If you’re not Shakespeare, it’s good to be Brecht (or Lally Katz)

by Jane

An analysis of Australian Theatre in 2011 through the Major Performing Arts Group theatre companies.
Update #1: 14/11/2010, Malthouse Season Two: Three female directors, four male directors; four male writers, one female writer, one male/female pair; five world premieres, one text from 2010; all Australian works.

1. An introduction and a context
2. What ever happened to the female playwright?
3. Directors: The female strikes back!
4. The classic or the new, what wins out?  (And what are the classics, anyway?)
5. The curse of a premiere culture
6. Oh, the places you will go!
7. Where to from here?

 

An introduction and a context

This all started for me when at the Woman and Theatre panel at RightAct I started to look at where the work I was seeing in 2010 was coming from in terms of writers and directors.

I then began to wonder if the bias I was seeing was a true indication of the bias in the industry, or if it was the plays I was selecting.  This lead me to creating two studies of 2011 theatre: the productions of the Major Performing Arts Group (MPAG), and the productions we will be seeing in Adelaide.  This is my write up of the MPAG productions.

What started as a simple analysis of women and theatre expanded, as I constantly thought of new things I wanted to compare.  This is the result of that.

I have tried to encompass as much as I can: education series, second-stages, and “add-on” productions have all been included.  I have not made a distinction between where in the company each piece is being staged.

The education program at MTC is not included, because at time of writing it has not been released and I am not privy to a release date.   I don’t know if STC will be having a “Next Stage” season in 2011, and again, at time of writing nothing has been announced.  Stephen Armstrong at Malthouse Theatre has been very generous and given me statistics to what their Season Two is currently shaping up to be.  These figures were edited into relevant sections 14/11/2010, and are labeled as changed.

The eight theatre companies that are members of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group are:

Bell Shakespeare www.bellshakespeare.com.au/
Belvoir Street Theatre www.belvoir.com.au/
Black Swan State Theatre Company (BSSTC) www.bsstc.com.au/
Malthouse Theatre www.malthousetheatre.com.au/
Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) www.mtc.com.au/
State Theatre Company of South Australia (STCSA)
www.statetheatrecompany.com.au/
Sydney Theatre Company (STC) www.sydneytheatre.com.au/
Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) www.queenslandtheatre.com.au/

 

 

Across their 2011 season they are showing World Premieres, Australian Premiers, and revivals of Australian and international texts from Europe and North America.  Dominated by straight plays, there are also musicals, devised works, and five dance pieces.

There are co-productions and buy-ins between the MPAG companies and between them and other companies.  Where a work appears on two different stages in 2011 it has just been counted once; if it first appeared on one MPAG stage in 2010, and is having its second outing in 2011, it is counted as all other productions.   The STCSA is the only company not collaborating with any others in 2011.

The excel worksheet I have created and worked off can be downloaded here (will directly download .xlsx) or try again here. (.xls)   Some things I have categoriesed differently than perhaps you would’ve: place of origin is the place of the first production, rather than the local of the playwright; I have looked at different adaptations in different ways, sometimes crediting year of origin of the original work, and sometimes of the adaptation.  But it’s my analysis, and I can do what I want to.  This and everything else I’ve made here is up under a creative commons license.

Women and Theatre is where this really all began for me, so I guess this is where we should kick off.

What ever happened to the female playwright?

Looking at the share of MPAG plays, you could be forgiven for thinking that women barely write at all.  Of the 88 productions, 80 have credited writers, with five being choreographed dance works without a credited writer, and two being devised works without a credited writer, in collaborations with Urban Theatre Projects, and Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, and one text at Malthouse is yet to be confirmed.

But of these 80 plays we are left with, a female writer is credited on just 13, or 16% of texts.  Of these 13, ten are an individual credit, two females are in co-writing pairs (The Business and unannounced Malthouse), and one is an individual piece in a series of four texts (The Kiss).

Of the ten individual credits, three are attributed to Lally Katz (all world-premiers), and two to Joanna Murray-Smith (one premiere and one revival).  This leaves us with just eight different female writers individually, and ten all together.

Of the remaining 63 plays with only males credited as writers, how do they shape up?  Nine are written by two or more men, and there are 54 different credits.  Shakespeare lends his name to a whopping six productions, and this cannot be merely explained by the Bell Shakespeare Company’s position among the MPAG, as they are only producing Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Julius Ceaser in 2011. The most popular of Shakespeare’s texts is Hamlet, which is being produced both at MTC and at STCEd.

