No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Women In theatre

Crack Theatre Festival (This Is Not Art)

Three hours on a train up from Sydney are some really wonderful beaches. On the October long weekend there is also an arts festival. But, let’s be honest, mainly there are beaches.

I was asked to come up to the Crack Theatre Festival with This Is Not Art to talk on a panel about blogging and criticism. Normally when I got to a festival I do everything and drive myself insane and to the point of exhaustion. However, TINA found itself at the end of several exhausting months and at the beginning of a month of festival related travel, so I decided to take it slow.

How slow? In four days I went to: seven shows, one walking tour, two launches, one closing party, one workshop, four panels (plus the one I was on), and one rooftop market.

Slow.

But it still, somehow, felt nice and slow. I spent time walking around Newcastle and its beaches, I went to the museum, I had long breakfasts and long lunches and long barbeques.

To Quota or Not To Quota was perhaps the healthiest panel on representation of women and culturally diverse backgrounds in theatre I’ve been to. Maybe because Crack is such a youth-oriented festival many of the artists in attendance have only just started to come into their professional practice, and they have come into a world where the conversation – and the numbers – about women in theatre in particular have been at the forefront.

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Review: Top Girls, or, why I’m happy to be a young feminist

In 1982, the New York Times described Top Girls as “intent on breaking rules.” Thirty years later, Top Girls feels rather a lot like a Well Made Play. Playwright Caryl Churchill has been so influential on the current crop of playwrights that seeing her work on stage now as part of the canon it feels simply that – part of the canon, no longer radical.

And in that tradition, Catherine Fitzgerald’s production for the State Theatre Company is a well made production. Maintaining the eighties setting with shoulder pads intact, and with solid performances from the cast the show rips along much faster than you would suspect of its nearly three hours running time.

Mary Moore’s set keeps it mainly simple: a curved dining table in the first scene, several (computer-less, even for 1982) desks and a office percolator, a small wall for Kit (Carissa Lee) and Angie (Antje Guenther)’s hideaway, a couch and table in Joyce’s home; location settings somewhat unnecessarily indicated by large stagnant projections. The simplicity of Moore’s set – which places the characters and text at the centre of the production, is overshadowed though, by a confusingly literal interpretation of the “glass ceiling” metaphor.

At the dinner party the glass ceiling has been broken – although it is very clear that most of these women just managed to survive within the patriarchy, not beyond it: being stoned to death, giving up their children at the test of their partners, living as a concubine and a nun. At the office, too, the glass ceiling is broken – Marlene (Ulli Birvé) receiving a top job at Top Girls, this is clear enough. In Suffolk, at the home of Marlene’s working class sister Joyce (Eileen Darley), the ceiling remains intact and unbroken. Most confusingly, though, is when the glass ceiling descends during the last scene of the play (the first scene chronologically), as Marlene and Joyce talk. Saying what, exactly? The more time you spend in a lower class area the lower your ceiling becomes? The act of women talking to each other causes the ceiling to drop? The restrictions on the  working class Joyce are certainly greater than her now middle class sister, but why the lowering?

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Winter hibernations

Apologies for the silence around here. I’ve been in a state of hibernation the past few weeks and Adelaide’s also been quiet on the theatre front which, of course, doesn’t help matters much for this blog. I saw a handful of shows in the Cabaret Festival, but I find that genre has its own particular challenges when it comes to reviewing, and with a confluence of factors I never quite got around to writing about any. I’ve got a few projects I’m working on at the moment – both blog and non-blog related, but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into the habit of posting on here a bit more.

Some links from me: A few reviews of Next Wave have been posted on RealTime – the Day Pass and an overview of a few works. A piece in the current Adelaide Review on the lack of rehearsal space in Adelaide. From way back when, the audio of the panel on criticism I did at the AFC, from which I quite possibly disagree with everything I said. Saying things out loud and having to rethink over that really forces you to question your thoughts.

