If I Were BossLady: Speak Up, and Listen

by Jane

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.

I’m not an artist.  I’m a critic.  I can’t comment on the pathways, I can’t comment on the opportunities available for emerging and establishing theatre directors  and writers from their perspective.  I can comment on the shows I see and the things I read and the stats I do.  And those tell me that there are enough women to be filling roles in these companies.

If we were having this conversation six years ago in Adelaide, well, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. In 2000-2004 under Artistic Director Rosalba Clemente, women wrote 37.5% of the plays presented by the State Theatre Company.  In 2005-2011 under AD Adam Cook, just 15% have been [4].  In 2011 there are no female playwrights on that stage [5].

In 00-04 under Clemente, 58.5% of shows were directed by a woman.  If you exclude shows directed by her, it comes out to a 50/50 split  – which I would think is the exact figure we are all arguing for.  Cook, by contrast, has had 19% female directors, or 28% while excluding the shows he directed [4].  This might be starting to change in 2011, with Catherine Fitzgerald in the role of Associate Director.

Over the eleven years of the State Theatre Company to 2010, women have filled 44.3% of Assistant Director roles, and this figure is not significantly statistically different between the 2000-2004 and 2005-2010 years [4].  So why aren’t these figures reflected in the director roles?

Across the MPAG theatre companies in 2011, 45% of employed directors are women, yet they are directing just 39% of the productions [6].

The women are there, why are they not moving up into the leadership roles?

So my strategy is to question these figures.

So how do we question?  When we look at these figures we are only looking at eight companies, this is a huge advantage we have over our US and UK counterparts: that is a very small pool of people we need to convince to change their practices.  And there is a very loud, vocal and engaged community of theatre lovers online who are prepared to do this questioning.

The shift in how these issues are questioned is not only already happening, it is non-negotiable.  And I do believe that increased levels of engagement with companies and artists online will demand more from our current leaders, and will create future artistic leaders who are more aware of diversity issues in theatre.

Reviews can no longer be just 300 words hidden on page 70 of the paper on a Tuesday.   Detailed and specific critical reviews take place on blogs daily, not only by people like me who fake it till they make it, but members of the experienced critical fraternity, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne: Alison Croggon [7], James Waites [8].  Most reviews published in Adelaide are now also published online.  Particularly in Sydney and Melbourne reviews for The Age, The Herald Sun, the Australian may appear twice: in a director’s cut on the paper’s page, and an extended version on the blogs.

This method of reviewing not only allows people from all over the country and the world to have a part in local theatre, but it creates a launching point for conversation, and for debate.

And that’s what this debate needs to be.  A conversation with as many people as possible.  And in the 21st century, the internet is the obvious place to do that.

This isn’t a new debate.  But it was re-ignited in Australia after the then Company B announced their 2010 season with only one female director and no female writers [9].  Blogs in Sydney ignited, and the debate crossed the country.

When I set out to do my analysis of MPAG theatre in 2011 [6], I wasn’t sure what results I would get.  But I was sure of one thing.  It was way too geeky for anyone else to truly care.  But not only did it very quickly become my most read post ever, it remains that way.  Because women and men genuinely care about this issue, and they want to see something done about it.  They want change.  The internet gives a forum for geeks like me to find an audience of practitioners and fans who are genuinely interested in the gender debate.  And who won’t take it lying down.

The way I see it, the companies have three options:

  1. Notice and take responsibility for their gender inequality practices in playwright and director numbers and take affirmative action steps to rectify them.  Wesley Enoch, the new Artistic Director at QTC has inherited a season with no female playwrights and one female director, and in light of this he has committed the company to filling all assistant roles with women [10].  I hope other companies take his lead, and in 2012 we start to seem more of a balance.
  2. Notice the backlash and eventually change their practice out of guilt.  I don’t mind if I get with I want out coming from a negative pathway.
  3. Do nothing, continue their current practice, and continue to be called out.  Because myself and everyone else in this room aren’t going to let this lie anymore.  The theatre companies can continue to ignore us, but if we don’t shut up how long is this a viable option?  How long can they rely audiences, sponsors, and funding bodies will not by paying attention to this – when we, who support them, want change?

I don’t think we need to introduce quotas, primarily because I believe people are smarter than that.  And I hate that I must constantly be proved wrong.   But if companies don’t start to show they have targets, the funding bodies are going to have to notice and start enforcing quotas.  Annual Reports currently report figures on the gender and age of employees, whether employees are Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander, if a language other than English is spoken in the home: why are these just for the staff in the office, and not the artists coming in to create the shows?

Gender awareness isn’t just about women.  Questions equality in the creative leadership is just the first step.  Then, I think, we need to start to question what is it in the industry which means so many administrators are female?  Why are their more female costume designers, but more male lighting and sound designers?

The internet is become inextricably linked in performance and theatre, artists are embracing the internet: blogs, twitter, facebook, forums, as a new medium to create and share work in.

The Royal Shakespeare Company [11] and the Broadway musical Next To Normal [12] have created theatre works delivered exclusively through twitter.  I would very happily argue that the marketing campaign for Ruby Bruise, taking place on twitter, facebook [13], and in physical red envelopes placed around the city, was every bit as valid theatre as the production itself.

Blogs inviting the audience in on the creative process are popping up everywhere.   On the internet, these companies can’t exist in a vacuum.   If they expect to be respected, they must listen to what is being said about them.  And respond accordingly.

[1] Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative Study  About The Study | Study Results [PDF]

[3] Glassberg Sands, Emily (2009) Opening The Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theatre. Thesis, Princeton University [PDF]

[4] Personal research, compiled from annual reports accessed online. Graphs on playwrights / directors over 00-11 at STCSA.

[7] Alison Croggon About TN Theatre Notes

[8] James Waites About James James Waites

[10] Australian Writers Guild (Summer 2011) “Right Of Reply” in Storyline: Tell Me An Australian Story, p76

[11] Mudlark and the Royal Shakespeare Company present Such Tweet Sorrow

[12] Newman, Andrew Adam, “It’s Broadway Gone Viral, With a Musical Meted Out via Twitter” in The New York Times, 16/8/2009

[13] Ruby’s twitter and facebook accounts