Other male playwrights with more than one text are: Andrew Bovell (2); Checkhov (2); Brecht (3 – one with Kurt Weill); David Williamson (2); team Johnathan Biggins, Drew Forsyethe, and Phillip Scott (for the 2010 and 2011 Wharf Reviews); and Reg Cribb (2).

A total of 17 plays by male playwrights are having their world premiere, 6 female, and one pair, so women have slightly better statistics when looking at new works: 29% of new works have a credited female writer.

The impact of knowing season two of Malthouse increases this percentage from 21%, and paints a much prettier picture.  There is still quite a way to go, but a third is much better than a fifth.

However, an oft cited excuse for why our stages see less female playwrights than males is these companies program a high degree of classics.  With reliance on older subscriber bases and a want to appease these long standing attendees, they program texts with recognizable names, or by recognizable playwrights.

Yet this explains neither why only 29% if new works are by female playwrights, nor why the oldest script written by a woman in the 2011 theatre season is Murray-Smith’s Ninety at BSSTC, which premiered with the MTC in 2008.

The argument that women didn’t write the classics tends to fall down when you ignore hundreds of years of history, and only look at texts written in the past three.  (Kate Chopin’s The Kiss from the 1890s, appearing in the collection by the same name at Belvoir, is a short story and not a play text so I have not included it in this analysis.)

So why the focus on just four years?  And three companies: QTC , Bell Shakespeare, and STCSA have no credited female writers.  With the exception of Bell Shakespeare, this severe bias towards male playwrights that is not explained by a focus on classics.

But then why does this bias exist?  Certainly after the debacle Belvoir (then Company B) found themselves in after their 2010 program launch, it would be both naïve and stupid for companies to claim “it really just happened that way”, or they don’t look at the sex of the playwrights.  It is akin to American comedian Colbert claiming he doesn’t know if he is white, because he doesn’t see race.

Firstly, if companies are constantly coming up with plays exclusively written by males, surely it is time to take stock of the original pool they are looking from.  Are they just looking at plays written by male playwrights to begin with?

Secondly, at what point do Artistic Directors need to stop claiming they didn’t plan it this way, and start planning to make a change.  Purposely start looking at more plays by female playwrights: established texts, pieces that are playing in London, New York, around the world, and what modern female playwrights are doing in this country, and make sure they are getting the commissions along with the men.

In 2011, it just isn’t good enough.  No buts about it.  16% is not acceptable.  And shouldn’t be taken as such.

Directors: The Female Strikes Back!

 

If the conclusion you got out of that is anything other than bleak, you can at least lift your chin at the number of female directors.  28 female directors square off against 34 male directors.  At 45%, the inequality doesn’t seem quite so bad, does it?

But, aren’t there 88 productions?  Yes.  Three don’t have a director, just operating under the credited choreographer.  But that still leaves 85 plays and just 62 directors. 33 plays are directed my females, 52 directed by males.  Unfortunately, this picture isn’t quite as nice, but at 39% directors are still quite away above the writers.

There are near equal numbers of male to female directors, and yet the men are getting more work.  Can this be explained, in part, because of the prevalence of males in the Artistic Director and Associate Director roles?  In 2011 these roles are:

At Bell Shakespeare Artistic Director John Bell

At QTC Artistic Director Wesley Enoch Youth and Education Manager Joseph Mitchell (included in summary for three QTC plays he is directing)

At STC Artistic Directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton Associate Director Tom Wright

At Belvoir Artistic Director Ralph Myers Resident Director Simon Stone Associate Director New Projects Eamon Flack

At MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips Associate Directors Peter Evans and Aidan Fennessy

At Malthouse Artistic Director Marion Potts Associate Director Matthew Lutton

At STCSA Artistic Director Adam Cook, Associate Director Catherine Fitzgerald

At BSSTC Artistic Director Kate Cherry

Among these positions, 30 director roles are shared.  So the lack of female directors can, in some regards, come down to the lack of women in these roles – which is a whole other issue which needs to be resolved.  What is surprising is who is not directing in this group.  We will see no plays directed by Enoch, Blanchett will just be acting, while Myers will stay designing. Stone will be devising a work with Wright at Belvoir, but not at STC. Lutton will have no shows at Malthouse in the first half of the year, presumably while he is finishing off with his company ThinIce in Perth, but he will be direction in Season 2.