A quick note: Actors’ Equity in the UK has sent a letter to 43 subsidised theatre companies questioning their lack of employment of female actors. I think this is exactly the sort of action which needs to be happening across the sector: change is entirely an action of people drawing things to attention and making questions heard. I don’t, however, agree, with playwright Stella 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 making more of an effort to see plays where women take a central role, but the fact I want to see more women represented in theatre doesn’t take away from the fact that their are many brilliant plays which are male dominated. Looking at theatre seasons in Australia this year, there is more than a little deja vu in London critic Matt Truman’s tweet: “If Equity’s gender campaign leads to book-balancing productions of Top Girls & Daisy Pulls It Off etc it will have failed massively.”

And to just join every feminist on the internet this week, some words from Nora Ephron:

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

Restoring the balance

This article was originally published in the June Adelaide Review. 

A recent report has found that women are underrepresented in key Australian theatre company roles such as writing and directing. But why?

Not one of the eight plays the State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA) announced for their 2011 season – in late 2010 – was written by a woman. Indeed, from 2001 to 2011, women have written less than a quarter of the plays the company has mounted.

Come their 2012 program, there is now a female writer or co-writer on five of the eight productions. While outgoing Artistic Director Adam Cook told The Adelaide Review(‘Bright Future on the Stage’, October, 2011) this programming was a “coincidence”, the shift speaks to a much wider national acknowledgment of the underrepresentation of women in the key creative roles of writers and directors in our funded theatre companies.

While conversations about this misrepresentation have been occurring for years, they reached tipping point in late 2009, when several high profile theatre companies announced seasons of work with exceedingly few women. When Company B (now Belvoir) in Sydney released a season of works with only one female playwright and one female director, the first significant waves of awareness occurred in the debate.

First reported on the blog of Sydney playwright Joanna Erskine, who called it an “unacceptable gap in statistics”, the debate quickly spread through theatrical blogs, and began to focus on the underrepresentation of women in many of the country’s highest funded organisations.

This April, the debate came to a crux with the release of the Women in Theatre report from the Australia Council for the Arts. Compiled by academics Elaine Lally and Sarah Miller, the report casts an unflattering light on the theatre sector.

The report looks at the qualitative statistics to get an overview of the true position of women in funded theatre companies; and takes quantitative data through a series of interviews to try and shine better light on the causes of the issues.

One of the key findings of the report focused on the major performing arts companies in the period between 2001 and 2011. These eight theatre companies, of which the STCSA is a member, are the highest funded theatre organisations in Australia. The report showed women make up only 21 percent of the playwrights and 25 percent of the directors working for these companies. At 36 percent, the proportion of productions with at least one woman in the key roles of writer or director is no less dire.

Below the funding levels of the MPA companies, the Theatre Board Key Organisations are a collection of companies funded by the Australia Council with multi-year funding. Typically classified as in the ‘small-to-medium’ sector, Key Organisations represent a larger number of companies than the MPA companies, but each with typically lower outputs of work.

While the report showed greater representation of women in these companies, the proportions are still significantly below parity, with women writing 37 percent of the productions, and directing another 37 percent.

Raised in interviews Lally and Miller held with artists and stakeholders, the reasons for this continuing disparity between gender representations are complex.

While some of these reasons will be familiar to women in many industries, including the structure of employment pathways and the challenges of balancing a career and family, some are unique to the nature of the arts. As one interview respondent told the report, “all new work is risky but women’s work is perceived to be riskier”.

In 1984 the Council endorsed the paper Women in the Arts: A Strategy for Action, which was the first comprehensive look by the Council at the underrepresentation of women in the sectors they fund. While many strategies were implemented, the current statistics paint a concerning picture for how little things have changed.

That same year, Vitalstatistix Women’s Theatre Company was founded by artists Margie Fisher, Roxxy Bent and Ollie Black to champion the work and stories of women in theatre. While the Port Adelaide company has undergone many incarnations over the years, no longer presenting with the word women in their title, gender-aware programming is still a core part of their mission.

In response to this new report, current Creative Producer of Vitalstatistix, Emma Webb, said while the face of the industry is changing, “both statistical and anecdotal evidence shows there continues to be barriers and cultural issues that affect the career advancement of women in the arts”.

“Changes comes in stops and starts, peaks and troughs; the national debate around women’s leadership in theatre over the last few years, and reports like this, ensure the discussion around women in theatre is not some kind of historical survey but rather are in the here and now,” she said.

