Mingled with regards that stand aloof from the entire point.

by Jane

-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.

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