Of the artistic directors, Cherry will be the busiest, directing four plays for BSSTC, with Rising Water and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof also playing with the QTC and MTC, respectably.

Other directors with multiple productions under their belts are: Cook (3 at STCSA), Fennessy (3 at MTC), Fitzgerald (2 at STCSA), Gideon Obarzanek (2 at Malthouse with Chunky Move), Johnathan Biggins (2 at STC), Joseph Mitchell (3 at QTC), Michael Gow (1 at QTC, 1 QTC/Bell Shakespeare, 1 QTC/STC), Michael Kantor (1 at Malthouse, 1 Malthouse/STC), Pamela Rabe (1 at Mathouse, 1 at MTC/STC), Peter Evans (1 st Bell Shakespeare, 2 at MTC), Simon Philips (2 at MTC), Simon Stone (1 at STC/Malthouse, 2 at Belvoir), Marion Potts (2 at Malthouse) and Thomas Wright (1 at Belvoir and 1 at QTC, each with BLTWF).

Perhaps most interesting about this is the lack of movement directors make in the MPAG sector.  Of the 15 directors working on multiple plays, only Rabe, Evans, Stone and Wright are working with seperate companies, and even then Wright will be working with his independent company at both.

With only Fitzgerald, Potts, Rabe and Cherry being females directing more than one production, even with raw numbers male to female being near equitable, the unbalance from men more likely to be producing multiple productions is both symptomatic of the lead Artistic roles in companies primarily being shared among men, and of the greater bias that has been seen for years.

But, with directors, it feels like hope isn’t so far off.   Either people are taking notice, or within that world, 2011 is far enough into the future that an equitable balance is starting to be found.

Of course, the very nature of directorial roles as opposed to writing roles means a change is going to be seen there first.  The fact that directors must be a) living and b) able to work in the city of the company means that years of bias, and a fall back on the excuse of the nature of the work isn’t possible.   Yes, there is still a way to go, but it feels a lot more obtainable.

The classic or the new, what wins out?  (And what are the classics, anyway?)

 

After all that talk about classics, I found myself scratching my head: what are The Classics?  Is there a cut off point?  Can you put a year on it?  I threw a few around: 1900, 1950, but nothing seemed to stick.  As soon as you found a year, another work or playwright popped up, and the entire argument would again fall down.

In the end, I gave up.  It was just too hard.  Others piped in with more questions: is there a difference between “a classic” and “the classics”?  Does one, perhaps, have the option to extend to modern and contemporary works (an instant classic!) while the other is set in a time frame: stopping after the 18th century, or the 19th,, or 1956?  But then again, is that coming to far into modern history?  Where then, are we left with the classic epics of the ancient Greek?

If programming the classics, the recognizable names which will bring an audience in on that alone, what are companies looking for?  When are companies programming their seasons from? What does 2011 look like from a historical perspective?

Would, perhaps, a graph help you to visualize this? (click for full size, unannounced Malthouse Productions not included)


 

A smattering of English Elizabethan plays, and a 17th century Moliere is followed by a dearth until Ibsen heralds in the start of modern drama.  This trickles along quite nicely for a 100 years, then the 21st century turns and the proportion explodes, with 63% of pieces written this century.  In fact, 51% of the productions were first produced 2009-2011, and 33% are world premieres.  Future classics, perhaps.  I would love to know how many of these premieres are from commission, and how many are from submissions.

Most interestingly, is the lack of Australian plays from the past century.  We see Belvoir showing Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the play which, perhaps more than any other, marked the end of the genre plays of the bush into the new genre of Australian city plays.  But from then on, in 2011 there is almost nothing.  In fact, of the just four Australian works from the 20th Century, all but the dance piece have been adapted for film.  Even the 20th Century Australian play from which we are getting a sequel from, Don’s Party, is perhaps best known for it’s film adaptation. Does an Australian play have to be made into a film for it to be a “classic”?

Even as recently as the 1990s, Speaking In Tongues in 1996 is a modern Australian classic. (and one which was adapted to the screen for Lantana).  Some argue that Holding The Man, from 2006, could now be considered a classic.  Indeed, are Australian plays revived if they’re not deemed a classic?  Which leads me to:

The curse of a premiere culture

 

The culture of Australian theatre, and perhaps globally, but I don’t pretend to have the perspective to talk about that (it totally doesn’t count as pretending when it’s just about Australia), is one of the celebrated World Permiere.

