Women in Theatre
by Judith Roberts on 8 November 2016
Tamara Micner, European Literature (2011)
I didn’t expect that writing about ‘women in theatre’ for this newsletter would end up being so timely. The Globe Theatre’s board recently sacked Emma Rice, its first-ever female artistic director, just two years into her tenure (when leadership terms are often ten years long). Ironically, just a week earlier, the Globe had hosted a discussion on this very subject, with Rice as one of the speakers.
This was the first time in history that six of the UK’s most prominent non-West End theatres — the Globe, Royal Court, Donmar, Tricycle, National Theatre Wales, and Edinburgh’s Traverse — have had women at their helm, and two of them women of colour. Unquestionably, it took sacrifice and doggedness on these women’s part to reach the top of their industry (and the Globe’s donors and board — which is 60-percent male — seem to think it had been a sacrifice, too).
I think the problem lies partly in the attitude behind these decisions on the part of those in power. If we think that the problem is merely that more prominent institutions need female leaders, all we have to do is ‘slot them in’ to fill those desk chairs, and nothing else has to change.
But if we think the problem is systemic — that we need to rethink not just the gender of who’s in power, but also the way we choose leaders (and who chooses them) and define leadership (and who defines it) — the solutions must be wide-ranging and profound.
If we think that the prevailing concept of power itself, and who tends to have power, is the problem, people like Emma Rice get to keep their jobs. More than that, the job description of leaders can change, the way theatres run can change, the plays that get programmed can change, the people onstage and backstage change, audiences change, and the issues and discussions we see at the theatre change as well.
Theatre can then become an even more powerful medium to speak truth (and more truths) about society to society. It reflects and speaks to more of society, more people get involved, and it becomes evermore potent.
It’s not just a matter of redefining theatre, of course: we need to reshape society, and theatre is a microcosm of the challenges we face.
The women’s theatre company Sphinx Theatre recently held a series of discussions in London on women in theatre, in which the company’s artistic director, Sue Parrish, noted that this country used to have feminist theatre companies run as collectives in the ’70s and ’80s, until Thatcher’s government brought about their dismantling by forcing them to adopt hierarchical, top-down (traditionally male) power structures.
These collectives, including Women’s Theatre Group and Monstrous Regiment, remind us that there are other ways to imagine and enact how theatre (and society) can work. Leadership and participation there looked more like a cooperative than a corporation.
What if a theatre’s artistic director were a facilitator, rather than a ‘boss’? What if everyone working at a theatre, and in its productions, had a genuine stake in its success? What if, as at the Guardian, the actual employees got to vote for who they wanted as their leader, rather than an outside, appointed group?
To this end, we as women have the opportunity (and, to me, the obligation) to band together with other marginalised groups to dramatically remake theatre, and society. The question of women in theatre is greater than women and theatre. If our goal is to remake theatre (and society) as a more just, equal, inclusive space, that necessarily must involve people of different ages, abilities, gender and sexual identities, religions, races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Anyone who is both female and black, gay, older than 40, gender non-conforming, Muslim, disabled, or an immigrant is likely to have experienced those identities intersect and compound. We are not alone in our challenges — and isn’t there such power in that unity?
There is also power in numbers. If all of us joined to overthrow the status quo, onstage and off, we would far outnumber those in power, who have long decided who gets to make and see art, which art we see, how it gets made, and how the whole industry works.
So what can we do as a start? We can support feminist theatre productions: plays written or directed by women, starring women, presenting women’s experiences, perspectives, and issues. Those of us working in theatre can seek out female collaborators and support each other’s work (both in development and production), strengthening our community and ties. And we can get together in-person, at Lucy and beyond, to talk more about how we want theatre to be different, and how we might push that vision along.