwrights has inaugurated an award – the 50/50 Applause Aware – to recognize theaters that produce women playwrights in a given season (currently nominations are open for the 2011-2012 season). I live in the 4th-largest theater-producing area in the USA, dozens upon dozens of theaters, and only one qualified for nomination.

  48. wow, brilliant award idea – depressing lack of qualifiers.

  49. In the hope that we will be able to raise awareness, to effect change…

  50. Has your schedule freed up at all? Would still love to have you on! Consider this your official nudge🙂

  51. hah, no! play I’m directing opens on Nov 14th, so thereafter …
    is there an email address I can contact you at directly, so we can have a chat about what kind of blog exactly?

  52. […] approached Stella to guest post for us after stumbling across this beautiful post she wrote on women in theatre via a friend’s Facebook link. Stella is a talented London-based writer, director, teacher, […]

  53. […] to the world was, she said, being ducked – particularly by our larger national stages. In an impassioned blogpost, she wrote: “When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that the […]

  54. […] Lyn Gardner piece, Why is theatre so male, white and middle class? and in which she quotes Duffy (again, I’m beginning to sound like a […]

  55. […] to the world was, she said, being ducked – particularly by our larger national stages. In an impassioned blogpost, she wrote: ‘When we do not see ourselves on stage we are reminded, yet again, that the people […]

  56. […] Duffy wrote a nice piece about how, only choosing men, or only choosing from any subset of all-of-the-people actually leaves […]

  57. Great article. And it seems so beautifully supported by the advertisements underneath the article for DVDs of ‘True Detective’ and ‘House of Cards’, shows which are lacking in strong female roles.

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