Premieres, certainly, are something to be celebrated.  The problem, then, lies in that once a play is seen, it doesn’t get a chance to develop both in the script, and in audiences beyond the premiere season.  With 29 World Premiers shared among the MPAG companies in 2011, how many will go on to have another season in the hands of another director?

It seems that if a play isn’t established outside of Australia, there is no driving force to establish it within this country.  This may be why God of Carnage can have four Australian productions in two years, yet I cannot think of a single local work which I could say that about.  And it’s a pity, because we are sitting on an absolute wealth of plays.  The best theatre book I read this year wasBelonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Centuryby John McCallum, which just opened my eyes to so many Australian plays I need to see.

Which brings me to:

Oh, the places you will go!

So, I’ve looked at when they are from, but where are they from?

After their “American” season (which I initially scoffed at, but after reading some of the reports on the historical perspective the year gave on theatre from the USA, I wish I had the opportunity to experience it), the STC is following up with what they have dubbed a “European” season, but what does the rest of the country look like?

Bell Shakespeare brings us three plays from Shakespearian England.  Can’t say I’m surprised.

Belvoir brings us a very Australian year, with Checkov, Ibsen, and three of the texts in The Kiss breaking this pattern.

BSSTC is similarly, very Australia, branching out to give a Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.

Malthouse, Australian, and brings plays from Germany, Ireland, and England.

MTC breaks the trend, with about half the work being from the USA/England and half Australian.

STC has the most diverse season in terms of origin: five Australian, one from the USA, and one from Canada, join the European line up of England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Spain and Russia.

STCSA is the only company (excluding Bell Shakespeare) where Australian texts don’t have a majority, instead that honour goes to the USA.  Plays are also drawn from France, Scotland and Russia.

QTC again gives a majority to Australian texts, but also draws from France, Scotland, England, Germany and the USA.

And as a whole group, we are left with this (follow the link for the interactive map and finer detail) (thank  you Sophie for the map idea)


 

Interestingly, it is neither London nor New York which gets the tip of the hat for the highest number of script origins, it is Melbourne, which was the original home to 8 revivals, and will be home to 13 2011 Premieres.  Also a point of note, there are no scripts which had their origins in South America, Africa, Asia or New Zealand, and if your North American play premiered anywhere other than NYC it’s going to have a much harder go cracking into an Australian market, at least in 2011.

Are we just not looking at works coming from these places?  Are they too far removed from Australian culture and sensibilities to be given an Australian production, as opposed to bringing whole productions over for festivals?  From where I get my theatre information, I am hard pressed to name works which are happening outside of my Australia, London, New York theatre bubble, so I can’t answer these questions.  It is interesting though, this gravitation of texts from societies close to our own: I’m sure “universal” stories must be being told all over the world.

Where to from here?

Where to from here?  Into the theatre!  Into these companies, into second tier, third tier, independent.  Entering, emerging, establishing, established (exiting?): I want to see it all.  And even though sometimes it’s going to kill me, I’m going to keep going to it all.  Into a world where we should be opened up, and exposed to, and moved to action or reflection.  A world where we demand good work, and don’t settle for anything less.  And for me, demanding good work includes stepping back and looking at where that work is coming from, and seeing that it’s good enough at that level.  Especially when you get the amazing opportunity to see as much work as I do, I think then it is time to start questioning who is making it.  Are there roles for women?  What sort of view are we getting of theatre, and through it world, history?  What view are we getting of world theatre?  What view are we getting of our own back yards?

This analysis could go on and on, I can think of a dozen other things to look at: who is designing work, what work is touring, what are the differences between what companies program on their main stage and their second stage?  It could never end.  An important topic which I haven’t even begun to touch on here is multiculturalism through Australian playwrights, and in Australian directors.  Not just looking to Europe for stories of Europeans, or Asia to stories about Asians, but looking to ourselves for stories of immigrants, of second-, third-generation Australians, of histories, of cultures, and how they fit into an Australian world.  And how Aboriginal people and Aboriginal creatives are being represented on our stages.

I look at these ideas and questions, and, to be frank, this is where I balk.  They are too big and too important for me to feel I can sit down and make a spread sheet and then write about on my blog.  Maybe one day I’ll have the knowledge and skills to do that, but for now, if you got this far through my write up, I just ask you to consider it.  Take a look at the work these companies are doing, and think where does this all fit in?

And where do you fit in?

And what play will you be rushing out to buy a ticket to first?

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