Last year, 80 plays opened across the top London theatres; The Royal Court, National Theatre, Young Vic, Donmar Warehouse, Almeida Theatre and the Old Vic. Of those 80 new plays that opened, only 26.25% were written by women. The percentage itself doesn’t even reflect the industry as it is boosted by The Royal Court where the fantastic Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone has triumphed in gender equality as 58% of the plays at The Royal Court this year were written by women.
This isn’t because the Artistic Director is a woman, as the Donmar Warehouse had a shocking percentage of 6.25% of their plays this year were written by women as their Artistic Director Josie Rourke only programmed one play written by a woman in 2017.
These statistics became apparent when Victoria Sadler, and arts and culture journalist, posted a powerful post on her website breaking down these facts and calling out these top London Theatres. I spoke to Victoria about the ever-growing issue of gender equality in the arts and the lack of female playwrights being given opportunities.
“I started writing these annual reviews a few years ago because it was evident to me that something was amiss but no one seemed to be talking about this explicitly. I actually worked in investment banking for 15 years prior to this – possibly the most sexist industry on earth – and so my viewpoint was always that the Arts were more inclusive,” Victoria explained. “When I found that not to be the case, I was genuinely shocked so I started these blogs talking about the dearth of female playwrights, and commenting routinely on it on social media, and focusing on female representation in some of my reviews. When I started to collect and streamline these thoughts into summary articles, the findings surprised me further – even though issues at certain theatres was glaring, I was genuinely shocked to see issues at the Young Vic, which I had always considered to be diverse and inclusive, and the Donmar, which is run by a woman.”
“Male bias and specifically White male bias continues to drench our stages and the result is that we, as a wider society, have come to accept the white male viewpoint as the fair, unbiased, central view.”
Although Victoria acknowledges the change that theatres have attempted in order to improve gender equality, she describes the change to only be skin deep. “Initiatives such as Tonic Theatre and discussions and events around diversity and inclusion have increased awareness but have not yet led to structural change. It is great to see individual organisations take on responsibilities, such as Headlong’s 50/50 commitment to gender balance in their playwrights, but it seems, even now, each season announcement from the ‘big guns’ is greeted on social media with groans on lack of gender representation and, further, the lack of diversity in that gender representation,” Victoria said. “Take, for example, the NT’s recent season announcement: less than half of the plays announced were from female playwrights, almost all of these will be staged in the smallest theatre – the Dorfman, and even of those female playwrights named, the dominance of white women is glaring.”
It’s interesting that despite the National Theatre’s Artistic Director Rufus Norris making huge statements about how they are going to be tackling gender equality and aim to be completely equal by 2021, but they continue to make no change.
“Representation matters, it matters from a social point,” Victoria said. “– women are right to challenge the structures of patriarchy that prevent them from fulfilling their potential – and it matters in terms of the variety and types of female characters on stage.” The issues go beyond the creative side of theatre, such as the directors, playwrights, choreographers and more. The lack of female creatives leads to a lack of representation on stage. Victoria highlighted: “our culture leads with reduced and/or reductive portrayals of women, so this creates issues in wider society on how women are viewed in life, employment, health etc etc. If we are not centre stage in our culture, our society does not look for us to be centre stage in reality. Culture is the sea society swims in. For the latter to be fair, we must look to the former to be fair also.”
Frequently male playwrights hit back at this saying that women are claiming that men can’t write about women. “That is a nonsense response and one that shows a disappointing immaturity, but it is nevertheless right for women to challenge the way male playwrights represent women on stage, whether that be routinely as supporting characters, or as reductive portrayals that lack the complexity of the full experience of being a woman,” Victoria said. “But, of course, women writers should not be seen as niche, creating works around the female experience only. If we accept that all of us have a bias, then surely we must want to see the world from everyone’s point of view in order for the discussion to be inclusive and representative? Women should be free and encouraged to write about whatever they want, and to examine what they want – just as men have been allowed and encouraged to do for centuries.”
Victoria acknowledges that theatres have made efforts to make change, for example, Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court has done tremendously well challenging the theatre’s past programming and pushing equality to the top of her agenda. However, it is about pushing all theatres in the right direction.
When asking Victoria what she thinks needs to change she said: “Quotas, quotas, quotas. We’ve talked about this for too long now. We need to compel change. Theatres are still leveraging excuses that the quality isn’t there from female playwrights and that is just not true.” This indicates that agents are also structurally biased against female playwrights, it is apparent the whole system is skewed against women. “I believe in quotas because my work shows that simply bringing in more women per se would not necessarily lead to change – Josie Rourke has not been a supporter of female playwrights at the Donmar, for example, so more female Artistic Directors is not a simple solution,” Victoria explained. “Internalised misogyny is more complex than this. But, crucially, quotas will need to take account of the full spectrum of diversity too. WOC must not be overlooked. We cannot open the door for white women only.”