While the long-term effects of any response to the new report are yet to be seen, radically fast changes in programming at major companies like the STCSA gives hope for a changing industry face. Hopefully, the 2013 seasons will show us the only way is up.

Women In Theatre Report

I speak a lot about how blogs are changing the culture around the way we speak around theatre and the arts. I think, possibly, the greatest thing theatre-blogs in this country can do is speak for and create a movement with speed and with power.

When Belvoir announced their now infamous 2010 season, lining eleven men and one woman up on stage to say this is the theatre we’re making this year there was outrage. This physical manifestation of the gender disparity which has plagued the Australian theatre for as long as we have had one threw a new generation of theatre-makers and commenters up in arms.

I documented the main-stages of 2011, and things weren’t rosy. I fully plan to do the same thing again for 2012, as soon as I have a sliver of time in my life. But I was just one tiny fraction of the national movement.

In 2011, two companies – the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the Queensland Theatre Company – had no women playwrights. STCSA’s AD Cook said:

there is no conspiracy, you just have to be talented, and the people who would hire you have to agree that you are … And that is the blunt fact of getting a job.  You just have to be good.  And the same with playwrights, they think “why aren’t you doing my plays?”  Well, I don’t think it’s very good. There’s always one answer, isn’t there?

By contrast, QTC’s AD Wesley Enoch said:

When you look at gender, women make up more than 53 per cent of the population. How are we responding to that as artistic directors? … When you look at the figures, then action comes about. QTC has no women playwrights in [2011's] season, no indigenous playwrights or from a non-English speaking background. What are we saying?¹

Come 2012, STCSA has 54.69% female playwrights; and QTC has 22.22%. No one said this battle wasn’t going to be confusing.

It’s going to be long. And hard. And stressful. And, yes, always always confusing.

But yesterday, it took another huge leap forward with the publishing of the Women In Theatre paper through the Australia Council.  I contributed some of quantitative data to the report, which is compiled with quantitative interviews, and together they paint a national picture across the Major Performing Arts Group companies and the Theatre Board Key Organisations.

Please, read the paper. Share it among your networks. Take its statistics and try to make it better. And when it’s not better, call people out.

I like to think we’re part of a movement, that something is happening, that things will get better. But I can’t do it without you.

¹AWG “Raw Sexism at Play” Storyline Issue 29, Summer 2011

Mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point.

-France, I, i, 240-242

“Talk about affirmative acting,” proclaims Matthew Westwood in The Australian, making full use of the pun quota straight off the bat. “Melbourne Theatre Company, ordered in 2009 to address a gender imbalance in its productions, is to make King Lear a woman.”

Well, by Jove, they’ve done it.  That’s the way to save gender inequality in Australian theatre.

This brief article about MTC’s 2012 programming makes mention of how the MTC’s governing body, the University of Melbourne, insisted the company employ an equal opportunity officer after employing just one female director “this year” – which should be 2010, as in 2011, the company saw five women direct on the mainstage.

In the just announced 2012 season, four of the eleven assigned directors (of 12 productions) are female.  MTC general manager Ann Tonks is quoted as saying this was “a much better outcome” than previous years.

If we’re looking long term, where from 2005-2011 the company has had a strike rate of 20% female directors to 80% male directors, yes, things are looking up.  Yet, as I’ve made mention, in 2011, MTC had five female directors and seven male directors.  Which is going to be at least as good as 2012, if not better.  Although with 2012 currently standing at 36%, this still leaves the MTC nine percentage points below 2011’s national average.

Curiously, there is no mention in the article on playwrights. Between 2005 and 2011, just 25% of MTC’s mainstage shows have been written by women, and this is again the case in 2012, where just three shows are written by women – the three texts premiering next year with the company, however, were all written by men.

One of the three plays with female playwrights is Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (1982), which is also being presented in a separate production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia next year.  With so much national dialogue of the voices being heard on our stages, I am worried (cringing, perhaps) that this show was selected (twice!) simply because it is the most obvious play about feminism.  And yet: it is thirty years old.  While both companies proclaim to us it is relevant, I can’t help but think has nothing new been written on the subject?  Must we continually defer our feminist dialogue back to the 80s?

I am unabashedly a fan of new writing: I think hearing modern voices on our stages, in that living artform that is theatre is important.  This isn’t to say we should never defer to those “classics”, but can we question why we do?  As a young feminist, can my generation be given permission to take hold of the issue and its representation at all?

But back to The Australian, and the MTC addressing a gender imbalance by casting Nevin as Lear.  From 2005 to 2011, there have been roles for 598 actors to tread the boards of MTC’s mainstage.  356 of these roles went to men; 242 to women.

One women in the role of one man will not tip these scales.

And besides all this, as director Rachel McDonald states in the article, casting Nevin as Lear isn’t so much “affirmative acting” as it is good casting and good marketing.  She’s one of the best actors in Australia: why shouldn’t she play what is appreciated as one of the greatest roles in the Western theatrical canon?

Having an equal opportunity officer is great.  It seems to be making a difference in the number of directors – although MTC still has a way to go.  It hasn’t seemed to affect playwrights at all, which is very disappointing.  It has nothing to do with Nevin and this role.

Gender equality in Australian theatre remains a pertinent and frustrating issue: one which, as 2011 rolls into 2012, shouldn’t be an issue at all.  Can we ask publications like The Australian to delve into these issues deeper, rather than conflating articles on a piece of casting news, some information about an upcoming season, and some titbits about inequality  thrown in for good measure?  I think we should.

Australian Theatre Forum: Women in Theatre

“Convictions and Connections” is the theme of this year’s Australian Theatre Forum at the divine Brisbane Powerhouse.  I’ve walked away from day one with a few more connections, and a few less convictions.

In the afternoon, I took myself to the Women in Theatre Research salon, and this is where I lost my convictions of the day.  Clearly, it is an issue I find very important, and one I have placed time and energy into trying to grapple.  So why is it that when I go to forums or panels about the subject I just walk away feeling destroyed and disillusioned and wondering if anything will happen at all?

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The Gender Debate: five.point.one

five.point.one is an independent theatre company working in Adelaide. Established in 2009, the ensemble based company present South Australian premiere texts, with two productions a year since their inception.  In 2009 alongside their two play season, the company also presented an open reading of a new work by Caleb Lewis, and next month they will open their seventh production: Polly Stenham’s That Face.

The company currently has six core members: Matt Crook, Elleni Karaginnidis, Scott Marcus, Corey McMahon, Kate Roxby and Brad Williams.

McMahon has acted as director on all productions for the company to date, with the exception of 2010 Fringe show In Remembrance (of) A Small Death, two short plays by Anna Barnes and directed by Delia Olam, in production which had an entirely female cast and creative team.  Curious about the gender make-up of five.point.one over the past three years, McMahon asked me to take a look.

McMahon has directed six of the seven productions; Cassandra Backler has designed for six of seven; five productions credited a lighting designer, and Ben Flett filled the role on four of these; two productions credit a sound designer or a composer.  Lewis’ Rust and Bone, and Daniel Keene’s The Share had fully male casts; while the Barnes’ double had a fully female cast.  In total, the company has presented eleven female roles and fourteen male roles, to scripts by four male playwrights and three female playwrights.

In total, 32 people have been credited in creative or acting roles over the seven productions in 52 positions.

This can be broken down into fourteen women filling twenty-three positions, and eighteen men filling thirty positions.

With only six percentage points separating the number of individuals, and seven percentage points separating the number of roles each gender fills, women that are employed by the company are employed to an equal extent as the men: the inequality lies before they reach the company stage.

In saying this though, the inequality is very slight.  An imbalance in directors stems from McMahon taking on that role as one of the six enemble members.

It is pleasing to see the company statement says “We believe all good theatre must start with good writing and five.point.one places the playwright at the forefront of the creative process”, and in seven productions, three plays have had a female playwright and four have had a male, as it is in script production our female playwrights can find them selves chronically underrepresented.

Overall, I am very pleased with the current gender balance in five.point.one’s seasons to date.  It is great to see something much closer to equality happening on our young, independent stages.  I’m excited to see how the company continues to develop.

Are You There, Artists? It’s Me, Jane.

There is a particular rhetoric that gets thrown around Adelaide theatre circles (and I really do hope it is Adelaide specific) which goes along the lines of Arts Administrators exist only to steal money away from the artists. It is brought up frequently.  For every one time it is specifically brought up as an attacking piece of “conversation” or “debate”, it is mentioned ten times as a side remark or a snide comment.

It often stems out of the funding debate.  And there are certainly questions to be asked about distribution of arts funding.  But when this specifically is brought up this is not what is said, and is not what is heard.  What I hear is a pointed and deliberate attack on administrators as individuals.

Monday will be one year since I started my Arts Administration Traineeship.  That is one year of working hard on a crap wage for the belief that when I do my job well, I create the framework so artists can do their job better.

Are there dickheads who work in arts administration?  Absolutely.  Just as there are dickheads who are artists.  But in my experience, most administrators are there because they love art, and because they want to support artists.  They want to do all the crappy jobs (and there are a lot of crappy jobs, just as there are lots of good jobs) and ultimately get everyone paid.  Including themselves, for their long hours and crappy wage.

No one works in the arts to get rich.  We could be working in the corporate sector, “ripping off” big business, for a lot more money.

I hate feeling that I am working myself so hard at a job I am really good at and that people – the very people we do this all for – can’t see that.  I hate seeing people who have worked in this sector for years are still attacked, and must still defend their choice to be an administrator.  I hate seeing friends who describe themselves as equally proud of being an artist and an administrator, made to feel lesser because someone thinks half of that is selling out.

I am so glad I work in film, where the role of the producer and administrators is respected.  Vitriol like this makes me question if I will ever work within a theatre context.  Because I can’t handle being attacked in this way.

I can’t handle being accused of being lesser than my artist counterparts.  I can’t handle being accused of working this job only so I can steal and squander money from the artist.  I can’t handle being told that I wouldn’t be a good theatre curator, because as someone who isn’t an artist I will never truly understand the work.  I can’t handle being told all this, and then being told, by a woman, that I will never have a leadership position because of my gender.  I absolutely disagree with every one of these statements.

I am twenty-two.  I have been employed as an administrator for a year.  I love my job, and the people I work with, and all of the incredible people who have supported me throughout this year.   Most days I feel like I want to commit myself to this profession for life.  Some days I have to listen to things like this, and question why I think I want to work a job which affords so little respect from the very people we do this all for.

Not everyone is saying this.  I believe there are more artists who understand and respect the role of administrators than who don’t.  But the people who make these comments are often very loud.  They often speak very well.  I’m sure it can be attractive for an artist to hear these comments and think ‘I’m not getting paid enough.  Are these people the reason why?’ So it is very easy for these opinions to dominate a room; even if they’re not the thoughts of everyone, a room that is overall very anti-administrator can be the result.

And that really hurts.

I think it is important to note that this came up on International Women’s Day, at an event about women in the arts.  This is important to note, because I feel like I am more judged, more attacked, more sidelined, for being an arts administrator than I have ever felt for being a woman, or for being a feminist.

Is this really the arts culture I tell myself I love?  Some days I’m not too sure.

If I Were BossLady: Speak Up, and Listen

On International Women’s Day, I was invited to speak atBossLady: A Conversation About Women’s Arts Leadership. My panel was asked to consider the question What strategies promote a gender-aware, progressive culture in the arts industry? I choose to look primarily at this problem in the MPAG theatre companies.  Thoughts on the day will come later, for now here is what I said.

I think the main strategy is to question.  To question loudly and to question publically.  Question the right people. The artistic directors, the general managers, the board members, can’t ignore us forever and will be forced to listen.  And those who don’t?  They will become redundant.  As an answer?  Nothing speaks louder or more damming than “no comment.”

The problem with any strategy we are going to propose today is this is a global problem.   In the Greater Los Angeles Area, current figures are 20% female playwrights [1]; the US national average is 17% [1], as is the UK [2] average.  12.6% of plays on Broadway in the 2008/2009 season were written by women.  In 1908/1909, 12.8% were [3].

So this makes it easy for people to say, “It’s too hard.” So we should demand things should change.  We need to tell Australian companies that we demand better than what everyone else is doing.   We don’t have a shortage of female artists.  We have a lack of support, and a lack of creativity in curated seasons.

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